The three youthful passengers in the backseat of the chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce that's pulling out of a hotel parking lot in Phoenix are in a funk. Edwin, tall, lean and wearing loafers instead of his customary basketball shoes, rummages through a bag of tapes, looking for one to raise everyone's spirits. Tito, who has the mouth of a rock star, if not the voice of one, is wrestling with the cork in the champagne bottle clenched between his blue-jeaned knees. And Hector (Macho) Camacho, the pride of Spanish Harlem, the man who would be champ, is uncharacteristically slouching.
Camacho, who is dressed in leather pants and a leather jacket, sits with his legs stretched in front of him. His head, crowned with short black curls, rests on his right fist as he stares out glumly into the twilight. There are no bruises on his smooth, angelic face from that April afternoon's grueling fight with Cubanito Perez, but his battered pride keeps him still for a little while.
Camacho is accustomed to being embraced by women, parole officers, television folk and, especially, by the crowds of fans who stand outside the arena door after he has won another fight. Camacho, a 21-year-old junior lightweight (130 pounds), is undefeated in 21 professional bouts. And that's why he's going to fight former champion Rafael (Bazooka) Limón on Aug. 7 in what the WBC has called a "title elimination" fight even though the WBC's stripping of champion Bobby Chacon was rescinded on July 6 by a Butte (Calif.) County court.
That afternoon's fight crowd had cheered Camacho when he bounced into the Phoenix Civic Plaza Arena ring, dressed in shocking-pink boxing shorts, and danced around, stopping only to pummel the air with combinations. Camacho likes to show his opponent and the crowd just how fast he can be even while he's standing still. Knees bent, head down, his fists are a blur as his shoulder blades drive back and forth like the handles of two ripsaws.
July 31, 1983
Ten rounds later, after his undramatic and cautious victory over Perez, the crowd gave Camacho a hard time. Many thought Camacho had showboated a bit too much, and the unanimous decision in his favor was met with boos as well as cheers, and ice cubes landing in and around the ring. More than 3,000 people had come to be dazzled out of their seats by Camacho, a street-wise southpaw who has CBS and most of boxing pining for his honeyed grin.
"Hey, man, this is the place," Camacho says to the chauffeur as the car pulls up to a Phoenix hot spot that has probably never seen a Rolls before, much less one that's transporting a former inmate of Rikers Island prison.
With Tito and Edwin, both 19, who act as bodyguards, advisers, speech therapists ("Fe-BRU-a-ry! Fe-BRU-a-ry!" they tell Camacho), and friends until death ("We do everything with Camacho except go in the ring with him," Tito says), Camacho coolly saunters into the joint and is recognized immediately. The place breaks loose with cheers and applause: "Macho Man! Macho Man!" The guests of honor are seated at a table, and as Tito and Edwin fend off autograph seekers, Mexican songsters surround the table. Camacho is himself now, quick to smile, ready to have a good time; still, his face bears a hint of aloofness. Being loved is nothing new to him.
By the time the three return to their hotel, many hours and several hot spots later, at least one woman will have pulled splinters out of her feet, having been danced into the floor by Camacho.
"I'm a counter person," Camacho says in his husky voice. "You give me a jab and I'll counter it....
"I'm born to be doing what I'm doing. I'm going to fulfill my goal of being a three-time champion and leaving my mark on boxing history."
"I thought I was cocky," says former welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard. "Camacho surpasses me by three or four levels. But when Camacho brags, he's not trying to convince you of anything; he's just telling you what's going to happen."
What's going to happen in the next few years is that the 5'5" Camacho will have the chance to become the first athlete from Puerto Rico since Roberto Clemente to be accepted as a hero by mainstream America.
"You never feel anything surly or mean in him," says Mort Sharnik, the boxing consultant for CBS, which has telecast many of Camacho's fights. "He's a sprite. A Puck."
Camacho's first name is suited to his spirit. In The Iliad Hector was the noblest and most magnanimous of the Trojan chieftains; he defended his city with heroic perseverance. But the noun "hector" has come to mean a swaggering bully and the verb "to hector" means to browbeat. Camacho appears to be a modern Hector, a loud, bragging young upstart, but, in fact, he's refreshingly down to earth and unaffected, like his classical namesake.
After an East Harlem childhood spent getting kicked out of school, fighting, swinging from fire escapes—the scar on his forehead is from banging into a fire escape—wooing girls, upsetting his mother and dancing on rooftops, he has calmed down.
And though Camacho is earning six-figure sums with each fight now, his life hasn't changed that much. He still lives with his mother, Maria, three sisters and brothers, a niece, a nephew and his stepfather, Alejandro Oliveras, in a housing project on East 115th Street.
He talks about moving to a tonier neighborhood, but he hasn't made the move. Where else could he live and know that his new car, a Cadillac Eldorado that his promoter, Jeff Levine, gave him, won't be messed with? Everybody—the guys playing basketball, the parents taking their kids out for a walk, the old people staring out the windows of the crowded tall red-brick buildings, the couples hanging around the plaza, the drug pushers on the corner—knows whose car it is, and no one touches it.
"We want to get out of the ghetto," says Billy Giles, Camacho's trainer-manager, "but we want to come back. You've got to remember where you come from. That's your roots. That's your strength."
"The first time I saw Camacho fight," says Leonard, "I was so impressed I couldn't believe it. He's one of those rare fighters who has radar. Speed is his greatest asset, and his fist speed is so controlled, so accurate."
Because of his wiliness, speed, technique and propensity for spinning opponents around and hitting them from behind, Camacho is often compared with 1940s featherweight champion Willie Pep. "People say I fight like the old fighters," Camacho says. "I ain't nothin' like Pep. I'm just myself. I'm not the next Sugar Ray. I'm the next Macho Man.
"I got the God-gifted speed," says Camacho, whose reflexes are so quick he can play two video games, Pac Man and Star Gate, at once. When he works out on a speed bag, his fists rolling in smooth circles, there's no "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta"; there's just one long note: "ta-a-a-a-a."
"I learned to fight in the street," Camacho says. "I could bite, hit behind the head, hit with a garbage can. In the ring you've got to play the rules."
Although Camacho has never heaved a garbage can in the ring, he has gotten the reputation of being a dirty fighter. In March of 1982, he pinned Raphael Lopez on the ropes and was told to break. Camacho took a step back, and when Lopez dropped his hands Camacho came at him with a right to the jaw that knocked Lopez out for 10 minutes. In July that year he spun Louie Loy around 180 degrees and then stunned him with a right hook from behind. Referee Tony Perez warned Camacho, but he also admonished Loy to "protect yourself at all times." Camacho has received several warnings from refs for grabbing opponents by the back of the neck, a gesture he does so instinctively and well that it doesn't look sneaky.
"Hey, what do you expect? I'm just a street kid," Camacho says. "I got to break bad habits. I just got natural moves."
There's a difference of opinion about where Camacho got his moves. They seem to be part oil slick, part fastest gun in the West, part Fred Astaire. In fact after he beat Johnny Sato in Atlantic City last August he did a dance exhibition on the boardwalk with Edwin and Tito that drew a bigger crowd than the fight had.
"You get moves from running down the street with a guy chasing you with a knife or a gun," Giles says. "You get moves when you go to school and someone tries to take your lunch money and you go hungry. Or when someone tries to take your coat off your back. If you don't move then, you never will."
"Rice and beans," says Camacho's 38-year-old mother. "That's where his moves come from. Rice and beans."
"He's been reincarnated from a boxer in another life," says Patrick Flannery, a language arts teacher at Manhattan High whom Hector calls Pop. "You can't have that skill, that talent, and be so young."
Camacho was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico and was brought to New York three years later by his mother, who left his father to move her two children to the Big Apple. By the time he was 15 his moves had earned him expulsion from six schools. "I was always beating up other students," he says apologetically. "I was in the principal's office every day. They be telling me, 'Take it easy, Hector.' My pants were always ripped. The day they took the class picture I had a new three-piece suit. Then I climbed a fence and ripped the jacket up the middle."
Before Camacho was big enough to steal cars he was recreating gang wars with heisted GI Joe dolls. "I used to go to Gimbels," he says. "I'd steal 'em, stick 'em in my pants, my socks. I had 30 GI Joes. My mother found out and she threw them in the incinerator. Next day I come back I got 34 GI Joes. Got the airplane, got the helicopter, got a starship."
Camacho soon graduated to bigger toys. "I had a Mercedes, a BMW, a Corvette," he recalls proudly of his "borrowed" fleet. "Only the best. I'd clean 'em, wax 'em, take real good care of 'em. People would come round and say 'Hey! Whose car? Whose car?' I'd say, 'My uncle's. My uncle's.' " He grins.
The first time Camacho was arrested for car theft, in 1979, it was after a 30-block chase that ended when the pursuing officer cornered Camacho inside a building and split open the back of his head with a gun butt. Camacho got three stitches and spent a day on Rikers Island. While on probation, he was arrested again, this time for accompanying a friend on a joy ride in a stolen car. He was sent to Rikers for 3½ months.
"After a light in the prison they put me in solitary confinement," Camacho says. "I had no TV, no radio, no blanket. I was talking to God every day when I was inside, thinking about my mother, my newborn son. I said, 'God, give me another chance. I'll get out, be a champion boxer. Just give me one more chance."
When Camacho went to Rikers Island he was 17. Two years before that, he'd presented his manic self to Flannery at Manhattan High, a school for hard-to-handle children. Flannery became Camacho's first solid paternal figure.
"Patrick's always been a father to me," says Camacho, who would rather go to a party at Flannery's than to one anywhere else. "He's always taken care of me, fed me; he's the one who's always there to advise me. He loves me like a son."
Flannery is an acrobat who has been on the Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas shows, a stunt man who has fallen off a roof and gotten beat up with a baseball bat in Woody Allen movies.
"When Hector came to Manhattan High," says Flannery, 48, "he was an illiterate. He had no idea what letters represented what sounds. He'd never sat still long enough to learn how to read. He has so much energy it's incomprehensible.
"He learned to read and write so fast it would make your eyes roll. He's extremely intelligent. We got second- and third-grade books, and he set the world record in learning how to read. He astounded me. He'd write compositions about boxing and about how he was going to become a champion and buy his mother a new house. He passed the written exam for his driver's license on his first shot, and that's unusual for a ghetto kid.
"His speech was quite unintelligible back then. He pronounced 'Golden Gloves' something like 'cuttin gla.' When he made up his mind to fight in them I did everything I could to discourage him, but when I saw how determined he was, I gave him my boxing shoes and helped him fill out the forms. We lied and said he was 16 when he was really only 15."
Camacho had been training since he was 10, when his stepfather, a boxing trainer, encouraged him to work out at a gymnasium. "I started beating my sparring partners," Camacho says. "That's when I knew I had something."
With the help of a trainer named Bobby Lee, Camacho won New York Golden Gloves titles three years in a row. He had already won his first when he found himself in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Other inmates on the island came up to him and said, "Hey, man, what are you doing in here?"
"He had a lot of fights in there," Flannery says. "He learned that a fighter can't afford to be intimidated."
Flannery is also responsible for the Macho in Camacho. "His friends were going to call him 'Payaso,' " Flannery says, "which means 'clown' in Spanish. I named him Macho. The rhyme is something everybody won't forget. He used it in his first professional fight, against David Brown at the Felt Forum. He was introduced as Macho Camacho and the audience went wild. It's a name that suits him perfectly."
Camacho was officially enrolled at Manhattan High until 1982, when he decided to devote all his time to training. "We knew he wasn't going to be no doctor or lawyer," says Giles. "He dropped out in the 11th grade, but he will get his diploma. We'll hire tutors for him."
Camacho still goes back to Manhattan High to visit. "When I go to schools at first the kids say, 'Oh, he was arrested, a juvenile delinquent,' " he says. "But then they see I'm not a bum. They respect me. I was in trouble when I was a youth. Now even the senior citizens look up to me. I'm an example of how people can live their dreams."
"Pah! Pah! Pah!" Giles says, dancing behind Camacho, who is ransacking a heavy bag. Traveling an unchoreographable route of pretty footwork, Camacho appears to be suspended in midair like the bag, hanging in the fury of his own punches. "Keep you moving, keep you moving," Giles says, bending over. "Throw it again! Throw it! O.K., now, drop your right hand. Work, work, work!" Camacho's head is down, intent. His top lip is pulled back as he snarls. "Gonna break your back, man," he says. "Pam?!" He lands a right hook that would break the back of an elephant.
"In boxing they used to say you should drown all southpaws at birth," says Marvin Davis, a trainer at Connies Gym in Harlem where Camacho is working out. "But if you're a southpaw, don't change. Be what God meant you to be.
"He's a stick-and-move man. I can never see his hands. They're too fast, like a blur. Ooh!" he winces. "Hear that?" Camacho has just landed a right hook, his strongest punch, on the bag.
"Looks like an altar boy, don't he?" says Davis, chuckling. "Deceiving."
Camacho suddenly breaks his concentration, struts around and says, "I feel like a nut hitting this thing. Give me someone real."
Connies Gym on 125th Street is across the street from Soul on Wax and right next door to This Bitter Earth Restaurant. Everything in the gym looks abused: the ceiling, sagging from the weight of a huge ugly heating unit; the walls, covered with old posters and torn photographs; the few chairs; the buckled wood floor. The room is now full of people who are watching Camacho pummel the heavy bag and the speed bag.
After Camacho finishes his workout and is on his way out, a man who's a foot taller and about a hundred pounds heavier lets him know that he isn't everything he thinks he is. Camacho, inspired and gleaming, rails at the man, angering him. As the man's ire grows, so does Camacho's audacity. He looks like a boy taunting a dragon and having a helluva time. Someone whisks him out the door.
"We could have had him," he says later on the street to Tito, Edwin and his 5-year-old son, Hector Jr., who lives nearby with his mother, Myra Oliva. (Hector Sr. has found a new leading lady, 18-year-old Keesha Colon.) "My son would have grabbed his leg, and we would have taken the rest of him. I don't fear nobody," he says calmly, grabbing hold of little Hector's hand and heading home. The 15 years between them somehow diminishes when they walk away along the darkening street.
Camacho is now back at his mother's apartment, lounging on the couch. "Hey," Edwin says, tossing a foot-long stuffed moose towards him.
"That your teddy bear?" Tito asks, grinning.
"This is no teddy bear," says Camacho, "This is a moosie." He put the moose, a present he was given when he fought John Montes in Anchorage, Alaska, on his chest. "My pillow, man." The moose's stomach is flattened in the middle where Hector rests his head on it.
"The best is yet to come," he goes on. "And when the best is over I'm going to retire, have a restaurant, a club maybe, something nice. Have my mother cooking in the back; my sister taking care of the dishes. A lot of boxers squander their money. Not me. You put money in the bank, after a while it works for you."
"Hey," Tito says. "Look at the moosie's face. He got a crooked jaw. What'd you do? Break his jaw?"
"Nah," Camacho says, stroking the moose's head, "I'm a macho man, but then again, I'm a sweetheart."