It seems a curious place for a boxing ring, but there it is, by heaven, in front of the glass-enclosed racquetball courts, one floor above the basketball court, a few steps from the cocktail lounge and just off the main lobby of the posh La Mancha Athletic Club and Resort Hotel in Phoenix. And so that no one will miss it, a banner stretched across a lobby wall proclaims MICHAEL CARBAJAL DAILY WORKOUTS—OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Inside the ring, Carbajal, the little man of La Mancha, the newly acclaimed Manitas de Piedra ("Little Hands of Stone"), is steadfastly belaboring sparring partner Abner Barrajas as club members in racquetball attire cheer him.
La Mancha represents a dramatic step up in class for the 22-year-old Carbajal, who learned to box in a makeshift ring that his oldest brother, Danny, who's now his manager, built for him in the family garage, a few miles but many dollars away. And if Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and NBC are correct, Carbajal will soon be luxuriating in even more exalted circumstances. By winning a unanimous 12-round decision over Tony (Bazooka) DeLuca on Feb. 18 in Phoenix, Carbajal became the first member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team to win a professional title—the North American Boxing Federation junior flyweight championship. NBC signed a three-fight deal with Carbajal in November, and Arum, who has a two-year promotional contract with Carbajal, thinks he can become the first boxer of his weight class to win a million-dollar purse and only the second American ever to win a world championship in the 15-year history of the junior, or light, flyweight division.
Light flyweight? Why, that's a guy not quite half the size of Buster Douglas. Is the U.S. boxing public ready for a 108-pound champion? Kevin Monaghan, NBC's boxing coordinator, had his doubts, but he's now a convert to thinking small. The DeLuca bout was the first sub-bantamweight bout ever shown as a main event on a major network, and it earned a respectable 5.0 Nielson rating for NBC. "I asked [boxing commentator] Ferdie Pacheco if people would watch anyone that small," says Monaghan. "He said, 'Look, there are only the two of them in the ring. Nobody will know how big they are.' "
Monaghan was also encouraged by viewer response to another little guy, IBF featherweight champion Jorge Paez of Mexico, whose win last summer over Steve Cruz pulled down the highest network rating—7.4—of any boxer in 1989. "The little men give you more action per round," says Monaghan. "Besides, Michael had a lot of exposure during the Olympics. I think people saw him then as an exciting fighter and as an attractive personality."
March 5, 1990
In Seoul, Carbajal was on the verge of winning a gold medal at 106 pounds when he lost on an outrageous decision to Ivailo Hristov of Bulgaria (a Bulgarian was chairman of all the Olympic referees). Carbajal, ever unflappable, took the defeat in stride. "I was disappointed, naturally," he says, "but I was just happy to be in the Olympic Games. And I knew in my heart I'd won."
Carbajal has many marketable qualities, including an attractive personality—confident but modest—and boyish good looks. He wears his black hair short on top with a pigtail in back; he has a wispy mustache and is slender, not skinny. At 5'5½" he has a considerable height and reach advantage over his light flyweight opponents, most of whom are about 5'1" or 5'2". Moreover, with 12 wins without a loss as a pro—seven by knockout—he has demonstrated unusual punching power in a division scarcely noted for belters.
For that matter, light flyweights in the U.S. are not noted for much of anything. The division is dominated by Asians and Latin Americans, who seldom fight in this country. Carbajal will meet the IBF world champ, Thailand's Muangshai Kittikasem, on May 13. Although Carbajal is light enough to drop to 105 pounds and fight for the even more esoteric strawweight (or mini-flyweight) crown, he hopes to become a flyweight (112 pounds), a junior bantamweight (115) and eventually a bantamweight (118), winning four world championships along the way.
The U.S. hasn't had a world flyweight champion since Midget Wolgast in 1930, and the best flyweights have almost always been foreigners. The division is best known here for the inventive nicknames affixed to its diminutive combatants: Little Jeff Smith, Tiny Smith, Nic Petit-Biquet, Baby Arizmendi, Little Dempsey, Boy Walley, Kid Socks, Small Montana, Perfecto Lopez, Young Rightmire, Glover's Nipper.
The Little Hands of Stone could bring respect to pint-sized pugs in this country. Carbajal's credentials as a local hero are certainly in order. His family, originally from Mexico, settled in Arizona long before it was granted statehood in 1912. Carbajal's great-grandmother was even kidnapped by Apaches near Tombstone. His grandfather grew up in Tempe. His father, Manuel, who was the state Golden Gloves flyweight and bantamweight champion in the late 1940s, taught all nine of his children, three daughters included, to box. Brothers Danny, now 39, Alex, 23, and Angel, 19, all fought as amateurs.
Michael announced at age six that he wanted to become a world champion like his idol, the original Hands of Stone, Roberto Duran. Carbajal's love of family and his preoccupation with boxing kept him out of trouble in Verde Park, a Phoenix neighborhood that became increasingly beset by drugs and gangs. "I never got into any of that," he says. "The other kids knew how dedicated I was to boxing, and I think they respected that. I didn't grow up at all like a bunch of guys I know. I grew up settled down."
In his free time Carbajal has been taking courses in youth counseling at nearby South Mountain Community College, "I know what it's like growing up in a neighborhood with gangs and drugs," he says. "So I want to do anything I can to help kids in that situation."
Carbajal is also a keen student of his craft, poring over films that Danny has acquired of such legends as Duran, Alexis Arguello and even Joe Louis. Carbajal has the perfect temperament for a fighter. "I never put pressure on myself," he says. "I know there are world titles out there, but I never look past the fight I'm training for. I never tell myself, 'You gotta win, you gotta win.' "
And in Danny he has a manager he can trust. Their affection for each other is real and obvious. Danny is as garrulous as Michael is quiet, and he clucks over his protègè like a mother hen. "I started training Mike in that little gym I built for him in the garage," says Danny. "I was with him in the Olympics, and the exposure he got there—all in prime time—was really a help. He learned to deal with pressure and with the media. Mike and I have always gotten along just fine. If I tell him to do something, he'll do it and never complain."
The ring in the cramped garage behind the Carbajal house on East Fillmore Street is only 10 feet across and is reached by adroitly maneuvering past the family's pit bulls, Nueve and Puma, who seem far more menacing than any of the boxing Carbajals. The ring has no mat, just rugs to break falls. "You learn to fight in close with this thing," says Danny. "Here, look at these old gloves. These were the first ones I bought for Mike. Got 'em at K Mart."
Beside the ring hangs a heavy bag that is Michael's weight. The walls are plastered with photos of old fighters. The house itself is in part a trophy case for father and sons. Manuel, 58, a retired surveyor for Arizona's Salt River Project, proudly displays Michael's Olympic medal and the first award the boy ever won, as runner-up in the 1981 Southwest Optimist boxing tournament. Not quite 14, Michael fought at 60 pounds.
Danny watches Michael stow away a lunch of rice, beans, beef and tortillas only a few hours before they are to return to La Mancha for Michael's daily public workout. "Mike eats and I put on weight," says Danny, patting his midsection. "It's not fair. He can eat anything he wants and never put on a pound."
Temporarily sated, Michael rises from the table and gives a boxing lesson to his nephew Danny, Alex's two-year-old son. "Jab," says Michael, and the boy shoots out a passable jab. When Michael says, "Hook," Danny flails away, crooking his left arm. Suddenly the youngster is on his own, shadowboxing in the living room, filling the air with his tiny fists as Michael looks on in avuncular approval.
The kid looks good. Put a few more pounds on him and, presto, another Manilas de Piedra. But in this family, he'll have to wait his turn. Uncle Mike has a championship or two in his future.