Michael Carbajal may not be boxing's best, pound for pound, but he soon could be the most expensive. There are not so many pounds of him, but all 108 that he carried into the ring in Phoenix on Sunday soared in value in the course of fewer than 20 minutes of furious fighting. In fact, the sweat hadn't yet dried—in Phoenix it hardly ever does this time of year—before promoter Bob Arum began talking of a million-dollar purse for his light flyweight, who won the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Arum, who also fronts for the most inexpensive big-name fighter, pound for pound—George Foreman—has the promoter's natural inclination to judge a boxer by his ability to produce record-breaking revenue. "Actually," said Arum, after a moment of thought, "I'm not so sure I'll settle for a million."
A bit of promotional hype? Perhaps, but coming after Carbajal's seventh-round TKO of IBF champion Muangshai Kittikasem, it was not entirely absurd. Carbajal, 22, was the first of the '88 Olympians to fight for a professional title. As a pro, he is easily the U.S. team's most popular fighter, bringing more action into the ring than a dozen heavyweights routinely provide. He floored the previously unbeaten Kittikasem three times going into the final round, before catching him with an uppercut and two quick rights to end the bout. Fourteen seconds into Round 7, Kittikasem sagged into the ropes and then, his body language suggesting that enough was enough, sensibly sat down and rolled over. Referee Robert Ferrara just as sensibly called the fight to a halt.
A less game fighter than Kittikasem, a 22-year-old from Thailand, would have folded far sooner. However, until the seventh round he was resolute throughout Carbajal's assault. The punishment was fierce, indeed. In Round 5, Carbajal hit him with a straight right to the stomach; Kittikasem nearly crumpled at the blow.
August 5, 1990
While the vanquishing of an undefeated champion—Kittikasem, largely unknown outside Asia, was making his fourth title defense—was entertaining in itself, it was natural to think of Carbajal's future in terms of the box office. That a little guy can make heavyweight money is an intriguing notion. Arum had to pay $150,000 to lure Kittikasem from Thailand; in boxing's lower weight classes, such a sum is regarded as Jose Canseco money. Kittikasem had never made half that amount. Now a light flyweight is being considered for a pay-per-view fight and a million-dollar purse.
The oddest part of all this is that probably no champion has less interest in money than Carbajal. So far, his most extravagant purchase has been a 1962 Chevy Impala, which he bought for $2,500. He still lives with his parents in a Phoenix neighborhood of such dilapidation that on the street, a boulevard of empty lots mostly, the church is called the Church on the Street. This is a simplicity of life that Carbajal intends to enforce by remaining in the neighborhood and by naming things for what they actually are. He hopes to put a gym on one of the lots, but can't decide on the sign except that, he says, "It will either be CARBAJAL'S NINTH STREET GYM Or MICHAEL CARBAJAL'S NINTH STREET GYM." He squints at the dilemma; you can see his problem.
The money will come nonetheless, and it will be far more than the $75,000 he received for drawing a crowd of 8,732 to Veteran's Memorial Coliseum. Carbajal was making his fourth network-TV appearance, and he has a contract for another one in December, making him the 1988 Olympian with the most exposure in the U.S. According to Arum, the rest of the team doesn't have four TV appearances between them. This is unabashed promotional nonsense, but for a guy who's not even 5'6", Carbajal has become pretty visible, which means marketable.
"In a million years I wouldn't have dreamed it," says Arum. Former bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval, who scouts the little guys for Arum, persuaded him to interview Carbajal and Carbajal's older brother-trainer, Danny, after the Olympics. Though Arum was skeptical, he took Carbajal on, though he wasn't even a gold medal winner, much less a boxer in a popular weight class. "But when all the TV guys started calling, I began to realize I might have something," says Arum. "I guess the people were attracted to his charisma and the whole story—a poor neighborhood with a barber chair on the family porch. These days, you gotta have a story."
A story is always a start in boxing, and the Carbajal story is undeniably appealing. Nine kids under one roof, a 10-foot ring in the backyard where Danny taught Michael how to scuffle. A visitor can still stumble upon the house and see Danny as he gives Michael a haircut. Of course, Danny has gone to barber school. And the haircut he gives is a pretty good one—sort of a fiat-top, to go along with the Impala, plus two thin ponytails.
Close inspection does not damage the story. Carbajal really does hope to provide his neighborhood with a full-blown recreation center, and he and Danny are buying lots as they become vacant. The houses sort of fall down on their own, Carbajal says. He certainly intends to remain on the block. "Why not?" says Danny. "His friends are there."
Danny didn't exactly spread his wings and fly, either. He bought the house next to his parents' and is trying to remodel it. What Michael hopes to do, "when things are really going right," he says, is buy a condo in the Phoenix area, move his parents into it and take possession of their house, with the ring still standing in the backyard. Trouble is—and isn't this just like a Carbajal?—his mother, Mary, does not want to move, either.
The story only takes a fighter so far. Carbajal's nine knockouts among his 15 victories without a loss have contributed to Arum's glee as well. It always seems surprising when a little guy provides a knockout punch, as if only a 250-pound man can muster enough force for a crowd-pleasing concussion. It's doubly surprising if the boxing fan has ever glimpsed Carbajal, whose legs are the approximate thickness of his ponytails. "But people don't understand," Danny once said with a straight face, "that Michael has the punch of a bantamweight."
More than the knockouts, though, is the action Carbajal provides. More than one network fight buyer has opined that all fighters look the same size in the ring, anyway. Carbajal's attacking style is vastly more entertaining than the sight of much bigger men circling each other. "I can't put him on a card with heavyweights," says Arum. "Once the people see Michael, the heavyweights would look terrible, like they were fighting in Jell-O."
In other words, Carbajal has everything to justify a million-dollar purse except an opponent. The lower weight divisions are dominated by foreign fighters the U.S. pay-per-view audience has never heard of. Arum hopes to solve that problem by building up Humberto Gonzalez of Mexico, the WBC light flyweight champion, whose style and charisma are Carbajal-like. "But I've got to get Gonzalez on TV," says Arum. "People know him in Los Angeles and Phoenix, but not in New York or Philadelphia."
So Arum's first order of business is to get Gonzalez some airtime. "To do it right, I've got to wait until mid-1991," says Arum of a probable Carbajal-Gonzalez battle. "By then it will be another Leonard-Hearns."
Presumably it will be more than another Carbajal-Kittikasem, a bout that drew a respectable crowd, but only because a title was at stake and the fight was in the challenger's hometown. Kittikasem had fought all 10 of his previous bouts in Bangkok, and is a man of such profound mystery that only a few people in the States knew his real name, which happens to be Nathavudh Janthavimol. About all that was known of him was that he was a former Muay Thai boxer—a kick boxer who can also use elbows and knees—and that he refused to eat anything but Thai food.
Evidently, though, he ate lots of it. With no fewer than 20 Thai restaurants in Phoenix, the Kittikasem camp felt right at home. One of the restaurants, Thai Rama, catered all of Kittikasem's meals. Food was much on his mind. Kittikasem is said to have eaten four meals on the plane from Thailand, accounting for his weight upon landing of 119 pounds, 11 over the prescribed limit.
As recently as the Friday before the fight he weighed 114. Kittikasem became part of the La Mancha hotel scenery, sitting by the pool in 109° heat in a plastic suit, occasionally rising to jump rope. Members of the Thai camp explained that there was no cause for alarm, that Thai fighters like to carry weight as long as possible. In any event, after toweling off every available bead of sweat last Saturday afternoon, he made the weight.
When food was not preoccupying Kittikasem, money was. He and manager Song Kanchanachoosak wanted their $150,000 in cash—before the fight. This became an important issue. Arum refused to give them the cash. They finally settled on cashier's checks, one of $80,000 for the boxer, another of $42,000 for the manager, which they could cash on Monday. (The rest went for expenses.)
But Kittikasem didn't box as if he had come only for an early payday. Although Carbajal launched an uppercut in the second round that stiffened Kittikasem like an electric jolt, the champion gave no sign that he would fall easily. The last minute of that round qualified Carbajal for million-dollar fights, so violent was the action. Though hurt, Kittikasem fought back hard.
In the fourth round Carbajal decked Kittikasem twice, with a right-left combination and a straight right that sent him ricocheting off the ropes. Still, Carbajal didn't look close to putting the champion away. In the fifth Carbajal hit him with that vicious straight right to the stomach. Then in the sixth, Kittikasem's destiny was spelled out when Carbajal hit him with a charging right hand. Ferrara intoned a standing eight count, and Kittikasem backpedaled gamely until the bell. Round 7, which was halted with 14 seconds gone, was largely anticlimactic.
The crowd went wild. Carbajal went to a corner of the ring to gesture to a three-year-old nephew, who has the unfortunate habit of imitating ubiquitous ring announcer Michael Buffer. "He's always meeting me at the door," says Carbajal, "and saying, 'Let's get ready to rumble.' "
Interested parties immediately began discussing the possible wages of those upcoming rumbles, but, predictably, Carbajal's mind was elsewhere. What he wanted was to get home to Mom's cooking. As men spoke of million-dollar purses, the champion told the press he was looking forward to digging into a bowl of Mom's menudo. The story continues.