By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
I'm living my dream: to be champion. This is what I always wanted to be. I always wanted to dress in black leather suits!
Hector Camacho, 1983 (21 years old, World Champion)
In the mid '80s, Jimmy Montoya was called in to train and manage a sensational boxer from the Johnson Projects in Spanish Harlem named Hector Camacho. Twenty-three-year-old Hector "Macho" Camacho was a dazzling combination of hand speed, power, and cunning in the ring. He ambushed top-ranked opponents with the force of a body snatcher, and by age 21 he was a World Champion in the Junior Lightweight division. Camacho was a hyperactive, self-promoting windup doll. He was Muhammad Ali on speed.
Montoya, a former cop from California, agreed to take the job on one condition: that he and only he would handle the responsibilities of managing Camacho. He had heard stories that Camacho liked to waltz into meetings dressed like he was ready to boogie and negotiate contracts against some of the most ruthless deal makers in boxing. Montoya just wanted Camacho to concentrate on fighting and leave the rest to him.
Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. In Montoya's first deal for Camacho with CBS Sports, the kid from the Johnson Projects beat him to the punch. Camacho was already inside going over his contract when Montoya walked in the door. "Jeez, the kid was ambitious," Montoya remembers. "He always wanted to be involved."
He threw Camacho out of the room. It wasn't the last time Camacho was ejected during contract discussions. Camacho would go on to participate in some of the most heavily promoted fights in the '80s and '90s and make millions of dollars for himself. Partying and complacency dulled his hand speed and ring instincts, but fans still paid to watch the "bad boy of boxing" slap people at press conferences and parade into the ring in ridiculous outfits. In a business where unpredictability is the norm, the Camacho name always sold.
On July 14, Camacho, now 39, will meet Roberto Duran, 50, for Duran's National Boxing Association Super Middleweight title. The fight is in Denver, but really belongs in a Las Vegas lounge where former stars migrate when they've reached the twilight of their careers. Camacho wants the former champ Julio Cesar Chavez, 38, after Duran, and Tony Ayala, 38, after that to cement himself as the undisputed king of boxing's Senior Tour.
Meanwhile, on July 7 in Coney Island, Camacho's son, Hector Camacho Jr., 22, will fight former Super Featherweight World Champion Jesse James Leija at Keyspan Park, the Mets' new minor-league stadium. As the son of the "Macho Man," Junior inherited his father's flair for the dramatic, but not his penchant for getting into trouble outside of the ring. The two are as different as night and day. Junior is a family man who enjoys staying home with his wife and daughter. His father still enjoys going out after dark. Even their boxing careers are different. Junior's is getting off to a deliberately slow start, while his father's took a route as crazed as his personality.
The Camachos will never be mistaken for the Bradys, or even the Mosleys. The familiar scenario in boxing is for the father to train his son, but with the Camachos there was talk at one point of a bout between the two. The idea was mercifully scratched.
At 32-0, Junior's record is deceiving. While other lightweight prospects like Julio Diaz (22-0) and Justo "Sensational" Sencion (16-1) have rolled the dice and fought one another, like the two did in April (Diaz knocked Sencion out), Junior and his promoters have shied away from such a risky gamble. Instead, under the protective eye of his promoter, America Presents, Junior fought against handpicked opponents. In spite of poor performances, HBO, which televised his last two fights, invited him back to fight for them again.
So despite his youth, Junior is threatening to become boxing's version of the Sacramento Kings: all flash and no substance; a box-office draw but a playoff bust. Especially if he doesn't look good on Saturday.
Camacho Sr., on the other hand, was the real deal right away. When he turned pro in 1980, Camacho burst out of the starting gates as if he were in a battle against time. Billy Giles was his first trainer, and they worked out together at Connie Bright's Gym near the Harlem River.
"In the beginning he was great," Giles says. "We were on a mission. Coverson, Montes, Limon. We beat all the top-ranked fighters. He was very dedicated in the beginning. Then he lost interest. I think some people are scared of success. They find it's hard to maintain. Maybe he saw what it would take, and maybe he didn't want it." He fought only once in 1984 and three times from 1986 to 1988.
"I could afford to step off," Camacho offers by way of explanation. "I was one of only a few people in boxing who was making millions of dollars, and I took time to spend some money."
Camacho was a celebrity at a young age, and he partied like one. As a result, by age 25 he had already lost some zip on his combinations and his footwork wasn't as calculated. Camacho was still winning, but he was unimpressive.
"It all ended with Rosario," says HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, referring to Camacho's 1986 fight with Edwin Rosario. In that bout, Camacho took his first real beating (though he still won, in a controversial decision). "Rosario was a quick-handed sharpshooter, and when Camacho got hit, he found out he didn't like it. At that point, he decided to work on his personality instead of his prizefighting."
Camacho's ring costumes became more and more outrageous, and his rap sheet with the police became almost as startling. Still, boxing was Camacho's personal ATM machine. Whenever he needed money to pay the lawyers or for child support, he could always count on getting a big fight.
"Because of his image, Camacho became a big-name opponent later in his career," Giles says. "His career really is incomplete, from how good he was when he started. I just hope he doesn't get hurt." He took fights with Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, and Julio Cesar Chavez, and even though he was soundly beaten by all three, none of them could knock him out. In 80 professional fights Camacho Sr. is 74-4-2. He has been down only twice in his career.
Hector Camacho and his son are training together in Denver, Colorado, for their upcoming fights. Camacho has been helping his son prepare for Leija, his toughest opponent to date. "I asked him to be around," Junior says. "He shows me things inside the ring and tells me how to carry myself, what to expect in my career, to keep my eyes open for the leaches."
Junior has gone farther than most sons of former champions have. And unlike the fighters coming out of the Olympics, he and his promoters are taking their time. Having seen a lot of young fighters rise quickly only to flame out, they are in no hurry.
As for Camacho Sr., nobody can doubt his durability and longevity in the sport. But he sometimes looked like he was fighting just so he could make one of his vaudevillian ring entrances. Nonetheless, in his July 14 fight with Duran, Camacho will be going for his seventh title, and there aren't many fighters who can say they've ever done that.
"I guess deep down inside, how could you not be an elite athlete and not care about where you stand [in history] on some level," says Merchant. "I think Camacho feels it could have been a little better for him. People won't talk about him the same way they would Pernell Whitaker or Shane Mosley, but he laughed all the way to the bank."