“This is Spanish Harlem, and nobody got a knife?”
Laughter filled the James Weldon Johnson Community Center, in El Barrio, as Elsie Encarnacion struggled to open the box holding the commemorative version of the street sign unveiled moments earlier, which declared the corner of Lexington Avenue and 115th Street “Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho Way,” in honor of the late boxing Hall of Famer who called the neighborhood home.
That joke, uttered by a Camacho friend, was fitting because these were friends, family, and members of the boxing community who hadn’t been there to mourn the former world champion, who was shot and killed in November 2012 at the age of 50 while sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. It was a murder that didn’t result in arrests until nearly a decade later, and while that botched investigation is still a sore point with the family, May 20 was a celebration and the talk was only about the good times, and with those good times came the razzing that only friends and family share. And the consensus was that despite the rain that brought the bulk of the ceremony indoors, Camacho would have loved it all.
“Every time he came back to the neighborhood, he never had security or nothing,” one of Camacho’s cousins, Ulises Rosa, tells me. “He just walked around normal and that’s why people loved him. He always gave love to the people in this neighborhood, in Spanish Harlem. It’s great that they’re honoring him, because he always remembered where he came from.”
And the people never forgot him. That’s a rarity these days, especially in a boxing scene where younger fans think Mike Tyson invented the sport. But before “Iron Mike” represented the Big Apple, it was Camacho, a blazing-fast southpaw who could do it all in the ring, and he did it while fighting out of the same projects where he was honored last weekend.
Yet even though the 79-6-3 (38 knockouts) record compiled from 1980 to 2010 against the best in the game — including Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Edwin Rosario, Julio Cesar Chavez, “Boom Boom” Mancini, Vinny Pazienza, and Felix Trinidad — was what earned the three-division champion at 130, 135 and 140 pounds a posthumous place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2016, it was the Puerto Rico native’s over-the-top style and personality that made him a crossover star in a sport that needed one in the post–Muhammad Ali/pre-Tyson era. That’s what endeared him to the kids — and adults — around El Barrio.
“It was his charisma, his happiness. Macho Man was full of fun,” his son, Hector Camacho Jr., a pretty fair boxer in his own right during a pro career spanning over two decades, tells me. “He was like a big kid. He was humble, he was real. He was like another person in the corner, my next-door neighbor, or a regular person walking the streets. He was one of us. He never got bigheaded, always stood humble. A little crazy. But they loved that in him.”
The locals never turned their backs on him either. There was the brief stint on Rikers Island for car theft when he was a teenager, the partying, the drugs, the subsequent brushes with the law, but when he came home, he was just “Mach.” And to his mother, Maria Matias, he was her little boy. “I feel so good because my son needed this,” she tells me after the ceremony. “He’s a good son. He’s a mommy’s son.”
Matias’s smile lit up the community center, and it didn’t leave her face as she greeted family, friends, reporters, and the local politicians who made the street renaming possible.
“This needs to be a legacy for our community,” said Encarnacion, chief of staff for District 8 council member Diana Ayala, whose office handled the project. “And Hector was that. Hector was a legacy. He was powerful, he was confident, he was all the things that we want our young people to be. And it’s not lost on me that we’re standing in a space where young people come to do better. That is what his name means on that street. That every single thing in this world that tells you that you can’t, Hector Camacho would say, ‘Oh yes, I can.’ That is the confidence that we want to instill in our young people and in generations to come.”
Whether young people get it or not, Camacho’s impact has been felt as far away as London, home to Glenn Wybrow, a boxing coach who traveled all the way from the U.K. to be there to salute the former champion and spend time with Camacho’s family, something he’s been doing for years.
“When I was younger, I had a bad upbringing,” says Wybrow. “Do you know when you’re a young kid and you feel lost and confused? So one day, on the rare occasion we was allowed to turn the telly on, Bang, there’s this man I’ve never seen boxing before in my life. I was probably about 12, 13, and that was it. And from then, all the times when I felt bad going through stuff, I took myself away. He was my real-life hero, and I took myself away mentally to get out of it.”
Wybrow nearly got to meet Camacho when a fight with London’s Terry Marsh was being discussed, in 1987, only to be taken in by the moment. “I was stood like a shop dummy there,” Wybrow remembers, laughing. “He was being interviewed in his gold shirt, and for a split second, he sort of looked down at me and I thought, ‘Well, that’s enough for me. The Macho Man just looked at me.”
When he’s not moderating a “Macho Memories” page on Facebook, training fighters, and spending time with his wife and daughter, Wybrow makes his pilgrimage to Spanish Harlem, where he is not just embraced by the Camacho family but considered another member of the clan, albeit one with a British accent.
“I always believed that I would meet the Camachos,” he tells me. “And the first time I walked around here, my wife, she’s a bit nervous. She said, ‘You keep forgetting you’re not Puerto Rican. You are some white fella from the U.K. and you stand out like a sore thumb.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care.’ I started walking these streets and do you know when you feel like you’ve been somewhere before? And I just felt so relaxed and happy to walk around, wandering around. Hector [Jr.] talks to me every day now. He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ Yeah. But it’s meant to be.”
Our conversation gets broken up by a steady stream of well-wishers who braved the rain to watch the unveiling of the new street sign, and it’s a mix of folks that those in the boxing world would recognize: the grizzled trainer, the former fighter, the old heads always around the periphery of the ring. It’s not a young crowd, which may be more of a reflection on where the sweet science fits in the sporting pantheon than a reflection on Camacho, but everyone there remembers what he did mean to boxing and Spanish Harlem.
Then, a deafening call to arms from Maria Matias:
“WHAT TIME IS IT?”
“MACHO TIME!” ❖
Thomas Gerbasi is currently senior editor for BoxingScene.com, Women’s Boxing columnist for The Ring magazine, a contributor to Boxing News (UK) magazine, and is soon to be inducted into the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 in the non-participant wing. An award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Gerbasi is also the author of five books. His amateur boxing record was 0-1.