Hector Camacho’s life ended as he lived it: in a fight with a man and with his demons. He always did better against the former than the latter.
Camacho was a survivor, both inside the ring and out, but the fight ends for all of us eventually and his ended violently last Tuesday when he was shot in the face while sitting in the car of a friend who really wasn’t one. That man, Adrian Mojica Moreno, was shot dead in a fusillade of gunfire, nine bags of cocaine in his pocket and an opened 10th one inside the car where the 50-year-old Camacho sat.
Camacho was a fighter to the end, the bullet being deflected by a jaw that never let him down through 88 professional fights. But that tumbling bullet severed his spinal column and he was declared brain dead after suffering a heart attack one night later while still hospitalized a Centro Medico Trauma Center in San Juan. It was several more days before his grief stricken mother made the decision to have withdrawn the plug that was giving him life, something she refused to do until his entire family was around him.
Camacho had brought them all great joy and savage pain, the latter coming from the often uncontrolled life he lived outside the ring. His demons – drugs, alcohol, shady characters, mistrust and bad choices – had been a part of Camacho’s life since he was a kid growing up in a hard part of Spanish Harlem. He was jailed while still a teenager for stealing cars and street fighting and dabbled with drugs and alcohol for nearly all of his professional life but fighting would become his way out of a dead-end life that still ended up that way despite winning three world titles and becoming a larger-than-life personality in the hardest sport there is.
“Macho’’ Camacho was everything that name implied. His gifts of speed, elusiveness, mental dexterity when working within boxing’s unique geometry and a stinging right jab made him a three-time New York Golden Gloves champion when that still carried a lot of weight and would eventually help him win the WBC super featherweight, WBC lightweight and WBO junior welterweight titles and one of the sport’s biggest and most noticed names during the 1980s and 1990s.
He had star quality, a kind heart and a well-hidden but true sense of humility, all often overshadowed by the “Macho Man’s’’ outward armor of bravado and at times cruelty that never reflected fairly who he could be when he was just Hector.
Hector, the guy who befriended so many and who had nothing but time for his fans and anyone who loved his sport, might never have risen to the heights “Macho’’ Camacho did however. That is one of the painful sides of boxing.
More often than not its great champions are dogged by internal conflicts, issues that often go back to tortured childhoods and real fears. Camacho, like all great champions (and for a time he surely was one), carried them with him to his grave. He fought them the best he could, winning sometimes and losing others, but mostly he ran from them, hoping somehow he could outmaneuver life the way he had so many fighters.
But when he was wearing leather gloves and outrageous outfits – one time a loincloth, another time a gladiator’s helmet and battle gear – he was a beautiful thing to watch. Being a southpaw that is saying something because few left-handed fighters rise above the term “stinking southpaw’’ that accompanies so many of them into boxing.
Camacho (79-6-3, 45 KO) was anything but that. He was a crowd pleaser, a fighter who understood he was in show business, not just the hurt business. While he would grow more cautious inside the ring after a savage victory over Edwin Rosario at Madison Square Garden in 1986 that no one who witnessed it would forget, Camacho was at one time a whirlwind of aggression.
That night he dominated the first few rounds and then was hurt badly for the first time in his career, rocked by the relentless Rosario’s right hand in the fifth round in a way Camacho never thought possible. His reaction was a champion’s. The Macho Man fought back.
He dominated the next five rounds but Rosario hurt him again in the 11th and nearly had him out in the final round. Ever the survivor, Camacho used his speed, agility and mental acuity to move, hold, grab, run, do whatever necessary to survive.
He was awarded a well-deserved yet controversial split decision, a victory painfully earned. After it was over, as ESPN-New York writer Wally Matthews recalled, Camacho had a typically amusing response to it all.
In those heady days, Camacho and his crowd had begun hollering “What time is it? Macho Time!’’ It was amusing at first but it became so much a staple of being in his presence you tended to pack cotton in your ears when attending one of his press conferences or gym sessions.
But after that brutal confrontation with Rosario that night, Matthews asked Camacho again, “What time is it?’’
Tired and bloodied, his face a swollen mask of what it had been when the night’s work began, his reply was every inch Camacho’s.
“Time to go to bed,’’ he said.
Camacho would go on to defeat faded legends like Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, who he retired in 1997 with absolute and utter disrespect from the opening bell until the fight was stopped in the fifth round one fight before Camacho would lose nearly every round of a welterweight title fight with boxing’s newest young star, Oscar De La Hoya.
He was never the same after the Rosario fight, having paid so high a price for victory he could never gather back the piece of himself lost that night at the Garden. He became a front runner, someone who could overwhelm less talented opponents but who would grow cautious and movement obsessed when pressed near the edge of that memory of Rosario.
This was never more evident than in 1992, six years after the Rosario fight, when he climbed out of the ring before facing Julio Cesar Chavez to cling to his mother at ringside. It was the kind of hug you imagined normally reserved for men on death row.
Then he went back in and lost nearly every round and the WBC light welterweight title he held at the time to the legendary Mexican. No shame in that. Chavez was 82-0 that night and would lose only six times in 107 fights, nearly all of those defeats coming when he was well past his prime.
Some will argue that Camacho should have been much more than he was in boxing but how can a man out fight himself? It is actually a testament to the size of his skills that he became all that he was as a fighter despite abusing himself so often outside the ring.
He understood the cost of fighting and certainly reaped its rewards but he also suffered its defeats and in the end was still contemplating a return to it, a man lost in his memories.
By then he’d been arrested for theft in Mississippi that briefly landed him in jail, accused of domestic violence several times, divorced and shot a year ago not far from where his life would end. Thoughts of another comeback to boxing after all he’d been through by then was perhaps the cruelest irony of all for a man who once explained away Leonard’s false belief that he would be able in his dotage to find some way to defeat a man like Camacho, who though no longer the king of the jungle was still a lion in it.
“He believes in his history,” Camacho said.
You could say the same for Hector “Macho’’ Camacho. Even in the moments before a hail of bullets not far from his birthplace in Bayamon, a hard part of Puerto Rican real estate on the edge of San Juan, he believed he was still El Gato, the cat, forgetting that even cats have only nine lives.