Pound-for-pound? How about ounce-for-ounce? On March 13, 1993, two exceptionally talented and courageous light flyweights, Michael “Little Hands of Stone” Carbajal and Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez – with a combined weight of 214½ pounds, or a quarter-pound less than WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder came in at for his most recent defense against Luis Ortiz – demonstrated that a really big fight need not require the participation of even moderately large men.
In adding Gonzalez’s WBC 108-pound title to the IBF strap he already possessed, Carbajal roared back from knockdowns in the second (not exactly flash, but close) and fifth (he was legitimately buzzed) rounds to drop the even tinier (5-foot-1 to the winner’s 5-6) Mexican standout with a textbook-perfect left hook in the seventh round in the Showtime-televised bout at the Las Vegas Hilton. Chiquita, who was leading by four points on all three official scorecards at the time, collapsed onto his right shoulder before rolling over onto his back, where he was counted out by referee Mills Lane. The elapsed time was 2 minutes, 59 seconds.
“I knew that if I knocked him down he wouldn’t get back up,” a jubilant Carbajal told Showtime commentator Al Bernstein minutes after he had struck the decisive blow. “The way he went down, I knew he wasn’t going to get up.”
Carbajal’s confidence, if indeed he was as sure of the eventual outcome as he professed, was not universally shared. Although Gonzalez suffered a nasty cut above his left eye in the third round, a gash that would continue to worsen with each succeeding round, the switch-hitting whirlwind – ostensibly an orthodox fighter, he switched to and from a southpaw stance early and often – succeeded at taking the fight right to Carbajal, where he frequently got the better of the furious inside exchanges. Had Gonzalez not been stopped at some point because of the severity of the cut, he might have put himself beyond reach of a Carbajal victory on points had he just continued to do what he had been doing from the opening bell.
“One of the main differences here is simple: Carbajal is not hurting Gonzalez with his big power punches,” Bernstein noted as the seventh round began. “Gonzalez is hurting him.” But Chiquita, who had been advised by his trainer, Justo Sanchez, before the fateful seventh stanza that Carbajal was “very tired” and primed to be taken out, soon was reintroduced to an immutable truth of boxing: some fighters, like wild animals, are most dangerous when their back is against the wall. Michael Carbajal, like Matthew Saad Muhammad, Arturo Gatti and any number of others who consistently found a way to escape the danger zone as often as they found themselves in it, proved that night that he was a card-carrying member of the club.
It wasn’t very long after hostilities commenced that the seemingly reasonable fight plan laid out by Carbajal’s older brother and trainer, Danny – lots of movement and extensive use of the jab – was scrapped, the result of Gonzalez’s incessant pressure, effective and borderline illegal body attack (he twice was warned by Lane for low blows) and, truth be told, Michael’s own determination to stand and trade.
“They don’t want Carbajal on the inside all the time with Gonzalez … I don’t care how many times they tell Carbajal to jab in this fight, I don’t know that he’s going to do it,” Bernstein opined. “I think he wants to slug it out with Gonzalez, and I think he’s going to do it no matter what.”
Not that punch statistics are the most accurate gauge of any fight’s ebb and flow, but CompuBox statistics substantiated what everyone in the arena and in the Showtime viewing audience already knew. This opening act of a soon-to-be-legendary trilogy was an instant classic, one for the record books and memory banks, with Gonzalez landing 206 of 456 for an exceptionally high 45 percent accuracy rate while Carbajal connecting on 167 of 326, an even higher 51 percent. Had Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa gone at it with comparable physical dimensions, this would have been the result.
Not surprisingly, The Ring named Carbajal-Gonzalez as its 1993 Fight of the Year. The epic clash might have won the magazine’s triple crown, had it also garnered nods as Knockout of the Year and the sensational fifth as Round of the Year. Those designations, respectively, instead went to Gerald McClellan’s fifth-round stoppage of Julian Jackson and the second round of the Terry Norris-Troy Waters fight. But the repercussions of Carbajal-Gonzalez I would be felt for years to come, on several levels.
Perhaps most notably and most fittingly, Carbajal (who posted a 49-4 career record that included 33 knockouts) and Gonzalez (42-3, 31 KOs), who won the succeeding segments of their rivalry on split and majority decisions, each were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 5, 2006. Theirs was a three-act passion play that was a replication in miniature of Johansson-Patterson, Ali-Frazier, Bowe-Holyfield and Gatti-Ward, and it offered conclusive proof that jockey-sized fighters could cut it at the box office in the United States, a vast, mostly unexplored frontier that previously had not been welcoming to them. Carbajal-Gonzalez II became the first fight in which men their size earned seven-figure purses, and the fact it happened on American soil (on Feb. 19, 1994, in Inglewood, Calif.) made the achievement all the more significant.
But the milestones they achieved, separately and in tandem, owed in no small part to another little guy, former WBA bantamweight champ Richie Sandoval, being insistent that his boss, Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum, take a flier on Carbajal, the Phoenix, Ariz., resident who was a silver medalist for the U.S. at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Despite his status as an Olympic medalist (Carbajal should have come home with a gold, failing to do so only because of a scandalously unfair decision that went to Bulgaria’s Ivalio Hristov in the final), no major U.S. promoter viewed Carbajal as a potential valuable addition to his stable. The old adage that good things come in small packages might refer to rings, but not the kind that are roped off and occupied by two fighters and a referee.
“When Richie Sandoval brought Michael to my office, I thought he was out of his mind,” Arum said in May 2006 prior to Carbajal’s induction into the IBHOF. “I had seen Michael in the Olympics, but he was, like, 106 pounds. What the hell were we going to do with someone that little? But there was something about Michael that intrigued Richie, and he pleaded for me to take Michael on.
“The more I listened to Richie make his case, the more I came around. Finally, I said, `I don’t know if we can make this work, but what the heck, I’m going to give it a try.’”
It was a leap not only of faith, but of hope and charity. American fight fans have always been infatuated with heavyweights, and their enthusiasm for any division south of lightweight has tended to drop off precipitously. Carbajal could fight all right, but, physically, he was what he was. There was no way he could eat, stretch or contort himself into something bigger, if not necessarily better.
“The first fight we put him into was a four-rounder, in Atlantic City, against this kid, Will Grigsby, who went on to win a world championship and probably was the second-best 108-pounder in the United States,” Arum recalled. “Some matchmaking, huh? But we didn’t know what to do with a 108-pound fighter. We had never handled anyone that small before.
“But gradually we worked our way into it. I remember one night in Phoenix when (heavyweight) Tommy Morrison was on the card with Carbajal. This casino executive, who shall remain forever nameless, came to the fight to check out Morrison. He was sitting right near me and he said, when they introduced the Carbajal fight, `You ought to be ashamed of yourself, promoting midgets.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Arum was right; it was difficult finding quality opponents for American fighters Carbajal’s size. But, as Arum noted 13 years ago, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. There are a lot of great Thai fighters, Filipino fighters, Japanese fighters and Mexican fighters at 108 pounds. We found them. And, of course, Chiquita came later.”
Perhaps, because of the Michael Carbajal experiment that paid major dividends, Top Rank has continued to plumb the lower weight classes, from which it imported such precious gems of more recent vintage as Manny Pacquiao and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Many credible pound-for-pound lists nowadays include super flyweight titlists Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (WBC) and Naoya Inoue (WBO), with Thailand’s Sor Rungvisai establishing himself with U.S. audiences on the basis of his two victories over Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and another over Juan Francisco Estrada.
Given the trend that he helped create, you’d think that Carbajal, now 50, would be basking in the glow of his status as a Hall of Fame pioneer. But not every mostly happy story has a feel-good ending, and the “Little Hands of Stone” story serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a fighter places too much trust in the wrong person.
Most of the $7 million Carbajal earned during his professional career is gone, siphoned by the very man he so often credited with facilitating his success. Older brother Danny Carbajal was released from an Arizona prison in August 2011 after serving 3½ years for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement and property accounts from his estranged (and then murdered) wife, Sally. Although there was insufficient evidence to convict him of the 2005 murders of Sally and her then-boyfriend Gerry Best, Danny’s greed led him not only to rip off Michael for millions, but to order the eviction of their mother from a house whose deed was in Danny’s name.
“He fooled me more than anybody,” Michael said of the love and trust he once unwaveringly gave to a brother who proved undeserving of such devotion.
But nothing and no one can take away Michael Carbajal’s legacy, or the doors he helped open for little fighters with big talent, or the night when he went to hell and back with Chiquita Gonzalez and had the satisfaction of having his hand raised.
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