In Thomas Hauser’s literary review, Christian Giudice’s new biography investigates the one and only Hector Camacho
HAMILCAR PUBLICATIONS is fast becoming a leader in the publication of books about boxing. Macho Time: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of Hector Camacho by Christian Giudice is its most recent offering.
As Carlos Acevedo writes in his Foreword to the book, “In the 1980s, Camacho was one of the most talented fighters in the world and personified the hedonistic philosophy of the decade with boorish aplomb. He was garish, crude, outlandish, lewd, reckless, and loud. Everbody paid attention to him. He made sure of that.”
Giudice has written biographies of Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, and Wilfredo Gomez. Camacho is his latest subject. Camacho was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, on May 24, 1962. His father was seventeen and his mother fourteen when they married. When Hector was four, his mother moved with her children to Spanish Harlem in New York to escape her violent, alcoholic husband. Growing up, Hector fell in with street gangs, habitually used drugs, and was kicked out of seven schools. He also took up boxing and compiled a 96-4 amateur record while winning three New York Golden Gloves titles.
Camacho turned pro in 1980 with a four-round decision over David Brown in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden. He was a hot prospect from the start with blinding handspeed and deft footwork that separated him from opponents. The fact that he was a southpaw made things even more complicated for the men he fought.
“No one could outbox him, overpower him, out-quick him, or outsmart him in the ring,” Giudice writes. “His grace and speed made up for his flaws. But speed was only part of the package that included incomparable defensive instincts, precision punching, a menacing jab, and sharp angles that rarely put him in harm’s way. Casual fans loved what they saw because of his energy, flair, and talent. Hardcore fans saw glimpses of greatness.”
“He would always create angles,” Camacho’s son, Hector Jnr, later noted. “It was like art. The way he blocked punches – jab, jab, hold. And he always knew where he was in the ring.”
Camacho was also a dirty fighter who took advantage of what compliant referees allowed him to do. One of his signature moves was to illegally pull down on an opponent’s neck with his right glove to move the opponent into an uppercut.
“He had a maturity in the ring that belied his age,” boxing analyst Steve Farhood later recalled. “But I don’t remember the maturity as much as I remember the pure speed and skill level. He had the tricks and the moves. But his pure speed combined with the southpaw style and the command of being center stage made him the total package.”
Camacho quickly established himself as a gate attraction. He was good looking and had CHARISMA marked by a smile that enabled him to project as a charming fun-loving boy while proclaiming himself to be “The Macho Man.” Among other things, he desgned his own ring wardrobe at a time when most fighters wore traditional trunks and robes. His sartorial choices for entering the ring, as catalogued in Macho Time, included “tassels, epaulets, masks, fringe, diapers, capes, panchos, codpieces, loincloths, sequins, glitter, Cazals, and a variety of bizarre headdresses.”
“He had presence,” Sugar Ray Leonard (who Camacho hoped to supplant as the face of boxing) told Giudice. “The way he carried himself. He walked into the ring with authority and I saw something. Not just physically but mentally, spiritually. He walked into that ring like ‘I’m going to win.’ I just knew this kid was going to be a star.”
Camacho won his first title in 1983 with a fifth-round knockout of Rafael “Bazooka” Limon to claim the World Boxing Council 130-pound belt. Two years later, after moving up in weight, he annexed the WBC lightweight crown with an almost flawless twelve-round performance against Jose Luis Ramirez.
Then Camacho hit a speed bump. On June 13, 1986, he brought a 28-0 record into Madison Square Garden to defend his title against Edwin Rosario.
Camacho had hoped from the start of his career to follow in the footsteps of Carlos Ortiz, Wilfred Benitez, and Wilfredo Gomez to become a Puerto Rican icon. But boxing fans from the island had been slow to embrace him, thinking of him as a New Yorker. “The perception that he wasn’t a true Puerto Rican hurt Camacho deeply,” Giudice writes. “In his mind, he was just as Puerto Rican as anyone else.”
Meanwhile, Rosario, who had lived his entire life in Puerto Rico, was the crowd favourite that night at Madison Square Garden. And after feeling Edwin’s power, Camacho ran for much of the fight, clinching whenever Rosario got in close. Hector retained his title on a narrow 115-113, 115-113, 113-114 split verdict. But a clear majority of fans and media on site thought that Rosario deserved the decision.
The Rosario fight raised questions about Camacho’s self-proclaimed machismo, toughness, and heart. Yes, he’d won the fight on the judges’ scorecards. And for the most part, he would keep winning in the years ahead. But he was never the same confident fighter again.
“Hector no longer performed like the star he was,” Giudice notes. “Some fighters thrive when opponents force them out of their comfort zones. Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran all delivered in the clutch. Sugar Ray Leonard set the standard for finding the opportune times to shine. When one fighter provides a blueprint of greatness as Hector had, it is discouraging when that fighter doesn’t fulfill those expectations.”
Thereafter, clinching and survival tactics became Camacho’s stock in trade. The public perception of him as a fighter changed. The primary entertainment value in his fights came to derive from his personality rather than his ring skills. “He was a flamboyant showman,” Larry Merchant recalled. “And that was a talent in itself. Not many people could pull it off. But that’s what he was largely known for after the first phase of his career.”
Three months after fighting Rosario, Camacho won a decision over Cornelius Boza-Edwards in what Giudice calls “the dawn of a new era in which escaping replaced attacking and preservation replaced calculated risk.” On March 6, 1989, Hector fought Ray Mancini who (although only 27 years old) had been retired for four years. At the kick-off press conference for the fight, Mancini declared, “Camacho runs like a dog and holds like a woman.”
“I’d rather run than get beat up,” Hector countered.
Camacho prevailed over Mancini on a 115-113, 115-113, 112-116 split verdict. Mancini would fight only once more before ending his career with four consecutive losses. Two years after beating Mancini, Camacho lost for the first time in 39 fights when he was decisioned by Greg Haugen. He decisioned Haugen in an immediate rematch and proceeded, in the words of Hector Jr, to “resurrect his career off old men.”
Camacho fought Roberto Duran when Duran was forty-five and again when Duran was fifty. Ray Leonard was forty when he returned to boxing after a six-year layoff to fight Camacho (who drove Leonard into permanent retirement). Over time, Camacho was defeated by Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, and Oscar De La Hoya. As his career wound down, he fought draws against Sal Lopez, Jorge Vaca, and Yori Boy Campas and lost by decision to Chris Walsh and Saul Duran. The last of these fights – the final bout in Camacho’s long ring journey – came when he was ten days shy of his forty-eighth birthday. He fought professionally for three decades (from September 12, 1980, though May 14, 2010), and compiled a 79-6-3 (38) ring record. He was never knocked out.
But Camacho’s ring exploits are only part of his story. He walked on the wild side and was embroiled in street life and street conflicts throughout his life. He consorted with known drug dealers and used cocaine and other recreational drugs before, during, and after his ring career. “Hector did not think twice about putting his loved ones and closest friends in peril to get a fix,” Giudice writes. “He grew up with drugs. They were not just part of a hellish phase but a way of life ingrained in the environment in which he was raised.”
In city after city, Camacho traveled into dangerous territory in search of drug dealers and a fix. At one point, he moved to Clewiston, Florida to distance himself from the streets. But he brought his street ways with him and often returned to Spanish Harlem. For every person who tried to steer him in the right direction, there were multiple enablers who reinforced his self-destructive tendencies.
Camacho was a father at sixteen and a poor one. Before Hector Jnr was in his teens, his father pressured him into an assignation with a prostitute to introduce him to sex. Soon after, he introduced him to drugs.
“Pop was explosive,” Hector Jnr told Giudice. “You had to be careful around him. He was a street thug. Rob. Steal. He was mean. You had to fuck with him to see that side.”
Hector Jnr also recalled, “When I was growing up in Spanish Harlem, I had a lot of resentment. I was always wondering, ‘What the fuck am I doing in the projects? He let me down.”
Camacho’s erratic behavior carried over into boxing. He had a long string of trainers that included Negro Gonzalez, Mickey Rosario, Patrick Flannery, Robert Lee, Billy Giles, Jimmy Montoya, Chuck Talhami, Rudy Mata, Pepe Correa, and Jesse Reid. More and more as time went by, his drug use and drinking adversely affected his ring performance. There were erratic post-fight interviews on national television that ranged from Camacho sobbing and asking Tim Ryan of CBS, “Will you be my friend; I need friends,” to his uttering a racial epithet on HBO. The night before Hector fought John Montes in Alaska, he got high and had to be talked out of jumping from a hotel window by CBS matchmaker and boxing analyst Gil Clancy.
There was no social media or TMZ to report on Camacho’s every misstep outside the ring when he was in his prime as a fighter. If there had been, he would have been skewered. In his late teens, while on probation for an earlier car theft, Camacho was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing another car and leading police on a thirty-block chase. In 1988, he was arrested in Florida for pulling a gun on a student in a local high school school and was caught on camera trying to hide a bag of cocaine when he was arrested. That led to charges of assault and illegal drug possession. Later that year, he was arrested for driving down a highway while having sex with a woman who was seated on his lap. An arrest for shoplifting followed. Most often, because of his status as a boxer, the cases were adjudicated with fines and probation.
Multiple complaints alleging domestic violence were lodged against Camacho by his wife and various girlfriends. In 1998, his wife was granted a restraining order against him. He owned Uzis and shotguns and was involved in multiple car accidents. In 2004 and again in 2007, he was arrested on charges of burglary and felony possession of drugs. On November 20, 2012, a drug deal in Bayamon went bad. Camacho was shot four times and removed from life support four days later. He was fifty years old when he died.
“There was no way to spin Hector’s death,” Giudice acknowledges. “Drugs and violence had reduced him to a pale version of himself.”
Macho Time is the first full biography of Camacho. Hamilcar deserves credit for infusing the project with superb production values and an eye-catching design for the book. Overall, Giudice does a solid job of reporting. At times, the fight reports seem repetitious and some of them are too long. But on the other side of the ledger, there’s a good recounting of Camacho-Rosario – a fight that warrants in-depth coverage.
One concern a reader might have is that there are places where it seems as though someone told something to Giudice and he accepted it as fact without further checking it out. For example, Jimmy Glenn was a fixture on the New York boxing scene for more than fifty years. But he was not – as written in Macho Man – a “former Golden Glove champion and Muhammad Ali sparring partner.” Factual errors like this are worrisome, not for what they say about Glenn but for questions they raise regarding the presentation of more important issues.
That said; Macho Time is often entertaining and as thorough a biography as we’re likely to see of this man-child who could have been a great fighter but became a cautionary tale instead.