This past week was the anniversary of Hector “Macho” Camacho’s death. It has been eleven years since he jumped into the passenger seat of his friend’s black and white Mustang and drove to a bar in Bayamon. It was just past 7 PM and the streets were crowded when they parked in front of a lawyer’s office. Seconds after, a Jeep pulled up next to them.
The local news said someone exited the Jeep and calmly walked to the side of the Mustang and fired several shots through the window.
Camacho’s friend died instantly. Camacho, still wearing his seatbelt, his cellphone in his hand, was hit by a stray bullet. He was trying to say something, said the manager of a nearby bar who rushed to the scene.
I do not remember what I was doing when I first heard of the shooting that ultimately took his life. My mother broke the news to me, having become familiar with Camacho through his frequent television appearances on the Spanish channel.
Late in his boxing career, Camacho had become as familiar on the Spanish channels as Rocky Graziano was on NBC and CBS after his career. Both were humorous, gullible, former champions who spoke with that same dialect that develops after a lifetime of boxing.
Hector Camacho Had Charisma, Macho Had It, And Then Some
My mother was stunned by the news. I wasn’t as shocked as she was. I had met Hector a few times, went to the Copa with him, and even shared the ring with him for three rounds. I also met “Macho” and if you had been around them in person, you know why I make a distinction between the two.
The first time I met Hector was in 1985. He was lightweight champ, and I was cutting school.
It was at Gleason’s Gym back when the gym was the color of a faded Guatemalan flag and desperately needed a few open windows.
I was leaning against the wall, watching amateurs spar in the side-by-side rings. Ira Becker, the owner, approached me. Wearing high-water pants and a sweater that hopefully fit him better in the Sixties than it did that day. He spoke with me briefly. He told me he had worked the corner for a few Sugar Ray Robinson fights but mostly, he was a businessman.
“Did you pay the entrance fee?” he asked.
“Nobody asked me to,” I replied.
He put his arm around me and, while telling me what the gym dues were, he started walking me towards the gym’s entrance. Entering through the door at that moment was Hector Camacho.
I had seen him on TV many times and saw him go from a dazzling fighter with a curly mop of hair who spoke like the guys on the streets, to a sometimes tacky, inactive boxer who seemed to care a bit too much about the Superman curl on his forehead. But the boxer who was entering the gym just as Ira was giving me the boot was nothing like the boxer with the flashy trunks that I saw on TV.
He wore faded blue jeans and a matching jacket. It was Hector not Macho, despite what the nameplate on his gold chain read.
“What’s the matter Ira, you need your stinking dollar?” he said playfully. Hector pulled out a dollar, handed it to Ira, then told me to get comfortable and enjoy the show. Ira turned beet red, laughed sheepishly and, while tucking Hector’s dollar into his front pocket, instructed me not to get in anyone’s way.
Over the years I heard of Hector occasionally doing things like paying someone’s gym dues or taking an angry friend for a spin in his car until that friend cooled down. Despite not being the most articulate person, and though he often used analogies that left you scratching your head, he could give great advice.
“Find a trainer who is not jealous of your fame and a manager who is not jealous of your money,” Hector once said to me.
After a couple of interactions with him, it seemed to me that he was a man with a dual personality. Hector was much more serious and ready to fight in an instant. Hector was someone you felt you could get to know.
He was the one dancing to salsa music in the corner of the club that night we went to the Copa. Macho was the one who climbed on stage while salsero Tito Rojas was singing and asked the singer to change the lyrics of his song to “Macho Time! Macho Camacho!”
Drugs Didn't Help Camacho's Long-Term Arc
Back then, it was an open secret that Hector was using drugs. To what extent, not everyone knew, although personally I felt that if he was abusing drugs, it was because of Macho.
A few times he appeared high but mostly Hector was a regular guy. In recent years, particularly in the documentary Macho: The Hector Camacho Story, it has been openly reported that it didn’t matter who it was – Hector or Macho – both were drowning.
Ultimately, in the company of a drug dealer and pimp, at a parking spot in Bayamon not far from where Camacho was born, it was about as responsible for taking his life as was the bullet that struck him in the jaw.
I didn’t know him well enough to know what made him tick. He was a man who wanted to have fun, rarely judged others, and who acted like a teenager his entire life. When it came to boxing, however, he made few mistakes.
An outstanding fighter with fast hands and excellent footwork, Camacho was briefly in the conversation for pound-for-pound best fighter of his day. Inactivity, drugs, and a wicked left hook from Edwin Rosario in 1986 began his descent.
That’s why, in 1990 when he asked me to spar a few rounds, despite lacking worldclass experience, I thought I could not just hang with him, but get the better of him.
Although he was coming off an impressive win over Vinny Paz, I found his other performances underwhelming.
Most of his jabs fell short of their targets and his hooks and crosses looked like they carried little knockout power. And since that Rosario fight, and his refusal to meet him in a rematch, he had become something of a runner in the ring. I figured a couple of lead rights were all it would take for him to go into his shell.
I should have known better. I was a good little leaguer but, when the opposing players were guys with mustaches and beards, I could barely see the balls when I was in the batter’s box. Hector didn’t have a beard, but I could barely see his fists.
“Hey, ya’wanna go a few rounds,” he asked?
“Sure,” I replied.
Sparring With Camacho Drew A Crowd
I remembered the gym being empty. As soon as our headgear was on, there were rows of people circling the ring. When the bell rang, the rattling of speedbags and taps and whistles of the jump ropes stopped. When Camacho was in the ring, everyone paid attention.
I ate a few jabs and a hard hook to the ribs. I don’t remember much else. The times that I did time duck and moved in for a counter, Hector would drop an elbow on my cheek or grab me behind the neck and spin me around. I knew they were fouls but there was no referee, and I could do nothing about it. I was like Tito Rojas.
He changed directions in a split-second and even the dozen rapid jabs that missed were frequent enough to keep me back. Like a 90 mph fastball, most of his punches were a blur. The rounds came and went and, like Cornelius Boza-Edwards; like Ray Mancini; like Vinny Pazienza; like Jose Luis Ramirez and so many others; I could do nothing but follow him around the ring and punch air.
He was all business in the ring – no showboating, no trash talk, no disrespecting. He was a gentleman in the ring. “I owe you a dollar,” I told him after the sparring match. I told him the story and he replied, “If you need another one, let me know.”
He spoke with me for about three minutes, but I don’t remember what he said.
As soon as he left, I looked at my face in the mirror. There were no marks, no bruises. Whenever I watched him fight, I still thought I could hang with him. Each time I felt that way, I would immediately think back to the sparring match and his footwork, his elbows, and his jabs. Inside the ring, Hector was a master at getting out of harm’s way.
Outside of the ring, it was always Macho Time.