By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Prior to the fight that would define his life, a 12-round duel against Edwin Rosario at Madison Square Garden in 1986, a 24-year-old Hector “Macho” Camacho entered the ring to salsa music blaring on the speakers while he sported an $8,000 glittered robe that sparkled with each strut he took.
Camacho climbed into the ring, extended his arms and twirled around in pure joy, with his young son Hector Jr. at his side. As the cheers from an adoring home crowd -- although born in Puerto Rico, he won three New York City Golden Glove titles as a teen -- continued to liven him, Camacho picked up his son and gave him a hug and then a kiss on the cheek. It was a beautiful moment that would not portend the 12 rounds of anguish that he would face that night.
This would be how Camacho, who died on Saturday as a result of injuries sustained during a drive-by shooting in his native Puerto Rico, would likely want to be remembered: lively, confident and loving, the personification of Macho.
But rarely with boxers does the persona match the reality. With every tragic end to a boxer -- an epidemic that has also taken the lives of Arturo Gatti, Johnny Tapia, Vernon Forrest, among others -- we realize that boxers are the most flawed of all our athletes, and they face a grim reality after retirement. When the cheers go away they are left to pick up the lives that they had left behind in the first place in order to chase an often gruesome sport. You don't subject yourself to possible beatings unless you're running away from some reality.
What everyone would eventually learn about Camacho was that being “Macho” was nothing more than a mask for what up to that defining fight against Rosario had been a delinquent life, and then became a self-inflicted tragic existence afterward.
Camacho was a drug addict, a shoplifter, a car thief, and in 2011 he was accused of being a child abuser. He was arrested for domestic abuse, possession of a controlled substance and burglary. He led a life of bad choices, and his death was likely another one of those.
Technically, from what the Puerto Rican police have released, Camacho appears to have been a victim of circumstance. He was shot while sitting in a parked car alongside his friend Adrian Mojica Moreno, who was also shot and killed. But Moreno was found to have nine bags of cocaine in his pocket. An open bag of cocaine was also found in the car. At best, Camacho was guilty of bad judgment. At worst, Camacho was headed into another abyss. He had many throughout his career.
Camacho (79 wins, 6 losses, 3 draws) was a good fighter, but never ultimately a great one, although to his credit he did win championships in three different weight classes. His greatest victories came against fighters who were past their primes -- a 40-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard, a 45-year-old Roberto Duran -- and his biggest losses were beatings from some of the best fighters of his era: Felix Trinidad, Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar de la Hoya.
In reality, Camacho became best known for his bravado. Late in his career, in trying to fit the persona of “Macho,” Camacho wore outlandish outfits into the ring and said outrageous things. He enjoyed the role of a villain and he was more of a professional wrestler rather than a professional boxer.
Camacho became a caricature, and sadly it did not have to be that way. He was a superior young fighter with quick hands and tremendous agility. He never had much power, but he didn't need it.
He was fast enough to deliver five-punch combinations and then avoid his opponents’ counterpunches.
That was until that defining night in New York.
Most boxing experts agree that Camacho's career appeared to derail in that fight against Rosario, who had none of Camacho's bravado. Rosario was quiet, humble and reserved. He wore classic black and white trunks while Camacho wore loudly-colored Puerto Rican flag shorts. Camacho was not only facing an opponent in the ring, but someone who also was an affront to his style.
Famously, the two Puerto Rican fighters did not like each other, mostly because each disrespected the other's way of living.
Watching that fight now in its entirety, a bit haunting after Camacho's death, one can see a career shaped by 12 rounds. It’s not often that a fighter is undone by a win. Many people probably forget that Camacho was awarded a split decision on that June night.
Camacho begins with his usual bravado. In the first two rounds, he punches and moves and strikes his opponent often. He is full of energy and confidence. In the third round, Rosario begins to land his own throws. Camacho is forced to lean on the ropes. A punch by Rosario in the fourth round causes Camacho to bleed above his right eye, the first time he had been cut in his young career. Camacho appears stunned.
The most telling moments of the fight happen in between rounds when Camacho sits silently in his corner. He says nothing. He barely nods at instructions from his trainers. He appears dazed, anxious, and worse yet, panicked. He’s no longer Macho.
In the fifth round he’s stunned by a left hook he never saw. He staggers for the remainder of the round and barely holds on. But he never falls.
In retrospect, Camacho was far more courageous in that fight that most had acknowledged. He takes command once again in the 9th and fights bravely in the 10th.
But then in the 11th, he’s once again struck by a left hook, this time while being trapped in the corner. He never really recovered. He scrambled for the next round-and-a-half, and his fans never really forgave him for it. He was painted as a coward who would avoid a punch at all costs. He won the fight but mostly lost in the big picture.
And that was really the story of his life: He was tremendously skilled, fought more courageously than most would admit, and he won many fights.
But in the end, he lost the big picture.