By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It was 1987 and Manny Carbajal was talking boxing with a guest over a bowl of his wife Mary's memorable menudo.
"If you box, you're gonna get hit," he said. "It's what you do after you get hit. That's what counts."
A truly friendly man, Manny had been an Arizona boxing champ in the late 1940s. He had hit and been hit often.
The kitchen conversation turned to Manny and Mary's son, Michael, then an accomplished amateur who had just earned a spot on the U.S. Pan-American team. It was years before Michael had any championship belts, lucrative endorsements or an adoring entourage. In those days, Michael was a poor, shy, 106-pound kid living with his folks at Ninth Street and Fillmore in downtown Phoenix.
Manny worked on his menudo and continued to talk. Of course, it hurt him when he saw his son get hammered by an opponent. But, he said, that's boxing.
"You just got to hit the other guy a little harder and then get back there and work," he said, gesturing toward the homemade gym in the family's backyard. "You got to keep working or you get nailed."
Six years later, Manny Carbajal and his clan are ringside at the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Center. Michael has become one of Arizona's most internationally recognized athletes. On this night, he is fighting a tough Mexican named Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzales for the world championship in boxing's 108-pound division. The winner will be considered a superstar.
Things have changed dramatically since Manny talked boxing with a guest over menudo. Michael has his own family now. And, with his estimable boxing earnings, he's bought his parents a home in a nicer part of town. The champ lives in the same place he always has--gussied up quite nicely--on Fillmore Street.
Though Michael is beloved by thousands, going into the fight, some boxing aficionados questioned Michael's true abilities. The biggest doubters hailed from boxing-mad Latin America, where the great ones--Julio Cesar Chavez, Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello--are living deities.
Those who favor Gonzales are citing the axiom that a supposedly more experienced, fiercer Mexican fighter will always beat the supposedly "softer" opponent from north of the border.
In the first rounds, it appears they may be right. Manny Carbajal grimaces as his son suffers the first knockdown of his career in the second round. Though Michael seems to be in little danger of being knocked out at this point, he clearly has entered treacherous new territory.
Early in the fifth, Gonzales catches Michael with two potent right hands that would have floored a much bigger man. Michael splays onto the canvas in several directions. He looks like a done fighter.
Mary Carbajal shuts her eyes and prays furiously for her son. Her husband leans forward in his seat.
Every great boxing champion has had a moment like this one: Ali had it against Doug Jones, Marciano against Archie Moore, Louis against Billy Conn. Manny Carbajal calls it "the time when you prove you are a champion, that you have all the heart in the world."
Smelling blood, the pro-Gonzales fans sitting near the Carbajal clan surge toward the ring apron. "They are dancing in front of me and I can't see," Manny Carbajal says later. "I see Michael's legs getting up, but that's all I can see. They are wobbly. I think, 'Oh, no.'"
Security quickly clears the aisle. Manny can see clearly now.
"His head is moving, right and left," Manny recalls. "That's what I want to see. I say, 'Make it through this, Michael. Keep going. Then you'll knock that guy out.'"
By the end of the round, Michael has completely regained his senses and is fighting Gonzales on equal terms. He has survived his moment of truth.
Early in the seventh, Michael sends Chiquita into the ropes with a vicious body shot. Gonzales resumes his relentless forward march, but Michael picks off most of the punches and lands his own bombs.
Late in the round, Michael shoots out a short left. Gonzales freezes for an instant, then crashes to the canvas with a greater thud than a 108-pound man should make.
Manny Carbajal seems stunned. While his family celebrates wildly, he just stands there, smiling. The Gonzales supporters who had blocked his view a few rounds earlier wordlessly retreat to the nearby casino.
After a press conference, the Carbajals host a private party for a few hundred friends. During the festivities, Manny Carbajal walks over to the guy with whom he had shared menudo and some boxing talk years earlier.
"My son, he's always been a champion to me because he has a big heart," Manny says quietly, softly patting his own chest. "And now, everybody else knows what I'm talking about.