A Long Day's Journey

As a promising amateur boxer, Michael Carbajal set lofty but simple goals. Ten years later, he's achieved them. What makes him fight on?

One night in March 1987, Mary and Manny Carbajal and several members of their family gathered around a kitchen table at their home in downtown Phoenix.

It would be more than a year before their 19-year-old son Michael would become world famous, and his inspirational story had yet to be told. No television crews or print journalists had made their pilgrimages to East Fillmore Street, to the tiny backyard shed that served as a primitive boxing gym.

Michael listened as his dad spoke about how he had scavenged for empty soda bottles in a Tucson barrio as a youth. He listened as his oldest brother, Danny, reminisced about a boxing "smoker" on the Gila River Indian Community. Carbajal said little, but took it all in as he helped himself to a bowl of his mother's potent menudo.

After a while, Michael, the second youngest of nine children, showed a reporter his room in the rear of the crowded but comfortable old home. Sitting on his bed in near-darkness, Michael pondered a question about his goals in boxing and in life. It was his first interview, and he didn't have a ready reply.

Instead, he stared for several seconds at a photo of his hero, Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran.

"I want to be a world champion," Michael finally replied in a near whisper, "and I want to have a big family of kids who love me. That's it."

It's March 1997. Exactly a decade has passed since a shy Michael Carbajal revealed his dreams to a stranger.

That decade has been a blur. "Ten years, huh? Amazing," says Danny Carbajal, the boxer's brother, trainer and manager. "For us, it's been like one continuous day."

Now, as the continuous day approaches twilight, Michael Carbajal takes pride that, against long odds, he has achieved both of his goals.

He's been a world champion, and has won fame and a degree of fortune--about $7 million in boxing earnings. At 29, he's the father of five who adores his children and his wife, Merci.

When his day was just dawning, Carbajal explains, he was motivated to succeed for his parents and siblings.

"Now, I've got my own family to think about," he says. "Some people think I'm a bad guy now 'cause of the trouble I got into. But they don't know me. I'm still the same guy from 10 years ago. I mostly mind my own business. The difference is, everybody has their eye on me all the time."

Michael Carbajal has been center stage--inside the ring and out--ever since his spellbinding 1988 run for an Olympic gold medal.

Carbajal has fought before untold thousands in Cuba, South Korea, in a Mexico City bullring, at the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, at Los Angeles' famed Great Western Forum, and at America West Arena--scarcely more than a mile from his home. Millions more around the world have seen him perform on television.

Who can forget his first monumental struggle against Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez, a fight Carbajal rallied to win by knockout after Gonzalez had him on the ropes? Veteran boxing writers recently rated that fight No. 17 on their list of the 100 greatest pro bouts ever.

And who wouldn't be struck by the improbability of a 108-pound homeboy serving as the grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl parade?

Carbajal was among the most popular athletes at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and his star dimmed little after a much-disputed loss in the gold-medal bout to a Bulgarian named Hristov. Humble in victory and gracious in defeat, Carbajal seemed the antithesis of his posturing peers.

Within a few years, Carbajal became arguably the most storied and accomplished home-grown sports figure in Phoenix history. He earned numerous commercial endorsements and made scores of personal appearances.

Carbajal was the first of the 1988 Olympians to win a professional world title, a 1990 knockout of reigning Thai champion Muangchai Kittikasem at a frenzied Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Since then, he has won and lost world championships, and fought for purses ranging from $500 to $1 million (twice).A million-dollar payday was unprecedented for a boxer of his diminutive stature.

In 1993, Carbajal earned honors as professional boxing's best fighter from Ring Magazine. He remains the only lower-weight boxer ever to win the prestigious award.

That year, the Carbajals retired their rickety hut of a gym and opened a beautiful facility across the street. The reinvented church is called "Carbajal's Ninth Street Gym," and is home to pros, amateurs and neighborhood neophytes who work out under the tutelage of Danny Carbajal and Tony Esquer.

As a boxer, Carbajal will be remembered as a warrior with a huge heart. He has battled with stoic intensity and controlled fury since he first stepped into a ring as a 12-year-old. He's never given less than his best, even when that wasn't good enough--his upset loss in January to unheralded Colombian Mauricio Pastrana comes to mind.

He has fought 47 times as a pro, and has lost only three times, twice by split decision and once by majority decision.

Sports fans and writers love to pigeonhole celebrity athletes. For years, stories about Carbajal depicted him exclusively as an angel with fists of granite. And it charmed many, at least in those early days, that Carbajal remained in the same poor neighborhood and same house in which he was raised.

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