By Amy Silverman
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"Carbajal is a very unusual athlete," Sports Illustrated wrote in 1990. "You get no glitz, no jewelry, no flashy cars, no gated estate. You don't even get an entourage of moochers. . . . With Carbajal, you get something that seems somewhat out-of-place in American pro sports--values rooted in home and family."
That was true, as far as it went. But few outsiders chose to consider the complexity of Carbajal's world. He wasn't an angel and never claimed to be, but was a young man who'd grown up in an area where society's woes--street violence, substance abuse, gang activities--are in abundant evidence.
Those woes naturally touched his family, one of the most stable clans in the neighborhood. One of Michael Carbajal's older brothers now is serving a prison sentence on a burglary conviction. Other siblings, too, have had brushes with the law.
But until police busted Michael Carbajal on a firearms charge in 1994, he himself had avoided the crime blotter. That's an achievement, considering the environment in which he grew up. Instead, he focused with near-monastic devotion on boxing.
"I never had much time to get into bad things, even if I had wanted to," he says.
Without apparent fear of contradiction, Carbajal says he drank alcohol for the first time at his wedding in 1994. He was 27 at the time.
These days, he says, he'll sip a drink now and then when he's not in training--but never, he reiterates, when brother Danny is around. For the record, he adds, he's never dabbled in illegal drugs.
But in 1994 and '95, Carbajal's once-pristine reputation took a whipping like none he'd ever taken between the ropes.
His darkest hours actually started in August 1993, when his father died of a heart attack. Manny Carbajal was a quiet, positive presence, a gentleman who oozed pride over his son.
That New Year's Eve, trouble literally found its way to Carbajal's front yard. He looked on as one of his friends shot another to death, apparently over an insult. The victim and the alleged murderer were members of the Ninth Street Gang; news accounts for the first time linked the fighter directly to known gangbangers.
In the shooting's aftermath, police reports revealed disquieting discrepancies in witness statements, including the basic question of whether Carbajal had been an eyewitness. He had, though--apparently heeding the advice of his attorney--declined to talk to detectives about it for days. Those who did talk at first lied about his whereabouts.
Later in 1994, county prosecutors accused Carbajal of illegally discharging a firearm after he squeezed off several rounds from a pistol into the air as the vehicle in which he was riding sped from a house party in Tempe. Some witnesses said Carbajal flashed gang signals as he left the party, which he denies to this day.
He pleaded guilty to the felony in early 1995, and barely escaped a jail term. (The charge was redesignated a misdemeanor last December after Carbajal successfully completed probation.)
"Carbajal image takes beating," read a February 1995 headline in the Arizona Republic after Carbajal pleaded guilty in the Tempe case. "Plea further dims his tarnished luster."
Media accounts and a few prominent local Latinos condemned Carbajal during that miserable stretch as a role model gone bad, and a supporter, if not a member, of his infamous neighborhood gang. Carbajal denied the allegations, but his reputation undeniably had been hammered, perhaps permanently.
Without doubt, he had made mistakes, mistakes magnified because of who he is and what he represents.
But his detractors failed to note that Michael Carbajal had lived most of his life on the right side of the law in a neighborhood where it's easy to be bad. Also forgotten were his good deeds--his unpublicized visits to schools, city parks and clubs for kids, his appearances at charity events, and his mere presence as an unlikely success story.
"There were people deserting him right and left," says Carbajal's fight doctor, Robin MacDougall. "I think he was surprised I stayed. I never talked about his problems with him, but I watched how he kept working hard, even during his worst times. All I knew was a lot of it happened in his neighborhood--it's where a champion was made, but where some other things happened, too."
Carbajal's longtime attorney, Ben Miranda--a boyhood friend of Danny's--describes those darkest hours:
"There's an old Mexican story about a guy who fills up a bucket with some crabs. The guy's friend asks him if he isn't afraid that some of them aren't going to crawl out of the bucket. 'Don't worry, man,' the first guy says. 'They're Mexican crabs. The other ones won't let anyone out.' There's a lot of envy out there of his success and money.
"Weigh up Michael's mistakes and the good things he's done. It's not even close. He's a decent person who's made a few mistakes, and they haven't been the worst mistakes."
But Carbajal's image had unraveled, and his boxing career by the onset of 1995 wasn't faring much better. By then, he had switched superpromoters from Bob Arum to Don King after a controversial split-decision loss in the rematch against Chiquita Gonzalez.