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?

The reason for the switch? Money, of course.
King convinced the Carbajals it would be worth their while--to the tune of $1 million--to fight the rubber match on Gonzalez's turf, a Mexico City bullring. The Carbajal camp took a calculated gamble on both fronts, King and Mexico City, and lost on each.

The fight was a stinker. Ever wary of Carbajal's devastating punches, Gonzalez embraced a defensive, conservative strategy.

It proved unpopular with the sellout crowd, including bored boxing icon Julio Cesar Chavez, who made a show of walking away from his ringside seat after the eighth round. But the Mexican did enough to win a majority decision (two judges scored for Gonzalez, and the third had it even) over a frustrated Carbajal.

Don King's interest in Carbajal waned after the final act in the once-electrifying rivalry. Carbajal fought six times in 1995 for a pittance of what he had previously commanded. He won each fight, which earned him an International Boxing Federation (IBF) March 1996 title bout in Vegas against Melchor Cob Castro.

It wasn't artistic or particularly exciting, but Carbajal regained his title by unanimous decision. Back under Bob Arum's wing, Carbajal made three successful title defenses before the end of last year.

By then, he had been rehabilitated enough as an attraction that Top Rank officials started to talk up a Carbajal match against Mexican champion Ricardo Lopez. The undefeated Lopez has taken Carbajal's spot as the highest-ranked "little" fighter in boxing's unofficial, pound-for-pound rankings.

On January 18, however, Carbajal lost to Mauricio Pastrana. Though undefeated, the Colombian boxer was so obscure that the Carbajals couldn't even find a videotape of him in the ring.

But Pastrana knew plenty about Team Carbajal: He'd never met Michael Carbajal, but Pastrana held him in such high esteem that he named one of his sons after him. He named a second son after Danny Carbajal.

The Colombian then went out and stole the IBF title from his hero on a card in Las Vegas.

The setback raised valid concerns about Carbajal's abilities, and forced him into another comeback mode. But he says he never considered quitting after the shocker to Pastrana.

"I'd never had one of those nights before where things just don't feel right," Carbajal laments. "But I figured everyone has had something like that happen to them in sports. It's when you have two or three of those nights in a row that you got to start wondering."

Carbajal flew to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a March 22 fight against Scotty "Bulldog" Olson on a pay-per-view card. Carbajal knew a loss to the Canadian fighter probably would end his long run as an A-list boxing presence.

Lower-weight fighters of Carbajal's "advanced" age--he'll be 30 in September--are considered senior citizens because of the punishment their small bodies must endure. Carbajal has dished out far more than he's taken, but he's also suffered his share of blows during 321 rounds as a professional.

The lure of a few more big paydays is great. (Carbajal was guaranteed $150,000 to fight Olson, a generous amount for a nontitle fight matching two little guys. Olson earned $60,000.) But Carbajal says he's motivated by more than money; he still yearns to excel in the ring.

He knows it's a cliche, but says, "I think I've got more fights left in me. I love to be in there gettin' after it with another guy who wants my head. It's where I love to be."

Michael Carbajal stands in the lobby of Corpus Christi's Omni Marina Hotel on the afternoon of his fight against Scotty Olson. He's wearing sunglasses, a Green Bay Packers tee shirt, baggy shorts and sandals.

Though Carbajal's star in Phoenix has waned, his popularity in such boxing meccas as Corpus Christi is strong.

Last December, he knocked out another fighter before an appreciative throng in the Texas town. He also endeared himself to locals on that trip when, without fanfare, he and his wife Merci visited the grave site and recording studio of Corpus Christi's most famed resident, martyred Tejano singer Selena.

Dozens of fight fans mill in the lobby of the hotel, which is a stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico. Several muster the courage to approach Carbajal for an autograph or a photo, which he grants with a nod, smile and a few words.

His Mohawk haircut of a few years ago is history. A gash on his naked scalp, caused by a head butt in a fight, ended that fashion phase. Carbajal has replaced it with a close-cropped look, offset by a thin braid at his nape that reaches down his back.

Carbajal never was a pretty boy in the mold of an Oscar de la Hoya, the luminous boxing champion from East Los Angeles. But even though Carbajal's been cut in several fights--usually by head butts--his sculpted face doesn't seem much worse for wear.

He and Scotty Olson get second billing on a mostly competitive card dubbed "Even Money" by promoters. The main event is a fine superfeatherweight-title matchup between respected veterans Genaro Hernandez and Azumah Nelson. Top Rank also has matched "Butterbean"--the popular, vaudevillian, 333-pound former barroom brawler--against a hand-picked opponent about 120 pounds lighter.

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