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?

Across the hotel lobby, promoter Bob Arum is holding impromptu court with a bevy of boxing writers, fight managers and hangers-on. He is a Harvard graduate whose business acumen may be surpassed only by his gift of gab.

"I truly don't know how much is left in Michael's tank," Arum opines, "though we're about to see. I know he works out religiously and he doesn't have any quit in him. But no matter how you slice it, he's in a really shaky place in his career at the moment."

Years earlier, Arum had envisioned a big-money fight between Carbajal and Olson, rivals as amateurs who fought each other at the 1988 Olympic Games. Both fighters turned pro soon after the Olympics.

Olson's nickname "Bulldog" stuck because he looks like one. (He also has a bulldog named Otis.) He's wee--about five foot one--and is built like a miniature tank.

Like Carbajal, Olson is renowned for his pugnacity. But his career never approached the trajectory of Carbajal's. By the time Carbajal earned his first million-dollar purse against Chiquita Gonzalez in 1994, Olson had been relegated to paydays of a few thousand bucks per fight on nowhere cards.

But Carbajal's unexpected loss to Pastrana forced Top Rank to scrap, at least temporarily, its plans for the big fight against Ricardo Lopez. The promoters tendered an offer to Olson, whose career had floundered.

Carbajal exudes a quiet confidence as he strolls to an Italian joint a few blocks from the hotel for his prefight meal.

"I'm ready to kick some butt," he says. "I'm really looking forward to this, just like I should be."

He'd better be ready. Already, it's been a weekend filled with surprises in the world of sports. The night before, the University of Arizona basketball team beat heavily favored Kansas in the NCAA tournament. And champion Roy Jones Jr.--a unanimous choice of the experts as boxing's current best--was disqualified for mindlessly hitting Montell Griffith well after flooring the light-heavyweight challenger in Atlantic City.

"No more surprises," Carbajal says between bites of pasta and steamed vegetables. "At least not anything to do with me."

Hours pass. A near-sellout crowd files into the Corpus Christi Coliseum, a cozy old hall that seats about 6,500.

In his dressing room, Michael Carbajal begins his prefight ritual--the taping of his hands, the stretching, the shadowboxing, the instructions from Danny, the mental pictures. The sounds of African chanting from Azumah Nelson's dressing room seep through the thin walls, but Carbajal seems to hear only his own drummer.

Finally, prerecorded mariachi music echoes through the arena. It's time.
There's nothing in sports quite like a topflight boxer's entrance into a ring. Carbajal still packs enough juice to make his entry riveting.

At five-five and 108 pounds--the same size, incidentally, as he was 10 years ago--he doesn't appear capable of knocking anything down, or out. But that scrawny body hasn't fooled anyone for a long time. His nickname "Little Hands of Stone"--a takeoff on Roberto Duran's moniker--remains apt. Carbajal throws a heavy punch, which has proved to be both blessing and curse.

Most of his opponents, even the aggressive ones, fear Carbajal's strength. They are loath to stand and trade blows with him, which can make for a long night for everyone concerned.

The best example of this was the defensive posture assumed by Chiquita Gonzalez in his second and third fights against Carbajal. The strategy worked, but those contests paled next to the classic 1993 slugfest staged by the pair in Las Vegas.

Carbajal's exceptional power has made him an anomaly in the lower weight classes, a little man who loads up like a heavyweight and seeks to destroy with one punch. That approach has worked more often than not. But when it hasn't--the Pastrana fight is the most recent glaring example--Carbajal has found himself in tedious but dangerous chess matches.

The first rounds of the scheduled 12-rounder with Olson fit into the latter category. The Bulldog is a difficult opponent, who crouches low and fights in awkward, odd-angled bursts.

Each round is a copy of the previous one, with Carbajal trying for a one-punch knockout, and Olson trying to amass points by connecting with mostly benign body shots.

Carbajal seems slightly ahead on points by midfight, but the crowd is unimpressed.

Things get interesting late in Round 7, after Olson accidentally butts Carbajal over his left eye (that and another butt cut on top of Carbajal's head will require stitches). The blood stains the front of his white trunks, but barely impairs his vision. Between rounds, Danny Carbajal implores his brother to stop headhunting and concentrate on Olson's body.

One minute into Round 10, Michael Carbajal finally complies with his instructions. He shoots a precise left hook into the ribs of the tiring Olson. The Bulldog crumples to the canvas and can't get up. The fight is over.

Carbajal hasn't dominated, but a win is a win. With the victory comes the obscure International Boxing Association (IBA) junior flyweight belt, but that's secondary. The victory guarantees another large payday for Carbajal, scheduled this July in Vegas against World Boxing Organization champ Baby Jake Matlala; the fight will be televised on HBO.

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