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?

Though bloodied, Carbajal is ecstatic in his dressing room. He takes questions from the media as Dr. MacDougall examines the head wounds.

Carbajal's wife is similarly thrilled with his win.
"I love my husband!" Merci Carbajal yells to no one in particular. "He's the greatest! I love him!"

Back at the hotel, Danny Carbajal and his wife, Sally, unwind at the bar. Scotty Olson wanders into the room for a beer. The Bulldog's face is bruised and swollen, and he says his ribs ache. But he seems serene.

He notices the Carbajals. "I want to tell you people something," Olson says to them. "You guys have always been nice to me. Michael is a great sportsman."

"We've always liked you, too," Danny Carbajal replies. "The fighting part is just business, you know that."

Olson puts his small hand over his heart and pats it.
"You people take care of yourselves and Michael, okay?" he says. "You people are champions."

It's a few days after the Olson fight, and Michael Carbajal is relaxing on his front porch. His cuts are healing, and Carbajal says he's feeling well, but he's taking a few weeks off from his training regimen.

That mostly means spending time with his five kids, who range in age from 1 to 13. The oldest child is Merci's by a previous relationship. The other four are his and Merci's.

Carbajal takes an active role in rearing his children, talking to them, playing with them, disciplining them, cuddling them.

It's instructive to examine the elaborate tattoo--a mask of gods, he calls it--that curls around his left bicep. It lists the names of his children. As if on cue, Carbajal's 8-year-old, Daniella, thrusts a just-completed pen drawing into his hand.

"It's you, Daddy," she says. "Look!"
The daddy in the drawing and the daddy on the porch are both smiling.
"That's good," he says. "You really know how to draw good."

Carbajal unburdens himself over the course of several hours. One local journalist once called him an "enigmatic loner," but his reserve should not be mistaken for diffidence.

Carbajal can be playful and quite vocal, and is a practical joker of the first rank. But a side of him also cherishes the solitude all boxers must embrace--the hours spent jogging, shadowboxing, just thinking about moves and combinations.

He isn't much different from the kid who sat on his bed 10 years ago and dreamed aloud. Michael Carbajal is not a blabbermouth, nor is he given to philosophical musings or braggadocio.

"A lot of people tell me how much my dad meant to them," he says. "He was always himself. There wasn't no phony in him. If he liked you, he'd do anything for you. If he didn't, you usually wouldn't know it--he'd just forget about you. That's me. He wasn't a fancy guy, but people who knew him loved him. He was himself. That's me, too. I want my kids to be like that.

"I'm into the same-old, same-old. I do the same training, same running, same everything. It was great to have all that support in Corpus; it used to be like that here. After I got into trouble, it died down a whole lot. That's just the way it is.

"I'm proud that I've done something that not many people have done: I've been a champion. A lot of people don't understand how someone gets to the top of what they do--Barkley, Ali, a writer or anybody. No one gets there without working hard, nobody. I don't put myself above everybody else, 'cause I'm not. But I've worked real hard."

Carbajal has earned more money than he'd ever envisioned. Frugal by nature, he says he's saved his money wisely. He gives credit to the advice of trusted advisers--especially brother Danny and sister-in-law Sally, who manages a local Bank of America branch.

"Mike has made his money and invested it wisely," says attorney Ben Miranda. "His pensions have been worked out, and he'll have an extremely good annual income after he retires. That's more than 95 percent of the people in his profession can say."

Carbajal's healthy earnings also created a dilemma: He could have moved his brood to a safer part of town, while announcing plans to keep in touch with his roots through his boxing gym.

For better or worse, Carbajal has stayed put in the same, tastefully refurbished home in which he was raised.

"Home means a lot to me," he says. "I'm comfortable around here."
But home--the neighborhood, that is--remains perilous.
"In a bizarre sort of way, Michael feels a sense of security there," says attorney Miranda. "It's like the closeness the Italians had back East. You may not be involved in illegal activities yourself, but you're not going to pay much attention to anything that doesn't directly concern you. In return, no one will mess with you--usually. To be frank, I don't think Michael was prepared for all that happened to him--the fame, the adulation. Actually, I don't think any of us had any idea he'd capture so many hearts. He's always wanted to assure people he'd be the same Michael as he always was. But his failure to understand that he was a celebrity put him in a spot."

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