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?

Michael doesn't deny, nor should it have stunned anyone, that he has good friends who are or have been members of the Ninth Street Gang. For one thing, he grew up on East Fillmore Street and North Ninth Street, not on Lincoln Drive.

"I've been knowing guys who run the streets since I came up," he explains. "It never was no big deal. Whatever people do is their business. They never told me what to do and I never told them. A guy from around here told me that he gets now what I'm about--waking up early, staying clean, working out. He's been in and out of prison a lot. He told me, 'I wish I had some of what you got in me, that discipline.' I never had to go along with what nobody else was doing. The right way for me was the way I went."

Carbajal interrupts himself.
"Can you imagine," he asks, "what kind of shit I would have had to go through around here if I was a member of this famous gang and kept on denying it to people? Guys would have been pissed off big time and I wouldn't have blamed them. If I was a banger, I could have said, 'Sure, I'm in a gang. What about it?' But I wasn't, and I didn't lie about it."

Phoenix police sources--and no friends of the Carbajals, by the way--say they have no evidence that Michael Carbajal was or is a member of any gang. Unquestionably, however, the fatal January 1, 1994, clash in Carbajal's front yard involving two members of the Ninth Street Gang did as much to harm his reputation as anything else that's happened.

His friend, Marc Smith, died on his lawn. Smith fell victim to gunshot wounds allegedly inflicted by fellow Ninth Street member Michael "Yuk" Celaya. Celaya later was acquitted at his murder trial, at which eyewitness Carbajal never was called to testify.

"After the murder, I wanted to leave here so bad," Carbajal says, closing his eyes at the bad memories. "It could have happened anywhere, but it probably wouldn't have. It was so stupid. Some guys got all drunk and started arguing about which part of the Ninth Street [gang] was more together, the older or the younger guys. Stupid, sad shit. . . . Smitty died right in front of me. We jumped on [Celaya] and held him down, beat him up. It was wrong what he did. Ever since, I've had to tell some people not to be hangin' out at my place anymore. I've just had to."

Later, Michael and Danny Carbajal stroll out back to their old gym, now a dusty relic with a hole in its roof and spider webs in its corners.

A sign, "Michael Carbajal, Olympics '88," still hangs from one wall. A montage of Roberto Duran photos that Michael Carbajal tacked up as a teen remains on another wall.

A tattered baseball cap hangs on a nail near the entrance to the historic room. Above the cap, someone long ago scribbled the name "Conejito" on an unpainted plywood sheet.

That was the nickname--it means "Little Rabbit"--for Ray Hernandez, one of the Carbajal gym's professional fighters in years past.

Conejito was a native of Mexico with a wife and family who moved to Phoenix in the early 1990s to try to fulfill his own dream. It was strikingly similar to Michael Carbajal's.

Like Carbajal, he had a champion's passion to work hard and make something special of himself. But Conejito's skills turned out to be those of a journeyman, not a champion.

Still, Conejito won several fights as a pro, earning as much as $12,500 for one bout--a relative king's ransom. He could take a punch to a fault, which meant he endured tremendous punishment when he fought and inevitably lost to better flyweights.

Sally and Danny Carbajal let Conejito live with them for a time, then set up the Mexican and his family in a Tempe mobile home. But a few years ago, Danny Carbajal told Conejito, whom he liked and respected, that he'd taken him as far as he could as a fighter. Conejito and his family returned to Mexico.

Late last November, Sally Carbajal took a call from Conejito's wife, who delivered dreadful news. Unknown to the Carbajals, the boxer had resumed his career on a minor card in San Marcos, Texas.

A younger fighter had knocked out Conejito in the seventh round, after what local papers described as an evenly fought, punishing battle. Minutes after the bout ended, Conejito collapsed in the ring and never regained consciousness. Ray "Conejito" Hernandez was dead at 28.

"I don't know why he kept going," Danny Carbajal says. "I told him that enough was enough. But it gets in your blood. He couldn't have been paid much for that fight. It's sad. But all serious fighters--however good they are--almost never want to quit. He really loved it."

That raises the question, will Michael Carbajal, whose legacy in boxing already is secure, know when enough is enough?

"I can live with retiring, because everyone does at some point," he says. "But I don't think it's over for me quite yet. I'd like to end up on top.

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