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?

One night in March 1987, Mary and Manny Carbajal and several members of their family gathered around a kitchen table at their home in downtown Phoenix.

It would be more than a year before their 19-year-old son Michael would become world famous, and his inspirational story had yet to be told. No television crews or print journalists had made their pilgrimages to East Fillmore Street, to the tiny backyard shed that served as a primitive boxing gym.

Michael listened as his dad spoke about how he had scavenged for empty soda bottles in a Tucson barrio as a youth. He listened as his oldest brother, Danny, reminisced about a boxing "smoker" on the Gila River Indian Community. Carbajal said little, but took it all in as he helped himself to a bowl of his mother's potent menudo.

After a while, Michael, the second youngest of nine children, showed a reporter his room in the rear of the crowded but comfortable old home. Sitting on his bed in near-darkness, Michael pondered a question about his goals in boxing and in life. It was his first interview, and he didn't have a ready reply.

Instead, he stared for several seconds at a photo of his hero, Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran.

"I want to be a world champion," Michael finally replied in a near whisper, "and I want to have a big family of kids who love me. That's it."

It's March 1997. Exactly a decade has passed since a shy Michael Carbajal revealed his dreams to a stranger.

That decade has been a blur. "Ten years, huh? Amazing," says Danny Carbajal, the boxer's brother, trainer and manager. "For us, it's been like one continuous day."

Now, as the continuous day approaches twilight, Michael Carbajal takes pride that, against long odds, he has achieved both of his goals.

He's been a world champion, and has won fame and a degree of fortune--about $7 million in boxing earnings. At 29, he's the father of five who adores his children and his wife, Merci.

When his day was just dawning, Carbajal explains, he was motivated to succeed for his parents and siblings.

"Now, I've got my own family to think about," he says. "Some people think I'm a bad guy now 'cause of the trouble I got into. But they don't know me. I'm still the same guy from 10 years ago. I mostly mind my own business. The difference is, everybody has their eye on me all the time."

Michael Carbajal has been center stage--inside the ring and out--ever since his spellbinding 1988 run for an Olympic gold medal.

Carbajal has fought before untold thousands in Cuba, South Korea, in a Mexico City bullring, at the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, at Los Angeles' famed Great Western Forum, and at America West Arena--scarcely more than a mile from his home. Millions more around the world have seen him perform on television.

Who can forget his first monumental struggle against Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez, a fight Carbajal rallied to win by knockout after Gonzalez had him on the ropes? Veteran boxing writers recently rated that fight No. 17 on their list of the 100 greatest pro bouts ever.

And who wouldn't be struck by the improbability of a 108-pound homeboy serving as the grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl parade?

Carbajal was among the most popular athletes at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and his star dimmed little after a much-disputed loss in the gold-medal bout to a Bulgarian named Hristov. Humble in victory and gracious in defeat, Carbajal seemed the antithesis of his posturing peers.

Within a few years, Carbajal became arguably the most storied and accomplished home-grown sports figure in Phoenix history. He earned numerous commercial endorsements and made scores of personal appearances.

Carbajal was the first of the 1988 Olympians to win a professional world title, a 1990 knockout of reigning Thai champion Muangchai Kittikasem at a frenzied Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Since then, he has won and lost world championships, and fought for purses ranging from $500 to $1 million (twice).A million-dollar payday was unprecedented for a boxer of his diminutive stature.

In 1993, Carbajal earned honors as professional boxing's best fighter from Ring Magazine. He remains the only lower-weight boxer ever to win the prestigious award.

That year, the Carbajals retired their rickety hut of a gym and opened a beautiful facility across the street. The reinvented church is called "Carbajal's Ninth Street Gym," and is home to pros, amateurs and neighborhood neophytes who work out under the tutelage of Danny Carbajal and Tony Esquer.

As a boxer, Carbajal will be remembered as a warrior with a huge heart. He has battled with stoic intensity and controlled fury since he first stepped into a ring as a 12-year-old. He's never given less than his best, even when that wasn't good enough--his upset loss in January to unheralded Colombian Mauricio Pastrana comes to mind.

He has fought 47 times as a pro, and has lost only three times, twice by split decision and once by majority decision.

Sports fans and writers love to pigeonhole celebrity athletes. For years, stories about Carbajal depicted him exclusively as an angel with fists of granite. And it charmed many, at least in those early days, that Carbajal remained in the same poor neighborhood and same house in which he was raised.

"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.

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.

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.

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."

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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