Carbajal of Fame

When you talk about Phoenix to people from other states, they mention the heat, the mistreatment of prisoners in Joe Arpaio's gulag, and, maybe, the Suns.

But it's rare to hear anyone mention that Phoenix has produced one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing.

Michael Carbajal's impact on the sport has been profound. What makes him unique is not his fighting prowess--other fighters have been as great, though not many. Some have been better--Julio Cesar Chavez, for instance. But Carbajal hit the sport's hierarchical structure as hard as he hit his unfortunate opponents.

The ability for a boxer to generate revenue has always depended on weight, not talent. The heavyweight crown is the richest prize in sport. As weight decreases, so does income. Middleweights and welterweights can still pocket millions, and even lightweights don't do badly. Below lightweight, however, it's hard to be taken seriously by those outside the pugilistic cognoscenti. And the littlest men of all--the 108-pounders--found it hard to be taken seriously by anyone. Junior flyweight bouts were regarded as having little more than novelty interest. Watching such a bout, Jim Murray, a legendary British manager and trainer, laughed and said, "These boys are so small, you could give them baseball bats and they still couldn't knock each other over."

And the purses they received reflected their lack of standing.
Until Michael Carbajal emerged from a Phoenix barrio.
He was always an unlikely superstar. He didn't have the flamboyance of a Sugar Ray Leonard. His boxing skills didn't dazzle. He wasn't a pretty boy. Like his idol, Panama's Roberto Duran (arguably the greatest lightweight of all time), he was a no-nonsense fighter's fighter whose appeal wasn't limited to the fight community.

The reason for this isn't a mystery: Carbajal always came to fight. He carried himself not with the bravado and cockiness of a showboat like Leonard, but with a genuine fearlessness. There is a saying in boxing, "Everybody's a great fighter when he's coming forward"--and Carbajal understood this, consciously or not. He raised pressure fighting to a sublime level, refusing to back off or let an opponent advance.

He wasn't a face-first brawler, though. Although far from a master of defense, he fought with a cool belligerence, stalking opponents and picking his punches. And when he hit his opponents, they usually stayed hit. With either hand, Carbajal could end a fight with just one punch. His punching power was so much more than a man his size could be realistically expected to carry that it was almost spooky to watch him bludgeon his opponents. He knocked out 30 of his 49 foes.

And he did more than win an Olympic silver medal in 1988, and go on to win IBF and WBC world titles. He brought his weight division a status--in terms of both money and respect--that it hadn't known before.

Carbajal has earned nearly $7 million in his career. He was the first 108-pounder to be paid a million-dollar purse for a fight. He was the lightest man ever to be named Fighter of the Year by The Ring, the magazine known as "the Bible of boxing." His cruel war of attrition with Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez was named Fight of the Year in 1993.

But that was 1993. It's all over now, and it won't be coming back.
Fighters have short careers. You're well past your best by 30, though many have so much ability that, even past their peaks, they can carry on successfully. But that's in the heavier weight divisions. The lighter you are, the shorter your fistic shelf life. And so the junior flyweights have the shortest careers of all.

Carbajal is now 29. Any junior flyweight would be over the hill by then. But Carbajal has more mileage on the clock than most fighters. The style that made him so exciting to watch is a style that is better for your bank balance than for your frontal lobes. And Carbajal is now a parody of the fighter he was.

It was sad to watch him pounded into ninth-round defeat by Jake Matlala, a South African mediocrity who probably couldn't have lasted as Carbajal's sparring partner a few years ago. And it made sense to hear Carbajal announce his decision to retire.

Which presents him with the question every champion has to face at his career's final bell: What now? What will replace the vocation he's given the last 10 years of his life to? Where else will he hear the same applause, the thousands of people chanting his name? It's going to be harder than it should be for such a great champion. Because, unlike Ali or Leonard, he doesn't have celebrity status within the cultural mainstream.

In the gymnasiums of Phoenix's barrios, Carbajal isn't venerated. His success hasn't been much of an inspiration to the little kids starting out. Oscar de la Hoya is their man, the fighter who smiles down from the posters on their bedroom walls. Carbajal was never the kind of fighter you see on bedroom walls--his posters tend to adorn the walls of gymnasiums and barbershops, the territory of the hard-core fan.

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