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.
"He's a great fighter, but not a role model," says a young Latino boxer from South Phoenix who recently turned pro. "He's not an inspiration. He don't live right."
In our collective mythology, there are two Michael Carbajals. They're both based on the same man, and whichever one you believe in depends on where you're standing--your levels of cynicism or romanticism. There's the heroic, dedicated family man who made millions in the ring but still lives in his neighborhood, refusing to turn his back on the people he grew up with.
Or there's the pathetic little gangbanger who, having made his millions, still doesn't have the strength of character to leave his old turf, isn't man enough to break with the gang and go his own way. There are Phoenix police officers who'll tell you that Carbajal is definitely in the Ninth Street Gang. There are boxing scenesters who'll tell you the same thing. Carbajal has always denied it, and there are people who'll tell you that such claims are bullshit, that Carbajal is simply the victim of racist rumormongering by people who can't stand to see a kid from the barrio succeed on his own terms.
Which version is the more plausible? Neither, and both. His behavior outside the ring is undoubtedly thuggish. But Carbajal is a fighting man--how else would you expect him to react when hassled by a drunk, off-duty cop? He's been seen throwing gang signs. So have white, middle-class kids who're not in gangs, but just clowning around. So maybe he's just a wild, high-spirited young guy who's got some growing up to do, held back by the demands of his peculiar career. Maybe he's not even connected to a gang.
Or maybe he is. Maybe both sides are right, and Carbajal is devoted to his wife and kids, and his gang. It doesn't really matter either way, or affect the challenge he has to face now--the rest of his life.
The danger is that, knowing nothing else, Carbajal will keep coming back. The fighter he worships, Duran, couldn't live without the adulation. Now approaching 50, Duran is still at it, beating or being beaten by no-hopers who feel privileged to have his name on their records. There are already danger signs that Carbajal could go down the same road. As he announced his retirement, his promoters were talking about one more fight to "honor" him--a fight here in Phoenix, against an easy opponent.
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This proposal is outrageous on every level. Carbajal may have slipped, but punching power is always the last thing to go. Put him in with a ham-and-egger and you're liable to have a fatality on your hands. And it would be pitiful for a fighter of such majesty to reduce himself to beating up on some bum just to look good in front of his fans for one last time.
And there's another possibility in such a scenario. Carbajal is so far gone that it's not impossible that a stiff might beat him. And if people really want to see that--we had a glimpse of it in his last fight--then they have no understanding of a champion, and no real understanding of what boxing means.
Carbajal should walk away now, with his health and his dignity intact. We should hope that he is genuinely a champion rather than just a great fighter, and that he can face up to his toughest challenge: how to live without it. Whichever of the two Michael Carbajals we believe in, we should wish him well.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org