Fallen Angel

I remember chatting with Angel Carbajal in a strip club outside Corpus Christi, Texas, in the spring of 1997. The club's owner -- a fan of Angel's famous boxing brother, Michael -- had unlocked his sprawling establishment for an after-hours party, a celebration of Michael's 10th-round knockout of Scotty "The Bulldog" Olson.

Angel was the youngest Carbajal, the kid brother (by three years) who made the naturally understated Michael seem like a Roman orator. We first had met when Angel was about 14, a friendly, well-mannered kid who was thrilled by the fame and boxing prowess of his elder brother. I had bumped into Angel here and there over the years -- at the Mecca bar on Seventh Street, the Arizona Center, a football game. He always asked me how my stories were going, and I always asked him if he was staying out of trouble.

"Never get into any trouble," he'd say, laughing.

That night in Texas, we spoke about Michael and his future in the ring. Despite the win over Olson, Michael seemed sadly destined for "opponent" status -- a respected, over-the-hill boxer whose skills, if not his heart, were deserting him, round by round, fight by fight.

Angel swore that Michael would recapture the championship belt, which an unknown challenger from Colombia had snatched from him in a stunning upset months earlier. I kept my own thoughts to myself.

Though Michael certainly was on the downside of a remarkable career, he retained folk-hero status in the Latino-dominated south Texas city that spoke to his enduring image as a tiny warrior with a huge heart. I'd known Michael since he was 16. Then he was just another kid with an improbable dream of becoming a world champion. I spent a lot of time at the Carbajals' those days -- the late 1980s -- before and after New Times published the first story on Michael and the homemade gym in the backyard, his family, his aspirations. The clan welcomed me into their home on East Fillmore and always made me feel comfortable.

Michael's story was inspirational, though neither he nor his kin denied that their neighborhood could be a dangerous place. They spoke quietly and sadly about a Carbajal brother who was in prison, about a family friend who was battling drug addiction. To a person, they said they hoped Michael would keep his own nose clean.

Unfortunately, he didn't. Michael would have his own series of run-ins with the police and others, clashes that sullied his once-impeccable public persona.

But on that trip to Corpus Christi, I found Michael hadn't changed much from the shy kid who'd won over millions of fight fans -- and won millions of dollars -- in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

For Michael, it still was all about family. He confided that he couldn't help worrying about his own five young kids, his bevy of nieces and nephews, and, of course, his siblings.

I'd heard from police sources over the years that Angel was an active member of the Ninth Street Gang -- a "first-class punk," according to one cop. (The police never quite tagged Michael with official gangbanger status, other than to deem him an "associate" of known Ninth Street gang members. "Can you imagine," Michael once said to me, "what kind of shit I would have had to go through . . . 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.")

I hoped that Angel wasn't embracing thug life, and asked him at the strip joint what he was up to these days. He told me he was working full-time at the family's gym, a beautiful facility near the family compound. He said he and his oldest brother, Danny, were busy training pugilists and trying to get Michael back to the top of his game.

Sounds cool, I told him.

Last week's headline about Angel's murder outside a bar on East McDowell Road didn't startle me as much as it should have. Subsequent stories spoke of recent felony indictments against 29-year-old Angel on gang-related crimes, and other things that I hadn't known.

I paid my respects at a funeral home located a few minutes' drive from the Carbajals' home. I'd been there several years ago for another visitation, after family patriarch Manny Carbajal had died of a heart attack. I cried that day for Mr. Carbajal, a true gentleman and one of my favorite people. (A photo of Manny and me, taken minutes after his son's classic victory in Las Vegas over Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez, hangs on my office wall.)

I thought of Angel, and felt nothing but sadness for the loved ones he leaves behind, especially his mother, Mary, a wonderful woman. I tried to reconcile the pleasant young man I remembered with the "other" Angel -- another victim of yet another senseless murder on Phoenix's streets.

I left to the sounds of wailing mourners, and recalled again my conversation with Angel in Corpus Christi. I had asked him if he ever were jealous of Michael. He looked at me incredulously, and I sensed for an instant that he might lose his temper.

Instead, Angel smiled and said, "He's my brother, man," and left it at that.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: [email protected]

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin