Too often in sports, we hear about an athlete who rose to the most incredible heights of their profession only to experience a tragic fall from grace once they were past their prime.
In many ways, the Showtime documentary “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story,” which premiered Friday, is a great example of that story arc. But Camacho’s demise began while he was still in his prime, as was shown in a story brilliantly told by filmmaker Eric Drath.
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In the middle of 1984, “Sugar” Ray Leonard was in the midst of one of his many retirements and Mike Tyson hadn’t yet burst into people’s consciousness. Seemingly out of nowhere, there came a flamboyant 130-pound Puerto Rican from the Spanish Harlem section of New York with a bubbly personality, stylish ring attire and exceptional boxing ability. He soon became “The Man” in boxing.
“‘Macho’ Camacho’s charisma, boxing prowess, and flamboyant style made him a Puerto Rican sports icon and, for a time, the biggest star in boxing,” said Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s president of sports and event programming. “When he stepped into the ring, everyone knew it was ‘Macho Time.'”
But Camacho’s time ended too soon.
Camacho was shot while sitting in a parked car and looking at his cell phone on Nov. 20, 2012, in Bayamon, P.R. The three-division world champion was declared dead four days later at the age of 50. Puerto Rico police later said that several bags of cocaine were found in the vehicle. The murder remains unsolved.
“Macho” lived life in the fast lane; ultimately, he died as he lived.
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Camacho began his professional boxing career in 1980 after going 96-4 in the amateur ranks and winning the Golden Gloves championship in New York at 118 pounds. He viewed boxing as a way to keep himself out of trouble and out of jail. The boxing ability was identifiable right away. He possessed uncanny speed and a lightning-quick jab that rivaled the best of all time.
By 1983, it was only a matter of time before Camacho would become a world champion. But that’s when things started to unravel.
Broadcaster Tim Ryan recalled a phone conversation he had with Camacho the day before Camacho’s Feb.12, 1983, bout in Alaska against John Montes on CBS. According to Ryan, Camacho was “completely out of his mind drug-wise” and threatened to jump out of his hotel room window. The next day, Camacho stepped into the ring as if nothing occurred and blasted Montes in a first-round knockout.
Camacho (79-6-3, 38 KOs) won his first world title later that year, stopping Rafael Limon in the fifth round to capture the WBC super featherweight crown. When his bout with Edwin Rosario came around in June 1986, Camacho was one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport with his speed and willingness to stand and bang in the pocket. No one could deal with what he brought whenever he stepped through the ropes. Camacho won by split decision to defend his WBC lightweight title for the first time and run his record to 29-0 with 15 knockouts.
As Drath correctly stated in the documentary, the Rosario victory made Camacho the biggest name in boxing, but it also arguably represented the height of his powers. Rosario wobbled Camacho with a left hook and landed numerous power punches. Not wanting to go through that again, Camacho adopted a safety-first approach and used his speed, which upset a lot of fans.
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At the time, Camacho was everywhere. He was featured in every major publication and had even met then-President Ronald Reagan.
“He was definitely a lucky guy in the sense that he was born with all the talent in the world,” Drath said. “He was a natural showman and was blessed with that gene for showmanship that so few fighters ever have. You had Muhammad Ali, of course. Sugar Ray Leonard to an extent. Tyson had that ability that people just marveled at.
“Camacho had this authenticity. He was different, and he just didn’t care. Who he was inside of the ring was who he was outside of the ring. That charm and charisma helped him in the beginning as people perhaps enabled him a little more than they might have another person who committed the crimes he did. But his talent saved his butt, too. He had that wonderful combination of talent and charisma and showmanship [which] made him just a remarkable fighter and a remarkable story.”
Camacho appeared to have it all. He had a wife, a son, a great family and money to last him for many lifetimes. But one thing plagued him, and it ended up being his downfall: cocaine. He used it while in training, and the rare times he didn’t use it before an upcoming fight, like when he faced Vinny Pazienza in February 1990, he would go on binges that would last for days.
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Long after his prime, Camacho’s team was approached for a fight with Roy Jones Jr. in which their fighter would make a reported $7 million. Camacho was really out of shape and needed to shave off weight. Camacho started training, but it didn’t last long. Camacho sadly told his childhood friend and bodyguard Rudy Gonzalez that he couldn’t do it anymore and would rather do drugs.
“I can’t do this fight,” Gonzalez recalls from what Camacho told him. “I appreciate what you guys are doing, but I just want to get high. I don’t want to do this.
“I’m a champion, but I’m a junkie first.”
Hector “Macho” Camacho was taken way too soon from the world. He was well ahead of his time as a fighter. This documentary tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings and makes them wish that Camacho would have been able to control his demons, because who knows what could have been?