Getting His Groove Back: Hector Camacho Enters the 1990s With Purpose

An animated Hector Camacho stands over Sugar Ray Leonard after knocking him down in the fifth and final round of their 1997 bout. Camacho beat the aging superstar by TKO. The Ring/Getty Images

The 1990s had to represent a period of ring transformation for Hector Camacho. After receiving considerable backlash for excessive clinching in his win over Ray Mancini, Hector appeared revived during a unanimous-decision victory over Vinny Pazienza in February 1990 (which got some people in the boxing community buzzing about him again). Then Hector notched a victory over former sparring partner, Tony Baltazar, and reunited briefly with former trainer, Jimmy Montoya in the process. Feeling the vibe again and sporting a beefier build, full-length tail and flashy, prime-time curl, Hector had distanced himself from some of his past demons. The pizazz was there, but it was clear that the boyish charm that had been so addicting had somewhat vanished. He never lost that smile, but there was something missing. On the outside, Hector looked fresh, no blemishes—the face of a star who was still undefeated. On the inside, the wounds began to ramify.

Then, in February 1991, Hector was deducted a point for losing his cool in the final round of his title fight with Greg Haugen. By chastising Hector, Haugen proved to be the one fighter deft at homing in on his weaknesses. By staying composed, Haugen also eked out a one-point split-decision victory and handed Hector, 38-1, his first loss. Cunning and malicious when he wanted to be, Haugen had never forgotten a 1983 sparring session he had with Hector in Anchorage, Alaska, where he showed Hector that he was more than just a durable, toughman champ.

The two fighters had sparred at the Sheraton Hotel in Anchorage before Hector’s bout with John Montes; Haugen, then an amateur, did not back down, and looked good in the process.

“Camacho came to Alaska to promote the Montes fight. We were supposed to spar four rounds on a Friday and eight rounds on Saturday. One-thousand people came out to watch on Friday. He started dropping bombs on me, so I started dropping bombs on him and I bloodied his nose with straight rights. He thought I was just some kind of hillbilly,” said Haugen. “But I came in and bloodied his nose. I had just won the Alaska lightweight title. They canceled sparring after that.”

Losing motivated Hector. Unfazed by the loss, he fought well and beat Haugen in the rematch by another split decision. Running out of the ring before the verdict was announced, Hector could never truly escape the ghost of Haugen.

Then came Chavez. The Macho Team, led by lawyer James Levien, signed to fight Chavez on September 12, 1992. Realistically, Haugen beat Hector at his own psychological game; Chavez, who had scorched Edwin Rosario, had the tools to physically dismantle Hector. More than a year had elapsed since the Haugen victory and Hector was no longer in shape or motivated. One day while training at Don King’s training camp in Ohio, Hector had to face reality.

“He wasn’t training or getting up to run,” recalled trainer Aaron Snowell. “He came up to me at King’s office, and I asked him, ‘When are you going to get your fat ass up to run? He looked at me and said, ‘If you’re such a bad motherfucker, why don’t you make me? We’ll see what happens.’”

Not to be outdone, Snowell went to Hector’s room at 4:30 a.m. the next morning and had to force his way in and kick Hector out of bed. It wasn’t the first time a trainer had to take such an approach.

“I threw him off the bed and he jumped up and put his clothes on,” said Snowell. “But I had a connection with him. That was the most important thing.”

Recognizing their fondness for partying, Hector and Chavez had become friends since their early days fighting on the same card at Madison Square Garden. Surprisingly, the underdog label didn’t sap Hector’s spirits. Two days before the fight, Hector was as playful as usual, mussing Don King’s hair, popping balloons, mischievously starting fake feuds. It was his way of releasing stress, causing Sports Illustrated journalist Richard Hoffer to dub him “the 1980s version of Dennis the Menace,” which perfectly embodied how Don King felt about Hector’s impulsiveness regarding their on-again, off-again relationship. Now married to Amy Camacho, who grew up in the same Spanish Harlem neighborhood, Hector said he had a new mindset and maturity, but only time would tell.

Any offensive game plan Hector concocted with Snowell evaporated quickly as Hector moved into a clinching and parrying session with Chavez, fully aware that even the slightest mistake could have meant serious injury or a knockout loss. The fight, which could have been made in the late 1980s, proved a sad study in contrasts: Chavez, definitive, and Hector, defensive. Chavez was on a mission; Hector was in retreat. But, to Hector’s credit, he never went down.

“I wanted him to box, move, go in and out, and counterpunch Chavez,” said Snowell. “But Hector already had things in his mind [for how to fight Chavez]. He just wasn’t going to fight that way. At one point I said, ‘Hector, you’re behind!’ And he just started fighting Chavez.”

In a fight that he had been anticipating for years, Chavez pounded out a unanimous decision; Hector went to party away the night with a hideously swollen eye.

Securing a date with rising Puerto Rican star, Felix “Tito” Trinidad less than two years after losing to Chavez, Hector tried to maintain a sliver of hope going into the bout. But the storyline had already been written—the great Hector was now a stepping-stone for younger fighters. He could shake his stuff before the bout, but only deflect punches once the fight began. Trinidad, a rising star, won a unanimous decision.

“When he was younger, Hector had phenomenal speed and could punch too,” said Snowell. “When all of that starts to leave, a fighter knows it. A fighter knows what to do, and how to do it. But just can’t do it anymore. He knew it.”

Despite saying all the right things, Hector knew he couldn’t sustain his recent “transformation,” as temptation, family conflict with Amy, and infidelity blurred the lines of a tumultuous marriage. Camacho began working alongside Peter Kahn intermittently over the next decade. Introduced to Camacho through promoter Mike Acri, Kahn witnessed the less focused, glassy-eyed Camacho signing autographs; the elusive Camacho during promotional events; the determined Camacho during sparring sessions, and the happy-go-lucky Camacho whom he often picked up at the strip club.

“He was just fun being around. You get what you see. There was no ulterior motive. He always seemed to be outwardly joking and witty and hard-working,” said Kahn. “Behind it there was a lot more darkness. But it didn’t rub off on you. He didn’t wear it on his sleeve. He disappeared when he needed to in order to . . . he fought his demons with a smile on his face.”

Sadly, he was right.

“I was an adult too,” said Kahn. “I saw the disruptive side of his personality. I saw how he was hurting himself. It was never overt. He was always hiding it, but you just knew.”

As Hector traveled down a path that included unavoidable pitfalls and devastating personal blunders, he began to spend more time with a new lover, Shelly Selamassi. Still married to Amy Camacho, Hector found moments of solace with Shelly, but a delusional invincibility cloaked him and his drug-laden lifestyle as the gravity of his illicit actions intensified.

“No one is going to arrest me, Shel. I’m the Macho Man,” he said after another perilous encounter.

It proved to be a far cry from the Macho Man that friends from Spanish Harlem remembered. Back then, Hector was vibrant, positive, and inspirational. More important, Hector understood that each move he made was vital in creating something special. No longer did Hector possess that same self-awareness as he continued a downward spiral.

“He was unique,” said Rey Sosa, a longtime friend. “I remember we were in Central Park and we were laying next to two girls. We were all sleeping. I remember I looked up at like 6 a.m., and Hector is up shadow-boxing, slipping punches; it was a sight to see. He just looked over at me and said, ‘It’s Macho Time!’”

Sticking around long enough in the late 1990s, Hector sent a forty-two-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard back into retirement with what many considered his last spirited performance (a fifth-round TKO); and six months later, at the age of thirty-five, Hector (a 7-2 underdog) survived a ninth-round knockdown against a prime Oscar De La Hoya to lose a unanimous decision, his final stint as a co-headliner.

Before the fight, Steward, who trained De La Hoya, got in one final parting shot.

“The saying in boxing is that once Rosario hit [Hector] with that right hand [in a Camacho twelve-round victory in 1986], he’s been running ever since,” said De La Hoya’s trainer, Emanuel Steward.

Not winning a round on all three scorecards, Hector branded De La Hoya the best fighter he had faced. Journalists looked to highlight Hector’s flaws.

“Most of [Camacho’s] blows were like junk mail addressed to ‘Occupant,’ except no one was home,” joked one journalist. “It was as one-sided as a shipwreck.”

Nevertheless, Hector, still the best boxer at selling a bout, earned $3 million for the bout.

With three children to provide for, Macho kept fighting on the back end of a hall-of-fame career, and, fortunately, had longtime friend and adviser, Ismael Leandry to provide some direction. But even Leandry was powerless to stop Hector from self-destructing.

“He was always in his corner, and Mach and Leandry had a good understanding. He never asked for anything from Macho,” said Hector’s sister, Racquel. “You know the friend who would do anything for you, who really really cares for you? That’s Leandry. He would do anything for Macho.”

Fluctuating between TV appearances on dance shows, money-grabbing fights against nobodies (with the exception of a 2001 bout with Roberto Duran), and prison stints, Hector’s life had become more erratic; unlike his graceful performances back in the early 1980s, there was no rhythm—or purpose—to the way he was living.

Some friends tried to help. Others helped keep his demons afloat. But Hector had so many opportunities to become the man he could be, the man people hoped he would become. He tried rehab, but it didn’t work.

Toward the end, Hector visited a rehab center for women, one which he would donate his purse from the show “Mira Qué Baila.” They began to serenade him and didn’t stop. Overwhelmed, Hector tried to stop crying, but he couldn’t. Deep down, maybe Hector knew they had reached an emotional catharsis that he had tried to achieve, but never could. He looked at them—belly more rounded, still handsome, now vulnerable—and just absorbed the moment. He gave them a hug and wiped his eyes.

By late November 2012, Hector was dead from a lethal mix of drugs and guns. He was fifty years old.