Macho Time: The Beginning of a Spanish Harlem Legend

The following article by Christian Giudice is a companion piece to his book, Macho Time: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of Hector Camacho.


Back in the late 1970s, the Cosmo Theatre on 176 East 116th Street in East Harlem was showing a Bruce Lee marathon. Rey Sosa and Hector Camacho, both teenage acquaintances at the time, had decided to go on a double date. Hector, in typical fashion, wore his beloved black and gold Bruce Lee outfit with matching gloves.

“We were dating best friends. He came to the movies with his black and gold Bruce Lee outfit. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is a real character,’ recalled Sosa. “He really got in costume for it. He even had the cutoff gloves. These guys behind us were making noise, and making fun of him, but he didn’t say anything about it. Then they said something about his outfit. [Hector] turned around and gave them a look, a one-eyeball look, as if to say, ‘I got you.’ I guess he did it so he could see their faces.”

Staying composed, Hector didn’t allow the teens to disrupt his date, but he also didn’t let them out of his sight.

“We already watched three Bruce Lee movies and we’re ready to go, and Hector sees them outside. He walks over to them and says, ‘What’d you say motherfucker?’ There were three of them and they surrounded him. My girlfriend asks me if I am going to help him, and I turn my back for one second to answer her, and he lit two guys up and the third ran home. He hit them so fast that if you blinked, you missed it.”

Before that, he told me, “It’s Macho Time!”

Back then in the 1970s, Hector was just “Little Man,” short in stature, but possessing an indomitable will as a fearless brawler. At the time. Hector was establishing his identity in the streets as a part-time hustler and bully. With a background in martial arts and a passion for Bruce Lee, Hector understood how discipline played a role in his life early on. Mimicking Lee’s moves on the roof of apartment buildings, and cutting broomsticks to use as nunchucks, Hector never backed down from a fight, instigating many of them.

As many of his neighborhood friends attest, fighting was a necessity. Struggle was part of Hector’s life from the beginning when he and his older sister Racquel were whisked out of Puerto Rico by their mother, Maria Camacho, at a young age to avoid the violence of their abusive father, Hector Sr.

The Camachos escaped Puerto Rico and arrived in New York City in the mid-1960s. Often living in apartments without heat, Maria never allowed her children to feel the sting of poverty. As fearless as she had become, Maria could not shake Hector Sr., who hunted the family down.

“I couldn’t leave him,” said Maria. “We had no money.”

Not long after Hector’s younger brother, Felix (or “Boo Boo”) was born in June of 1966, Hector’s father left and was replaced by a new father figure, Ruben Oliveras, who immediately took an interest in the children’s lives. Often living in deplorable conditions, Maria and her new family overcame many struggles, including an electrical fire in an apartment on 112th Street, which led them to their final move to the James Weldon Johnson Projects.

Whether he was fighting or playing sports, Hector quickly became a fixture at Jefferson Plaza near the Queen of Angels Church.

“Hector loved skating,” said Tommy, a childhood friend who was part of the Jefferson Crusaders with Hector. “Every time we had parties in the neighborhood, Hector came in with his skates. He loved music, loved dancing.”

Well known in all neighborhood circles, Hector had an aura about him that either compelled you to embrace him or back off. There was no middle ground. Even if you somehow moved into Hector’s inner circle, there was no guarantee that you would stay there. Hector, the fighter, was fearless; Hector, the friend, was unpredictable.

“Hector loved minibikes,” said Rey Sosa. “It was some real James Dean stuff. He was a combination of James Dean and the ‘Fonz.’ He was always covered in grease. Minibikes and roller skates weren’t what the cool kids were riding back then, but Hector made them cool. I remember he got expelled from St. Cecilia’s and when we got out of school, he was waiting for us on his minibike, looking for girls.

“He was like the cool kid, often getting chased by the cops, who could never catch him because he cut through the projects.”

Maria signed Hector up for karate classes and later steered him into boxing. Fighting out of Negro’s Gym on 108th Street and Park Avenue in the Lehman Projects, Hector worked with a variety of local trainers until he began to train exclusively with respected trainer, Robert Lee (aka Bobby Lee Velez). From the age of ten, Lee grew up in those same Johnson Projects that Hector would make famous. Intent on making Hector a boxer who was adept at using angles, speed, and movement, Lee showed him parts of the sport that Hector never knew existed.

“I exposed him to every gym in the city,” Lee said proudly. “I would put him in to spar with professionals and then pull him out when I had seen enough. They didn’t like that. But he boxed the hell out of them.”

Lee struggled to maintain control of Hector, but not for lack of effort. Early on, Hector dabbled in drugs and slowly started to immerse himself in that lifestyle.

“I don’t know how he balanced both worlds. I couldn’t do it,” said friend, Luis “Chacho” Gaston. “When he got into the Golden Gloves and the professionals, he slowed down, and got it under control, but I don’t know if he ever stopped completely.”

Gaining attention as a growing prospect, Hector, an amateur, started to form an inner circle of trainers and mentors who all witnessed the same thing—a crackerjack jab supplemented by a mesmerizing personality who was ready to joke, fight, or steal at any moment. A fighter brimming with talent, energy, and spirit for the barrio hordes to idolize, Hector listened intently as Lee mapped out various strategies for his amateur opponents.

Lee patrolled the streets; whereas Hector’s English teacher from Manhattan High School, Patrick Flannery, introduced him to literature, exhorted him to learn to read by introducing him to Clifford Odets’ plays, and reminded him often that he was intelligent no matter how many people had written him off as nothing more than a product of the streets.

As a result, Hector grew to love him.

“Patrick showed Hector to always write, write, write and keep journals,” said Maria. “He taught him to always told him to write down everything he did so he wouldn’t forget—what you see, what you are doing. ‘Write!’ Patrick told him that.”

Despite Flannery’s efforts, Hector still couldn’t distance himself from the call of the streets, which always lured him back. People close to him tried to implore Hector to concentrate on boxing, but it wasn’t always an easy task. One day on the way to Negro’s Gym, Hector got sidetracked.

“I was a really good ballplayer and Hector came over to the courts to watch me play one day. Hector was cheering me on at the courts,” said Rey Sosa. “But it was getting late, and he jumped up and said, ‘Shit, I got to get to the gym.’ He tries to cut across the court while we’re playing and he bumps into this big black guy. The guy says to Hector, ‘Yo, what the fuck are you doing? Get off the court,’ or something like that.

“Hector looked at me as if to say, ‘C’mon talk to this guy.’ I asked the guy to apologize, but he was like, ‘Fuck that.’ Hector shrugged his shoulders, went over, sat down on the bench and slowly started to lace up his boxing shoes. The game stopped, and we’re all waiting to see what is about to happen. They are looking at him like he’s a clown. But Hector wanted to take his time. After he gets off the bench, he says, ‘Macho Time,’ and starts to pound this guy, hitting him so hard that he knocked him out and then woke him back up again. Rat-tat-tat . . . It sounded like a machine gun. He calmly went back to the bench, took off his boots, looked over and said, ‘Later Rey.’”

In March 1978, Camacho’s team doctored his birth certificate so the fifteen-year-old Camacho could officially compete in the New York City Golden Gloves. After earning a bye in the first round, Hector, fighting for La Sombra Boxing Club, stopped John Byrnes (PAL) from South Ozone Park at 1:24 of the first round to reach the semifinals. Then he beat highly-touted Tyrone Jackson from the United Block Association on March 2 to reach the finals. Last, to cap off the run, Hector outpointed Daryl Hall from Benjamin Franklin High School to earn the first of three New York Golden Gloves titles. What Hector couldn’t accomplish in school, he compensated for by excelling in the ring, where his actions inspired others in the neighborhood to do better. Sharing his love for the sport, Robert Lee’s motto that “In the gym, we felt we were whole,” was contagious. It rubbed off on the hot prospect.

“He just shined,” said former New York Daily News sportswriter, Tom Hanrahan. “He was just electric. The most charismatic kid I’d ever been around. Like a little Tasmanian Devil. You put him in a cage before a fight and then just let him out.”

From his vantage point, Hanrahan, like many others, grew an affinity for Hector that didn’t diminish over the years. What he saw in Hector transcended beyond the speed and seemingly endless potential. There was more to Hector than the smile, the combination punching, and the supreme confidence.

“I was deeply fond of him. I paid special attention to him,” Hanrahan recalled. “I tried to instill in him to conduct self with class. ‘Don’t be a street punk,’ I told him. There were millions of them.”

Meanwhile, Felix, Hector’s biggest fan, watched his older brother’s life unfold before him. At times, he basked in the glow of his brother’s stardom, clearly benefiting from the uncanny resemblance. He, too, would train with Robert Lee and begin his own boxing journey. As Hector blossomed, so did Felix.

“Hector was our shining star,” said childhood friend, Ed Bratts Jr. “You knew there was something special about him. Felix was a real nice guy, calmer than his brother.”

Friends from the neighborhood noted that Felix was a “younger version” of Hector and a skilled boxer who was always looking for a fight in the streets. Still, Felix was comfortable in his own skin, but there were perks.

“[Felix] used to tell people he was [Hector] Camacho,” said Maritza, Junior’s aunt. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I want to get in for free sometimes.’”

By March 1979, Hector, now a father to Hector Jr. who was born the previous September, beat Paul Devorce to win his second Golden Gloves title. But he wasn’t finished. With nearly his entire 317 class from Manhattan High supporting him a year later, Hector, eighteen, looked to close out his Golden Gloves time in style: “I want to win because I want to try for the national team, but it also means a lot to me to win for all my friends at school. They do a lot to encourage me,” Hector told a reporter. Hector already had a frame of reference for his opponent, Tyrone Jackson, whom he decisioned in the 1978 Golden Gloves semifinals at 112 pounds.

Hector and Lee strategized for one final bout against Jackson, knowing full that they were in store for a high-energy final. The journey was fraught with heartache when the Friday before the finals a Polish plane carrying twenty-two members (fourteen boxers and eight staff members) of the USA amateur boxing team died when traveling from New York to Warsaw to compete in dual events. Fortunately, Hector’s close friend, Alex Ramos, who was supposed to be on the flight—where all seventy-seven passengers died—stayed to compete in the beloved Gloves.

Despite some precautions, the Gloves went off as scheduled. Described as a fight that “saw more punches than a Yankees–Red Sox game,” Hector earned a decision over Jackson in front of 19, 503 rabid boxing fans to end a glorious Golden Gloves career with his third title. Once again, Hector would defend his title at the Intercity Championships in Chicago in April. Instead of defending his 119-pound title, Hector faced and beat sixteen-year-old Orlando Johnson at 125-pounds, which prompted him to say, “[The victory] makes me feel important. Like I am a step above the average guy. I mean, I’ve always felt that anyway, but this gives me a chance to go out and prove it.”

After an unceremonious early exit from the Olympic trials (the United States later boycotted the Olympics in 1980), Hector turned pro on September 12, 1980. His ardent neighborhood supporters knew intimately what Hector was capable of, and they began to line up at the Felt Forum to cheer on their local hero. The “Macho” chant resonated on every street corner in Spanish Harlem. Those close to him wondered how the mischievous but lovable Puerto Rican stylist would manage to circumvent the vices that jeopardized his amateur career. The outlaw reputation haunted him.

“People would always tell him to slow down [with the drugs],” said Luis “Chacho” Gaston. “And that they would fuck up his career, but he said, ‘I got it under control.’ Nobody could tell him nothing.”

Everywhere he turned, the discussion reverted back to Rikers or car thefts. But it was the lifestyle that Hector chose; at times he used his charm to spin the criminal narrative, and during other, more reflective moments he accepted his past and promised to behave. The threat of jail always lingered.

Some people refused to give up on Hector. To label him a directionless miscreant with no boundaries was short-sighted. Some believed him to be ruthless; others saw the affectionate side. The truth lay somewhere in between.

“He didn’t play anyone close,” said Rey Sosa. “But I saw his sensitive side. One time he was driving by and he saw me with my three-year-old daughter. He came over and asked me: ‘Is that your daughter?’ I told him yes and he came over, picked her up, and started to carry her. He asked if he could ride her around the block in his sportscar. She gravitated to him. I felt connected to him in a different way. He would get wild, but not around me.”