Turning Pro: Hector Camacho Comes into His Own

Hector Camacho looks to throw a counterpunch in his fight against Edwin Rosario at Madison Square Garden on June 13, 1986. Camacho retained his WBC world lightweight title by a controversial split decision. The Ring/ Getty Images

Now trained by Robert Lee and Billy Giles, who lived at 140th street off Lennox Avenue, the best antidote to Hector Camacho’s restlessness was to keep him busy. They relied on Harold Weston, matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, to get competitive fights, and, in the process, earned the approval of the Garden’s Director of Boxing, Gil Clancy. Showing signs of brilliance in each performance, Hector needed only a handful of fights before boxing insiders started mentioning the possibility of a world title. 

Taking full credit for Hector’s ascent, Giles easily transitioned to lead trainer when Lee left the team over a money dispute. If Hector experienced an emotional upheaval from Lee’s absence, it was not apparent. 

By that time, Giles had already opened doors in the boxing hotbed of Detroit to get Hector better sparring partners. The Macho team, which consisted of Giles, Hector, co-trainer Jerry Villarreal Sr., Tony Kidd, and Detroit-based cutman Don Thibodeaux, was quickly recognizable at the famous Kronk Gym. Giles, especially, reveled in the pageantry of it all. Initially, Lee helped set the stage for Hector to be successful; however, Giles set the pulse, borrowing the famous “Macho Time” chants from the 1980s music group The Time, and their 1982 hit, “What time is it?” 

“They call me Macho because I thought I was crazy,” Hector told a reporter before winning his first title. “But the real crazies are either dead or doing life. The real Macho men are in their own world, getting high; then busting out once in a while when their feelings build up.”

The Macho Team let Hector loose and he didn’t disappoint. Dominating world champions, Hector earned a reputation as a feared, and sometimes uncontrollable gym fighter. Tough Kronk fighter, Bret Summers, got a firsthand look at Hector after being goaded into a sparring session when Hector brazenly called out, “I want you, white boy.” 

“He broke my nose with a headbutt,” said a nostalgic Summers. “He was rough. I remember I had to put him in a wrestling move [to stop him].”

When it came to shaping Hector’s ring identity, Giles adopted a no-holds-barred mentality. For instance, in 1984, Hector sparred with another southpaw stylist and recent Olympic gold medalist, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker (eighteen at the time), at Kronk. Giles wanted Hector to go full tilt in the session. 

As the session became heated, Jerry Villarreal Sr. recalled that Kronk owner, Emanuel Steward, threatened to go back to his office to retrieve his gun, to which Giles replied, “If you’re going back to get it, you better be ready to use it.” Steward later discounted the gun rumor, but the harsh encounter created friction between Whitaker, the rising star, and Camacho, the established one.

Difficult moments aside, Hector developed a level of comfort with Giles, who spoke his “street” vernacular. As the team prepared for a title shot, Giles lined Hector up against undefeated opponents such as Louie Loy, Johnny Sato, Melvin Paul, and Greg Coverson. Willing to fight anyone, Hector knocked out two of the four challengers; Paul and Coverson lasted the distance. When Hector entered the ring, dancing, shaking, and throwing his signature flurry were all part of the show, but also mechanisms for the nervous youngster to calm himself down. 

He would need composure as he neared a title shot at 130-pounds. 

Giles, a critic of promoter Don King, wanted to get Hector a title shot without King’s influence. But soon King had control of nearly every possible Camacho opponent, specifically Bazooka Limon. Eventually, Giles had no choice and capitulated. Legal issues between King, the WBC, and their super-featherweight champion, Bobby Chacon, stalled negotiations for a Camacho–Limon showdown, but Hector’s lawyer/promoter, Jeff Levine was able to secure a title shot with Limon on August 7, 1983, for the “interim” title. 

“[Hector] was incredibly charming, boisterous, and lively,” said Laura Levine, Jeff’s daughter, who was a child at the time. “Even when I was little, he used to play around and teach me how to throw punches.”

In seven one-sided rounds, Hector blitzed Limon, who never posed a threat. Those unfamiliar with Hector saw his sheepish grin emerge as he gave CBS broadcaster, Tim Ryan, a “Float like a butterfly” post-fight offering. It was easy to fall in love with the new champ. The lightning flurries, the Puerto Rican-themed driving cap, and the leopard-skin boxing shorts created an appealing boxer. Experts wondered if this was truly the second-coming of Sugar Ray Leonard or another example of a fast and fleeting star. 

There have been a lot of terrific young fighters who have fizzled out in one way or another,” said Larry Merchant. “Now, they may have not been quite like Hector. He was an original. He came up feeding off Ali and making his own thing off of that.”

With Giles in control and everyone else fulfilling a role, the Macho team seemed to be making all the right decisions. Hector brought his WBC super-featherweight belt back to the street corners of Spanish Harlem and received a hero’s welcome. Not everyone believed Hector would succeed, but, with girlfriend Kisha Colon and Hector Jr. by his side, the Macho Time he had always dreamt of had become reality. Two months after winning the title, Hector knocked out Puerto Rican challenger, Rafael Solis in Puerto Rico, and then he stopped Panama’s Rafael Williams in his second title-defense sixth months later. Then, what appeared to be a perfect confluence of success and joy came to a halt.

Caught mishandling Hector’s finances, Giles was asked to leave after the victory over Williams. Hector, too loyal for his own good, was devastated, but refused to press charges. Unlike his experience with Robert Lee’s removal from the team, Hector didn’t have the emotional capacity to cope with the heartache. Having invested everything in his friendship with Giles, Hector couldn’t believe that his friend could deceive him like that. To make matters worse, Giles landed one final shot when he went to USA Today and labeled Hector an “addict.” 

Hector fought back through the press, but the wounds were still fresh. The eight-month layoff after the Giles split forced Hector to see himself through a critical lens—one he didn’t like. Jittery and alone, Hector tried to soothe himself by taking luxurious trips by himself, but his problems followed wherever he went. A part of Hector needed the affection and love that made him feel whole, and although Kisha, his girlfriend, tried to help him, Hector couldn’t get past one thing: It was the people who professed to deeply care for him who had cheated him.

“I think the main thing that started it all was my separation from my manager [Billy Giles],” Camacho said. “He made a comment to USA Today about drugs and everybody just started repeating it. I guess he figured that since he lost me, he would try to destroy me.”

Still hurt, but improving mentally, Hector, with the help of new trainer, Jimmy Montoya, finally surfaced again on January 19, 1985 against Louie Burke in Atlantic City. The resilient and straightforward Burke, an ideal opponent for a comebacking Hector, managed to last five rounds before the fight was stopped. After shaking off early rust, Hector proved that the seven-month layoff wasn’t as debilitating as expected. All his pent-up emotions came out during the post-fight press conference with CBS broadcaster, Tim Ryan, when Hector innocently affirmed that the only thing he needed were “friends.” Handling him gently, Ryan considered the gravity of the moment and allowed Hector to express himself. For the first time, Hector looked vulnerable and lost. But the sensitive version of Hector would not suffice; the vibrant, garrulous version would have to turn up again. 

All indications were that no one moved in to help the fragile fighter. To be fair, few people in Hector’s life were in a position to step in and address the underlying problems. So he kept them inside, which is what most “Macho” fighters did. As Sugar Ray Leonard explained, “Hector gave us the sense that he had it all under control.”

Montoya gained Hector’s trust and guided him to a win over Roque “Rocky” Montoya, and then led Hector to a dazzling performance over highly regarded Mexican, Jose Luis Ramirez on August 10, 1985 for the WBC lightweight world title. Disarming Ramirez with angles and perfectly-timed combinations, Hector repositioned himself as the man who would replace Ray Leonard. 

“I knew what I had,” Montoya beamed. “The best fighter in the world.” 

Despite being loyal to close friends, Hector decided to move on from Montoya. Nothing of note precipitated the split, but Hector clearly did not want Montoya to train him for the biggest fight in his career. He had signed to fight the dangerous Puerto Rican lightweight, Edwin “Chapo” Rosario on June 13, 1986. It was supposed to be Macho’s superfight, his defining moment. Feeling that Montoya was expendable, Hector hired lesser-known trainer and former Rosario sparring partner, Felix Pagan Pintor. Along with Pintor, Hector added a new member to the Macho team by bringing in Marty Cohen, vice president of the WBC, to organize his finances. With the eighty-eight-year-old Cohen acting as financial and spiritual adviser for Hector, the duo quickly developed a strong bond. 

“You better not kick the bucket,” Camacho joked. “I’ll put a machine on you to keep negotiating for me.” He added, “[Marty] is my guardian angel.”

Psychologically, what happened leading up to the Rosario fight resembled a well-orchestrated smear campaign by Hector, topped off with a lingerie gift “sent” by a respected Puerto Rican mayor. The ridicule enraged Rosario, and his resentment would spill into the ring. No other fighter provoked Rosario as much as Hector did. Because Hector overwhelmed Rosario with his taunts and ability to speak English, Rosario was limited to only minor retorts throughout the pre-fight hype, such as “See, he has no class. He talk bull.” 

The fight was billed “Friday the 13th: The Resurrection” and televised on HBO. Hector was 28-0 with 14 knockouts and was making the first defense of his WBC lightweight world title; whereas Rosario, who trained in Albany, New York, and earned $150,000 for the fight, had twenty-three victories in twenty-four fights with nineteen knockouts. “The Resurrection” captured the current state of the Macho Man who could not avoid his own death that winter after the media reported that Hector had been shot four times. Hector refuted the rumors: “Hey, I ain’t dead! I can’t die now. I have a couple of big fights coming up.” Another chapter of the Camacho story opened and closed on the same day; after making light of it, Hector went back to the gym to train.

On June 13, Hector Jr. led his father into the ring at the Garden and took center stage by throwing a flurry for the crowd. When it came to witnessing the “Macho” mystique, Junior had a ringside seat so close that he could see the individual sequins on the outfits that led hyperbolic sportscasters to call his father everything from “Liberace” to the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Truth was, Hector was as exhilarating as he was irritating, perfecting the “heel” archetype other boxers couldn’t master. A focused Rosario, however, presented matchup issues that would give any 135-pounder reason for concern. 

For twelve rounds, Camacho and Rosario gave fans a pulsating battle of wills, but most walked away talking about two rounds in particular: the fifth and eleventh. In those two rounds, Rosario delivered punches that hurt Hector. Moving straight back with little head movement, Hector proved to be tailor-made for the pressing Rosario. Every time Hector looked to flit in, land a combination, and escape trouble, Rosario was there to punish him. Few questioned Hector’s toughness because he’d showcased his durable chin on several occasions, including this night; many, however, were underwhelmed by his overall performance. Before the fight, one of the narratives involved the questions of who the real Puerto Rican was. By round twelve, however, the story shifted to whether Hector would survive the onslaught. 

What bothered his loyal fans was that Hector fought almost perfectly against Ramirez but had to go into survival-mode against Rosario to eke out a split-decision win. This infuriated those who expected to see Macho at his best. Some tried to spin the performance and emphasize Hector’s toughness, but even he admitted it was my “worst night” and wanted to distance himself from the myriad mistakes he’d made. His sister, Racquel traveled with her brother for a celebratory Disney vacation after the fight. 

“Everyone knew that fight changed him,” she said. “There was just something different about him.”

Returning to the ring quickly against Cornelius Boza-Edwards with another new trainer, Chuck Talhami, Hector didn’t win points with his fans as a mundane performance left him in a boxing bind: Would he continue to build off earlier impressive victories or fall into a new dull, defensive-minded style? Some wondered if Rosario knocked the passion out of him. Fans wanted to know. Only Hector had the answer. 

Two years after the decision win over Rosario, Hector was busy picking himself up off the canvas against Reyes Cruz in June 1988. He managed a unanimous victory, but his dancing exhibition before the fight was the only performance worth mentioning. It was the start of a new Macho lounge act where the real action came before the first bell. In addition, ring layoffs exacted a brutal price on Hector. 

His love of fun, though, didn’t waver. 

“We were in Atlantic City shopping,” said Jerry Villarreal Sr. “We leave one store, and Hector got these designer glasses and he gave them to my mom as a ‘gift.’ Of course he had stolen them and she quickly gave them back to him. He looked over at me, smiled and said, ‘Just keeping in practice Jerry.’”

Trying to find a balance between his street life and the rural Clewiston, Florida, was not easy. But he always dressed the part. Fashionwise, Hector loved taking risks. Some didn’t get Hector’s fashion; others saw it as an essential part of his identity. 

“When Hector Jr. had his birthday for his daughter, Shaniya, Camacho came and I asked him, ‘Is that your wife’s coat?’—because it had shoulder pads and a belt—and he looked at it and said, ‘Is it?” I just started laughing because he was that type of person,” said Hector Jr.’s aunt Maritza. “He didn’t care. He was making a fashion statement. He was very flamboyant.”

By the time Hector headed into the 1990s, he had avoided a rematch with Rosario; had split with Marty Cohen; had gotten arrested for possession of cocaine; had barely notched a victory over Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and had transitioned from a fascinating fighter to an enigmatic one. Beneath the flair, Hector still had an uplifting presence. When friends were in trouble, Hector stayed by their side. 

“Davey Moore was broke at the time, and we were in the back of the car after a late night,” said longtime friend, Tim Cinnante. “[Davey’s] boxing career was pretty much done at that point and Mach was telling him not to give up. Macho was never, ever negative. Everything was positive. And he would never tell anyone about any charities, and he was very generous to those in need.”

Along with his friendship with Moore, Hector also established a friendship with Puerto Rican musical icon, Hector Lavoe. And Lavoe, who died in 1993 from AIDS, leaned on Hector. To revive Lavoe, who was emotionally distraught, Hector and Cinnante drove to Queens to pick him up. 

“Hector picked me up at the club and told me we had to get Lavoe and ‘Midasize’ him,” said Cinnante. “At the time, there was a commercial for Midas Muffler, where it said, ‘Come to Midas and Midasize your car back to its original condition.’ When Lavoe was down and out and sick from AIDS, Hector would take him on long rides and engage in deep conversations to pick up his spirits.” 

At the same time, Cinnante understood there were many contradictory sides to his close friend: “You know it wasn’t easy to defend Macho.”