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Boxing, a brutal sport that can measure one’s spirit to survive, has no shortage of triumph stories. Many troubled young men walk into a gym, inhale the smell of blood and sweat in the air, and are instantly hooked. They begin to harness their aggression, transferring adolescent energy into a discipline that persists outside of the ring as well. Not all great boxers come from troubled pasts, but many do, and it is not uncommon to hear them utter one simple yet undeniably accurate phrase: “Boxing saved my life.”
Unfortunately, the savage sport cannot heal all wounds, and some walk into a boxing gym a troubled young man and leave the ring a troubled adult. Such was the case with Hector “Macho” Camacho, the Puerto Rican boxer whose recent death not only brings attention to his illustrious fighting career, but serves as a microcosm of his life outside the ring, mired by violence and drug use.
Inside the squared circle, Camacho was a very good, arguably great fighter, with solid hand speed and a flamboyant fan friendly style. He won titles in three major weight classes (Super featherweight, lightweight, and junior welterweight) but came up short in the biggest fights of his career, losing to Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez, fellow Puerto Rican icon Felix Trinidad, and transcendent Mexican American Oscar De la Hoya. Despite ending Sugar Ray Leonard’s career via TKO in 1997 and scoring a pair of victories over Roberto Duran, Camacho lacked a signature win against a great opponent because these aforementioned victories came when Leonard and Duran were well past their primes.
It was outside the restrictions provided by a timer, bell, and ring where Camacho truly struggled. Born in Puerto Rico but raised in Manhattan, New York, Macho found himself in jail by fifteen. He achieved success in the ring at a young age, and managed to stay out of serious trouble for most of his amateur and pro career. However, in 2005, Camacho was arrested in Mississippi for attempted burglary while carrying ecstasy and being under the influence. He initially avoided jail time, but ended up serving two weeks after violating probation.
Perhaps Camacho’s most egregious act came recently, when in November of 2011, he was charged with slamming his teenage son to the ground and stomping on him in March of that year.
Even Camacho’s death, while tragic, displayed that at the very least, Camacho kept suspect company. His childhood friend, Adrian Mojica Moreno, who was sitting driver side of the parked car in which he and Camacho were killed, was in the possession of cocaine at the time of the attack.
Despite Camacho’s flaws, history tells us he will probably be remembered for his conquests inside the confines of the ring, symbolic of the box we put great athletes in and the lens in which we view them.
While Camacho will probably be remembered only by the small but loyal fraternity of true fight fans and not casual sports fans, fellow boxers who achieved worldwide fame showcase a tendency for most fans to allow greatness in sports to solely define legacy. Sugar Ray Robinson, recognized by many as the best fighter of all time, was a wife-and-child-beater, but no one talks about that. And Mike Tyson? He’s now the beloved simpleton who plays himself in The Hangover franchise, not the vicious animal who made a meal of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
As fans, it is easy to witness gifted athletes perform and confuse the emotion they bring out of us with admiration for them as individuals. They can’t quite get away with murder (O.J. Simpson proved that), but for the most part we see their wrongdoings, shake our heads, then issue them into the part of our brain designated for unneeded knowledge before continuing to lend our undying support. We want our heroes perfect so we turn the other cheek when they are far from it; as if we believe greatness is so rare it must translate to all aspects of life.
I would like to think boxing fans will remember Hector “Macho” Camacho fondly for his success in the ring, but also be reticent to put him on a pedestal as a man. Let’s not forget that how athletes perform doesn’t reveal every kind of character, despite our urge to believe so.