"Always like this?"
"Dunno," I say. "He only died once."
I downshift from sixth, fishtailing at 60 into the turn off First Avenue onto the Willis Avenue Bridge. A black Ford SUV blaring salsa almost clips me as it screams past in the bus lane. Teenager, white Kangol pulled tight, leans out the back window and pumps his fists to the bomba beat. Screams, "It's Macho time."
She says, "I mean the…whatchacallit?"
"Cortege." I count at least 100 vehicles.
"Yeah. Funeral cortege." Jennifer is her name. Young, cute. Photographer for one of the tabloids. Asked for a lift from the church in Spanish Harlem to the graveyard in the Bronx, Héctor "Macho" Camacho's final resting place. The record of his life gilded in fable and sentiment. "What time is it?" he'd ask. "Macho time!" his Greek chorus would answer. Sure is now.
Jennifer lifts her Leica, dented lens, points at a rust-orange BMW doing 70 as it noses between me and the Ford. Puerto Rican flags fly from all four windows. Uniformed NYPD cops hold cross traffic at the light where the Bruckner Expressway runs up to the Throgs Neck. Shake their heads and laugh at the madness.
She snaps half a dozen shots of the Beemer, says, "No cortege like I've ever been in."
Last night she'd staked out St. Cecilia's for the public viewing. Bitter November wind whipping off the East River as Macho's body rolled down 106th Street in a glass carriage pulled by two white stallions. Showman to the end. Coffin draped in the Puerto Rican flag, his three championship belts polished for the occasion. Four, five deep on the sidewalks, the roses of Spanish Harlem all weeping.
Jennifer, all the cameras, hoping for a scene like the one a few days earlier at the wake in Puerto Rico. Open casket, the mortician having spackled over the bullet hole in Macho's head. One of Macho's girlfriends on the receiving line bent and kissed the waxy corpse on the lips. That set off another girlfriend, and they got into a brawl right there in the chapel. In New York they knew enough to keep all the girlfriends separated.
Back on the Hutch a dozen or so Harleys blow past me, the Hygrades and Nuyorican Original motorcycle clubs. Puerto Rican colors flying. I am edging 75 miles per hour. "This is like a drag race," Jennifer says. "The Indy 500 or something."
That is the description I use later, when I meet Héctor Camacho Jr. His father's funeral cortege like the Indy 500.
Héctor Jr. grins. Not wistful. Wry. Machito, they call him. Boxer like his old man. Says, "Exactly how Pops woulda wanted it."
Héctor Camacho Jr. was training for a fight in Kansas City last November when his wife took the call. His father was on life support in a San Juan hospital. Coma. Brain dead. Abuelita Maria ready to pull the respirator plug. "My wife didn't say nothing at first," Machito says. "But I could tell the moment I saw the look on her face. Didn't even ask how. Went out for a walk. Prayed and cried all night. Next day I asked what happened. She said, ‘He got shot.'?"
Single bullet. Entered the left side of 50-year-old Héctor Sr.'s jaw, sliced his carotid artery, destroyed two vertebrae in his neck, lodged in his right shoulder. Shot while sitting in the passenger seat of a late-model Mustang outside a bar in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Seven at night. The driver, Adrián Moreno, capped three times, died on the scene. Moreno's pockets stuffed with nine glassine envelopes filled with cocaine.
"Damn streets," Machito says. "I told him to stay the hell off the streets. I'd say, ‘You're old now. You have granddaughters. Change your life around, Pops.' He'd just smile and say, ‘Everything's good. I'm the Macho Man.'"
Bayamón is scary, dangerous at night. Particularly along the infamous 167 Avenue, the town's main artery that runs just west of San Juan. Bakery near the bar in question; Pentecostal church and paint-ball arcade flanking the very spot, in front of a lawyer's office, where Macho was shot. Seems an innocuous enough neighborhood in daylight. "But once the sun goes down it's like two different countries," says a former New York City narcotics detective who worked in Bayamón on the DEA's joint drug task force. "That strip of road, that whole area, turns. People buying heroin and coke. We were cops, for Christ's sake, and they used to warn us never to stop at a red light after dark in Bayamón or else we'd get carjacked."
Left: A young Camacho with long-time promoter Don King.
Macho's oldest son, one of four boys, nods his head. All of them sensed it. Their father's high life a movie set waiting to be struck. Subtraction by addiction. "The cocaine was his downfall," Machito says. "He loved that fuckin' drug."
I catch up with Héctor Jr. on a brisk, sunny February morning in upper Manhattan, the edge of El Barrio. Making a promotional appearance at a milk and soda warehouse. A handsome and bearded light-middleweight, Machito flew to New York from his home in Panama to fight on an undercard in Brooklyn. But one of the headliners busted a rib in training and the entire slate was postponed. His lawyer set up the promotional gig to salvage a few bucks out of the trip. "With what happened to his father, he's got about a year left to capitalize on his name," the lawyer tells me. "Less if he loses his next fight. He's no kid."
Machito is thoughtful, funny, honest. A convert to Islam, he holds no illusions about the fight game, about his old man, about his own shadowed space between the two. At 34 years old, with a 54–5–1 record that includes 29 knockouts, he recognizes he is on the downside of a prosaic career. Still, not many fighters can say they fought on the same card as their dad three times—both winning all three. The sparring together, the tips in the ring, the life lessons on the street, perhaps they make up for the fact that Macho wasn't much of a father.
"I don't think he knew any better," Machito says. "He didn't have his own father around."
The pattern repeated starting with Machito's birth. His father, then 16 and coming off the first of his three amateur Golden Gloves boxing titles, missed the occasion. He was doing his first stint in New York City's infamous Rikers Island detention center for car theft. A few months after his release he was back inside, convicted of being an accessory to a carjacking.
"The kid was trouble," says retired NYPD detective Juan Checo, who worked Spanish Harlem during Macho's teenage years. "He would have been just another of the hundreds of skels we put away who nobody would have ever heard of if he hadn't become such a great boxer."
Macho had arrived in America at the age of three after his mother, María Matías, separated from her husband and moved her four children at the time from Bayamón into a New York City housing project. She doted on Macho, then her youngest, and he grew up spoiled and wild, running with gangs, street fighting. His idol was Bruce Lee, and when one of his high school teachers noticed his flair for karate, he convinced Macho to channel that athleticism into boxing.
"I may not have agreed with the way he lived his life outside the ring," says Machito of his father. "But he was still a special man. And you want to know something? He never lied to me, no matter what the circumstance. He was always honest. His heart was great. He enjoyed life, and the people loved him. He was just an overgrown kid. He had toys. All his karate things. His nunchakus. His fighting sticks. Played with them all the time. At home he would change clothes four or five times a day. Put on a Superman outfit, then walk out dressed like a ninja. Then the Spider-Man costume."
Despite his success in the ring, committing felonies was another habit Macho never outgrew. His rap sheet is long and varied, drugs and alcohol inevitably involved. A warrant was issued for his arrest as recently as last year in Florida for allegedly assaulting his youngest son. Perhaps the most bizarre incident occurred in 2004 when Macho was convicted of clambering through a skylight to burglarize a Gulfport, Mississippi computer store. He pissed on the rug and made off with a pile of laptops. Police found ecstasy pills when they caught up with him in a hotel in Biloxi. Seven-year sentence was commuted. Served less than three weeks. A notorious tax scofflaw over his lifetime, Camacho owed several states and the federal government more than half a million in back taxes, with New Jersey still going after him for $300,000 at the time of his murder. Didn't seem to bother him. Not much did.
"One time he had to take a drug test," says Machito. "He was on probation, and he had been getting high for a couple of days. We were driving, and I said, ‘What are you, fucking crazy? You got a drug test today. You're gonna get caught.'
"So he pulls over into a project. Sees this little kid, calls him over. ‘You behaving in school? You being good with your mother and father? You want some money?' Kid nods his head yeah. He says, ‘I'll give you a hundred dollars if you pee in this cup right now.' The kid peed in the cup and he gave him a hundred dollars and we left."
I mention to Machito that I've been trading phone calls with Shelly Salemassi, Macho's fiancée. I'd met her at the funeral. Pretty blonde from Detroit, her cheeks stained by the tears smudging her mascara. Shelly met Macho 15 years ago. He was training at Emanuel Steward's Kronk Gym in Detroit. She didn't even know he was a boxer, much less a celebrity. It wasn't love at first sight, she says. But he grew on her. She finally fell, stayed fallen. Hard not to. Trim, hard body topped by that gorgeous face. "He still took my breath away after 15 years," she says.
Shelly tells me a story; I tell Machito. About his dad and Shelly's jealous ex-husband. Early in their relationship, the ex rings her house. Shelly is out; Macho answers. "Who the hell is this?" demands the ex.
"Who's this?" Macho replies.
"What if I were to come over and ask you that question in person?"
"My brother, then it's Macho time!"
Shelly echoes Machito—Macho's not a bad guy, just forgot to grow up. Oh, she's got stories. Time she bailed him out of jail after he'd pushed his orange Jag all night from Florida to Michigan. Time she dragged him out of a saloon by his famous spit curl after she'd kicked in a bathroom door and found him with another woman. Says she knew about all of them. Dozens, scores.
"He called me his white Puerto Rican. He wanted me to marry him and move to Puerto Rico. But I couldn't yet. My kids came first. That's why I accepted the other women. People never got that. They said, ‘You know, he's cheating on you.' I said, ‘I know, but he loves me.' He was with a lot of women, but there was no intercourse except with me. Oral sex, yeah. And he had toys that he liked to use. I would not let him use them on me."
It was for Shelly that Macho tattooed a unicorn on his prick. "We had a deal. I got a tattoo with his name. He was in New York and he called me and said, ‘Okay, Mama, I got a tattoo.' I said, ‘Oh, sweet. My name?'
"He told me, ‘No, I got a unicorn.' I asked him, ‘How the hell did you stay hard long enough for them to do it?' I guess the tattoo guy's wife.… I don't know what she did or how she did it."
Then there was the cocaine. Shelly didn't like it and didn't like Macho doing it. But she couldn't help herself. By then she was hooked. On his beautiful body. On his blithe persona. On his generous spirit. "He'd give a stranger, some hobo, his last hundred dollars if the guy asked for it."
But most of all, Shelly was hooked on Macho's tenderness. During one of our conversations her voice seemed to float as she described sneaking away with "Mach" for one of their long weekends. Booking a quiet hotel room. Spending the days and nights ordering room service and slow dancing naked.
The tale makes Machito smile again. Melancholy this time. Lost in his own recollections. Then, "Shelly loved my dad. And I think he loved her. He just couldn't stop himself from foolin' around. Was his nature. Shelly would tell me, ‘I hate that motherfucker. But his heart is good and I love him.' That was my dad. Yin and yang."
Right: Three times Camacho fought on the same card as his son Héctor Jr.
As Machito grew up, the father and son seemed to reverse roles. "Not too long ago I see him and I say, ‘Pops, let me ask you a question. How many days you been up?'
"He says, ‘Three days, goin' on four.'
"I said, ‘Pops, you're 50 years old. How much more time you think you can do these kinds of tricks? How much more you think you'll be able to take before you die?'
"He told me, ‘Let me tell you something, motherfucker. I've done 10 days. I'm fucking strong. What you talkin' about?'
"He still didn't get me, didn't get what I was trying to say. That he wasn't a kid no more."
Silence for a while. Both of us lost in Macho memories. I break the mood. Describe for Machito some of his father's early fights. Fights I saw, fights Machito was too young to remember. The old Felt Forum. The Sands in Atlantic City. The fast and savvy southpaw circling and jabbing, a louche and graceful predator owning the ring with his cobra quickness. Banging through Johnny Sato, Melvin Paul, Greg Coverson, good fighters all. Then, 1983, the 21-year-old Macho blasting Bazooka Limón in San Juan to win the World Boxing Council super-featherweight title. Machito and I laugh; Bazooka did have a bazooka. Macho moving up in weight to take the lightweight belt. Even beat legendary trainer Freddie Roach. All leading to the first grand showcase three years later. Macho, unbeaten in 28 fights, barely outlasting Edwin Rosario on Madison Square Garden's big stage to retain his title.
Machito shakes his head. "He got hit good in that fight. First time. Changed him, changed his style. He never thought in the ring before. Just throwin' punches. Now he'd say, ‘Nobody knocking me out.'?"
The Rosario fight. A war. Larry Merchant calling it for HBO, Mike Marley covering it for the New York Post. (Me in the second row.) Four rounds of Rosario stalking, measuring, a human drill bit. He opened the fifth with a straight right and a crushing left hook that buckled Macho's knees. Did it again in the 11th.
Macho gobsmacked. "Fought me like he's mad at me," he told Sports Illustrated. That never happened before. Macho danced and ran, took a close split decision. Crowd booed, turning on the skittish Nuyorican in favor of the slugging "true" Puerto Rican. A right and a left turned Macho into a dancer for the rest of his career.
"He went from somebody with dreams of being great to the reality of trying to make the most money he could," says Merchant, retired now, on the line from his home in Santa Monica. "He found out in that fight that he didn't like getting hit. Given how Camacho had soared up to that point, just his being in a close fight, his being challenged, his being hit, in that sense it was a defeat. He had never gone into the ring where he couldn't just dazzle with his dominance. So when you run up against a fighter like Rosario who just hits you like that, sometimes it seems like you lost, even if you didn't lose."
Left: Camacho the showman: Later in his career, on his walk to the ring he'd wear costumes including a superhero outfit, a diaper and a Native American headdress.
Marley you don't telephone; Marley you meet for drinks. Jimmy's Corner, Times Square. Maybe the last boxing bar in New York City, not counting the taquerias north of 110th Street. Fight posters and publicity shots, ragged-edged newspaper stories framed in smoky glass, sepia-tinged boxers staring back at you from every inch of paint-peeled wall.
Marley, fast talking, smart. Now a successful Manhattan defense attorney. Goes back with Macho. To the amateurs. Remembers the trainers Billy Giles and Bobby Lee Velez, "old-school," he calls them. They molded the kid who had been in and out of Rikers. Guided him from the Golden Gloves to a professional career. Made him a name, a hero, a champion. Then the bitter break. Giles claiming Macho was "drowning in drugs."