"New York is famous for its neighborhood fighters." Marley lifts a Beck's, takes a long swig. "Rocky Graziano from the Lower East Side. Mike Tyson coming from Brownsville. Mark Breland from Bed-Stuy. The old Jewish fighters, Benny Leonard, Bummy Davis. Camacho came up after that time. But he would have fit perfectly on Eastern Parkway or the Sunnyside Gardens or the old St. Nick's arena over on the west side. Quintessential New York fighter."
Like Machito, like Merchant, like just about everyone around the fight game, Marley talks about the two Machos. Pre-Rosario and post-Rosario. "He was a changed guy after that. Decided not to take the risks.
"Now when people remember Macho they think of the carnival," Marley says. "The gladiator outfits and the tiger-striped loincloths. The spit curl. The pretty-boy face and the naked weigh-ins. And it was true. Nobody enjoyed being the Macho Man more than Macho. Impossible not to like. But people forget. He was so well schooled in the fundamentals. He was unhittable."
Until Rosario hit him.
Couple nights later. Across the Hudson in Staten Island. Teddy Atlas's kitchen. Voice like a crow, singing a broken song. "You know I paid for the guy's burial?" I did not.
Atlas, maybe the best trainer left in the game. Runs a charity, the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation, in honor of his late father. Has helped, literally, thousands of underprivileged New York City kids. Lately hundreds of Staten Island families rocked by Hurricane Sandy. The night I meet him, he's just returned from putting up new roofs in one of the borough's most storm-shattered neighborhoods.
"Got a call the night before the funeral," he says. "Old friend, a fighter. I'm in a nice restaurant with my wife." Elaine Atlas nods. She is at the stove, ladling chili over rice and slicing a ball of mozzarella. Her look says, My Teddy, the soft touch.
"I never trained Macho, never worked with him," Atlas shrugs. "Everybody knows I have the charity foundation. Anyway, the guy tells me the Camacho family needs $3,000 or the cemetery won't bury him. I'm like, $3,000! This after I see on the television they got a glass carriage for a hearse and white horses pulling him through Spanish Harlem. How much did that cost? Why don't you skip that and pay the cemetery?
"Next morning, Saturday morning, day of the funeral, I have my assistant in the foundation call to make sure. Nope, won't put him in the ground without the money. I guaranteed 'em a check. You believe that bullshit?"
"Eat your dinner," Elaine says. Puts down a plate of chili and cheese. "What's done is done."
Like Macho, Atlas was a rough kid. High school dropout. Street fighter. The half-moon scar that arcs down the left side of his face comes from a knife wound that took 400 stitches to close. Did time in Rikers on an armed robbery beef. So he can relate. But Macho never grew up. Atlas did. Now, at 56, he possesses a deep and innate intelligence masked by the dese, dems and dose of his Bowery Boy delivery. When he pulls back the curtain, whether breaking down the mechanics of a George Foreman uppercut or a Twyla Tharp arabesque, a listener walks away from the conversation illuminated. Which is why I pay special attention when Atlas uses the terms genius and pioneer to describe Héctor Camacho's boxing prowess.
First there was Macho's ungodly ring speed and quickness, he says. "A guy with pure speed can intimidate. You're afraid of pure speed. Afraid of the timing. Afraid to do things you normally would do. Camacho's mobility, his confidence and obviously his technique—he could put punches together—were there. But it was all predicated on his great speed.
"Also, he had a great chin. He was on the floor, what, three times in 88 fights? And never knocked out. He never gets credit for his chin." Now Atlas is into the subject, a physicist lost in a reverie of string theory. That speed, he says, that chin—combine them with Macho's "signature move, his trip-hammer jab."
Quick as a mongoose Atlas leaps from the kitchen chair and throws one. His knuckles brush my right cheekbone. Most fighters, he says, "have the jab where they turn it over, the fist rotates counterclockwise. That's the conventional, traditional way. But if you look at Camacho, he would just drop the jab like this." Aims another at my face, this time no rotational torque. Downbeat of an ax. "It got there maybe a millisecond quicker. Whatever tenth of a second he bought by doing that allowed him to discombobulate the guy, to throw the guy's rhythm off. It was his own little mark of what separated him, his own little genius. I don't use that word lightly."
This "first Camacho," Atlas says, "fought on his terms." Rose to the top on "aggressiveness. He always thought he was the boss."
Then came Rosario. Atlas gives a sad shake of his head. "He gets caught with that left hook and he gets hurt good. He moves and he grabs, and the new Camacho showed up. We didn't know that at the time. But he never fought with that confidence anymore, with that bravado. He still had the speed, but he didn't have that aggressive mind-set. He didn't have that confidence. His world was thrown off its axis."
Macho stepped into the ring 59 more times after the Rosario bout. Fought into his late 40s, taking another legitimate title as his physique inevitably grew thick. No one ever knocked him out—an accomplishment about which he often boasted. Yet he was never the same. "Still talented," says Atlas. "But for the rest of that time he was just gonna survive."
A long night. Time to go. "I liked Macho," Atlas says. "There was a sensitivity to him. No maliciousness, no mean-spiritedness. He was a knucklehead. But considering everything, I think he wasn't a bad kid inside. Maybe a kid that was hiding things, insecurities that maybe he was never able to deal with. So the way he dealt with them was to talk and to be real fast with his hands and to be a champion. But that didn't mean those doubts were taken away. Doesn't mean that the money and the Corvettes and the machismo and the skirts that he wore and his outrageous behavior took away those inadequacies." This last hangs in the air as I rise from the kitchen table. Atlas stands too, hesitates, motions—wait. Walks to his living room, returns with a scrapbook. "Wasn't sure to mention this."
Flips to a page, a yellowed newspaper clipping. The sportswriter Dick Young's column in the New York Post. Small item reporting that the 30-year-old trainer Teddy Atlas and the lightweight boxing champion of the world Héctor Camacho threw down in Gleason's Gym. A week before the Rosario fight. "He got the gist of it right," Atlas says. "Not all the particulars."
Tells the story. Training one of his fighters, paid for the ring time. Macho and his entourage roll into the gym. Macho wants the ring. Gets in, won't leave. Atlas politely asks him to get out. Macho: "It's Macho time!" Atlas, not so politely now, tells him to go fuck himself. And then they went at it. Bare knuckles. "He's flicking that jab. Landing a few. Not hurting me. But I know I can't let this go on too long. I got maybe 20 pounds on him. I lunge for him, try to get him in a headlock. But he's so lathered up in baby oil he slips out of my hold. Now he's doin' all that Macho shit. Taunting, jabbing, dancing. I think he drew a little blood over my eye. I fake a jab and lunge again. This time I get him by the hair with both hands. Pull him into my body.
"I got him in a headlock. I hit him two solid uppercuts, lefts, then two more, still holdin' on to his hair with my right hand. I bring my knee up and drive it into his gut. Do it again. I heard later that some of his posse tried to get in the ring, break it up. My guys kept 'em out. I knee him again, hit him again. Now he's bleeding. My fighters are yelling, ‘Break his arm, break his face.' He says, real low, like a whisper only I can hear, ‘Okay. Enough.' I let him go. The whole bunch of 'em slink out of the gym like pussies.
"The next day he shows up at Gleason's. Alone, leaves his entourage outside. Walks up to me in front of everybody. Says he wants to apologize like a man. Out loud, so everyone can hear. And he does."
We are at the front door now, Teddy Atlas seeing me off. "I tell you what," he says. "Héctor Camacho was a stand-up guy."
In Atlas's worldview that's the highest compliment. I understand why he paid for the funeral.
Not long ago, New York City. Guy thinks he recognizes Héctor Camacho Jr. "You Macho's son?" he asks.
"Your father stole my hubcaps when he was a kid."
I repeat the story, and ángel Jiménez, police commissioner of Bayamón, breaks into a sly grin. "You hear about all his legal problems in the States," he says. "But he was never in trouble in Puerto Rico."
Jiménez, 22 years on the job. Former Puerto Rico state policeman. Narcotics, intelligence, a year with special operations. Good-looking man, in buff shape for 45 despite complaints about "the beer belly I'm growing." Cruising down 167 Avenue, pulls his SUV over in front of the bar where Macho was drinking that night.
"He came out, walked to his friend's car over there." Points. "We think it happened right after he got in."
Macho was famous on the island. Like a male Kardashian, touching fire to what was left of the candle. Swanned on Mira Quién Baila, the Spanish-language Dancing With the Stars. Appeared regularly on the Univision entertainment program El Gordo y la Flaca ("The Scoop and the Skinny"), a Latin mash-up of TMZ and Entertainment Tonight. Starred in a reality dating show titled, of course, Es Macho Time. Posed twice for Playgirl, the last time a mere three years ago.
"One of my sergeants is the first on the scene," Jiménez says. "He calls and tells me that through all the blood it looks like Macho Camacho is one of the guys shot." Shakes his head. "I didn't believe it."
Jiménez throws it into reverse. "Let's go see the captain," the state police investigator in charge of the case. Not talking to the press, but for his old partner ángel Jiménez a little favor. Rain heavy, traffic light. Jiménez points out the Bayamón Art Museum, the engineering museum, obvious pride in his hometown. Doesn't mention the crime. Passes the stadium where he last saw Macho alive. "Back in August, at a Wilfredo Vázquez Jr. fight," he says. "We were both guests of honor."
Up into the hills, driving east. Crossing from Bayamón into Guaynabo. Two-lane road wending through copses of Spanish elms, African tulips, royal poincianas. Now, taller hills, a small village at the summit. Pull over, duck under crime-scene tape, hike the last 100 yards. Uniformed cops milling about. In Puerto Rico, Jiménez explains, local officers, the police who work for him, handle all crimes except murder. Homicides are the province of the state police. Captain Rafael Rosa Córdova. Plainclothes brown suit, standing outside a small, single-story home where earlier this morning a junkie son robbed and killed his father. Córdova and Jiménez embrace. Been too long, they both say.
Above: Police in Bayamón found Camacho in a car with a bullet through his head. He died days later. The driver died at the scene, his pockets stuffed with envelopes of cocaine.
If there were a Law & Order: Puerto Rico, Captain Córdova would be its Jerry Orbach. Hangdog, seen-it-all homicide investigator. Dark, heavy-lidded eyes that dart like a basilisk's. Deep, husky voice; probably speaks English, just not to me. Commissioner Jiménez interprets. "Unlike previous published reports, my investigation shows me that Camacho was not the target of this attack. From what we've learned so far it was a simple robbery."
So the rumors that Macho was bankrolling the drug dealer who died in the car with him are false?
Córdova, sad smile. "The other man in the car was the intended victim. The shooters had no idea that Héctor Camacho was sitting in the car with him." He adds that Adrián Moreno, the other man, had a sheet: drugs, a weapons charge. Macho did not—at least not in Puerto Rico. "From what we understand, Macho and the other man were just having a few drinks together."
And probably a snort. I ask if the assailants were after money or drugs. "When the shooting began the perpetrators had no idea that Macho was sitting in that car. Macho took the very first shot. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
And so it goes for half an hour or so. Small talk about the neighborhood where the shooting occurred, the early news reports that had two suspects in custody. False alarm, Córdova says. He admits that the police know what kind of car the murderers drove, though he won't tell me the model. This implies there are witnesses. And yes, he says, his investigation has narrowed to two suspects.
"I am a professional," the captain tells me before I depart. "I put the same amount of energy into any homicide investigation, no matter the victim. That said, I do feel bad. Héctor Camacho was beloved here on the island. I am not unaware of that."
Now he gives his old partner Jiménez a half smile and clamps a hand on my shoulder. My invitation to leave. "It's an open case right now," Córdova says. "But yes, we're going to get them."
As we walk back down the hill I tell Commissioner Jiménez that I sense there is pressure—on the state police in general, Captain Córdova in particular—to wrap this up.
"If you spoke Spanish you would have been able to read between the lines," Jiménez says. "That last thing he said? I took it to mean that there is going to be an arrest in this case soon."
In fact, two months later several members of Macho's family phoned me. A teenager, I was told, had been taken into custody in Puerto Rico and charged with the shooting. The killings had been, as the captain had predicted, over one of Moreno's drug feuds. I felt then as I felt the day Commissioner Jiménez and I walked down that hill in Guaynabo. Macho. Wrong place at the wrong time. Probably inevitable. Still prosaic. Jiménez and I had driven away from Córdova's crime scene lost in our own thoughts, until the commissioner broke the silence. "Such a damn waste," he said.
The Bronx. St. Raymond's Cemetery. Cold, gray, overcast. Sad. Thousands of mourners. Old pugs, bent noses, cauliflower ears. Kids hawking Macho T-shirts from the trunk of a Chevy beater. Flowers, tons of flowers. Macho's younger brother, Félix, organizing the procession. Keeping his stooped and keening mother, María, upright. She won't leave the grave. Has to be dragged away.
Couple of NYPD uniforms off to the side. Crowd control. So young. One says, "So this guy was a famous boxer, huh?"
"Before my time. What was he, like, known for?"
"It's Macho time," I say and turn to leave.