Boxer Hector "Macho" Camacho was a champion until the appetites that consumed him cost him his life.
Credit: Lane Stewart / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images
Hector Luis Camacho was born to be a boxer, which is another way of saying he suffered. But Macho was also born to entertain, to turn suffering into a cross between 'Benny Hill' and 'Sábado Gigante' on Univision. The second of three children by Maria and Hector Camacho (Macho was technically Hector Jr., and his own son Hector III, but no one ever called them that), he was talking a mile a minute from the time he could walk. "Hector never shut up, he drive everyone crazy," says Maria, now 73 and still living most of the year in the Spanish Harlem projects where she raised him. A nut-brown woman with firecracker eyes, she fled Hector Sr. when Macho was five and took him and his older sister to New York. "My husband drink and beat me so bad, I scared for me and my kids." She hid in the Bronx, but Senior found her there, so they moved a lot to stay a step ahead. "It was terrible," says Raquel, the oldest of her children, who's just up the block in a dank two-bedroom that she shares with her grown son and his daughter. "We lived in a place that burned down, we lived in a shelter, four of us in a bed to keep warm. It was always drama, but Mami held us down. We never went hungry, and Hector could eat."

He could also sing, tell jokes, and get girls to do him favors – all from the age of nine. "What can I say? He started young; he was Macho even then," cracks Robert Rivera. Rivera, 49, was Hector's running buddy from the day they met in grade school, though by junior high, neither spent much time in class; the streets always called with better offers. "He wanted to see life early, know what I'm saying? If he saw a nice car, he'd take it for a ride, then return it where he boosted it from. Or we'd go to Woolworth's, and he'd distract the guard while I stole a tray of fried chicken. It wasn't crimes so much as more cries for help. That smile was the mask he put on."

Constantly suspended for fighting at school, picked up for car theft or grabbing some kid's bike, Macho was clearly acting out something, though no one seems to have hassled to find out what. These days, he'd be diagnosed with ADD and given a stiff dose of Concerta, but back then the therapies were a cell at Rikers or a pair of boxing gloves. Hector decided to go with treatment-plan B. He had years of karate under his belt at the Boys' Club on 111th, inspired, as every kid in the barrio was, by the Bruce Lee flicks they showed at the Cosmo Theatre on Sundays. ("Man, the rumbles in that place," says Rivera fondly. "They'd have to call the cops to bust it up.") Hector began training with a former gangster/boxer named Bobby Lee Velez, who'd done time for a shooting before becoming the guru of hot young East Coast fighters. "Mark Breland, Juan LaPorte, Bernard Hopkins: I had 'em all, but Macho was the best," says Velez by phone from Georgia, where he's still training kids at 65. "He was once-a-generation: tremendous hand and foot speed, and never wanted to come up out the ring. Every trick I taught him, he needed to know more. Middle of the night, he'd come bang on my door: 'Show me how you do that side-spin move.'"

Precocious as Macho was, though – "He was killing grown-ass fighters; I seen him bust up Boom Boom [Mancini] in the gym," says David Flores, an ex-lightweight and friend, who owns a nightclub now in Spanish Harlem – the whole block knew what he was battling. "Hector's people had drug problems, especially his mom," says Velez. "I'd see her high in the street and push Hector the other way, tell him, 'C'mon, man, let's walk down Second Avenue.' It was worse when he got rich and started handing her stacks. I'd say, 'You know where that money's going now, right?'"

Maria had remarried after she moved to Manhattan, but her second husband, Ruben, had a heroin habit, and soon her youngest son, Felix, now 46, had one, too. "That boy would steal the teeth out of your head," says Patrick Flannery, a special-ed teacher who was Hector's mentor and savior, and the closest thing he'd get to a functional father. "We'd throw parties for Hector, but his brother would show up to swipe the money from ladies' purses." In and out of jail for much of his life, Felix nearly got himself killed as a teen when he ripped off a neighborhood cocaine dealer and set fire to the apartment to cover his tracks. "Hector, who was training for a fight out of town, had to fly home and return the drugs or the guy was gonna whack out his brother," says Michael Katz, the retired boxing scribe of the Daily News, who, like everyone else who ever wrote about Macho, developed a soft spot for him. A stronger man than Macho would have cut his brother off and drawn a healthy distance from his family. Instead, he brought them to his weigh-ins and fights, where Maria would reliably start a ruckus by charging the ring, speaking in tongues, or falling faint. "That woman," mutters Velez, glad to be shut of her. "All she ever did was make convulsions."

Between Velez and Flannery and the men they brought in, though, there was finally some resistance to the crazies. Flannery, a take-no-shit bodybuilder, laid down the law the day Hector showed up as a foul-mouthed, illiterate teen. "He walked in my classroom and wouldn't sit down, so I grabbed him around the neck and belt and threw him 15 feet," says Flannery. "He hit the back wall and dripped down like paint. From that point on, he was my little buddy."

Hector stayed a year before he dropped out for good, but Flannery took the bus to the barrio each day to tutor him at his kitchen table. "I told him, 'You know you're gonna be famous, right? Well, don't you want to read about yourself?'" With Velez in his corner, Flannery on his back, and a lawyer named James Levien vetting his contracts, Macho swept to three Golden Gloves titles and turned pro to considerable fanfare at 18. "His first fight at the Garden," says Katz, "I told Shelly Finkel and the other promoters there: 'This kid's gonna own the world by 21.'"