Hector Camacho’s Vida Macho

Mj 618_348_la vida macho links tk
Lane Stewart / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

Pastel, stoned and mangy, shoves his tin-can taxi from lane to lane at high speed, a palm-sweat proposition because he has no mirrors, or shocks, or muffler, for that matter. Steering with his knees, he shout-sings Guns n’ Roses while fumbling about the console for a joint. We’re leaving Cataño, a densely packed slum just west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Hector Camacho Jr. aboard, for a day-trip tour of the spots where his father, Hector “Macho” Camacho, the former light- and welterweight champion of the world, spent the last two years of his louder-than-bombs life getting high, chasing ass, and drowning his sorrows. “Wouldn’t sleep for days, just high all the time, running around dressed up like Michael Jackson,” says Junior. “He ate, shit, showered, did everything on coke – even sniffed in front of his mom, and she smacked him silly!”

“Oh, 100 percent, I seen that!” croaks Pastel. “She say, ‘Stop the cab!’ and get out and hit him. Little tiny woman beating Macho!”

The two of them cackle and cry, “Que rico!” in coarse admiration for Macho’s madness. We’ve been driving the barrios and talking about Macho with his barfly buddies and dealers, while Pastel slips off to powder his nose from red-top vials of coke. Skinny and horse-faced and given to bouts of unexpected laughter, Pastel was Macho’s tour guide through hell, the guy who drove him wherever he wanted, so long as drugs and girls were the destination. He’s pulling in now to Bayamón, the second-largest city on this hard-bitten island – and number one in violent crime. Life was always fraught in this coastal community 20 minutes south of San Juan, but for 10 years now, there’s been open blood sport among the gangs here. Coke and weed blow in like sea breeze, the cops are incompetent when not corrupt, and the murder rate, per capita, is five times higher than it is on mainland U.S.

Bayamón was Macho’s birthplace and his killing floor: Last November, he was sitting in a parking lot with a pimp and drug dealer named Jamil, waiting on a girl they both knew. In the rush-hour snarl, some kid got out of a Jeep, walked up calmly to Jamil’s GT, and emptied a clip through the windshield. Jamil was cut to pieces, his back and sides riddled with slugs. Macho took a bullet in his lower jaw; it clipped his spine, then made a right turn, slicing his carotid and pinching blood-flow to his brain. Dozens of drivers watched from the street as the shooter reached into the car, grabbed a satchel, then got back into the Jeep and took off. Macho had a dim pulse when medics arrived, but brain activity had stopped. Two days later, his mother signed the release to remove him from life support.

Near the scene of the shooting, along a strip of sad-eyed bars and padlocked offices, Junior toasts his father with skunky Medalla, the beer they sell at roadside stands to wash down fried patties and pork rinds. Thirty-four now, and known in these parts as Machito, he was a middleweight of promise who won a Caribbean title but never loved the sport enough to grind it. He’d been in and out of boxing for much of a decade and was making a lukewarm comeback last fall when his wife, Raquel, told him the news. “I seen her face and said, ‘My father, right?’ She said, ‘Baby, he’s been shot, ain’t gonna make it.’ I was shocked, but yet I wasn’t, ’cause this is what happens when your life is about girls and drugs. It’s either jail or die.”

If that response to the news of the death of the man for whom you’ve been named seems a cool one, well, Macho wasn’t the warmest of fathers. He was 15 when he sired Machito with a girl named China in New York’s Spanish Harlem, and he took little or no hand in raising his son, leaving him in the projects when he quit New York to live in Florida and Puerto Rico. He’d have him down for a visit each summer, but disappeared the minute he got the boy settled at his beachfront condo in Isla Verde. “I’m 10 years old, and he’s gone for two days, going, ‘Here’s $100, get a burger,'” says Machito. “I think he did shit like that to toughen me up: locked me in a closet to see if I cried, or made me smoke a jay with him at nine.”

How Macho, who made millions of dollars and was the brightest, most gorgeously watchable star this island has ever produced, wound up at 50 buying blow off schoolboys and living with a down-at-the-heels hooker named Cynthia, is the story we’ve spent all day cobbling together from the patchwork impressions of his cronies. Some describe a playboy who’d never prepped himself for life and its empty spaces after boxing. Others invoke a sweet but heartbroken man, whose estrangement from his wife and three sons was the punch that dropped him for the count. A few allude to the toll his brain paid for the toe-to-toe wars during his prime, when he got tagged on the button by Edwin Rosario, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and Julio Cesar Chavez, but never went down, much less out. “His words were messed up. You could hardly understand him,” says a pretty ex-girlfriend named Gloria Fernandez. “They made fun of him on TV, like, ‘Look at this clown’ – and he thought they were laughing with him, not at him.”

But time and again, the talk turns to memories of fonder days. All anyone cares to remember are his blur-quick hands and buzzing, Bruce Lee footwork, or the maniac cheer of a man who partied five days straight and packed 100 years into 50. Who else, after all, had a unicorn’s head proudly tattooed on his penis, told his friends he wanted to be buried naked and displayed that way at his wake, and who, stopped for speeding, explained to the cop that the girl beside him was sucking it so well, he didn’t want to stop her by downshifting. The cop, of course, laughed and let him off: Ay, que rico, Camacho!

After one last pool-hall stop for weed, we roar up to a driveway on a rural patch of road. Inside the house Macho bought for his mother – he kept a small flat on the ground floor to crash in when he was too stoned to drive home to Isla Verde – there’s the reek of green mold from a bathroom in shambles, the toilet pried up off its bolts. The only thing to perch on in the sitting area is an ornate, ladder-backed throne, daintily painted gold but missing its seat. “My father loved that chair; he was fixing it up,” says Machito as he bends to feed the dog, an emaciated pup as starved for attention as it is for the tin of franks being served. Riffling his father’s desk, he comes across clippings of Macho in his golden twenties, gorgeous and smooth-skinned, not a scratch on him, after defeats of Mancini and Howard Davis. “You couldn’t touch him then: too fast, too pretty. He’d hit you three times and be gone.” In the jumble of papers and notes chicken-scratched on envelope backs, Machito finds an eight-page, single-spaced letter from one of Macho’s younger sons. It’s a bitter indictment of his father, a man who “ain’t bother” to see his kids or send their mother money to raise them. I get halfway through it when Junior refers me to a notepad of Macho’s scribbling. Mixed among the doodles of costumed superheroes is what looks to be a three-line poem. It reads: “I have no more money/I have no more looks/All I have left now is…MACHO.”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.'”

He certainly owned New York; the city was Macho’s oyster in the 1980s. Don King gave him an Eldorado when Macho was still a teen, and he used it to drive half the hood to the clubs, the lot of them piling out in skintight leather to get busy with the B-girls at Roxy or Xenon or the Underground. “He’d come from hard times and wanted us all happy; the dude was mad generous,” says Rivera. “Champagne, clothing, help with the rent – couldn’t no one go in their pocket with him there.” He was especially kind to the neighborhood beauties, buying them wardrobes and jewelry, playing Santa with a red-nosed hard-on. “He always had girls willing to do whatever, but that was just the deal of being with Hector,” says his ex-girlfriend, Keisha Colon. “He was sweet and funny and never did it to hurt you: He just needed to be out there day and night. It’s like he couldn’t be still for one second.”

By 19, he was a national featherweight champ and by 21, world titleholder. “He had good, not great, power, but his footwork was genius and, Christ, was he fun to watch,” says Katz. “He’d miss intentionally with the right and use that hand to pull your head down into his left, or bait you into a wild swing, then spin around and dry-hump you in the middle of the ring. The crowd ate it up, so he’d do it some more. You might not get a brawl, but you’d get a show.”

Macho wasn’t yet the rump-shaking, drag-wearing fop he’d become in the early 1990s. He didn’t need flamboyance; he was the best small fighter in the world. He went 36-0 in the 1980s and won most bouts by whopping margins. A huge draw on CBS and HBO, he built his fan base and earnings profile when he became lightweight champ in 1985. Heavier fighters – Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran – were earning tens of millions in pay-per-view wars that the whole world stopped to see. Macho ate like mad to join them but had trouble putting size on; he simply lived too fast to muscle up. “I’d scoop his shoes into a pillowcase and hide ’em before a fight so he wouldn’t break curfew to party,” says Velez. “Didn’t matter to Hector: He’d wear his girl’s shoes out, so I hid those, too – for all that did.” Flannery went further, swiping every stitch of clothing and stashing it under his bed, but Macho still tried to slip out and catch the elevator – naked – down to the casino in Tahoe.

He would pay for those indiscretions. By the time he bulked up to face the brand names, they were either gone or over the hill, and the next wave of greats hadn’t arrived yet. (He’d later fight Leonard and knock him out when Sugar was 41. Ditto his pair of blah wins over Duran, a busted valise in his mid-forties.) There’d be million-dollar bouts against Chavez, Trinidad, and the rising De la Hoya – but Macho was himself a shot fighter then, a jab-and-run horsefly who fought not to get hurt en route to the cashier’s window. How much he actually netted from those fights, though, was another story. Velez, Flannery, and Levien had either quit or been fired by 1991, replaced by Don King. “We’d had a great team, totally clean and transparent, before King got into his ear,” says Levien. “What happened after we left is anyone’s guess, but Hector never got to retire from boxing. He was still going at it in middle age.”

Early in the 1990s, as his courage eroded and his taste for cocaine deepened, Macho became less a serious fighter than a burlesque hoofer who boxed. His ringwear, always a little outré (side-slit trunks showing lots of leg, head scarves cribbed from Carmen Miranda), turned bawdy and strange and not the least bit unusual at, say, a gay-pride parade on Folsom Street. Whether entering as the Indian in the Village People, a fireman with flame-colored tassels and codpiece, or a Roman centurion in leather skirts and exquisite gold headdress, he seemed to be staging his own coming-out party. There had long been whispers about Hector and men, even, or especially, among his women. “I’d tell him, ‘The stuff you wear and do, it’s real faggy sometimes,'” says Amy Camacho, his wife of seven years and the mother of three of his children. “He’d hang naked in his condo with this male pop singer, right in front of the kids, or walk outside in see-through shorts with a tiny black bikini underneath. But he’d say, ‘Bullshit, girl, you just jealous of me. I’m the Macho Man!'”

Whatever the case, his getups and pole-dancer entrances put fannies in the seats. “From old ladies to little girls, I hear, ‘You better knock him out for me: I hate him,'” said De la Hoya before their match in 1997. Macho lost that fight, but obnoxious was a smart second act for him, a way to stay viable and well paid. Regrettably, it wasn’t just an act: The sweet, funny guy who lived to make merry had been gobbled up, whole, by his lifestyle. “Even in camp, he would buy coke and hoard it till the second that fight was over,” says Amy. “I’m talking baggies of stuff, enough to kill an ox. If I hadn’t flushed some of it down the toilet when he sparred, he’d have been dead in 1997, and I’d only have two kids, not three.”

Depending on whom you ask, Macho’s marriage to Amy was either his best move in life – or his worst. “Ay coño, I hate that bitch; she kill my son,” says Maria. “She take and take and take until she spend him up. He cry me, ‘Mami, why she do me like this?'” “Amy’s a lovely woman and an even better mom; she raised those boys by herself,” says Flannery. There are no nuanced views, though the majority stand with Amy.

The couple had known each other as kids in Spanish Harlem, though Macho, six years older, was a star already with a constellation of girls. “He’d honk outside my window from his red Corvette, though I didn’t give him play till years later,” says Amy. “Then the day I turned 18, I’m at the pay phone and it’s Hector, calling to wish me happy birthday. I turn and there he is, on that big-ass car phone. He scooped me up to take me shopping – but he still got none that night. I was the first girl to tell him no.”

Nothing would happen between them until Amy’s mid-twenties, though Macho did reveal himself that night. “He took me to his place on Fordham Road and told me to watch a video that he’d shot. It was just him in a room looking into the camera, crying about how lonely he is. I mean, I was shocked; he’s surrounded 24/7. But I guess what he was saying was, no one knows me.”

Soon after that night, Macho moved to Florida, erecting a compound in the middle of nowhere and becoming the prince of tiny Clewiston, population 5,000. He filled the drive with sports cars that he totaled within months of purchase; built a menagerie with bobcat, gator, and ferrets; and put an extension on the house with a boxing ring so he could spar when the spirit moved him. But the barrio followed him down there in the form of his brother Felix and a bunch of their friends. Every night, they raced 100 miles to the clubs in Miami, where Macho swept in wearing a glitter suit and bought round after round for the house. His girlfriend, Keisha, who’d come south with him, threw her hands up after a year and left for law school. At that point, all hell broke loose: Macho racked up busts for speeding and DUI, his friends from New York brought down enough guns to turn the place into a shooting range, and the cops told Flannery that they were going to arrest the whole bunch of them for burglary and drugs.

Re-enter Amy, whom Camacho ran into in New York. After a brief courtship, she got pregnant in 1989 and turned the Clewiston zoo into a home. She purged most of the wildlife, both two- and four-legged, cut back on his all-night romps, and began to get him booked on Spanish variety shows, where his antic bravado and sly self-mockery earned him a new wave of fans. But Macho could no more manage success than he could his cocaine habit. Within a couple of years, he’d go missing for days, then come back filthy and unslept. “I knew it had gotten bad when they stopped him for speeding and he told me, ‘Here, hold my blow, they won’t search you,'” says Amy. “I’d go, ‘You out your damn mind? I have babies at home. I’m not touching that shit.'” His absences grew longer – weeks, months – and his moods more aberrant on return. “That happy guy I’d known, always up, always joking – the boys didn’t know him that way. He was angry, no patience, never spending time, and then he’d be gone for six months. He’d call me from wherever – ‘I love you; you still love me?’ – but, frankly, I was glad to have him out.”

Amy moved the kids to Orlando and opened a beauty salon. Macho came back long enough to impregnate her with Tyler, their third son. In 1998, she filed for divorce, tired of getting phone calls from other women and hassling with his family. “His mother is straight evil, that’s all I’ll say; he loved her, but she made his life hell. In training camp once, she barged into his room and waved a bag of coke in his face, going, ‘Lookee what I brought for my baby!'” Macho moved with a girlfriend to Detroit and showed up sporadically in Orlando, appearing with no warning on Amy’s doorstep. He rarely paid support until courts forced him to. In his forties now, he was still fighting several times a year, but only against brand-X boxers for a couple-hundred grand. Then in 2004, training in Mississippi for a bout, he got high, busted into a computer shop where he’d brought his laptop for repairs, and took a leak on a fax machine. He might as well have pissed on his bank account: He served two weeks and didn’t fight again until 2008.

After getting out of jail, Macho returned to Florida and convinced Amy to take him back. “He was clean and sober for the first time in forever, so I said yes, on one condition,” says Amy. “He could stay with us and be a father to his boys, but the man-and-wife stuff, that was through.” Macho agreed and was on his best behavior, taking the kids to dinner and the water park, and buying them the new Air Jordans. But it burned him to be near Amy and not have her in full, and rather than wait for her hurt to melt, he began finding solace in the street. In no time flat, he was in it hip-deep, getting high with the neighbors and disappearing for days.

One day he came home and passed out on the couch. Tyler, then 12, went into his bag and found thousands of dollars in cash. With his older brother Christian, he tore up the mall, buying iPads, sneakers, and other trifles. Macho woke up, left the house with his bag, and realized later that his cash was missing. He stormed back and confronted Tyler, grabbing him by the neck and throwing him on the floor. Amy walked in to find her house in tumult and called the cops on Macho. He left before they got there, but a warrant was filed; he turned himself in a year later. He’d see her, and their three kids, just once more: at his arraignment on child-abuse charges. “He showed up in a tux, yelling ‘Amy, I love you!’ and acting all crazy before the judge,” she says. “He even got these hood-rat girls to cheer for him: ‘It’s Macho time, baby! Macho time!'”

Macho fled to San Juan, got high day and night, hung with junkies and hookers, and played dominos with the cabbies outside the El San Juan, the hotel next to his condo.

As it happens, though, disgrace is but the ground floor of stardom in Puerto Rico. The producers of a gossip show invited him on, largely to make an ass of himself. Disheveled and stoned, sweating heavily on camera, Macho so butchered his five-minute segment that they had to run a crawl under his comments. But viewers loved it and demanded more, and soon Macho had a weekly spot, ‘The Macho News,’ in which he dogged out celebrities – and himself. This led to other gigs: an online dating show and a tour lined up for 2013, judging the dance acts on ‘Mira Quién Baila’. “I had him ready for a comeback – movies, TV; all he had to do was move home,” says Angie Garcia, his booking agent, who was looking to set him up in Miami. “But he’s scared he’s going to jail, so he stays over there. Next thing I know, I get that call.”

At the time he was shot, Macho was shacked up with a prostitute named Cynthia, who fled his apartment when his New York family flew in, arousing suspicions that she might have played a role in the events leading to his murder. She’d worked, say police, for Jamil, the pimp who was slain along with Macho. She’d also run off from a violent boyfriend, and there were rumors that Macho had slapped him and told him to stay away from the girl. But the cops didn’t try to question her until weeks after the shootings, by which time she’d hired lawyers and wouldn’t talk. She had plenty to say, however, at the three-ring circus that was his wake in San Juan. She strolled in, dressed in a hot pink tee that bore his picture, bent and kissed the white-suited Macho in his casket, then declaimed to the room she was his one true love, which drove the other women there loco. Plates of food were thrown and punches exchanged between Cynthia and one of Macho’s sisters. Not to be outshone, Maria flung herself on his body, weeping and laughing and chanting Santeria tunes. In the meantime, Macho’s killer and a second man, the driver of the car, have yet to be identified, much less detained.

Amy and her children were not in San Juan for that screechy send-off. She was in New York to beg and scrape for money to get Macho buried. He’d left neither a will nor cash on hand, and his family, having lived off his handouts for decades, put forth not a cent to put him under. Only an eleventh-hour gift from one of his friends secured the hillside plot at St. Raymond’s. Hundreds showed up to say goodbye at his South Bronx graveside. Among them were old friends like Velez and Flannery, who’d written a big check to the funeral home. “I was happy to help her out,” says Flannery, whose co-op in Queens is a shrine to Macho, the kid he spent 10 years saving. Hymns were spoken and blessings offered. And then, as the casket was being lowered, Maria threw a Sunday punch. “You killed him! You’re the devil!” she screamed at Macho’s kids. “Are you happy? You put him there!” Amy tried to restrain her boys, but Christian broke away and pounded his chest, crying, “He was my father! You’re the devil!” It took some doing, but Amy calmed him down and hustled them toward the limo. Behind her, Maria was still wailing and swooning and casting invocations at Satan. Finally, someone called an ambulance. Mourners wept as she was loaded in, wearing an oxygen mask and waving bravely to her adoring public.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!