Tuesday December 4, 2012

As unlikely as it sounds, I not only knew who boxer Hector "Macho" Camacho was -- when his death was announced last week -- I was also saddened by the news. Camacho, age 50, was considered by many to be one of the most talented boxers of his generation. As Matt Schudel of the Washington Post noted, Camacho combined "charisma and color" with lightning speed, earning him the nickname "Rambo-Liberace" from HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. Merchant maintained that the fans adored Camacho because he was equal parts "He-Man and showman."

Camacho -- who died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head -- was killed in the same town in which he was born, Bayamon, Puerto Rico, but his ascent to greatness began on the streets of Spanish Harlem. A self-described street-fighter, Camacho said in 1982 -- after dispatching Johnny Sato in just four rounds and earning $50,000 for the drubbing: "A few years ago, if I had met Sato on 115th Street, I would have done the same thing for nothing." An undeniably scrappy, wise-cracking pugilist, Camacho also had an outrageous flamboyant side that seemed incongruous with his gritty, street-smart life. Take a moment to search for Camacho photos on the web. You'll find gladiator outfits, sequined loin cloths, black fox fur robes -- and always that boyish spit curl over his forehead. He loved a good show, and he had the exquisite talent and instinct to deliver.

A world-champion in three different weight classes, Camacho demonstrated his boxing skills early. As Bruce Weber of the New York Times recalled, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard recognized -- when Camacho was only 20 years old -- that the rookie fighter would eventually be coming for him. He told the young boxer as much: "I told him that people are always asking who's going to take my place. I told him he could." What set Camacho apart was, that despite being a boxer, he was never a slugger. Instead, he combined superb agility, intricate footwork and high-speed precise punches to stun his opponents and amaze spectators.

So how did I come to know about Hector "Macho" Camacho, Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini, Oscar De La Hoya and other boxing stars? From a most unlikely source: Alyson, one of my best friends in high school, was an avid boxing fan. Although I don't recall her having the DJ play Camacho's signature theme, "Macho Man," at her Bat Mitzvah, it's quite possible she did. Although diminutive and not at all brash, Alyson's love for boxing was both huge and fierce. She brought her boxing magazines to school and kept us all up-to-date on significant boxing stats and important upcoming matches. A member of the Future Business Leaders of America, she was determined to have a career which combined her prodigious writing skills and her love of sports. (Now, decades later, I can happily report that she has been one of Michael Jordan's most trusted PR writers for many years.)

If she ever felt self-conscious of her unconventional interest in the boxing world, she never let on. It was simply an extension of an inner-confidence that is hard to find at 44 -- let alone at 16. When we all bemoaned Coke's ill-conceived plan to change its formula, it made no difference to her; she'd always enjoyed a Pepsi with her lunch. When my friends and I took the drama club by storm, Alyson embraced her own niche at our high school theatre -- running the box office. Her organization skills were second-to-none, but more important than her financial acumen or her impeccable orderliness, she exuded a love for making the spectacles "go." Today she is still a savvy, whip-smart fan who does not merely cheer from the side lines but puts her skills to work for the good of the show.

Alyson also deeply appreciates "the fight" in others. Her mighty love for her father -- and her great admiration for his courage in battling kidney disease -- was tremendously tender. He was her lifelong touchstone and best friend, and she saw and revered his greatness each day. Which is not to say that she remembers him as perfect or uncomplicated; she's too grounded and pragmatic for that. She holds the memory of his humanity and imperfection while also acknowledging the many ways in which he touched the edge of magnificence. This is the same inimitable quality that enabled her to embrace the often seedy and messy world of boxing while being impeccably "put-together" herself.

Bits of Camacho's unsavory, troubled personal life followed him even in death. Mourners at his wake and funeral this week had a ringside seat for bareknuckle fisticuffs between several of his ex-girlfriends and his sisters. But this unseemly media circus is not what holds my interest. It's his broad, boyish grin that said, "Love me. Love all of me -- even the shady parts."

Laura Hillenbrand, award-winning non-fiction writer of "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" once said about jockey Red Pollard, one of her book's heroes, "He wasn't a great jockey, but the moments he was on Seabiscuit, he was great." Similarly, Hector "Macho" Camacho showed the enormity of his talent best when he was in the ring.

I will never be an avid boxing fan like my buddy, but having her in my circle of friends reminds me that we must find flashes of greatness wherever we can, accepting that greatness comes in ragged packages. Stubbornly human as we are, what more can we ask for?

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.