By Mitch Abramson
To say that Hector Camacho Jr. is excited about his upcoming fight with Dmitriy Salita at the Barclays Center on Feb. 9 is to state the obvious. The return of Camacho to Brooklyn marks the first time he has fought in the borough since his controversial no-contest decision against Jesse James Leija in 2001 that forever soured his taste on boxing- until now, he says. It’s also his first fight since his father, the colorful Hector Sr., who won world titles in three different weight classes, died in late November, four days after he was shot in a waiting car and after his family agreed to take him off life support. The Feb. 9 date also has special significance to Hector Jr. because it’s the birthday of his oldest daughter, Shaniah, 14. So Camacho (54-5-1) has a lot to think about going into this bout.
It wasn’t long after his father’s death that Camacho Jr. got a call from his promoter stating he had an offer to take on Salita in Brooklyn at the billion-dollar Barclays Center.
Camacho, 34, initially took offense to the idea that he was being brought in as an opponent, a stepping stone for Salita, who has aspirations of fighting for a world title again. But Camacho, who has been off the mainstream radar for some time now, recognized the fight gives him a chance to return to the big stage, at least a stage beneath the undercard of a main event between Danny Garcia and Zab Judah.
After thinking long and hard on whether he should take the fight so soon after his father’s death, Camacho Jr. agreed.
Now, he can’t wait for the chance to be relevant again and believes that Salita (35-1-1) has picked to fight him at the wrong time. For a fighter who admits he’s not always been properly motivated in his career, Camacho Jr. now has enough incentive to last him a lifetime- or at least through January. The fight is contracted at 152 pounds.
“I’m ready, I’m really excited for this fight,” Camacho Jr. said from Puerto Rico, where he lives with a wife and two daughters and where he is training. “It’s really not so much about Salita. He’s just in the way. I don’t know why he wanted to fight me. He’s the perfect opponent for me. He’s a 140-pounder coming up in weight to fight me. He’s coming to fight me at the wrong time. I have too much to prove. He thinks I’m finished. But he’s making a big mistake. I’m a bigger and better fighter. He picked me at the wrong time because I just lost my father.”
Salita is familiar with Camacho and his father from training in the same camp as them in Denver in preparation for Camacho’s fight with Leija over a decade ago. The two youngster sparred perhaps 20 rounds together. Salita and Camacho Jr. shared the same trainer in Hector Roca, and Salita says he never forgot the experience. He was in awe of Camacho Sr.’s skill-level and work ethic in the gym while getting along well with the father and son. Salita says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree in terms of talent, but he questioned whether Camacho Jr. was always in top shape for many of his fights. But he’s heard that Camacho is training hard for this one and Salita is watching early tape of a young Camacho Jr. to prepare for what he expects on Feb. 9.
“I hear he’s taking it seriously,” Salita said from Detroit, where he’s training at the famed Kronk gym. “So I know he will come prepared. And that’s what I want. I want him to be motivated and inspired because that’s how I’m going to be.”
Salita expects the night to be an emotional one for Camacho Jr. and for the fans involved because of the recent passing of Camacho Sr., which puts Salita in the awkward position of playing spoiler. Still, he made it clear that he was a fan of Camacho Sr. and that he has the utmost respect for the Camacho family. What happens on Feb. 9 is simply business, he says.
Camacho knows his chances for more big fights in the future are dwindling.
“I have a lot to prove,” Camacho says. “These kinds of opportunities don’t come along often and I have a lot of fire in me. Golden Boy and his people picked the wrong guy to pick on for this fight.”
That last point is up to debate. No one has ever questioned Camacho’s talent. He has fast hands and inherited his father’s comfort and ability to move well in the ring (at least he showed that early in his career). It’s his commitment to training and to the profession of boxing that has always been an issue.
After starting his career 32-0, Camacho Jr. emerged as an intriguing story-line and a pristine record and a hopeful belief that Camacho Jr. might actually be able to follow in his dad’s proud footsteps began to take shape, or at least his supporters held out hope of that possibility. He took a fight against a supposedly faded Jesse James Leija in KeySpan Park in Coney Island, home of the Mets minor league affiliate. The bout was airing on HBO. Camacho Jr. was posing for his close-up with a national audience, taking another step closer to establishing himself as a star.
The back-story of the son taking after the great fighter of a dad was just too alluring. But after the fight was stopped in the fifth round due to an unintentional head butt that caused a cut over Camacho’s right eyelid, his career took a turn for the worse. Camacho won a decision on the judge’s scorecards after the bout was stopped when Camacho complained of not being able to continue because of impaired vision. But that result was later changed to a no-decision by the state commission because of a technicality. And Camacho was branded a quitter by hard-core boxing fans who felt he was looking for a way out rather than soldier on. Even worse, the good will that had been built up as a son of a legend and the flattering comparisons that began to circulate quickly vanished. He was labeled a quitter, not in the same class as his pops. Camacho was furious at the sport and the fans for turning on him.
“Going into the Leija fight people were saying that Camacho Jr. is the next superstar,” Camacho said. “But after what happened, I lost the steam and passion and love for the sport. After that, I was winning on natural talent. I’d give away losses for not going into fights 100% prepared. The way the sport had turned its back on me- I was supposed to be the next Latino superstar, but the reaction the fight had gave me a yucky feeling.”
So he didn’t train as hard as he should have, he admits. If fans were going to criticize him for not sacrificing his health, then he wouldn't drain himself training for his fights and not give the fans what they paid their money for- a complete effort. Nearly a year after the bout with Leija, Camacho lost a decision to Omar Weis for the first defeat of his career. After that, he could barely muster a majority draw against the journeyman Marteze Logan in 2004, and his career quickly dipped into permanent mediocrity. Since 2010, Camacho has been stopped twice, a first-round KO by David Lemieux and most recently a sixth-round TKO loss to Luis Graneda in July of last year. Camacho says he wasn’t training properly for any of those losses, and Camacho promises he won’t have that same excuse this time around.
“I’m just relishing the opportunity to be here right now,” he said. “My pops would always tell me that I got to do the right thing in training, and I admit that I slacked off a little. But I just thank Golden Boy for the opportunity for this fight. They’re sacrificing a lamb on Feb. 9. I’m supposed to be here because of my talent level. Due to me not taking boxing as seriously as I should have caused me to slip back. But I have a lot riding on this fight. I’m taking my training seriously and will be in great shape for the fight.”
He plans on dedicating the fight to his father in the form of a creative entrance that he’s keeping under wraps until fight night. When the bout with Salita was first offered to him, he thought of turning it down because he was still grieving and didn’t know if he could still prepare for a fight at the same time. But he realized it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I’m dying to get back onto the big stage,” he says. “It just so happened that it’s so close to my father’s death. But this is the gift that my father has left behind. It’s tough, there are mixed feelings going into this fight, but then again life moves on and he will be with me in the ring that night. Yes, I know it’s going to happen like that.”
He described his relationship with his father as more like a friendship than one of father and son.
“He was like my home boy,” Camacho Jr. describes it. Camacho Sr. was just a teenager when he had a son, not old enough to take responsibility for a child, just starting to pick up momentum as a boxer. While the elder Camacho wasn’t always around, Camacho Jr. says he long ago forgave his dad for not being the ideal dad.
“I can’t blame my father for not always being there for me,” Camacho Jr. says. “He grew up without a father in a single person household. He grew up in the streets.”
Camacho Jr. described a childhood growing up in public housing in Spanish Harlem, feeling embarrassed that he had a famous father who was fighting on HBO and would visit every so often in a hot new car while he lived "in the projects." Still, he appreciated the connection they had when he would come around, that's how much he valued his company.
“The relationship was good,” Camacho Jr. says. “When he came around, he always looked for me. We would talk about life, like brothers. My mother never complained. I was always fortunate. We always had food on our table. I thank my mother and aunt for raising me. They kept me together.”
Finally, when Camacho Sr. fought Julio Cesar Chavez in 1992, his mother had enough and demanded the family move to Orlando, Fla., he says, which is where they decamped to when Camacho Jr. was around 13, basically starting a new life. It might sound cheesy, but Camacho Jr. has a chance to start a new career on Feb. 9 with a decisive win against Salita.
“For me, being 100%, I have never lost,” he says. “I’m going to show I’m back and it’s Macho Time.”
Imagine being the son of a famous fighter and having to deal with the constant comparisons to your old man. Now, imagine being the son of the Macho Man, and the pressure is probably double. But Camacho Sr. is no longer with us and his son has to focus on a fight, while trying his best to internalize the feelings he has for his dad and at the same time attempt to resurrect his career. So he will carry around all these complicated emotions when he steps into the ring on Feb. 9, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.