Draped in a glittery, Puerto Rican-flag-inspired red, white and blue robed sartorial splendor that was said to have cost $8,000 in 1986 money, Hector "Macho" Camacho walked to the ring in New York's famed Madison Square Garden like he was strolling in Central Park.
If he had a concern in the world, it certainly wasn't written on his expressive face.
Across the ring stood Edwin Rosario. The two men were born just 15 minutes and a single year apart in Puerto Rican ghettos, competed in the same sport and in the same weight class, but somehow still seem separated by a million miles. Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez were on the undercard, but nothing could overshadow the main event, at least not in New York that night.
Although the crowd was a disappointing 10,615, it was 10,615 people who cared about this fight more than anything else in the world.
Camacho was brash, young and full of himself. Sporting a tiny spit curl in front and a tiny rattail in back, Camacho danced and strutted his way to fame, looking every bit the cast member of Grease. Rosario, in turn, was a taciturn and serious professional. Despite being just 23, he carried himself with the gravitas of a much older man, his Tom Selleck-style mustache making him look like an aged veteran, not a young man on the rise, a young man not amused by Camacho's pre-fight hijinks.
Camacho would later say that Rosario fought like a man with a grudge, and if true, who could possibly blame him? Before the fight, Camacho waged a psychological war with his fellow Puerto Rican, calling him a girl and throwing a napkin in his face at a press conference. Later, as the two made a public appearance together to "KO Crack," Camacho again tossed paper in Rosario's face. The former champion stormed off.
The "Macho Man," quickly becoming one of boxing's great characters, just laughed.
He topped all his previous tomfoolery on the day of the fight, buying a pair of lacy red panties and having them, and his autograph, sent to Rosario's room. To ensure his opponent would open his gift, Camacho had the box addressed as if it had come from the Governor of Puerto Rico.
In Renaissance France, a duel to the death might have followed that kind of slight. On June 13, 1986, what followed in the ring was nearly as brutal at times, the two men battling for personal and national pride. A far cry from the defensive fighter he would become, some say as the result of this fight, Camacho went to war with Rosario in the early going—and paid the price.
In the fifth round, a left hook seemed to startle Camacho, who for the first time in his professional career was in real trouble. Rosario swarmed to the body, but especially to the head, like a man possessed. Two minutes remained in the round, a seemingly impossible amount of time for a staggered champion. But somehow, some way, Camacho weathered the storm and earned his nickname under fire. Macho was more than a gimmick.
"He hit me. Wham! Wham!" Camacho told Sports Illustrated after the fight. "I say, Damn, it doesn't hurt, but it sure feels funny. Wham! Damn! I fought a war and I can tell you right now, Hector Camacho don't like no damn wars."
The partisan Puerto Rican crowd was split down the middle. Camacho was one of the sport's top rising stars and had grown up in New York's Spanish Harlem. But Rosario was closer to the ideal warrior that fans from the island embraced, and there was something a little too Hollywood about Camacho, even then, for many fans' tastes.
Camacho, training out of Florida, felt the tension a bit, letting his facade of indifference slip to The New York Times:
"I spent $7,800 on tickets that I gave away. And some of those bums I gave free tickets to came to see me get knocked out," Camacho told the newspaper.
Those fans would have to live with the disappointment. Rosario's failure to finish emboldened Camacho. He controlled the middle of the fight with fast feet, a steady jab and a couple of low blows that took the fight out of Rosario, who seemed to have spent himself in the fifth trying to batter Camacho senseless.
"You got to give it to Camacho," "Sugar" Ray Leonard said on the HBO broadcast. "The kid can fight."
As Camacho was busy winning the fight, however, he was losing the crowd in turn:
Between these two perilous rounds, Camacho managed to outbox Rosario, repeatedly beating him to the punch as he circled (Rosario). Camacho's stick-and-move tactics impressed the judges...But for a fighter nicknamed ''Macho,'' the winner fought a careful and strategic fight, clearly intent on not going toe-to-toe with Rosario. It was that conservative plan, against Rosario's bombs-away approach, that probably tilted the crowd toward Rosario.
In the 11th round, Rosario gave up any pretense of defense, walking straight forward and attempting to pressure Camacho into a mistake. With 50 seconds remaining, the stratagem paid off. Rosario clipped him with another left hook and a right hand down the middle. On wobbly legs, once again Camacho survived, battling through the 12th and final round as the crowd exploded in pandemonium. Rosario's corner carried him around the ring in triumph, while Camacho raised both hands in victory.
The final punch stats were a mirror image of the fighters' personalities. The flashy Camacho threw nearly twice as many punches as Rosario, but much of that was sizzle. The two landed almost an identical number, with Rosario's power punches in the fifth and 11th outclassing anything Camacho managed in the bout.
The two embraced before the decision was read as the crowd chanted "Chapo" in honor of Rosario, who finished the fight strong. One judge saw it Rosario's way, giving him 10-8 rounds for both the fifth and 11th and a final tally of 114-113 in his favor. Two other judges, Stuart Kirshenbaum and Tony Castellano, awarded the fight to the champion, a relieved "Macho."
Camacho would eventually need three stitches to close a cut over his eye, but it was his psyche that was damaged the most. The crowd booed lustily, at least as loud as they had cheered his elaborate entrance. But, for "Macho," the fight changed everything.
Promoter Lou Duva believed the fight with Rosario destroyed Camacho's killer instincts. His fear of a repeat performance, of a punch as solid as Rosario's left hooks, had changed his entire style—and not for the better. According to Vinny Pazienza biographer Tommy Jon Caduto in "Fight or Die: The Vinny Paz Story":
Lou felt he lost his swagger...he never seemed to recover from that. Lou and others felt that he had lost his greatness that night and it never returned. He turned into a runner as a result of that left hook and refused to stay in the pocket, forfeiting his punching power, just happy to win fights on his skill and craftiness.
Pazienza couldn't capitalize on Camacho's failings as a fighter, but their 1990 fight clearly demonstrated the new matador style Camacho employed in the ring. Rosario wasn't yet done, either, coming back immediately after the Camacho loss to beat Livingstone Bramble for the WBA version of the title.
But for both men—Camacho in victory and Rosario in defeat—that June night in 1986 was their apex, an artistic triumph. At 23 and 24 years of age, respectively, they had peaked. In the end, the allure of drugs and life on the edge was too strong for both. For Camacho, partying was his vice. For Rosario, it was cockfighting, a sport he had grown up with, which was still legal in Puerto Rico.
In the twilight of their lives, both were embarrassed by public battles with alcohol and drugs. Rosario was arrested in Puerto Rico for stealing beer from a grocery store. His life continued spiraling out of control, and he spent a year in prison. His wife, possessions, money and pride were all gone when he got out, as well as five years of his Hall of Fame career.
Camacho, who continued fighting into his late 40s, had his own public battles with drugs and the law. In addition to domestic disputes and child-abuse charges, in 2004, Camacho plummeted through the glass ceiling of a computer-repair store to retrieve his laptop, causing $13,000 in damages. After urinating in the store, he left with $5,600 in cash and checks, eventually pleading guilty to the charge.
Early this week, he was shot in the head in Puerto Rico and was taken off life support on Saturday, Nov. 24, according to ESPN. Rosario, on a parallel path, was found dead in his bedroom in 1997 in the midst of a brief comeback. Investigators believed drugs to be a culprit in his demise.
Despite the somber ends, the 1986 fight remains a testament to both men. Before the drugs and the force of fame started them on the path to oblivion, there was only boxing. For one night, at least, both men were the pure embodiments of their art. That is the Camacho and Rosario worth remembering.