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Michael Carbajal Still Champion

by Bob Trieger

Five-time world champion, Hall of Famer and Olympic silver medalist Michael Carbajal may be recording the best victories of his life at the age of 43 as a retired boxer.  Instead of receiving a beautiful belt or medal for his achievements, Carbajal now helps build character for countless Phoenix youngsters who may not have another way to get off the mean streets.

Carbajal loved boxing from the start, however, he didn’t have his first amateur match until he was 14, because his father, the late Manual Carbajal, a former Arizona Golden Gloves champion, wouldn’t allow his son to box until he was older.   On the night of his first match, his father reminded Michael of something he said when he was only six: “I’m going to be world champion and retire as world champion.”  Michael, of course, didn’t remember what he said when he was only six, but the message has stayed with him throughout his life. 

“I wanted to box since I was six,” Carbajal reminisced.  “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t, but my father told me to watch and learn from my experiences in the gym and at tournaments.  I waited until I was 14, working out in my backyard, as my father taught me the basics.  I remember hearing about kids at tournaments with 100, 200 amateur fights.  I only had around 100 (his reported amateur record is 94-9) as an amateur.  I was new to the sport and took my losses as wins because I learned from every fight.   I still remember my first amateur fight.  It’s where it all started.  I lost to Kevin Davis. I entered the tournament against him with no fights and he had 32.  I lost that fight and wanted to fight him again.  I always wanted to fight the best.  We fought two more times at the state championships (they split).

“My most memorable fight was at the 1986 National Golden Gloves Championship.  I still remember my opponent (in the championship final), Gary Harvey.  I’ll remember that fight for the rest of my life.  I won every national tournament after that until 1988.”

Carbajal first got into boxing for the same reason so many others have for decades…a tough environment.  He still lives in the La Nuevo (9th St.) neighborhood.  “It was terrible here when I was 11 or so,” Carbajal explained.  “I still live here, but it’s not as bad now.  We had shootings and gangs across 3 or 4 blocks that separated us.  I never left.  I have so many friends from back then who were involved in drugs and shootings.  I ignored everything because I was determined and desired to be world champion.  Today, people who knew me back then, say: ‘You’re still Michael.’  My accomplishments were because I love boxing so much.  In 1988, Carbajal was the United States amateur junior flyweight champion, who defeated Eric Griffin (co-captain of 1989 & 1991 World Amateur Championships), 5-0, in the final of the U.S. Olympic Trials, and then he won again at the U.S. Olympic Box-Offs by way of a third-round disqualification versus James Harris.

Carbajal traveled to Seoul, South Korea as a member of the 1988 USA Olympic Boxing Team.  In the opening round, he edged hometown favorite Kwang-Soo OIh, 3-2, that likely came back to haunt him in the gold medal match against Bulgarian Ivailo Khristov, in which Carbajal lost, 5-0, in what many alleged was due to biased scoring.

Seven months after the Olympics, Carbajal turned pro February 24, 1989, taking a 4-round decision from future IBF light flyweight World Champion Will Grigsby on the undercard of Carbajal’s idol, Roberto Duran, who upset Iran Barkley in Atlantic City to capture the WBC middleweight World championship.  Carbajal’s nickname, “Manitas De Piedra” (“Little Hands of Stone’) was out of respect to Duran, known as “Manos de Piedra” (“Hands of Stone”).

During his illustrious 10-year professional career, Carbajal compiled a 49-4 (33 KOs) record, highlighted by five world junior flyweight titles.  His memorable trilogy with Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez started in 1993 with a unification fight.  They became the first junior flyweights to earn $1-million purses, as well as becoming the first in their weight class to headline a pay-per-view event.  Carbajal was decked in rounds two and five and he suffered from a bloody right eyebrow, until he unloaded a powerful right smack on Gonzalez’ chin.  Gonzalez was unable to beat the count, Carbajal became unified world champion in what was later named 1993 Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine.

Numerous endorsements followed for Carbajal including Diet Pepsi.  After making two successful title defenses, Carbajal suffered his first pro loss (32-0) in his 11th world title defense, and in 1994 Gonzalez won a 12-round split decision again.  Carbajal and Gonzalez, appropriately enough, were inducted together into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Class of 2006.

In 1999, Carbajal announced his second comeback and after three wins, he traveled to Tijuana to challenge 21-year-old WBO junior flyweight World champion Jorge Arce (20-2-1), who clearly took nine of the first 10 rounds, even though Arce had hit the canvas in round six.  In the 11th round, Carbajal rocked Arce with a right that sent the Mexican flying into the ropes.  Referee Raul Caiz, Jr. stopped the fight, Carbajal was crowned world champion for the fifth time, and then Michael retired after the fight for good.

Carbajal retired with a 15-3 (10 KOs) record in world title fights, 9-4 against former world champions. His four pro losses were against world champions – Gonzalez (twice), Mauricio Pastrana and Jacob Matlala.  Known for never giving up, along with making a few remarkable comebacks, Carbajal was stopped only once, by Matlala.

Today, Carbajal still lives in the same house (built in 1906) he grew up on 9th Street in Phoenix, operates a gym (built in 1911), and still gives back to his community.

“If I never boxed,” Carbajal said, “I think I’d be a counselor.  I’m really good with kids. I went to college for two years, but I was too busy with fighting.  I’ve always had unbelievable patience, unlike some other trainers and managers, who want to make a quick buck.  If they (kids) stay in the gym – not even fighting – they will learn.  It’s all about kids staying off the streets.  It’s not as bad here as it was before and it’s great to be helping these kids.  Some come here to box, others to just workout, and that’s all good.  I’m in no hurry to have (train) a world champion, even if that’s my goal, and I concentrate on giving them time to understand.” 

Everybody going to Michael Carbajal’s 9th Street Gym is treated equally from a new kid to 82-year-old Paul Taylor, who has been going there for too many years to remember.  Some people go there for reasons unassociated with boxing or working out.  They go there if they need help, just about any kind.

“I remind kids of what we went through (in this neighborhood) and avoided,” Carbajal concluded.  “Most fighters come from neighborhoods like this.  It’s not about winning or losing, although we always want to win, it’s about life.  We train anybody who comes in the gym.  They learn discipline and that helps through their lives.  We teach giving others respect.  I’m old school.  We don’t have air conditioning in the gym.  It gets you in great condition. Hey, I trained in a tin shed in my backyard, which was 15 degrees hotter than outside (remember this is Phoenix where it gets in the 120’s).  I love it.

“I enjoy helping, not just to box, but to be good through their lives.  The discipline they learn here will help.  We’re building them for life.” 

Arguably the greatest junior flyweight of all-time, Michael Carbajal is still winning!