By Max Warren
Hall-of-Fame ring legend Michael Carbajal recently gave me a half hour of his time to discuss his past, present, and future. To put Michael’s words in context, it is important to remember the central facts of his career. Carbajal is undoubtedly the greatest light-flyweight of all time, and many boxing fans would give anything to see the six-time world champion in the ring once again.
Each time out, he showed the true fabric of his soul, fighting every moment of each round with pure guts and determination while being a true ring general. He was a surgeon in the ring, dissecting his opponents. From getting off the canvas twice and knocking out fellow Hall-of-Famer Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez in the first fight of their epic trilogy, to the upset knockout of Jorge Arce in Tijuana in the final fight of his career, he has remained humble and true to his roots.
He still lives in his childhood home on 9th St. and Fillmore in the historic Garfield District of Phoenix, Arizona. Ever since retirement, Michael has worked to empower his community, training fighters of all skill levels in his gym--Michael Carbajal’s 9th St Gym, which he has owned since 1993. Of course he would love to find the next superstar that could emulate his career; however, his focus is to not only build champions in the ring, but in life.
Carbajal never took the easy road, telling his management and promoters to put him in with the best possible opponent for every fight. Despite accomplishing virtually everything a fighter could dream of, money and fame were of no importance to him.
Since he had such an incredible professional career, many people lose sight how great of an amateur career he had. He was a stellar amateur, boasting a record of 110 wins and only 10 losses. He also was a 1987 Pan-Am Games Medalist and a 1988 Olympic Medalist in Seoul, Korea. It’s also noteworthy that he was the first fighter out of the stacked 1988 Olympic team to win a world title. Two-time World Heavyweight Champion Riddick Bowe and five-division World Champion Roy Jones Jr. were also on the team. Both fighters are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
He drove around in a 1960 Impala throughout even the brightest days of his career, and continued training where the journey began on 9th and Fillmore. He was a true pioneer for the lower weight classes. The light-flyweight division was a non-entity before Carbajal entered the picture. He brought attention and electricity to the division, as he was a part of the first ever light-flyweight bout to headline a major pay-per-view card (Michael Carbajal vs. Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez on March, 13, 1993 at the Las Vegas Hilton). Also, he brought big paydays to the lower weight classes, becoming the first light-flyweight to recieve a million-dollar purse.
Michael began and ended his career just as he promised his late father Manuel, who himself was a golden gloves champion. At age six, Michael promised his father he would become a world champion. He did just that in 1990, defeating Muangchai Kittikasem. Even though he did so much more than win a world title, that very feat is most important to him because it is what he promised to his father at the very beginning of his boxing journey. He also promised his father that he would retire a world champion, and did so, stopping the much younger Jorge Arce in the 11th round in Tijuana, winning his sixth and final world title in dramatic fashion.
Below is an exclusive interview with Michael at his 9th St. Gym, in which the International Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee thoughtfully describes the many bright moments of his career, his opinions on the sport as a whole, and his mission and purpose for Michael Carbajal’s 9th St. Gym.
MW: What does this gym mean to you?
MC: It means a whole lot. I’ve been here 25 years now, and that’s about half of my life, and it feels great to help out the kids to be champions in and out of the ring. That gives me a lot of great pleasure to help these kids to do that. So, it means a whole great deal to me.
MW: You’ve been in this community for so long. You were born and raised here. Can you talk about your drive for the community and how much you love it?
MC: I love it. I mean I totally love it, because I’m still here. I’ve never left, never will. That’s a very great feeling, just to stay here in the neighborhood is something that you can’t really explain. It is just a great feeling.
MW: What’s the best advice that you can give to any boxer out there?
MC: Dedication. Desire to become number one in the world.
MW: What is the most important attribute that a boxer needs to have?
MC: To work hard and to have the desire. You don’t have to be the most talented fighter in the world. If you have that dedication, desire, and determination to be world champion, you can do it.
MW: Besides boxing, what interests you the most?
MC: Love. That’s it. You have love, there’s nothing more than love. I mean loving one another. That’s what counts in life.
MW: Why do you think someone should be a boxing fan? Why should they love the sport and continue to follow it?
MC: The competition. Just the dedication and desire that you see these fighters put in. And just watching them compete. Just one-on-one. That’s beautiful.
MW: Do you remember the very first time you laced up a pair of gloves? How did it feel the very first time you started boxing?
MC: The very first time I ever fought, I was thirteen years old. I fought in a tournament, and I fought a kid that had 32 fights. And, it was my first fight ever. I gave him so much competition, and I lost the fight. I was crying after the fight. I told my Dad, “Watch. Next time I fight him. I’m gonna beat him.”
MW: In boxing right now they talk about padding records and how having an unblemished record and protecting your record is so important. Talk about what you can learn from a loss and how you can improve off of that, and that it’s not the end of the world?
MC: That’s right. You know, that’s what’s wrong right now. You are padding guys’ records and some of these guys aren’t really as good as you can make them or teach them. You want to teach them, but you are not going to be able to teach them if you put somebody in there that you know he’s going to run over. What is he going to learn off of that? He’s not going to learn anything off of that. You’ve got to put him in there with somebody that can fight, has as much experience as he does, or can fight as he does. You don’t want to put your guy in a spot where he is 6-0 and he is fighting a guy who is 1-3. Something like that.
MW: I know Mikey Garcia is your favorite fighter out there. What do you love about him?
MC: His confidence. He relaxes. The way he goes and his combinations. Wooh! It reminds me of myself, even though I don’t want to brag about that. It’s just the way he throws. There are certain fighters. You get a Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran. All these guys that throw really sharp punches. There’s a difference where I think fans don’t understand. You can be quick and everything, but if you’re not sharp….. Just solid sharp punches, those are the ones that could. You get fighters like that. That’s what I notice about it.
MW: I know you just mentioned some of the legends in Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. What separates them, what do they have that is innate?
MC: It is desire to win and to be champion. I think that separates them from other fighters.
MW: Can you talk about how important it is for a fighter to be versatile and to focus on their weaknesses?
MC: To really be great, you have to love it. Even if you get hit. Because, you are going to get hit. You can’t slip everything. You are always going to get hit in every fight. You got to love it. I did (he chuckles). Even though I didn’t want to get hit. But if you can’t take it, it’s not for you.
MW: Can you talk about why money and fame is not everything for a fighter to aspire for in boxing?
MC: I’ll tell you why it’s not. You know, a lot of kids walk in here (Michael Carbajal’s 9th St Gym). There’s a bunch of them that came in here, and they say “I wanna be famous. And I wanna make a lot of money.” Well of course you do, but that’s not why you’re doing it. If you are just coming in here to do that, I guarantee you that you will not be a world champion.
MW: You are known as a fighter that didn’t do a lot of trash talking. You certainly did a lot of your talking in the ring. Can you talk about how it’s not necessary to be the most brash fighter out there, and how people remember the fight rather than the press conferences?
MC: That’s true because you know what? There’s no reason to talk shit. For what? Let them talk all the stuff he wants to talk. Let him, and then say “We’ll see in the ring.” And then he will find out.
MW: A lot of people forget about this really big fight of yours. It was the Kwang Sum Kim fight. He was considered to be an enigma in Korea at that time (1993), basically a Korean Mike Tyson. Can you talk about how big that fight was, and how important of a memory it was for your career?
MC: We were at the Olympics together (1988 Games in Seoul, Korea). Man, like you just said, he was the Mike Tyson of Korea. I mean, he had such a following, you wouldn’t believe how many people ended up at the arena when he would fight. He was above my weight class. I was at 106 pounds. He was at 112 pounds. He beat my teammate Arthur Johnson (at the 1988 Olympic Games). When I knew that I was going to fight him, I said, “Oh, yeah I always wanted to fight him.” I wish I was at his weight class at the Olympics. I thought even better now to fight him as a professional.
MW: I know you have mentioned that winning a world title can make you a much better fighter. Why is that?
MC: That gives you all the confidence in the world and it boosts your energy once you get in the ring. You just say, “I’m not losing this. I’m not gonna lose this.” It just makes you at least 25% better with confidence and mentally. That’s what helps a lot. Because, if you are mentally confident, nobody can beat you.
MW: You were really big on winning the title and defending it. Why do you think that precedence is lost nowadays? Why was it so important for you to win the title and defend it?
MC: I just won the title and I took it fight by fight. Whoever you are going to put in the ring with me, put them in. Give me the number one contenders. That’s what I was telling my promoters. I said look, “Just give me number one, after number one, after number one. Whoever is at number 2 after number one, give me him.” That’s the way I took it.
MW: Can you talk about the importance of body punching and how it can add to a fighter’s arsenal?
MC: Oh man. The body punches are the best. You got to work that body and that’s what I tell the kids here. Work the body. The young ones don’t understand it, especially the fourteen and fifteen-year olds. I say, “Look. If you start throwing that right hand to the body, or left hook to the body. Watch.” You will see the way he grunts and you will be like, “Now I know what he is talking about!” He’ll start working the body after that.
MW: That left hook of yours was really vital in many of your fights and it knocked a lot of guys out. When did you discover that it was really a tool that you could use? How did you set it up usually?
MC: Every time I threw the left hook, I remember my father said, “Just throw the left hook really short.” My father’s favorite fighter was Joe Louis. He says (Michael father), “You throw a left hook like Joe Louis, and you’ll knock everybody out.” I was looking at Joe Louis’ fights and he threw a shorter left hook than any fighter. It would be two or three inches. And I said, “Damn!” (Michael chuckles).
MW: The National Boxing Hall of Fame is coming up very soon. Next year you are going to be inducted alongside Chiquita Gonzalez and Julio Cesar Chavez. How excited are you for the event?
MC: I’m very excited. Two great fighters. Chavez, legend. Chiquita, a legend himself. And I am with them. Hey, that’s just very satisfying.
MW: Despite Chiquita being your rival back in the day. I know you guys had three very hotly contested fights. How are you guys able to be so cordial nowadays and be such great friends to one another?
MC: It’s the respect. The respect we gave each other inside the ring. After that, we already knew that we’re friends now. I mean, he could fight. I could fight. That’s why we became friends as we see each other. When we see each other, there are no grudges.
MW: We are about to have the 25th anniversary--Original Celebrity Fight Night took place on April 14, 1994--coming up next year of Celebrity Fight Night. Talk about how it started with you, and you were in the ring with a couple of Phoenix Suns legends weren’t you?
MC: Yes. I was in there with Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle. We started that Celebrity Fight Night in order to raise funds for the gym (Then called Carbajal’s 9th St Gym, now called Michael Carbajal’s 9th St Gym). This gym here. All the proceeds went to here. Hey, the gym is still here. That’s why. It helped. It helped out a lot.
MW: How much of a thrill is it to be back at the International Boxing Hall of Fame during Hall- of-Fame Weekend in Canastota, New York? You get to reunite with all of your old friends. How awesome is that?
MC: It’s great. We just have a whole lot of fun. You meet fighters that you haven’t even met. Or, fighters that you wanted to meet. It’s great to see everybody. To be with the champions like that, that have been in the Hall of Fame. It’s terrific man. Fantastic.
MW: You ended your career on a high note. Even though you knocked out Jorge Arce in Tijuana in 1999, you went back to Tijuana once again didn’t you? Can you talk about that?
MC: One time. It was probably about three months after the fight. One of my friends said, “If we go to Tijuana just to have fun, we aren’t going to have fun. Nobody is going to like you over there. They are going to remember you whipping Arce’s ass.” I said, “Listen man. No they are not. They are going to be cool. Watch.” We went over there and had the greatest times of our lives. They were coming up to me, talking about the Arce fight. We were cool.
MW: What was it you said to Arce in the locker room right after you beat him?
MC: He was crying afterwards. You know, he was only 22 years old. I was 32 at the time. I already knew after the fight that it was going to be my last fight. I’ll tell you why. But, I went to his dressing room, because a friend of mine that used to train here knew Arce. He said, “Hey man. Arce is in there and he is crying.” I said, “Hold on.” When I saw him crying in the dressing room, I said “Arce. Don’t cry. You are going to be champion again. Stop crying.” He just looked at me and gave me a hug. Later on, he became a three- or four-time world champion at different weight classes. I knew he was going to be champion.
MW: Michael Buffer. He is your good luck charm isn’t he?
MC: Yea he is.
MW: Do you credit him for some of your wins?
MC: I just love the way he used to announce. I remember when I was going to fight with Chiquita at the Forum (Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California). They told me that Jimmy Lennon Jr. was going to announce the fight. I told Top Rank, “You let Jimmy Lennon Jr. do Chiquita. You bring Michael Buffer in to announce me.” They said, “Michael, we never did that before. That has never happened.” I said, “It is going to happen this time or I am not going to walk into the ring.” I mean, I was going to walk into the ring even if Jimmy Lennon Jr. was going to announce for me because I love him too.
MW: You were able to come back in a lot of your fights. Especially the very first fight against Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, in which you came back following two knockdowns. A lot of people couldn’t do that. What was it that allowed you to do that? What kind of mental makeup did you have in that fight?
MC: First, it is the mentality. It’s the mentality of knowing. You know what it is? It’s the conditioning. You have to be in great condition to take punches like that. The first knockdown was a flash knockdown. The second knockdown, I was hurt. Once I got up, I was still wobbly. I said, “Man. I know he is going to come at me. I got to be careful and just cover up or grab him. Do something.” But, he kept punching and punching. I just grabbed him. Once I felt my leg hit the canvas, my leg went to sleep. You can’t feel the canvas. With one leg you can, and the other one you can’t. It’s like when you sit down for a long time and you get up, your leg falls asleep and you can’t feel the ground, that’s what it feels like. Once I felt the canvas, I said, “You’re mine.” That’s it and that’s what happened.
MW: There was a point in your career where you had to make a comeback. What made you know that you still had something in the tank?
MC: I knew because I wasn’t going to go out with a loss. I always told my dad, “I’m going to be champion and I’m going to retire champion.” That still makes me cry! (Michael Carbajal begins to get chocked up.) Because, it happened a long time ago, and I did it. That’s what I wanted to do. I always told him, “I don’t want to go out like all the greats.” All of them just stood there for too long. And then they get knocked out or lose, and they keep losing. Then they still think they can fight. You know what it is? It’s hard to let it go. It’s very hard. Believe me. It was very hard for me to let go. But, I knew that I was smart enough to not go back in there. After I knocked out Arce, I said “That’s it.”
Michael Carbajal had such a great impact on the sport, and many great champions in the smaller weight divisions would not receive the recognition they do now if it was not for “Manitas de Piedra.” He may be the greatest athlete in the history of the state of Arizona, and his influence has reached the entire world. If you would like to see what he is up to nowadays, the Hall-of- Fame ring legend can be found on social media. Featured on his social media pages are pictures and videos of his glory days, and content of him working with current fighters at Michael Carbajal’s 9th St. Gym. His Instagram handle is @michaelcarbajal_official, and he is on Facebook under the name @MichaelCarbajalofficial. By no means is his impact on the sport complete. He would make for a great promoter, and he welcomes all comers of any skill level to his gym which is open to the public. He is as gracious as can be to fans he meets.