Bill Tibbs chats with Michael Carbajal in the last of his three-part series.
He won multiple world titles. In a very old-school approach to boxing, he always demanded to fight the very best fighters available. Less than a year-and-a-half after he turned pro, he was a world champion. And, he made a promise to his Dad to retire from boxing as a world champion - and he did! What a career! What a fighter!
In this, the third, of a three-part series on former world champion, and Hall of Fame, light flyweight Michael Carbajal, we look back at some of his most memorable fights.
Maxboxing caught up with the man who went by the nickname “Manitas De Piedra” (Little Hands of Stone) from his home in Phoenix, Arizona where he was born and raised, and still lives today.
Bill Tibbs: Thanks for taking a minute to chat Michael. How are things?
Michael Carbajal: No problem Bill, happy to do it. I’m good, thanks.
BT: I really wanna focus on specific fights throughout your career today.
MC: Sounds good.
BT: Your pro debut. You’ve just come off a great amateur career, medalling at the ’88 Olympics. You didn’t go in soft fighting an undefeated guy who would later become a world champion. February 24th, 1989, Minnesota’s Will Grigsby in Atlantic City. What do you recall?
MC: I didn’t know how good or tough he’d be, but I did after (laughs). He was a tough guy. He had a win as a pro already. I didn’t know him from the amateurs at all. I didn’t know he would, one day, become a world champion But, I knew that I would. After the fight I thought, ‘Man, that guy is good, he’s going to be a good fighter’. But I got the win and was very excited to be on my way in the pro’s.
BT: Over the next year, you remain undefeated, you’re signed with Top Rank Boxing, you pick up the NABF light flyweight title and then the big day - your world title shot. Tell me about it.
MC: July 29, 1990. I remember that day so well; I’ll remember it as long as I live. Fighting for a world title in my hometown of Phoenix. I was so excited man; it was a dream come true. It is something my Dad had talked to me about since I was a little boy. The guy I was fighting, (Thailand’s Muangchai Kittikasem, 11-0, 7 KO’s) was a puncher and he was tough. When I came back to the corner I said to my trainer, ‘Man, this guy is hurting me with his power shots’. My trainer said, ‘Michael, that’s his jab’. The guy had a very hard jab. I knew I had to get him out of there, and I did in the 7th round. I’ll never forget that day; it was a dream come true. To win it in my hometown was great.
BT: Over the next 2 years you make 6 title defenses, plus you have 6 non-title fights in between; you kept very busy. You don’t see champions doing that now – staying busy with non-title fights in between title defenses. You had an old school mentality – fight often.
MC: Not only fight often but fight the best guys I could. If it wasn’t a title defense then I wanted the top contender. If he wasn’t available, then I wanted the #2 guy, if not him, then the next guy down the line. I told my trainer, and Top Rank, that I wanted to fight every other month. I told them I didn’t care who it was. Just give me the best guy available. I was a fighter and I loved to fight.
BT: March 13, 1993. Your first of a great trilogy of fights with the legend Humberto Gonzalez. He’s coming in as a very experienced guy. He has 10 title defenses over 2 title runs already. Tough. A puncher. Huge hype on that fight. How did you feel going in?
MC: I was very excited and looking forward to the fight. Since I was a little boy, I had dreamed of fighting guys like this. I used to follow all the great fighters at the old Olympic Auditorium in L.A. and I dreamed that one day I would be fighting in fights like that - and this was it.
BT: Did you realize how big the fight was at the time? People say that fight was the start of really opening the doors for smaller weight fighters to become big stars again (like the old, L.A. Olympic days) and start to headline big shows.
MC: I knew it was big but didn’t realize the impact the fight had until later on. I knew it was big though because of the media coverage and the money we were making. I had paid attention to Chiquita before and I knew he had a big following in Mexico. So, we had the Mexican-American vs. the Mexican which made it even bigger among fight fans.
BT: After that amazing comeback knockout in the 7th round against Gonzalez, in the ‘Fight of the Year’, you are officially a star in boxing.
MC: I was very happy with the win and that was what it was all about to me – beating the best. It was never about the fame and the fortune for me. It was always about being the best fighter I could be and that win, beating Gonzalez, was a part of that.
BT: Over the next 3 years, you have 2 more great fights with Gonzalez. Although both close, decision losses, they really cement that trilogy as legendary fights among flyweights. You regain the IBF light flyweight title and are enjoying a nice run when you go up against a relatively unknown, but very tough, Mauricio Pastrana. What do you recall about that fight?
MC: I had boxed against another Colombian a couple fights before that in Iowa and he was telling me that ‘you’ll beat Pastrana easily, don’t worry’. I didn’t know anything about Pastrana, but it didn’t matter because I was a fighter that made adjustments as the fight went on. I thought I won the fight, but they gave it to him. He was a tough guy and I respect him. But, he was so unknown and the judges were so shocked he hung in there with me that everything he did they gave him more credit than he really deserved. I thought I won that fight. But it is what it is.
BT: Being Canadian, I have to ask you about your next fight against Canada’s Scotty “The Bulldog” Olson. You stopped him but he gave you a good fight.
MC: Yes, he did. Scotty was a puncher and I knew him from the amateurs. But, he knew I could punch too. He always wanted to fight me in the pro’s and we finally got to fight in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was a good fight. I have a lot of respect for Scotty - he was a good fighter.
BT: Then, 4 months after the Olson fight, you have a frustrating night against South Africa’s Jacob Matlala, getting stopped on cuts in Las Vegas. Then you’re out of the ring for a year-and-a-half.
MC: Well, Bill, I’ll tell you, if you look at that fight it isn’t the punches that cut me up it was headbutts. I was disappointed that the ref stopped it and then the doctor said to stop it. After the fight I thought, ‘Man, maybe I won’t fight again’. I didn’t know if I was going to fight again. I said to my team, ‘If I can’t beat that guy then maybe I should stop’. But, after some time went by, I thought to myself that that isn’t the way I want to go out of boxing. I don’t want to end my career like that.
BT: You come back early ’99 and bang off 3 wins. This leads you to another world title shot against a young campion, Jorge Arce, who is 12 years younger than you.
MC: Bill, the thing was that Top Rank thought that they would bring me in and he would beat me. This would help to make Arce a star and they felt I didn’t have much left at this point. But I went in there and stopped him and got the win. During the fight, I knew that at one point that I’d be able to land the right hand and hurt him. My corner told me later in the fight, ‘you’ll have to knock him out to get the win’. I caught him and hurt him, and the ref stopped the fight. After the fight, I went to see him and told him to not be sad because he would be a world champion again one day. I was so happy, but I knew I could beat him. I believed in myself and I was a world champion again.
BT: You retired after that fight. And, unlike many fighters, you have remained retired. You left a lot of money on the table by not fighting again. Did you ever regret not going back for a few more nice paydays once you had the title again?
MC: I stuck to what I always said I would do. I didn’t really think about it. I always remembered what my father had said to me, ‘You’ll retire as world champion one day’. He had passed away in 1993 but if he was alive he would have said, ‘Ok, you have achieved your dream, now it’s time to retire. Remember what you said’ (laughs). So, I did what he said. There was nothing more for me to accomplish in boxing. I had done everything, and I always said I would retire as world champion and I did.
BT: How does Michael Carbajal want to be remembered?
MC: I never fought just for fame or for money. It wasn’t about that for me. I wanted to fight the best, I wanted to be the best and I wanted to become a world champion. I want to be remembered as a fighter who wanted to fight the very best fighters out there during his time in boxing, to prove he was the best.
BT: Great speaking with you again Michael. Please give my best to Laura. Thanks for your time.
MC: For sure Bill. Thank you.