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Richard Hoffer
August 06, 1990
Michael Carbajal won the IBF light flyweight title in a furious bout
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August 06, 1990

Less Can Be More

Michael Carbajal won the IBF light flyweight title in a furious bout

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Michael Carbajal may not be boxing's best, pound for pound, but he soon could be the most expensive. There are not so many pounds of him, but all 108 that he carried into the ring in Phoenix on Sunday soared in value in the course of fewer than 20 minutes of furious fighting. In fact, the sweat hadn't yet dried—in Phoenix it hardly ever does this time of year—before promoter Bob Arum began talking of a million-dollar purse for his light flyweight, who won the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Arum, who also fronts for the most inexpensive big-name fighter, pound for pound—George Foreman—has the promoter's natural inclination to judge a boxer by his ability to produce record-breaking revenue. "Actually," said Arum, after a moment of thought, "I'm not so sure I'll settle for a million."

A bit of promotional hype? Perhaps, but coming after Carbajal's seventh-round TKO of IBF champion Muangshai Kittikasem, it was not entirely absurd. Carbajal, 22, was the first of the '88 Olympians to fight for a professional title. As a pro, he is easily the U.S. team's most popular fighter, bringing more action into the ring than a dozen heavyweights routinely provide. He floored the previously unbeaten Kittikasem three times going into the final round, before catching him with an uppercut and two quick rights to end the bout. Fourteen seconds into Round 7, Kittikasem sagged into the ropes and then, his body language suggesting that enough was enough, sensibly sat down and rolled over. Referee Robert Ferrara just as sensibly called the fight to a halt.

A less game fighter than Kittikasem, a 22-year-old from Thailand, would have folded far sooner. However, until the seventh round he was resolute throughout Carbajal's assault. The punishment was fierce, indeed. In Round 5, Carbajal hit him with a straight right to the stomach; Kittikasem nearly crumpled at the blow.

While the vanquishing of an undefeated champion—Kittikasem, largely unknown outside Asia, was making his fourth title defense—was entertaining in itself, it was natural to think of Carbajal's future in terms of the box office. That a little guy can make heavyweight money is an intriguing notion. Arum had to pay $150,000 to lure Kittikasem from Thailand; in boxing's lower weight classes, such a sum is regarded as Jose Canseco money. Kittikasem had never made half that amount. Now a light flyweight is being considered for a pay-per-view fight and a million-dollar purse.

The oddest part of all this is that probably no champion has less interest in money than Carbajal. So far, his most extravagant purchase has been a 1962 Chevy Impala, which he bought for $2,500. He still lives with his parents in a Phoenix neighborhood of such dilapidation that on the street, a boulevard of empty lots mostly, the church is called the Church on the Street. This is a simplicity of life that Carbajal intends to enforce by remaining in the neighborhood and by naming things for what they actually are. He hopes to put a gym on one of the lots, but can't decide on the sign except that, he says, "It will either be CARBAJAL'S NINTH STREET GYM Or MICHAEL CARBAJAL'S NINTH STREET GYM." He squints at the dilemma; you can see his problem.

The money will come nonetheless, and it will be far more than the $75,000 he received for drawing a crowd of 8,732 to Veteran's Memorial Coliseum. Carbajal was making his fourth network-TV appearance, and he has a contract for another one in December, making him the 1988 Olympian with the most exposure in the U.S. According to Arum, the rest of the team doesn't have four TV appearances between them. This is unabashed promotional nonsense, but for a guy who's not even 5'6", Carbajal has become pretty visible, which means marketable.

"In a million years I wouldn't have dreamed it," says Arum. Former bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval, who scouts the little guys for Arum, persuaded him to interview Carbajal and Carbajal's older brother-trainer, Danny, after the Olympics. Though Arum was skeptical, he took Carbajal on, though he wasn't even a gold medal winner, much less a boxer in a popular weight class. "But when all the TV guys started calling, I began to realize I might have something," says Arum. "I guess the people were attracted to his charisma and the whole story—a poor neighborhood with a barber chair on the family porch. These days, you gotta have a story."

A story is always a start in boxing, and the Carbajal story is undeniably appealing. Nine kids under one roof, a 10-foot ring in the backyard where Danny taught Michael how to scuffle. A visitor can still stumble upon the house and see Danny as he gives Michael a haircut. Of course, Danny has gone to barber school. And the haircut he gives is a pretty good one—sort of a fiat-top, to go along with the Impala, plus two thin ponytails.

Close inspection does not damage the story. Carbajal really does hope to provide his neighborhood with a full-blown recreation center, and he and Danny are buying lots as they become vacant. The houses sort of fall down on their own, Carbajal says. He certainly intends to remain on the block. "Why not?" says Danny. "His friends are there."

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