- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
It seems a curious place for a boxing ring, but there it is, by heaven, in front of the glass-enclosed racquetball courts, one floor above the basketball court, a few steps from the cocktail lounge and just off the main lobby of the posh La Mancha Athletic Club and Resort Hotel in Phoenix. And so that no one will miss it, a banner stretched across a lobby wall proclaims MICHAEL CARBAJAL DAILY WORKOUTS—OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Inside the ring, Carbajal, the little man of La Mancha, the newly acclaimed Manitas de Piedra ("Little Hands of Stone"), is steadfastly belaboring sparring partner Abner Barrajas as club members in racquetball attire cheer him.
La Mancha represents a dramatic step up in class for the 22-year-old Carbajal, who learned to box in a makeshift ring that his oldest brother, Danny, who's now his manager, built for him in the family garage, a few miles but many dollars away. And if Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and NBC are correct, Carbajal will soon be luxuriating in even more exalted circumstances. By winning a unanimous 12-round decision over Tony (Bazooka) DeLuca on Feb. 18 in Phoenix, Carbajal became the first member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team to win a professional title—the North American Boxing Federation junior flyweight championship. NBC signed a three-fight deal with Carbajal in November, and Arum, who has a two-year promotional contract with Carbajal, thinks he can become the first boxer of his weight class to win a million-dollar purse and only the second American ever to win a world championship in the 15-year history of the junior, or light, flyweight division.
Light flyweight? Why, that's a guy not quite half the size of Buster Douglas. Is the U.S. boxing public ready for a 108-pound champion? Kevin Monaghan, NBC's boxing coordinator, had his doubts, but he's now a convert to thinking small. The DeLuca bout was the first sub-bantamweight bout ever shown as a main event on a major network, and it earned a respectable 5.0 Nielson rating for NBC. "I asked [boxing commentator] Ferdie Pacheco if people would watch anyone that small," says Monaghan. "He said, 'Look, there are only the two of them in the ring. Nobody will know how big they are.' "
Monaghan was also encouraged by viewer response to another little guy, IBF featherweight champion Jorge Paez of Mexico, whose win last summer over Steve Cruz pulled down the highest network rating—7.4—of any boxer in 1989. "The little men give you more action per round," says Monaghan. "Besides, Michael had a lot of exposure during the Olympics. I think people saw him then as an exciting fighter and as an attractive personality."
In Seoul, Carbajal was on the verge of winning a gold medal at 106 pounds when he lost on an outrageous decision to Ivailo Hristov of Bulgaria (a Bulgarian was chairman of all the Olympic referees). Carbajal, ever unflappable, took the defeat in stride. "I was disappointed, naturally," he says, "but I was just happy to be in the Olympic Games. And I knew in my heart I'd won."
Carbajal has many marketable qualities, including an attractive personality—confident but modest—and boyish good looks. He wears his black hair short on top with a pigtail in back; he has a wispy mustache and is slender, not skinny. At 5'5�" he has a considerable height and reach advantage over his light flyweight opponents, most of whom are about 5'1" or 5'2". Moreover, with 12 wins without a loss as a pro—seven by knockout—he has demonstrated unusual punching power in a division scarcely noted for belters.
For that matter, light flyweights in the U.S. are not noted for much of anything. The division is dominated by Asians and Latin Americans, who seldom fight in this country. Carbajal will meet the IBF world champ, Thailand's Muangshai Kittikasem, on May 13. Although Carbajal is light enough to drop to 105 pounds and fight for the even more esoteric strawweight (or mini-flyweight) crown, he hopes to become a flyweight (112 pounds), a junior bantamweight (115) and eventually a bantamweight (118), winning four world championships along the way.
The U.S. hasn't had a world flyweight champion since Midget Wolgast in 1930, and the best flyweights have almost always been foreigners. The division is best known here for the inventive nicknames affixed to its diminutive combatants: Little Jeff Smith, Tiny Smith, Nic Petit-Biquet, Baby Arizmendi, Little Dempsey, Boy Walley, Kid Socks, Small Montana, Perfecto Lopez, Young Rightmire, Glover's Nipper.
The Little Hands of Stone could bring respect to pint-sized pugs in this country. Carbajal's credentials as a local hero are certainly in order. His family, originally from Mexico, settled in Arizona long before it was granted statehood in 1912. Carbajal's great-grandmother was even kidnapped by Apaches near Tombstone. His grandfather grew up in Tempe. His father, Manuel, who was the state Golden Gloves flyweight and bantamweight champion in the late 1940s, taught all nine of his children, three daughters included, to box. Brothers Danny, now 39, Alex, 23, and Angel, 19, all fought as amateurs.
Michael announced at age six that he wanted to become a world champion like his idol, the original Hands of Stone, Roberto Duran. Carbajal's love of family and his preoccupation with boxing kept him out of trouble in Verde Park, a Phoenix neighborhood that became increasingly beset by drugs and gangs. "I never got into any of that," he says. "The other kids knew how dedicated I was to boxing, and I think they respected that. I didn't grow up at all like a bunch of guys I know. I grew up settled down."