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JIM MURRAY

CAMACHO : Smug Pug Makes Public Fighting Mad

September 11, 1997|JIM MURRAY

LAS VEGAS — Every big fight has elements of a morality play in it. There's a good guy and a bad guy. Tunney was the bad guy when he fought Dempsey. Liston was the bad guy when he fought Patterson. Jack Johnson was the bad guy so often he almost retired the role.

And there's no question who's the villain in the Macho Camacho-Oscar De La Hoya fight. It's the Macho Man by a landslide. Or by a sneer, if you will.

There was an old-time movie star known as "The Man You Love To Hate," Erich Von Stroheim. He showed there was a lot of money to be made out of old-fashioned hate. Professional wrestling picked up on it.

Hector Camacho didn't need a monocle and a German accent to fill the role. He did it just by being himself, the fighter you love to hate. He can fill arenas with people who come to see him get his just dues, his butt kicked, if you will, his nose bloodied, ear cauliflowered.

If Dennis Rodman were a prizefighter he'd be Hector Camacho. Both of them revel in shocking the world. Both are loud, good, unpredictable and as annoying to the public as a guy who plays his radio too loud. As role models, they're about as useful as vampire bats.

Macho Camacho has never said the right thing in his life. Oscar De La Hoya, on the other hand, has never said the wrong thing. Oscar talks class, Macho talks trash.

Oscar is "Golden Boy." Macho is, well, "Brass" comes to mind.

Oscar was not exactly an altar boy but he never played hooky, joined a gang or took a drug in his life. He answers questions in English and Spanish to win the affections of his fellow Mexican-Americans who may think he's forgetting his roots. Macho never went to school, read a book or passed up a chance to join anybody who was outside the law in his life. He didn't learn to read till he was 15 and the things he had the most trouble with were the Ten Commandments, particularly "Thou shalt not steal." He doesn't care what his countrymen (Puerto Ricans) think of him.

"I was retarded," he claimed here the other day. "I was out shoplifting, looking for trouble." Rules were for other people, not the Macho Man.

Oscar was winning a gold medal for his country, Macho was stealing one for himself. Oscar plays golf, Macho plays craps. He was a hyperactive child, and he's a hyperactive adult. He has a positive flair for rubbing people the wrong way, doing exactly what nobody wants. For instance, in his last fight, he committed the unpardonable sin of beating up Sugar Ray Leonard, no less. Not only beating him, knocking him out in the process. That's about as endearing to the public as burning the flag. Sugar Ray was an icon.

Still, he was a 40-year-old icon and Macho is not interested in press clippings, even though he can now read them relatively easily.

Macho kept interrupting a pre-fight news conference Wednesday by leaping to his feet, pulling off his tank top, mugging for the cameras. He's a born scene-stealer.

Still, he is coming off a winning streak of 21 fights, including a win over another over-age idol, Roberto Duran. He has lost only three fights of 67 as a professional, only two of 92 as an amateur.

He has the credentials to be a hero but he doesn't care for the sensation. He much prefers to antagonize people. He has a claque of hangers-on he encourages to break out into a "It's Macho Time!" at judicious intervals--particularly when his opponent is trying to answer questions.

He likes to climb into the ring in outlandish costumes more suited to a burlesque show than a prize ring. He may appear in loincloth or in drag. He thumbs his nose at the world.

So they'll pay through the nose to see him get his comeuppance from De La Hoya Saturday night in the WBC welterweight title fight Caesars Palace is putting on at Thomas & Mack Center here.

In the movies, the men you love to hate got carried out with a sheet over their faces by the fade-out while the men you love to love ride off into the sunset with the schoolmarm.

But pugilism is not scripted, doesn't often deal in happy endings. So, there is always the chance they'll have to help pugilism's Eagle Scout to his feet Saturday night and apply smelling salts. More like an Italian movie than a Hollywood one.

Macho doesn't think that's a bad script or poison at the box office. "Boxing needs a bad boy," he tells you.

Some people might disagree. Boxing may be up to its trunks in bad boys. Boxing needs a few good boys more.

Is Oscar De La Hoya the guy in the white hat? Macho sneers. "He fights guys in a gym. He's never been fought, really fought. I'll fight him, I'll beat him down. He'll wish he never heard of me."

Erich Von Stroheim couldn't have said it better. On the other hand, he never did get an Oscar either.

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