While growing up, Hector Camacho, an angelic-looking resident of Spanish Harlem, had two passions: punching people and boosting cars. The former got him thrown out of seven schools; the latter earned him time in the slammer. "Now I can no longer do crazy things like steal beautiful cars," says the 20-year-old Camacho, the WBC's eighth-ranked junior lightweight. "I have a son and an aging mother who depend upon me, so I just do what I was born to do. I am a fighter."
Last Saturday in Atlantic City, Camacho made better than $50,000 fulfilling his true destiny, on this occasion stopping Johnny Sato of the Philippines, the WBC's No. 6 contender, in the fourth round. "That's a lot of money," said Camacho. "A few years ago if I had met Sato on 115th Street, I would've done the same thing for nothing."
The bout was Camacho's 17th as a professional, his 117th if you add in his 96-4 amateur record, and like maybe his 3,000th if you include all the rumbles in the barrio. He has never lost a pro fight. And if you accept his accounting, he was unbeaten in the streets, although once in a while he had to resort to a brick or a baseball bat to get the decision.
Sato, 27, a southpaw, is noted for his toughness. He entered the fight with a 37-5 record and 24 knockouts, one of them over former WBC champ Rolando Navarrete. He had been knocked down only twice and both times got up to win. He received $30,000 to test his chin against the southpaw fury of Camacho.
Not that Camacho is one of the world's big hitters. Rather, he's the purist's blend of artistry and speed, and only occasionally reverts to some of the less refined moves he learned in the streets. He has been known to hit on the break and has a knack for spinning an opponent and then whacking him from behind. "What do you expect?" says Camacho with a saintly smile. "I'm just a gutter kid up to no good."
He showed that last March, when he had Raphael Lopez pinned against the ropes in the third round. The ref ordered them to break, and as Camacho took one step back, Lopez dropped his hands. So Camacho stepped forward and drilled a right to Lopez' jaw that rendered him unconscious for 10 minutes. In July, Camacho deftly spun Louie Loy 180 degrees and then reached around and banged him with a right hook to the nose.
"None of that stuff is dirty," says Billy Giles, 29, Camacho's manager and trainer. "We studied the rule book. It just says you can't hit the guy in the back of the neck with a rabbit punch. It don't say nothing about hitting him in the face from behind. And on the break [against Loy] we took one step back. Besides, if Loy is too dumb to protect himself at all times, he ought to get knocked out." Against Sato, Camacho was as pure as a choirboy, and only once did Referee Larry Hazzard have to warn him—for grabbing Sato by the neck with his right while pulling him into a short left.
A counterpuncher for the first three rounds, Camacho was content to drive nails into Sato's face with snapping jabs. They are so swift, that when Camacho delivers them in rapid succession, they appear as one. He was waiting for Sato to throw something meaningful so he could counter through the opening with a hook or an uppercut. "I try to set up for the big punch," said Sato after the fight. "I first try to catch his punches, but they were coming so fast I no catch them."
As the fourth round opened, Camacho began swinging all out from both sides. For three rounds he had searched; now he was out to destroy. The game Sato began to wilt. Camacho almost cut him in half with two body shots and then jolted his head back with a right uppercut. Slowly Sato began to sag, as though someone was trying to lower him gently to the floor. Two more uppercuts followed him down, and a straight left nailed him just as his seat hit the floor. Then he rolled over on his side.
As Hazzard counted, Sato stared up at him. Sato could hear the count and he struggled to get up. "My head said, 'Get off the floor,' but my body no work," said Sato. "That punch he hit me with, that uppercut, that was good one."
Despite a street brawl three months ago, Camacho insists he's trying to confine his fisticuffs to the ring. "I got into that last fight only because I was trying to help a friend who was on angel dust," he says. "I tried talking to him but he was dusted, so I dropped it. The next day when he'd come down, I told him what he was doing was no good. He didn't like it, so he pushed me. So I pushed him. He threw a punch, so I beat the hell out of him. Two or three guys jumped in to stop me, so I beat the hell out of them."
Born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Camacho was three when he came to the U.S. with his mother and older sister. They settled on 112th Street in Spanish Harlem. Later they moved to 115th. A veteran of street combat by age nine, Camacho began to borrow other people's automobiles without their permission when he was 12. "I took only the best—BMWs, Mercedes and Caddys," he says. "Once I took a beautiful Corvette. And I took good care of them. I kept them washed and polished. Those cars really made me stand out."
They also made him stand out to the police. Not too many kids on 115th Street drive BMWs. The first time Camacho got caught, the judge put him on probation for three years. The second time Camacho spent 3½ months in the can. That's when he decided to find another hobby. "I've been on the inside and on the outside," he says. "I can tell you being outside is one hell of a lot better."
Camacho started boxing at 11 and five years later won the first of three New York City Golden Gloves titles. In September 1980 he beat David Brown in his first pro fight. "We're really moving," says Giles. "One, two more fights and we'll be set to challenge for the title."
"One more fight and Billy says I'll be able to buy my own car," says Camacho. "Right, Billy?"
Giles grins and nods.
"You better not be jiving me," says Camacho with a tight smile. "Because if I don't get a car after my next fight, you know damn well I'm going to go out and...."
Camacho (right), unbeaten as a pro and on the streets of Spanish Harlem, KO'd Sato.