They have had some good times together, but now they have no choice: They must tap gloves and say goodbye. Their rivalry, once as thrilling as a first kiss, has grown stale. The magic is gone. The romance has disappeared.
They first met a year and a half ago under the bright lights of Las Vegas. Barely more than 100 pounds apiece, they slugged it out for seven spectacular rounds before Michael Carbajal, the WBC light flyweight and IBF junior flyweight champion from Phoenix, knocked out the challenger, Humberto (Chiquita) Gonzalez of Ciudad Neza, Mexico. The two men followed that up last February with a split decision that gave the titles to Gonzalez and set the stage for a must-see rubber match.
The inimitable Don King staged it in the Plaza de Toros in Mexico City and called it the Real Thing in the Bull Ring: no cellulite, no senior citizens, just two supremely conditioned athletes in their prime. Imagine that. It was an exciting concept—until the bell rang. When the contestants renewed their acquaintance in the ring, it was almost as if they knew each other too well. Each was incapable of surprising the other. Fat guys at least knock each other down now and then.
Carbajal and Gonzalez stayed on their feet for 12 rounds last Saturday night, and the result was a workmanlike majority decision for the 28-year-old Gonzalez, who lost some respect while keeping his 108-pound belts.
"I did not like the fight," said Rafael Mendoza, Gonzalez's longtime adviser and spokesman. "He won, but he was too defensive. You've got to convince people who bought tickets that you gave them their money's worth. You've got to have the fire, and Chiquita did not have it tonight."
After the bout Gonzalez (40-2) announced that he might retire, but not even the locals seemed to care. He and Carbajal (32-2) had had something special, but through 12 rounds they neither brawled nor displayed the ring artistry expected of the fighters in the lower weight divisions. You can pay them a million dollars apiece, as King did this time around as part of a multifight deal. You can put them at the top of a pay-per-view card and at the bottom of an arena filled with 15,000 manic fight fans. You can even throw in a raging international controversy. In the end, you're still left with two little guys who will never light up the pay-per-view numbers the way the heavyweights can.
"It fizzled out because Chiquita wouldn't fight," said King. "He won by being a chess player, not a warrior. But you can't knock a man when he's the winner. He did what he had to do to win the fight."
Gonzalez is 5'1", with a lumpy face like Tattoo on Fantasy Island and a little man's mean streak. Carbajal, 27, is much taller, almost lanky at 5'5½". Neither man typically has much trouble making weight, although Carbajal was declared one gram over the 108-pound limit when he stepped on the scale at last Friday's weigh-in. He made a quick trip to his room, where, presumably, he clipped his nails and cleaned his ears, and returned 20 minutes later and checked in right at the limit.
When the fight began, Carbajal went on the attack and kept Gonzalez moving in reverse for the first half-dozen rounds. Carbajal seemed to lose his edge early in the seventh, when he knocked heads with Gonzalez, and a deep gash opened up on the outer corner of his left eyelid. The blood that poured in a straight line down the side of his face was smeared a minute later when the two fighters met in a brief clinch.
By Round 8 Gonzalez was the aggressor, going right at Carbajal and knocking him back on his heels. Carbajal's corner worked on the cut between rounds, but the blood kept flowing. By the time Carbajal let go with a burst of energy in the 12th, it was too late. Gonzalez was not going to go down. At the final bell both fighters raised their arms in victory, but the circumstances just weren't right for Carbajal to walk away with a decision.
Before the result was announced, the crowd bombarded the ring with seat cushions, and it might have gotten ugly if the native son had lost. But one judge called it a draw, while the other two had Gonzalez ahead (117-114 and 116-113). It was close but not controversial. After months of anticipation the rivalry was as dead as the bulls that had come here to fight in the same ring.
"I will never accept another fight with Carbajal," said Mendoza afterward. "We need to present fights that people will enjoy. They did not enjoy this one."
They certainly enjoyed the undercard, though, especially the bizarre WBC super welterweight bout that saw Terry Norris knock out his opponent but still lose his belt. In Round 5, 35-year-old Luis Santana missed with a wild right and lunged into the ropes as Norris stepped around him and then clubbed him on the back of the head. Santana dropped to the mat, and nearly everyone thought he was playing possum, including the physician in attendance, Horacio Ramirez, who kept bellowing into Santana's ear that if he did not rise, he would be declared the loser.
For more than eight minutes, as Santana lay on the canvas, he received nothing more than a cursory examination. At some point during Santana's repose, the downside of this spectacle evidently dawned on WBC president Josè Sulaimàn: What if Santana really was lying there injured while Sulaimàn's officials occupied themselves with the question of who should be awarded the victory. Whereupon Santana was tossed onto a stretcher and trundled from the ring as referee Mitch Halpern gave him the victory by disqualifying Norris. The new champion visited a clinic shortly after the bout and was seen later that evening relaxing with friends back at his hotel.
By the time WBC strawweight champ Ricardo Lopez had finished battering Javier Varguez to a pulp for an eighth-round TKO, the intensity, such as it was, had built for the main event. Carbajal had 25 friends and family members on his side; the rest of the assemblage was with Gonzalez. Carbajal had hoped the home crowd would force Gonzalez to stand and fight and give his people a show. He chose instead to give them a victory. It was hard to say whether he had made the right decision.
Afterward Gonzalez saluted his victim, while Carbajal and his brother Danny, who is also his manager, refused to contest the decision. "Why take anything away from Gonzalez?" said Danny. "He's the champ. There's no reason to say anything."
Why spoil a perfectly dull evening? Somewhere in Las Vegas, promoter Bob Arum giggled himself to sleep. Carbajal left Arum in July to sign on with King, who promised the fighter a bigger payday than Arum could guarantee for Gonzalez-Carbajal III. Carbajal, believe it or not, is suing Arum for not paying him for his previous fight, a decision over Josue Camacho, but the promoter says that the Carbajals forfeited their $75,000 check when they breached their contract by jumping to King. In two separate interviews from his office in Las Vegas last week Arum called Danny Carbajal "a skunk" and a "sewer rat." The Mexican writers are still working on a literal translation of sewer rat.
King, not surprisingly, expressed great fondness for the brothers. "I love them, I love the Carbajals," he said. Then, referring to his recent indictment in federal court on an insurance fraud charge, King added, "They both came to me when the United States government dropped a dagger on me, just like they did to the Mexicans with 187."
God bless Proposition 187. There would have been nothing for King to talk about in the week leading up to the fight if not for the voters of California, who on Nov. 8 approved a referendum that would deny illegal aliens in the state nearly all government services. The election returns were a hanging slider in King's expansive wheelhouse. King staged a running anti-Prop 187 rally, which worked out nicely for the local media. They were irate over the measure, and they could hardly believe their luck. Here was one of the most famous men in America ranting and railing right along with them. Best of all, most of them couldn't understand a word he said. "It is a sad situation for America," said King. "It's totally racist and wrong. How can we blame people for wanting to come to America? It's like holding a steak out to a wolf and telling him he can't have any."
At the final prefight press conference, Sulaimàn threatened a WBC boycott of California sites while King delivered one of his wacky history lessons. From a booth in the back of the room, a woman attempted to interpret for the Mexican media. She may never be the same. Of Prop 187, Carbajal, who is of Mexican descent, did say, "It's racist, and it's bad," but the crowd on Saturday night still jeered him as if he were California governor Pete Wilson himself.
Carbajal will take a few weeks off and let his cut heal before planning his next move. "I'd fight Gonzalez again," he said. "I'd fight anyone."
He just won't get paid a million dollars to do it, and he won't be the main act again for a while. He and Gonzalez were just two tough little guys who had a good thing going. Now it's over. Time to move on to bigger things.
So when do the fat guys fight again?
Bloodied by a head butt in the seventh round, Carbajal began to yield the offensive to Gonzalez.
By Round 11, the champion was controlling the action and keeping Carbajal at bay with his left.