There is a simple rule to predicting boxing stardom: knockouts equal success. A quick look at the biggest draws in boxing's recent years confirms this: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Arturo Gatti, Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Ricky Hatton, and Felix Trinidad all won a preponderance of their fights by knockout, and all were massive box-office draws. By contrast, even the most highly skilled technical fighters—guys like Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker and Bernard Hopkins—struggled to draw fans without a bigger-name opponent. I can think of only two recent exceptions to this well-established rule. One is Floyd Mayweather, who in spite of a risk-averse (and, frankly, boring) style has become a draw simply by virtue of his dominance and a personality so wretched that people tune in on the off-chance that he'll roll his shoulder a moment too late and finally catch one flush on the chin. The other is one of the greatest performers ever to lace up the gloves, Hector "Macho" Camacho, who died on Saturday, four days after being shot in the face while sitting in a car in Bayamon, P.R.
Camacho's boxing accomplishments are impressive enough on their own: four championships in three divisions; victories over Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Vinny Pazienza, and Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini; 79 victories against only six losses, most of which came long after he first "retired." But those facts alone don't explain why the public so loved the original "Macho Man." It was the flamboyant patter, the sneering grin after a slipped punch, the trademark spit curl that dangled over his forehead like a matador's red flag. It was the Liberace's-discard-pile wardrobe. In 1988, as USA Today reminds us, he was pulled over in a black Ferrari doing only 35 mph on the Interstate in Florida. The state trooper would later say Camacho was "doing the wild thing" with a woman.
Camacho was both salesman and product, with little daylight in between. He was a showman before fighters (and pro wrestlers, for that matter) had their own entrance music, before Prince Naseem Hamed and Floyd Mayweather turned the ring walk into a theatrical event unto itself, before top fighters regularly engaged in pre-fight "feuds" only to embrace afterward and reveal it was all a stunt. "When I fought him," Oscar De La Hoya told Yahoo's Kevin Iole, "that was the first fight I was involved in where the opponent was really selling the fight hard. He was definitely advanced when it came to the marketing side of boxing and selling himself."
Of course, none of that would have mattered if Camacho had lacked the skills to compete with the best in the sport. But he was unquestionably a world-class fighter. Working out of a deep crouch, the frills of his trunks flouncing around his knees, he would flick a wicked right jab and throw flurries of improbably accurate punches. He had fast hands and good feet, and the combination produced a sort of fencer's lightness when he was on the attack. He always kept his balance, too (in 88 trips to the ring, he was never knocked out). When Macho was at his best, it sometimes seemed like he and his opponents were not only fighting at entirely different speeds but that they were fighting in entirely different dimensions.
Reduced to its simplest level, boxing is about one thing: punching the other guy really hard. Camacho, incredibly, managed to elevate the sport even while refusing to adhere to that most basic principle. When he fought, the night was not about the punch; it was not about the looming, electric threat of a knockout; it was about the whole show. Hector Camacho was bigger than the knockout. Rest in peace, champ. Nah … that's just not your style. Rest in splendor.
IronMikeGallego is a Deadspin commenter and degenerate boxing fan. Direct all complaints to email@example.com or @ironmikegallego on Twitter.