PHOENIX – Michael Carbajal is sitting on a porch where his late father, Manuel, taught him how to throw a long jab and left hook that led to a Hall of Fame career yet never took him far from the home on a battered street that includes his name engraved into a fractured sidewalk outside of the Ninth Street Gym, just a block away.
Carbajal has always been about place. Then and now. As a young fighter, it created him and sustained him. As a retired fighter, it betrayed him and almost destroyed him.
Now at 43, he is fighting to re-claim it.
In a dogged pursuit of legal ownership of what was earned by his punches, Michael Carbajal’s battle with his brother and ex-trainer continues. Danny Carbajal is in prison, serving a 54-month sentence for fraud and felony-theft on charges he stole an estimated $2 million from Michael. Michael is seeking 12 pieces of Phoenix property he says were purchased with money stolen from him by Danny, who is eligible for parole in October.
“Look at all the evidence and everything is a scheme, nothing but a scheme,’’ Michael says as he looks out across a vacant lot and toward an urban landscape that he has known and now trusts more than a brother who was at his side throughout his career. “He’s really in a bad situation. All he is doing is lying, lying about everything.’’
In a recent deposition from the Arizona prison in Florence, south of Phoenix, Danny alleged that his late wife and Michael spent the money, Michael said.
“He is coming up with some things that are ridiculous – way, way, way ridiculous,’’ said Michael, whose companion, Laura Hall, has worked as the point-person in the legal fight. “He’s saying that me and Sally, that together we were spending that money instead of him. Bull—-, what a bunch of ridiculous bull—-.’’
Danny’s former wife, Sally, and boyfriend Gerry Best were murdered in a shooting on Feb. 25, 2005, three days before Danny and Sally were headed for divorce court. The scheduled divorce proceedings made Danny the initial suspect.
The homicide, still a cold case, happened in a parking lot near a Phoenix freeway a few months before a tearful Michael called his oldest brother “the world’s greatest trainer” during his 2005 Hall of Fame induction that June in Canastota, N.Y. Danny was in the audience. Not long after Michael thanked his oldest brother in Canastota, Michael said he began reviewing bank accounts. The more he looked at the numbers, the more his suspicions multiplied. In June 2007, he and Danny had planned to return to Canastota to celebrate the induction of Roberto Duran, Michael’s boyhood hero.
“But I didn’t go,” said Michael, who also says his 1988 Olympic silver medal, 1987 Pan-American Games silver medal and at least two championship belts were stolen from a bank vault. “I couldn’t, not after looking at those accounts. I saw all this stuff, all this money that he had spent. It was for stuff I never knew anything about. He calls me from the Hall of Fame and asked me why I’m not there. When I tell him, he accuses me of this and that. He says Laura is manipulating me. That and all kinds of other stuff. I told Danny then: Just give me my share.
“At first, he said he couldn’t because the accounts had been frozen during the investigation of Sally’s murder. When I asked him again and told him to give me my 75 percent, he just said no.’’
A sense of betrayal sent Michael into a personal descent of binge drinking and depression. From his front porch a few days ago, he said he had not had a drink in a couple of months.
“I don’t want it, I don’t need that stuff anymore,’’ he says in an even-handed tone that included none of the tears or jagged emotions that were there at the 2005 Hall of Fame induction and repeatedly thereafter.
He speaks as if he knows he is in the middle of the biggest fight of his life, bigger than even his defining classic in 1993 against Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez. Michael Carbajal had to get up off the canvas twice to beat Gonzalez in a stunning seventh-round stoppage. He had to have his wits about him, his poise and skill intact, to win that one. He needs all of that now and maybe more.
“It helps that he is looking at it soberly and, I think, is trying to look for opportunities to work and use his name,’’ says Carbajal attorney David Derickson, who took the latest deposition from Danny and has asked for a summary judgment in hopes of a settlement or trial in 2011. “Hopefully, Michael is on the way out of this.
The way out, however, still figures to test him and Laura Hall, especially if last year included signs of what awaits them.
Last September, Hall suffered severe injuries to her left arm and Michael was left with a bloodied and bruised face in an assault outside of their home. Hall and Michael alleged that their neighbors, Danny’s daughter and Michael’s niece, Josephine Carbajal and her companion, Jose Espinal, played a role in the incident, which allegedly included other unidentified assailants. No criminal charges have been filed. An investigation is underway.
However, Espinal was ordered to pay restitution for damage done to the home’s front door. Also, Hall and Michael Carbajal asked that an order of protection against Josephine and Espinal be upheld. It was.
Last February, Danny Carbajal tried to evict their mother, 79-year Mary Carbajal, from a home purchased with money that Michael says he earned from his 1990 victory Muangchai Kittikasem for his first major title, the International Boxing Federation’s version of the 108-pound championship. Danny Carbajal was the residence’s owner of record. However, Michael’s attorneys stopped the attempt. Mary Carbajal is still in the house.
“Your own mom?’’ Michael said. “That’s as low as you can go. A son trying to throw his mom out of her own home? Man, that’s just evil. It’s psychotic.’’
But it is not without a lifetime full of lessons, which Michael Carbajal hopes can become as important to a young fighter as the jab and left hook that a father taught a kid on the family’s front porch so long ago.
“I never paid attention to where the money was going,’’ said Carbajal, THE RING’s 1993 Fighter of the Year and the lightest fighter to every win the magazine’s prize. “I never even deposited a check or endorsed one. I just trusted Danny to do what’s right. He fooled a lot people. But he fooled me more than anybody. Hey, he was my brother. If I had some cash in my pocket to buy a few things, I was happy.
“But I should have paid attention from the beginning. That’s one thing I’d like to tell fighters who are just starting out. They need to know, man, they really need to know what they’ve got. If I can come away from this whole experience with anything, I want that to be it.’’
For years, Carbajal was seen as something of a boxing pioneer for his stardom in a weight class too small to be taken seriously before his arrival. In a sport that has seen it all, Carbajal accomplishments were unprecedented.
More significant perhaps, he awakened promoters to a new way of doing business. At about the time that Mike Tyson was going to prison on a rape conviction and American heavyweights were vanishing, Carbajal introduced Bob Arum and Don King to an untapped market. To wit: The little guys could be big attractions.
The junior-flyweights have never matched what Carbajal and Gonzalez generated in terms of interest and revenue. In a 1994 rematch won in a split-decision by Gonzalez, Carbajal was the lightest ever to then collect a $1 million purse. Gonzalez got his $ 1-million in the second rematch, which he won by majority decision.
But their surprising success was a sign that money could be made at lighter weights. Bantamweights Nonito Donaire and Fernando Montiel hope to make some at Las Vegas Mandalay Bay on Feb. 19, 17 years to the day after Carbajal lost to Gonzalez at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in the second bout of their trilogy.
“When I was fighting, I didn’t think about it,’’ Carbajal said. “The only thing I wanted was a world title. But now, when I hear somebody call me a pioneer or something like that, it’s an honor. Still, that’s not something I planned. I mean, it just happened.”
But today he has a plan in place that could serve as a guide for young fighters who don’t want the same thing happening to them. That would make Michael Carbajal a pioneer at any weight.