Showtime offers up a riveting blow-by-blow look at the famous (and famously troubled) Puerto Rican boxer.
The best line comes towards the start of Showtime’s documentary about the rise and fall of the gifted but troubled Puerto Rican boxer, Hector “Macho Man” Camacho. Famed trainer (and quote machine) Teddy Atlas, expertly sums up why we keep going back to boxing stories when he states, “Boxing is too damn Shakespearean.”
Punching someone repeatedly in the head, while avoiding being punched in your own skull, may not seem equal to Henry V, but no other sport attracts the kind of tragic figures, filled with rage and trauma, rising and falling from great heights, who would fit comfortably in Shakespeare’s work. Also, biting someone’s ear off would be a total Hamlet move.
Filmmaker Eric Drath knows the thematic power of boxing and lets the life of Camacho speak for itself. A veteran of sports documentaries with several 30 for 30s under his belt, Drath expertly pieces together footage from past fights along with sound bites from Camacho and interviews with those who knew him best. It all comes together to create a loving tribute to a man and his accomplishments without diminishing his struggles, including a cocaine addiction that plagued him his entire career up until his 2012 murder in Puerto Rico, which is still unsolved.
For someone like myself with only basic knowledge of boxing history, the period between Muhammad Ali’s dominance in the ’70s and Mike Tyson’s reign of terror in the 90s is a black hole. Camacho Story fills it in nicely with strong evidence that Hector Camacho was not only the most dominant fighter of his generation, but also the most entertaining.
His constantly moving feet and lightning-fast punches is like watching a real-life Looney Tune, but with the strength of Bruce Lee, Camacho’s idol growing up in Spanish Harlem. He takes the boxing showmanship torch from Ali and brings it to another level, like when he dances into the ring wearing a fireman outfit that’s bedazzled on a Liberace scale before casually knocking out his opponent in the first round. Not to mention, he wears shutter shades three decades before Kanye.
These highlights are as infectious and exciting as Camacho is in the ring, but what takes the doc beyond the usual paint by numbers sports bio is the emotional presence of Camacho’s mother, Maria Matias. She raises Hector, along with his sisters, trying to keep a roof over their heads while also trying to keep her son out of trouble. When his boxing career launches into orbit, she keeps being his rock through all his peaks and valleys.
This is a film about a mom’s journey as much as it is about a boxer’s.
Halfway through the movie, with footage after footage of his victories, defeats, and heated press conferences, I notice Maria can usually be seen nearby with a concerned expression on her face, and I realize this is a film about a mom’s journey as much as it is about a boxer’s. Her interviews are often the most loveable and heartbreaking segments, going into details about raising a family in tough conditions and how proud she is of her son, while also feeling helpless to stop his downfall.
At the beginning of the film, she’s grieving her son’s death nine years later, still searching for answers. By the time we get to the tragic end of Hector’s life, the film takes a hard, almost awkward turn from sports doc to a true crime doc, jumping into the details of his murder and Maria’s attempt at finding any closure.
It’s a fascinating detour, especially its look at the broken criminal justice system of modern-day Puerto Rico, but it’s a subject matter that is deep enough and has plenty of twists and turns on its own to be a great, separate documentary. Slapping it on the final ten minutes of Hector’s life story makes it feel rushed and undercooked, like a good book that’s turned in before the author can figure out the ending.
By that point though, the doc has already effectively done its job. Drath wins our hearts by simply telling the story of a boxer who comes from the gritty streets of NYC to conquering the world before getting too close to the sun and falling back to Earth. It’s a typical plot, unfortunately too common in the world of professional boxing. But there’s nothing common about Hector “Macho Man” Camacho, the pride of Spanish Harlem, and more importantly, his mother.
Macho: The Hector Camacho Story premieres on Showtime December 4th.