'Macho' was the ultimate survivor

Hector "Macho" Camacho was one of boxing's all-time great survivors.

In his prime you simply could not hit him, and later on, when the punches started to connect, nothing ever seemed to stick.

Just look at the names on his résumé: Sugar Ray Leonard. Roberto Duran. Oscar De La Hoya. Julio Cesar Chavez. Felix Trinidad. Edwin Rosario.

Huge punchers, every single one of them, and not one of them was able to knock Camacho down, let alone out. The mouthy kid in the rhinestone loincloth was every bit as tough as his nickname.

The one time he did get knocked down, in the first round of a fight against a tough but limited welterweight named Reyes Cruz, the punch burst a blood vessel under the skin of his forehead and raised a swelling so big it hurt just to look at it.

It seemed as if there was no way Camacho, unbeaten in 31 fights at the time, could manage to win this one. But win it he did, going away. I don't think he allowed Cruz to hit that spot again once over the remaining nine rounds.

That is why the terrible news out of Puerto Rico on this Thanksgiving weekend, that "Macho" Camacho finally caught the shot he couldn't survive, comes as such a kick in the gut.

For him to meet his end this way, the victim of an apparent drive-by shooting outside a nightclub, is shocking but hardly surprising.

Twenty-five years ago, it was an even-money bet that, like the young Mike Tyson, Hector Camacho would never make it to his 50th birthday.

But the more you saw him fight, and the more you saw him head into the dark alley with some of the most dangerous fighters in the business and come out unscathed, the more you started to believe nothing would ever make a dent on "Macho" Camacho.

But the truth is, Camacho never learned to do much more than just survive. And obviously, he kept pushing his luck until, inevitably, his incredible luck finally ran out.

He could have been so much more than he was, a better fighter and, I always thought, a great television boxing analyst, because no one was more perceptive at breaking down a fight.

He made probably the most astute observation I have ever heard from an athlete when, a few days before his fight with Leonard, who had not fought in five years, I asked him where he thought Leonard's confidence was coming from.

"He believes in his history," Camacho said.

A few nights later, Camacho showed no respect for Leonard's formidable history by knocking him out in five one-sided rounds.

He was probably the best pure boxer I ever covered, slicker than Leonard, more graceful than de la Hoya, harder to hit than just about anyone other than Wilfred Benitez. Certainly he was the prettiest to watch. No one ever complained about having to watch a southpaw -- it's like watching the fight in a mirror -- when the southpaw was Camacho.

But from the night back in 1986 when Edwin Rosario took him into a dark place at Madison Square Garden, Camacho was never the same fighter. He still boxed like an angel, but when the going got rough, he ran like the devil. He took no chances. And unless he was absolutely sure that his opponent had been declawed, he rarely went in for the knockout.

Still, he gave you your money's worth every time out, and some of his fights, notably the showdowns with Duran and Mancini, both faded, were among the most entertaining spectacles of their time.

Those who didn't really know Camacho, or just saw the obnoxious side of him, the side he showed at prefight press conferences, were apt to dismiss Camacho as nothing but a braggart and a punk.

But there was more to him, a humility and a humanity that he rarely showed in public.

Leading up to the Rosario fight, he and his unruly entourage had a particularly annoying ritual. One guy would yell, "What time is it?"

And Camacho would shout, "'Macho' time!"

It got old in a hurry.

But after the fight, in which Rosario had come close to knocking Camacho out in the last round, I spied a subdued Camacho resting his head against a huge ice sculpture to ease the throbbing in his bruised and swollen face.

"What time is it?" I asked him.

"Time to go to bed," he mumbled.

And after he knocked out Leonard, a fight that had a particularly nasty buildup, Camacho showed up at the postfight news conference with his son, who could have been no older than 6, on his lap.

In the middle of the presser, the boy piped up with, "Daddy, you were right. Ray fought like a little sissy."

Camacho, clearly embarrassed, said gently, "No, no, Papi, the fight's over now. We don't say things like that no more."

Now, Camacho's fight is over a few months past his 50th birthday. But he was still a street kid who was never quite able to leave the streets behind.

He had survived a rough upbringing in Spanish Harlem, got pinched for car theft as a kid and, later, for breaking and entering into an electronics store in Mississippi.

There were drug problems and domestic violence arrests and a shooting last year in Puerto Rico (not unlike the one that claimed him this week) that he also managed to survive.

Perhaps like Sugar Ray Leonard, Camacho, too, believed in his own history, a history that said there was no jungle too dangerous for him to survive.

But all histories eventually end, and it was inevitable that at some point, "Macho" Camacho would wander into the dark alley from which not even he could escape.