PABLO – There was a tapping on his shoulder in the Polson VFW; the 11-year-old boy turned to see his father.
“How much do you weigh?” his dad asked.
The answer: 105 pounds.
“Good,” his father said, and laced boxing gloves on his son’s hands.
“There was a 105-pound kid who needed someone to fight that night” on a local boxing card, he recalls. “I got my ass kicked.”
Seventeen years later the kid who got his butt whipped that evening, Marvin Camel, was a world boxing champion, the first and only one to ever come out of the state of Montana.
“Anybody can do what I’ve done,” Camel says, “but in reality, nobody has. I often ask myself, ‘Why me? Why was I chosen to be the first cruiserweight champion of the world?’ I come from a town of 1,500 people, Ronan, Montana, and I’ve won two world titles. There are towns, there are states, there are countries with millions of people that have never won a world championship.”
As Camel speaks, clips from one of his title fights plays on a big screen in the Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Theatre on the campus of Salish Kootenai College. It’s nearing 5 p.m. and all of eight people have wandered into the building for the start of an event called “Share the Vision.”
Ken Camel, one of Marvin’s brothers and a former professional boxer himself, put it together. It’s largely a tribute to Marvin, who lives in Florida now but was home for a visit, and partially a promotion for the youth boxing club Ken would like to start on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Mostly, Ken explains, the tapes of the title fights have been sitting in his closet for decades, dusted off only once before for a public showing, at a bar in Ronan. Local people – those who saw Marvin box in the 1970s and ’80s, and a new generation who weren’t around then – ought to have the chance to see them.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished something even today, 30 years after the fact,” Marvin Camel says, his WBC title belt fastened tightly around his trim 58-year-old waist. “But there are people on the Flathead Reservation, in Missoula County, in the state of Montana, who are not aware of what I achieved.”
It’s not like the first cruiserweight title fight is no contest – Camel and Yugoslavian Mate Parlov go 15 grueling rounds on Aug. 12, 1979 – but there is no question who wins.
“He’s hitting Parlov almost at will,” CBS sportscaster Tim Ryan says of Camel during the fight, held in Parlov’s hometown of Split, Yugoslavia, and broadcast nationally in the United States.
“Parlov is getting slapped all over the ring,” agrees analyst Gil Clancy.
By the later rounds the partisan crowd of 7,000 has quieted as Camel continues to dominate Parlov, a former light heavyweight champion.
“They know what’s happening,” Ryan says. “Their champion is losing.”
The World Boxing Council created the cruiserweight division in the late 1970s, a place for boxers too big for light-heavyweight, and too small for the heavyweight class (Evander Holyfield would later become one of Camel’s successors before moving up to the heavyweight division).
The WBC had placed the eight best boxers who fell into the new class in a tournament. Camel and Parlov were the last two standing as the WBC prepared to crown the world’s first cruiserweight champion.
“I was 28 years old,” Camel says. “Twenty-eight is very old for a boxer. I was fighting guys 18, 19, 20.”
Ken Camel is showing a tape of the CBS Sports broadcast of the Camel-Parlov bout. He found the 30-year-old commercials amusing and didn’t edit them out. Between rounds we watch an ad for Bell Telephone, and, in another, Radio Shack tout the latest in technology, a pocket calculator capable of displaying eight digits, for $15.95.
“Barring a knockout, Mate Parlov is not going to be a winner tonight,” Ryan announces during Round 14, and he’s right.
Unbelievably, the judges declare the fight a draw. There is still no world cruiserweight champion.
“A travesty,” Camel says 30 years later, and indicates Parlov was really a double loser that night.
“Going 15 rounds with me once is enough for any man,” Camel says, “and he had to go 15 rounds again. I stepped up my pace the second time to make sure they understood who the winner would be.”
The rematch was held several months later, this time in Las Vegas, this time with no network TV coverage. The footage Ken shows was taken with a home movie camera. His brother dominates again, and this time becomes the first cruiserweight champion in the history of the world.
“In boxing there are pretenders, contenders, and world champions,” Camel says. “Pretenders never train enough. Contenders never get over the last hump. It doesn’t only take 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It takes 25 hours a day, eight days a week. You have to stay away from drinking, smoking, philandering, wild women. I didn’t wish, hope and pray to become world champion. I put in the time and effort to become world champion.”
Several more people filter into the theater as the night goes on; there are probably 40 to 50 in the seats when the lights come on after the Vegas fight is shown.
In between fights on the screen, Camel gives away hats from his Florida boxing club and autographed photocopies of old newspaper photographs from his fights. One of the hats goes to Jim Anderson of Polson, who used to drive Camel around the state to compete on amateur boxing cards. Another goes to one of Camel’s half-brothers, who answers a trivia question – “What was Marvin Camel’s professional boxing record?” – correctly. (It’s 45 wins, 13 losses and 4 draws.)
There was, Camel says, resentment when he left the reservation to turn pro. Missoula boxing promoter Elmer Boyce gave Camel a job in Boyce’s day-side amusement game business as a “pinball mechanic” and pushed Camel’s boxing career at night.
“People said I was a traitor, that I should remain here even if I turned pro and was fighting in another county,” Camel says. “I didn’t feel the hostilities, living in Missoula. But I was always fighting for the people on the reservation, I was fighting for the people of Montana, to give them their first world champion. And when I fought for the titles, I was fighting for all the people of the United States.”
Nov. 25, 1980, the Superdome in New Orleans, the undercard of the world welterweight championship match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.
Marvin Camel makes his first cruiserweight title defense, against Carlos “Sugar” De Leon of Puerto Rico.
Duran famously gives up and walks to his corner during Round 8 against Leonard, a bout dubbed the “No mas” (Spanish for “no more”) fight.
What Duran didn’t give the crowd in the Superdome, Camel and De Leon do.
Ken Camel has edited down the two Parlov fights, but this one against De Leon he shows in its entirety.
It is an amazing fight to watch, the sometimes-inane comments of broadcaster Les Keiter and analysts Larry Holmes and Don King notwithstanding.
“Woo woo woo!” King war whoops as Camel, whose mother was Salish, enters the ring wearing a headdress. “He’s a real Indian!”
Keiter notes the presence of a woman in Camel’s corner, calling it “bizarre.”
“Women’s lib,” King explains. “They can do anything now.”
“He wears his belt everyplace he goes,” King says of Camel later in a more insightful moment. “He wants everybody to know who he is.”
Both fighters weight in at 182 pounds. Camel’s reach has De Leon’s by 3 inches, 79 to 76, but De Leon has Camel, who will turn 29 in less than a month, by nearly eight years in the age department.
The fight starts. Anyone who watched portions of the first two fights already knows Camel is boxing’s version of a distance runner. He starts slowly, feels out his opponents – even lets them get to feeling cocky, it sometimes appears. But Camel never lets up, never relents, never seems to go flat-footed.
“Rocky Marciano was undefeated in 49 fights as a heavyweight,” Camel was saying earlier, before the program began. “He was the world’s best fighter, but if he was fighting at the same time as (Muhammad) Ali, he couldn’t have done what he did. Ali was a boxer, and the two don’t jibe. Fighters are the world’s best fighters, but only for the first 30 seconds. After that, they’re mine. I’m not one-shot Eddie. I’m in it for the haul.”
De Leon appears to win the first three rounds, but by the fourth, Camel starts to open up.
So, unfortunately, does a cut over his left eye.
“His championship is dangling because of that bad cut,” King says, but doctors don’t stop it. Round after round they go, Camel’s corner working furiously to stem the bleeding after each bell.
“Camel’s face is a bloody mask!” Holmes observes at one point, and his white trunks become more and more soaked in blood. By the 14th round, Keiter notes the champ is “bleeding out of both eyes.”
On they go, both fighters connecting with vicious jabs. There are below-the-belt blows by both men. Camel head-butts De Leon at one point. De Leon throws punches at Camel after the bell has sounded several times.
“It’s a war,” King decides. “They hate each other.”
It goes all 15 rounds, a real-life “Rocky” match. One judge scores it a 145-145 tie. The other two give De Leon the edge, 145-142 and 145-141.
“I get a lot of flak for not defending my world title,” Camel says, “but the fact of the matter is the first six cruiserweight title fights were all Marvin Camel versus someone, whether they were wins, draws or losses, and in two of them I became the world champion.”
On Feb. 13, 1983, Camel beat Roddy McDonald to become the International Boxing Federation’s first cruiserweight champion of the world. As with the WBC crown, Camel held it only until his first defense.
“To me, defending a championship is immaterial,” Camels says. “It’s how many times you won it in the first place. Defending a title is just holding on to something you already have. I’m still world champion.”
Camel and Norma, his wife of 26 years, live in Tavares, Fla., a community outside Orlando. He’s said before he never really realized the financial impact that can come with a world title. Camel is pursuing an online degree in business administration after being one of 40,000 employees to lose their jobs when Circuit City went belly-up.
“I was a grunt,” he says, working in a Circuit City warehouse, loading and unloading trucks, but he says he put the same effort into his job that he did into boxing.
“We gave Montana two world championships,” he says. “Other people got close – Roger Rouse (of Anaconda) was ranked No. 1 in the world – but nobody else could get over the hump and win a championship. I’m a two-hump camel, because I got over the hump twice.”
He’d like to produce a world champion for Florida from his Tavares club, called the Unique Boxing Club, which he says he named for himself, “because I’m unique.”
And then, Marvin Camel says, he’d like to move home and help his brother Ken produce the second world champion from Montana, the second from the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Kenny can give them the ups and downs, the ins and outs,” Camel says, “but there’s one little step he’s got to take that he hasn’t, and I have. He can’t teach them to become a world champion, but I can.”
Thirty years have passed since he first won it, and Marvin Camel wears his belt proudly to this day.