“I’m very happy … as Marvin Camel. I’m very happy to win the championship. But I’m even more happy for the people in the state of Montana and on the Flathead Indian Reservation. This is a first for them.”
– Marvin Camel, Las Vegas, March 31, 1980, after winning the first World Boxing Council cruiserwight championship
Thirty-five years ...
There’s not much that gives Marvin Camel cause to pause, but the thought last week that March 1980 was so distant in the rearview mirror caught him with his guard down.
“Gee. Yeah. 35 years? Oh, my god,” Camel, 64, mused from his end of the line in Tavares, Florida – his home for most of the last quarter of a century.
Who knows what ran through his mind?
Was it the heady memory of that night at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas more than half a lifetime ago, with Howard Cosell calling the shots and Joe Louis looking on, as Camel registered a unanimous decision over Yugoslavia’s Mate Parlov to become the first cruiserweight champion of the world?
Was it all that happened in the 3 1/2 decades since, including a second world title in 1983, his estrangement from the Flathead Indian Reservation and the state of Montana that he feels turned its back on him when he lost his titles?
Or was it what happens next?
“I’m not in Florida to stay. I’m not going to die here,” he’d vowed several minutes earlier. “I’ve got 35 acres up there in Montana on the Flathead Reservation. I want to get moved back up there to Montana eventually.”
The complex relationships of the land and people Camel grew up with are at once the most fascinating and exasperating features of a new biography, “Warrior in the Ring: The Life of Marvin Camel, Native American World Championship Boxer.”
Helena author Brian D’Ambrosio was in kindergarten in Yonkers, New York, when Camel won his first world title. But he grew up around boxing and knew vaguely of Camel’s legacy when he arrived in Montana 15 years ago.
“I knew Marvin fought out of Missoula, and being in Missoula I always thought that was sort of a source of pride,” D’Ambrosio said. “With the little resources he had and very few sparring partners, I thought it was a wonderful and sort of inspiring story that we could share.”
But that’s not the main reason he wrote the book.
“I felt Marvin deserved to be remembered,” said D’Ambrosio. “After looking at a lot of the old photos and flipping through the old clippings, I felt that there was a time Marvin’s name carried a lot of weight and a lot of clout and was of great importance in Montana.”
Winning the World Boxing Council title in 1980 was one of the high points. Camel was on top of the world and had Montana right there with him.
“Marvin! Marvin! Marvin!” chanted an estimated 170 people who’d made the drive from Montana as he eagerly answered the bell for the 15th round of the lopsided bout. There was a scare in the last minute when Parlov opened up a gaping, bloody cut over Camel’s eyelid. But after a quick examination by ring doctor Donald Romeo, the fight went on.
“I’ve been working 18 years to get something like this,” Camel said at the news conference afterward. “The rest of the story is that I’m going to fight again and win, lose or draw, I’m going to enjoy it while I’ve got it.”
“Right on,” said Don King, the infamous promoter, who stood by Camel’s side.
Mixed with the jubilation was a modesty that marked the 29-year-old Camel in a boxing world all too devoid of the same. It was the humility, often masked by Camel’s effervescent personality, of a kid who grew up, as D’Ambrosio described, on 80 acres near Ronan, “down a rutted dirt road slicing straight to the heart of the Mission Mountains.”
Camel was one of 13 children reared by Alice Nenemay Camel, a full-blood Pend d’Oreille raised near Dixon, and Henry Campbell, a black man from North Carolina who joined the Navy and repudiated the prejudices of the South by changing his name to Camel.
His father got Marvin in the ring in the first place, but Camel’s boxing career took off in the early 1970s when he went to work for and train under Elmer Boyce of Missoula. Boyce owned Montana Music Rentals on Woody Street, and it was there that Camel honed a near legendary workout regimen.
“Four ropes tied to the wall” among the pinball machines, he said. “Makeshift from square one.”
Boyce sold Montana Music in the late 1970s, and leading up to his title fight in Las Vegas Camel said he'd been without a job for a year. He owed on some acreage in Ronan, but was living in the Arlee area and still training nonstop in Missoula.
Camel received $30,000 for the victory over Parlov, and talked with the Missoulian’s Daryl Gadbow of his dream of ranching someday.
“I may move the trailer house on north to Ronan,” the world champ said. “I may set up a training camp on the ranch. Because of the price of gas, it’s kind of hard to run into Missoula every day to work out.”
D’Ambrosio had a book in mind but no firm plan when he first called Camel 10 years ago. Camel lives with his second wife, Norma, at the St. Frances Estates in Tavares, 40 miles north of Orlando, where they moved in the early 1990s to be near Norma’s mother, who has since passed away.
At 195 pounds, Marvin keeps himself in fighting trim. He vows, facetiously perhaps, that he has one good fight left in him.
D’Ambrosio said Camel looks too young to be living in a retirement community. Camel started a lawn care business with a push mower and throws his heart into it in much the same manner that he did into boxing. Now he takes care of 23 a day with a John Deere zero-radius tractor mower, weed whackers and edgers – “whatever it takes to do the job,” he said.
“I’m not going to sit down and retire, because I can’t. I can’t just yet,” he said.
D’Ambrosio first shook hands with Camel in the Sunrise Grill in Tavares. A boxing collage on the wall included three photos of Camel above the door.
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“I went into the café and saw Marvin sitting there with his (WBC) belt next to the photos, waiting for someone to make the match between the man sitting there and the man in the pictures,” he said.
The scene, said D'Ambrosio, aroused “a curious mixture of emotions. I didn’t know if I should feel sadness, sympathy, pity – I didn’t know what I should feel.”
The more time he spent with Camel, who volunteers to whoever looks interested that they're talking to a two-time cruiserweight champion of the world, the more D’Ambrosio found he was admiring him.
“I saw it as something beautiful,” he said. “Marvin sees it as a source of immense and tremendous, overwhelming pride, a pride in where he came from and what he overcame, and a pride in representing the Flathead Nation and the state of Montana worldwide.”
Indeed, he said, what drives Camel is a fear of irrelevancy. After 62 professional bouts, many of them bloodbaths, in a career that stretched from 1973 to 1990, he retains all his faculties. He has too much to offer and stands for too many things to be sent out to pasture.
“This year’s going to be a good year, I think, for Marvin Camel and being shown to the public, if not U.S.-wide worldwide,” Camel said last week. “One of these days, they’re going to spring something on me that’s going to make me the happiest guy in the world. What that is I really don’t know yet.”
He approves of D’Ambrosio’s book, which he said “has brought me back from the dead.”
“My fight career is over with. Now we’re trying get on a circuit where we can go out there and start speaking and try to sell the book,” Camel said. “We’re trying to get it on the best-seller list one of these days, but you’re not going to do it if you sit here on your hands."
A week before Christmas, he was shadow boxing with Iran Barkley in Las Vegas at the WBC convention. On Saturday, Camel was anticipating a call from "Ringtalk," boxing’s longest running radio show, which archives its online shows at ringtalk.com.
Camel has been invited to the International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend in June in Canastota, New York.
Riddick Bowe, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Britain’s Naseem Hamed will be inducted, as will three other boxers in the old-timer division. The latter is the one Ernest Brown feels Camel will one day join.
Brown every year springs for airfare and room accommodations for a few notable boxers who haven’t been to the sport's most coveted hall of fame. There, he said, they can become visible again, rubbing shoulders with those already inducted into the hall as well as those who put them there.
Brown said Camel belongs in the hall for two reasons. “One is his body of work – he has a win over a Hall of Famer in Matthew Saad Muhammad (in Missoula in 1976). Second, he was the first cruiserweight champion. Every other ‘first champion’ is in there.”
Camel wore a trademark Indian headdress into the ring and is fondly remembered in boxing circles, Brown said.
“He’ll probably be mobbed by autograph seekers in Canastota, because he’s unique,” said Brown.
Brown lives outside of Chicago and will also be paying the ways to New York for a couple of Windy City boxers – Montell Griffith and Lee Roy Murphy. It was Murphy who stripped Camel of his IBF crown in 1984 in Billings. The fight ended with a Montana referee’s decision to stop it before the final round due to what Camel and his handlers regarded as routine cuts around his eyes.
By then, Camel’s first marriage had ended and he’d left Montana for California. Unreasonably or not, the outcome left him embittered of Montana, he said. He’s returned only sporadically since.
D’Ambrosio used Camel's eyes and others to examine racism on the Flathead Reservation. The Camels, being half black, definitely felt it, tribal communications director Rob McDonald told the author. But Marvin’s boxing exploits became a source of pride that binded people together.
“When Marvin was boxing, we as a people talked about winning and pride, talked about the excitement of his career,” McDonald said. “Today, when we get together, we generally talk about drugs or meth issues, or child endangerment or abandonment issues, or racism, or water rights, problems and more problems.”
Camel thinks he can help again if given a chance. He subscribes to Char-Koosta, the tribal newspaper, and notes especially the crime and punishment stories.
“If I could get to a point where I could never see a tribal member hauled off to jail, that would be my life’s goal right now,” he said. “If I could, I’d work with some kind of program that keeps kids off the street. Not only kids, but I see people 25, 26, 27, 30 years old (in trouble.)"
Determined as he is to return to Montana, Camel isn't sure there’ll ever be a place for him here. For now, he said, he and Norma still have obligations to her family in Florida.
As for his many siblings and relatives in Montana?
“We email all the time,” he said. “There’s no hard feelings. They just wonder why I left, but as far as walking up and talking to them, everything’s still good."
Camel’s victory over Parlov 35 years ago raised his professional record to 35-2-2. He lost his final bout in June 1990 against Eddie “Young Joe Louis” Taylor in Minneapolis. The 10-round decision left his lifetime mark at 45-13-5.
Camel's pro career took the rangy southpaw from Ronan to 13 states and seven foreign nations on three continents.
“I’ve had a good life, as far as boxing is concerned, winning two world titles, losing world titles, seeing the world,” Camel said last week. “Some things people only dream about having, I did it. I’ve been there. I’ve been to the top of the mountain. But I feel there’s still something out there that I’ve got to have, and I don’t know what it is.”
Maybe he’ll find it back home in Montana.
“Of all people, the tribal people should have a job waiting for me helping motivate Native Americans. Or even somebody from somewhere else in Montana, to help the youth,” he said.
“Even though I put Montana on the map twice, I feel the people in Montana are not making an effort to get me coming back.”