It’s probably okay to call Marvin Camel a “flathead.” Or, more correctly, a “Flathead,” for that’s the Indian tribe from which the former WBC Cruiserweight Champion hails. The first cruiserweight champ’s name in his Indian tribe is “Strong Leader,” or that’s a close translation according to Marvin. And “Strong Leader” is what the Cruiserweight division, composed of guys in the 175-190 lbs range, had in the late 1980s.
One of the most colorful boxers to arrive in the heavier weight classes in recent times, “Indian” Marvin arrived for his fights in full Indian regalia right down to an impressively long headdress. Just as impressive had been his list of victims (what was it, one feather in the bonnet for each victory?), which at one point numbered 36 in 40 fights, including 16 KO’s. When he retired in 1990, Camel’s record was 45-13-4.
Camel, 56, now lives in Pomona, Florida, and he kindly granted me a phone interview to help shed some new light on his whereabouts, his past accomplishments, and the nature of his seemingly forgotten legacy as the first Native American world-boxing champion.
Camel took the newly created cruiserweight title on March 31, 1980 from Mate Parlov in 15 rounds, the same night Larry Holmes stopped LeRoy Jones in a heavyweight title defense. The title was a long time coming for Camel who had fought the former Olympic Champion Parlov to a draw in the Yugoslavian’s home country earlier in December. The cruiserweight division was created for fighters considered too heavy to compete in the light-heavyweight division but not big enough to face the 200-pound plus heavyweights.
With a small trickle of blood oozing from the cut above his right eye, newly crowned World Boxing Council cruiserweight champion Marvin Camel credited a strategy he discovered in his previous fight with rugged Mate Parlov for bringing him the title.
“When I fought Parlov in Yugoslavia, I went into a crouch in the seventh round and found he couldn’t hit down,” says Camel.
Camel waited until the 11th round to go into the crouch but when he did, he was able to pepper Parlov at will and went on to win a unanimous decision, with all three judges putting him ahead by margins ranging from three to nine points.
The 14th and 15th rounds found both men bleeding profusely from cuts about the eyes and mouth. When referee Fern Hernandez stopped the fight momentarily in the last round to have ring physician Donald Romeo check Camel’s bleeding eye, Camel was asked how he felt.
“You don’t think about the eye. You just don’t want the referee to stop the fight. You don’t protect the eye too much because you are afraid the referee will think you are hurt,” says Camel now.
That match was set up by Camel’s victory over David “Maceton” Cabera, the Mexican light-heavyweight in a special semi-final elimination contest in McAllen, Texas, fought earlier in August. Camel stopped the chunky and shorter Cabrera in the third round of their bout. Parlov, meanwhile, had downed Australia’s Tony Mundine.
Judges stunned the boxing public on December 8, 1979 by declaring a draw in the first-ever title bout in the newly created WBC Cruiserweight boxing class between Camel and Parlov. The bout, which took place in Parlov’s home country of Yugoslavia, was widely decried as unfair to Camel.
“It was highway robbery,” remembers Camel. “I expected a return bout in the United States where the judging would be fair. It was just a roadblock in the life of Marvin Camel on the climb to the top. When I finally won the belt I was so proud to be the first American Indian to have won a word title, and the first champ, too, to have come from the state of Montana.”
The lanky southpaw (he’s 6 foot 2) had some other noteworthy accomplishments. He holds a victory over Matthew Saad Muhammad, who later went on to become WBC light-heavyweight champion. That fight occurred in 1976, the second full year of Camel’s career. After dropping a 10 rounder to then Matthew Franklin in Stockton, in July of that year, Camel came back in his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to take a 10 round decision to Franklin who later adopted a Muslim name.
Camel’s other loss came to Dan Brewer in Seattle the following year. Following that bout, he went undefeated in 24 straight fights. He even knocked off a few name fighters such as Ibar Arrington, Tom Bethea, Bill Sharkey, from whom he won the North American Cruiserweight title in June 1979, and now Parlov.
Camel went on to win the USBA and IBF Cruiserweight crowns as well. He lost the IBF title to Detroit’s Lee Roy Murphy October 6, 1984, in Billings. Camel protested the outcome of the fight, which was stopped by referee Dan Jancic before the 15th round. Jancic would not allow Camel to continue because he had cuts over both eyes. But ring doctor H.D. Cabrira said Camel could have fought the last round. Two of the judges had Camel ahead by four points entering the final round while the third official had him up three. A Billings-based group called Concerned Montanans for Marvin Camel initiated a write-in protest.
“Montana finally had a legitimate champion,” says Camel. “And the title was then taken away like a thief in the night.”
Camel, whose record was 51-4-2 before the fight, went on a downward career spiral following the loss, winning just two of his final 12 fights before calling it quits in the middle of 1990.
Camel had an extensive amateur boxing career, which saw him win 140 of 180 bouts and every amateur title in the state of Montana. He comes from a big family of 14, where he was the middle child, His father, Henry, was a good Navy boxer and did some semi-pro work before turning to coaching the sport. A natural athlete, Camel played tight end in football, starred in basketball, where his height came in handy, and established some school records in the 440 and 880-yard runs in high school.
“My life was boxing, staying in shape,” says Camel, who is half-Indian and half black. “I never hunted or fished. And I didn’t go carousing or socializing either. Boxing wasn’t a seasonal business.”
He went to work for Elmer Boyce later and that began a relationship that lasted 30 years. Elmer managed Marvin since the start of Camel’s fight-for-pay career. Marvin was trained by the wise veteran Billy Edwards, who the trained the fine light heavyweight champ Bob Foster. Marvin and his wife, Sherry, had two sons, Louis and Marvin “Little Fox.”
Today, Camel works a full-time job at an electronics store, and he mentors and teaches boxing at the Omega Zone, a local, non-profit, Christian-affiliated gym. He hopes that the program will someday produce its own amateur boxing team.
“There’s nothing calling me back to Montana right now,” says Camel. “I miss it, but, really, being a two-time champion wasn’t worth a hill of beans on the reservation.”
He is still disconcerted about controversial decisions that had gone against him, upset about the managers and promoters who he says ripped him off, and cynical about those former supporters who jumped off the Marvin Camel bandwagon at the first sign of trouble. Camel had been on a rollercoaster throughout his 25 years in boxing, but in spite of all the regrets, he says that given the choice, he would do it all again.
“I still have the brains and can talk to friends. I know of some former boxers who can’t hold a conversation for more than two minutes, who can’t speak at all. As far as the money goes, financially, I’ve got nothing left from boxing. I had two world titles, but not the money to go with it. But I do have my respect and my memories – and those are things I can be proud of.
“I’ve enjoyed my life and seen a lot of the world most people never see. If I had it to do again, I would still be a boxer.”