Marvin Camel, champion boxer, is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes from the Flathead Indian Reservation and grew up in Ronan, Mont. He is one of 14 children born to Henry Camel and Alice Nenemay, his Pend d’Oreilles mother. Henry Camel was born “Henry Campbell,” an African-American Navy veteran who travelled to Montana in search of a new beginning from his North Carolina birthplace. Both parents were known for athletic prowess in their youth, and Henry Camel had a reputation as a hard-working man who worked as a laborer. He was also a formidable boxer in his own right.
The father teaches the son to fight and the son eventually becomes a champion. That’s the “sports” aspect of this well-told story. The related backstory is an insightful view into reservation life and the Native “warrior” mentality. It is a winning combination of subjects and a valuable addition to contemporary multicultural studies.
This is more than a book about boxing. True, it is a look at a Native athlete who drove himself to win two world championships as a pugilist. However, it is as much about boxing as boxing is about life itself.
The staggering effects of regional unemployment, lean family resources, and general frustration fueled Camel’s professional career. His body type was described as “coltish and taut” by ringside media. In fact, it was the result of endless hours of long-distance running and a Spartan regimen that in many ways defined Camel’s entire life.
Camel described growing up as a multiracial Native youth on the Flathead Reservation as very difficult, with his greatest antagonists being his fellow tribal members. To offset this, his father justified the need to teach boxing lessons to several of his many sons. While the end result was effective, the labors took their toll on the family relationship. When Henry Camel left the mother of his children for a younger Native woman, the die was cast. The boxing champion was never able to share his professional success with his father, and remained unreconciled to the end of the elder Camel’s life.
Marvin Camel enjoyed a lengthy amateur boxing experience, fighting in every corner of Montana and all parts in between. During this period, he won five Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, which is recognized as the high water mark of an American amateur fighting record.
He turned to professional boxing out of necessity. Camel said in an interview that he had not worked for a year before his first professional fight. Subsequently, he worked for his first professional manager on the side as a pinball machine mechanic and vending roadman. He trained in the shop.
Too tall for the lower weight classes, and too lean to seek creditable heavyweight pairings, Camel was a natural fit for the then-newly formed cruiserweight division, set at 176 to 190 pounds at its inception.
His left-handed, parrying style created stylistic challenges for many of his opponents. Still, he could be accused of fighting “down” to his challengers as he leaned in with his gloves lower than his eyes. Eventually that facial area was heavily targeted, resulting in considerable optical trauma that required surgery. Camel was a bleeder, causing more than one loss to his record to occur late in fights. A lack of a consistent stiffening jab allowed opponents inside of his optimum punching range, causing Camel to increasingly rely on a hooking defense. The exhausting pace of trading body blows with stockier men also physically depleted Camel over the course of many fights.
His first championship was won while fighting for the World Boxing Council World Cruiserweight Title, in a rematch against Croatian fighter Mate Parlov in 1980. Camel held the title only until the next fight later that year. His second championship tenure came in 1983 under the auspices of the International Boxing Federation World Cruiserweight Title, winning against Canadian Rocky MacDonald in Nova Scotia. That title was held until 1984, but Camel lost in his first defense of it in Montana.
Camel fought a number of “name” opponents, including Matthew Saad Muhammad, Carlos “Sugar” De Leon, and Virgil Hill, who is himself a multiracial Native American light-heavyweight, as well as cruiserweight world boxing champion. Hill just came out of retirement and defeated his opponent with a second round technical knockout on March 2, 2015 in his home state of North Dakota.
Even more surprising was a Camel late-career heavyweight fight with Blackfeet Nation member Joe Hipp that took place in Washington State. Hipp defeated Camel in six rounds by technical knockout in 1989. Both had grown up on opposite sides of the Rocky Mountains, literally with Glacier National Park between them, with Camel born a few years ahead of his “rival.”
Hipp remains a notable Native American athletic figure, and he eventually became the first recorded Native American heavyweight boxing champion when he defeated Everett “Bigfoot” Martin in 1999 for the World Boxing Federation title. His hometown of Browning, Mont. boasts a solid amateur boxing tradition under the steady tutelage of Marvin Weatherwax, a local boxing guru. Knowing this community firsthand, it remains a boxing incubator; the boxing program a bastion against social isolation and the withering winds of the “Backbone of the World”.
Some will go their entire lives without realizing the way of the warrior; while others cannot go a day without re-affirming it in some way. From my own youth in Pennsylvania, I saw it firsthand through the prism of boxing.
Michael “Mighty Mike” Maggio was a terrific amateur fighter from the Lower East Side Sports Center, a hotbox training center for many high-achieving local athletes from our rustbelt city. We attended high school together. He was the first person that I ever knew who attended the Olympic Trials, rubbing shoulders with many eventual world champions and future gold medalists. He was a hard worker, no doubt.
Behind him was another warrior, his trainer and icon, Apache Dann Carr. The former Native ironworkerfrom Local #348 was himself a super-heavyweight world champion arm-wrestler and power-lifter. By the time that Mighty eventually turned professional, he knew what Apache Dann would ask of him. “He put fire through my veins with his words. Every day was a good day to die for what you believe in. Fear was my friend and pain is my brother. My kindness is not a weakness. The strongest believe the longest. Honor all women. That is what a warrior is,” Maggio said. Mighty went on to a high-profile boxing career and remains indebted to his mentor, now successfully recovering from some health challenges in Florida.
Warriors are where you find them. And the boxing ring sure rounds up a lot. My thanks to all of them for the memories; you give all of us something to talk and read about. In this case, “Warrior in the Ring” is a good start.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.