NEWS broke last month that Bernardo Caraballo, the first Colombian to challenge for a world title, is under 24-hour observation for various ailments at the San Jose Torices clinic in Cartagena, Colombia. Caraballo, 86, a stylish bantamweight in and out of the ring, became a Latin American sporting icon during the 1960s despite coming up short in title fights against Brazil’s Eder Jofre and Japan’s Fighting Harada. Wearing sequined trunks long before Hector Camacho did, and as many as six robes into the ring – peeling them off slowly, each more extravagant than the previous – the handsome Caraballo was a must-see attraction in his day. Today, an arena in Cartagena, his current hometown, bears his name and, in the jungles of the Amazon, so too does a tribe of uncontacted peoples.

Born into humble beginnings in the city of Bocachica in Isla de Tierra Bomba, an island off the coast of Cartagena, Caraballo spent his days with other youths swimming up to tour boats with their mouths agape while the tourists tossed coins and watched with glee as the kids caught them with their teeth. That meagre income was supplemented by selling fish from the previous night’s catch and hawking handmade wooden brooms. At a young age, his family moved to Cartagena where he shined shoes and, in 1959, followed his older brother into a boxing gym.

Trained by a Chilean living in Colombia, Caraballo almost immediately won a pair of national tournaments with a style that revolved around defence. Caraballo was so hard to hit, one of his opponents resorted to spitting, hoping his saliva would have better aim than his leather mitts. The spit missed too. He began drawing crowds wherever he went – even in the street, at times becoming uncomfortable with the attention. His mother, he said, advised him to treat them like friends, to listen to them and try to remember their names. He soon had friends everywhere in Colombia.

Around the time he started winning amateur tournaments, he met Zunilda. “We dated for 15 days but have been married for over 50 years,” he recanted to a reporter several years ago. Zunilda, who taught him how to read and write, told him the shoeshine business was not going to cut it and tried to get him a job as a bricklayer. The day before his first day on the job, Caraballo bumped into a boxing promoter in the park. Instead of the construction site, Caraballo showed up at the promoter’s office the following day.

With Caraballo now fighting for money, Zunilda did her part to make sure he did not stray too far from a disciplined routine. If she found out he was at a night club, she’d drop what she was doing and head over to the club to escort him out, brandishing a revolver if any of the women there protested too loudly.

He became a globetrotter and defeated outstanding boxers such as Pascual Perez and Chartchai Chionoi. He met Elvis in the Philippines and impressed the singer with his colourful outfit. Elvis, he said, was one of the few people who could keep up with his wardrobe. For a while during the 1960s, Caraballo was one of the most recognisable faces in Colombia.

Early in 1969, deep in the Colombian Amazon, near the Putumayo River, where the acai berries hang from palms like beads on a string, members of the military engaged in a violent confrontation with a group of villagers who lived isolated from the rest of society. A family of five were taken hostage and “analysed” for weeks in a boarding school in the city of La Pedrera. Their interactions were observed, their speech recorded, their every move was documented. And because of the father’s appearance, which reminded those observing them of the popular boxer from Cartagena, the villagers were officially given the name Carabayos. In 2002, the Río Puré National Park was created to protect their territory and more recently, laws were passed giving the tribe the right to continue living in isolation.

Today, the Carabayo people remain uncontacted. Their ways and language are in danger of becoming extinct and their safety is under the constant threat of the heavily armed drug runners who pass through their village. As for the boxer whose name they bear, he remains hospitalised for a variety of ailments, including heart failure, kidney disease, and high blood pressure. He is stable, fighting the ailments, says the doctor in charge. And, like always, he is surrounded by his people – his family, his friends,
and Zunilda – the only girlfriend he ever had.