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Chapter 32
That head of his has been occupied with contemporarysociety’s insoluble problems for so long,and he isstill battling on with his good-heartedness and boundlessenergy. His efforts have not beenin vain, but he willprobably not live to see them come to fruition.

—THEO VAN GOGH, 1889“YOU’VE GOT TO HEAR THIS,” Barefoot Ted said, grabbing my arm.

Damn. He caught me just as I was trying to slink away from the madness of the street party andlimp off to the hotel to collapse. I’d already heard Barefoot Ted’s entire postrace commentary,including his observation that human urine is both nutrient-rich and an effective tooth whitener,and I couldn’t imagine anything he could possibly say that would be more compelling than a deepsleep in a soft bed. But it wasn’t Ted telling stories this time. It was Caballo.

Barefoot Ted pulled me back into Mamá Tita’s garden, where Caballo was holding Scott and Billyand a few of the others spellbound. “You ever wake up in an emergency room,” Caballo wassaying, “and wondered whether you wanted to wake up at all?” With that, he launched into thestory I’d been waiting nearly two years to hear. It didn’t take me long to grasp why he’d chosenthat moment. At dawn, we’d all be scattering and heading home. Caballo didn’t want us to forgetwhat we shared, so for the first time, he was revealing who he was.

————He was born Michael Randall Hickman, son of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant whose postingsmoved the family up and down the West Coast. As a skinny loner who constantly had to defendhimself in new schools, young Mike’s first priority every time they moved was to find the nearestPolice Athletic League and sign up for boxing lessons.

Brawny kids would smirk and pound their gloves together as they watched the geek with the silkyhippie hair gangle his way into the ring, but their grins died as soon as that long left arm begansnapping jabs into their eyes. Mike Hickman was a sensitive kid who hated hurting people, but thatdidn’t stop him from getting really good at it. “The guys I liked best were the big, muscular ones,’cause they’d keep coming after me,” he recalled. “But the first time I ever knocked out a guy, Icried. For a long time after that, I didn’t knock out anybody.”

After high school, Mike went off to Humboldt State to study Eastern religions and NativeAmerican history. To pay tuition, he began fighting in backroom smokers, billing himself as theGypsy Cowboy. Because he was fearless about walking into gyms that rarely saw a white face,much less a vegetarian white face spouting off about universal harmony and wheatgrass juice, theCowboy soon had all the action he could handle. Small-time Mexican promoters loved to pull himaside and whisper deals in his ear.

“Oye, compay,” they’d say. “Listen up, my friend. We’re going to start a chisme, a little whisper,that you’re a top amateur from back east. The gringos are gonna love it, man. Every gabacho in thehouse is going to bet their kids on you.”

The Gypsy Cowboy shrugged. “Fine by me.”

“Just dance around so you don’t get slaughtered till the fourth,” they’d warn him—or the third, orthe seventh, whichever round the fix had been set for. The Cowboy could hold his own againstgigantic black heavyweights by dodging and clinching up until it was time for him to hit thecanvas, but against the speedy Latino middleweights, he had to fight for his life. “Man, sometimesthey had to haul my bleeding butt out of there,” he’d say. But even after leaving school, he stuckwith it. “I just wandered the country fighting. Taking dives, winning some, losing but reallywinning others, mostly putting on good shows and learning how to fight and not get hurt.”

After a few years of scrapping along in the fight game’s underworld, the Cowboy took hiswinnings and flew to Maui. There, he turned his back on the resorts and headed east, toward thedamp, dark side of the island and the hidden shrines of Hana. He was looking for a purpose for hislife. Instead, he found Smitty, a hermit who lived in a hidden cave. Smitty led Mike to a cave ofhis own, then began guiding him to Maui’s hidden sacred sites.

“Smitty is the guy who first got me into running,” Caballo told us. Sometimes, they’d set out in themiddle of the night to run the twenty miles up the Kaupo Trail to the House of the Sun at the top of10,000-foot Mount Haleakala. They’d sit quietly as the first rays of morning sparkled on thePacific, then run back down again, fueled only by wild papayas they’d knocked from the trees.

Gradually, the backroom brawler named Mike Hickman disappeared. In his place arose MicahTrue, a name inspired by “the courageous and fearless spirit” of the Old Testament prophet Micahand the loyalty of an old mutt called True Dog. “I don’t always live up to True Dog’s example,”

Caballo would say. “But it’s something to shoot for.”

During one of his vision-seeking runs through the rain forest, the newly reborn Micah True met abeautiful young woman from Seattle who was visiting on vacation. They couldn’t have been moredifferent—Melinda was a psychology grad student and the daughter of a wealthy investmentbanker, while Micah was, quite literally, a caveman—but they fell in love. After a year in thewilderness, Micah decided it was time to return to the world.

Wham! The Gypsy Cowboy knocked out his third opponent…… and his fourth …… and his fifth …With Melinda in his corner and those rain-forest runs powering his legs, Micah was virtuallyuntouchable; he could dance and shuffle until the other fighter’s arms felt like cement. Once hisfists drooped, Micah would dart in and hammer him to the canvas. “I was inspired by love, man,”

Micah said. He and Melinda settled in Boulder, Colorado, where he could run the mountain trailsand get bouts in Denver arenas.

“He sure didn’t look like a fighter,” Don Tobin, then the Rocky Mountain lightweight kickboxingchampion, later told me. “He had real long hair and was carrying this crusty old pair of gloves, likethey were handed down from Rocky Graziano.” Don Tobin became the Cowboy’s friend andoccasional sparring partner, and to this day, he marvels at the Cowboy’s work ethic. “He wasdoing unbelievable training on his own. For his thirtieth birthday, he went out and ran thirty miles.

Thirty miles!” Few American marathoners were putting up those numbers.

By the time his unbeaten streak reached 12-0, the Cowboy’s reputation was formidable enough toland him on the cover of Denver’s weekly newspaper, Westword. Under the headline FIST CITYwas a full-page photo of Micah, bare-chested and sweaty, fists cocked and hair swinging, his eyesin the same glower I saw twenty years later when I surprised him in Creel. “I’ll fight anybody forthe right amount of money,” the Cowboy was quoted as saying.

Anybody, eh? That article fell into the hands of an ESPN kick-boxing promoter, who quicklytracked down the Cowboy and made an offer. Even though Micah was a boxer, not a kickboxer,she was willing to put him in the ring for a nationally televised bout against Larry Shepherd,America’s fourth-ranked light heavyweight. Micah loved the publicity and the big payday, butsmelled rat. Just few months before, he had been homeless hippie meditating amountainto(a) p;now,the(a) ywerepittinghimagainstamartiala(a) rtistwhocouldbreakcinderbloc(on) kswith his head. “It was all a big joke to them, man,” Micah says. “I was this long-haired hippie theywanted to shove into the ring for laughs.”

What happened next summarizes Caballo’s entire life story: the easiest choices he ever had tomake were the ones between prudence and pride. When the bell clanged on ESPN’s SuperfightNight, the Gypsy Cowboy abandoned his usual canny strategy of dodging and dancing. Instead, hesprinted self-righteously across the ring and battered Shepherd with a furious barrage of lefts andrights. “He didn’t know what I was doing, so he covered up in the corner to figure it out,” Micahwould recall. Micah cocked his right arm for a hay-maker, but got a better idea. “I kicked him inthe face so hard, I broke my toe,” Micah says. “And his nose.”


Micah’s arm was jerked into the air, while a doctor began probing Shepherd’s eyes to make surehis retinas were still attached. Another KO for the Gypsy Cowboy. He couldn’t wait to get backhome to celebrate with Melinda. But Melinda, he discovered, had a knockout of her own todeliver. And long before that conversation was over— long before she’d finished telling him aboutthe affair and her plans to leave him for another man and move back to Seattle—Micah’s brain wasbuzzing with questions. Not for her; for him.

He’d just smashed a man’s face on national TV, and why? To be great in someone else’s eyes? Tobe a performer whose achievements were only measured by someone else’s affection? He wasn’tstupid; he could connect the dots between the nervous boy with the Great Santini dad and thelonely, love-hungry drifter he’d become. Was he a great fighter, in other words, or just a needyone?

Soon after, Karate magazine called. The year-end rankings were about to come out, the reportersaid, and the Gypsy Cowboy’s upset had made him the fifth-ranked light-heavyweight kickboxerin America. The Cowboy’s career was about to skyrocket; once Karate hit the stands and the offersstarted pouring in, he’d have plenty of big-money opportunities to find out whether he truly lovedfighting, or was fighting to be loved.

“Excuse me,” Micah told the reporter. “But I just decided to retire.”

Making the Gypsy Cowboy disappear was even simpler than dispensing with Mike Hickman.

Everything Micah couldn’t carry on his back was discarded. The phone was disconnected, theapartment abandoned. Home became a ’69 Chevy pickup. By night, he slept in a sleeping bag inthe back. By day, he hired himself out to mow lawns and move furniture. Every hour in between,he ran. If he couldn’t have Melinda, he’d settle for exhaustion. “I’d get up at four-thirty in themorning, run twenty miles, and it would be a beautiful thing,” Micah said. “The............
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