It was not the scales that drove Joel Casamayor out of the junior lightweight division. And it was not the competition. No, Casamayor left for a better opportunity.
Since defecting from Cuba in 1996, Casamayor had been a mainstay among the world’s elite 130 pounders. He has fought the best the division has to offer and has never flinched. But when he could not secure a rematch for a pair of controversial losses – to Acelino Freitas and Diego Corrales – it was time to move onto bigger and better things.
Those bigger and better things come in the formidable form of WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo. The hard hitting Mexican and the crafty Cuban go 12 rounds or less on Saturday, Dec. 4 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in a bout to be televised by Showtime.
“At 130, nobody wanted to fight me,” said Casamayor, speaking through his manager Luis DeCubas during a conference call this week. “Freitas said no to a rematch, even though I would have gone to Brazil. Corrales was supposed to fight us a third time. That didn’t happen. Castillo is one of the best. That's the reason we are here. It will be two warriors facing each other.”
They will be fighting for lightweight title Castillo regained in June. The questions facing Casamayor for this contest all stem from his rise in weight. Will he be able to handle Castillo’s power? Will the added weight diminish his speed? Will he feel comfortable at 135 pounds?
The five-pound weight increase does not have Casamayor (31 2, 19 KOs) concerned. In fact, earlier in his career, he fought as high as 139 pounds.
“I am in tremendous shape,” the former WBA junior lightweight champion said. “I feel stronger and faster. I won't lose any of my boxing ability. I feel I'll be faster. Remember, speed kills. Don't forget that. I feel really, really strong at this weight.”
Castillo (50 6 1) has already proven that he is really, really strong at this weight. Of the champion’s 50 victories, 45 have come by knockout. But he has also proven to be a capable enough technician to stay close with Floyd Mayweather Jr. over the course of 24 rounds. And while Mayweather is as slick as they come, Castillo has ample respect for Casamayor’s boxing ability.
“He's a beautiful boxer,” said Castillo. “I think he's a magnificent boxer. He's very intelligent.”
To that end, Castillo said he will “not let him think,” while pressuring the Cuban and throwing a lot of punches. That approach seems to suit Casamayor perfectly.
“I am a counterpuncher,” he said. “I love to see a guy coming to me. The difference between this fight and any other fighters Castillo has fought is that I can hurt him with both hands.”
The story of the 33 year old Casamayor is well documented. One of the stars on Cuba’s vaunted amateur boxing team, Casamayor compiled a 380 30 amateur record. He won a world amateur championship and in 1992 he outpointed future world champ Wayne McCullough to win an Olympic gold medal.
He was favored to repeat at the 1996 Olympics but walked away from Cuba’s training headquarters in Guadalajara, Mexico on the eve of the ’96 Games. Casamayor was bitter after Fidel Castro rewarded him with only a bicycle after he brought a gold medal back to Cuba. Respect is what created his mindset for defection. But he wasn’t just walking away from Cuba, Castro and Olympic glory, he left a five year old daughter, a girlfriend and his parents back in Guantanamo.
Casamayor said he watched the 2004 Cuban Olympic team in Athens and was impressed with their performance. “I saw a lot of great fighters,” he said. “They won six gold medals. They did the best they could.”
Casamayor’s 1992 Olympic team won a record seven golds, the most by any country in a non boycotted Olympics. Alongside Casamayor on that Cuban team in Barcelona were legends Felix Savon, Roberto Balado and Hector Vinent.
A pair of young Cuban southpaws who captured gold in Athens – flyweight Yuriorkis Gamboa Toledano and two time bantamweight gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux Ortiz – were very reminiscent of Casamayor.
“No question about it,” Casamayor said with pride. “Both of those guys were trained by the same trainer I had in Guantanamo. Yes, they have the same style.”
Casamayor has adopted that style to the pro game. And while he will always be more flash than force, he fights with a level of determination and pride that was forged over countless hours training in the Caribbean heat. In Cuba, he fought for medals, country and honor. His currency was his pride.
And while in America, Casamayor is compensated well for his efforts, that same level of pride is what allows him to bite down on the mouthpiece and punch back when the ring is spinning and the punches are exploding all round him. In a world class athlete, pride can't be bought with a six figure purse.
“I will win this fight,” he said. “If a knockout comes, it will come. If it goes 12 rounds, I am ready. I am ready to go 15 rounds. I came to this country to fight the best. Great fighters rise to great occasions. I'll fight anyone who they say is the best. I don't care who it is.”