Forget the hype. Forget what you were told. Forget even what you know, or think you know. Not to disparage Mayweather-Pacquiao, which is the undisputed revenue-producing champion of all time, but the real “Fight of the Century” remains the classic first pairing of lightweight champions Diego “Chico” Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo. Their epic unification clash on May 7, 2005, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas was so riveting that many consider it to be the greatest boxing match of all time.
Such an assertion might or might not be considered true, as there are always disparities in individual perception. There is no algorithm to pinpoint which treasured fight in ring history indisputably deserves to be at the very top of that figurative mountain. But while the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was relayed to the International Space Station to be viewed by U.S. astronauts at their leisure, Corrales-Castillo I, won by Corrales on a 10th-round stoppage only moments after it appeared he was on the verge of being taken out himself, is what we would want communicated throughout the galaxy to show other intelligent life forms, if indeed there are any, that inhabitants of Earth are incredibly tough, courageous and not to be messed with.
“You can vote now,” Gary Shaw, Corrales’ promoter, said at the postfight press conference a decade ago. “This is Fight of the Year, Fight of Next Year, Fight of the Decade. I don’t believe you’ll ever see anything like this again.”
There have, of course, been some excellent bouts since Corrales and Castillo took each other to hell and back. But in the 10 years that have passed, Shaw and others who were fortunate enough to have been eyewitnesses that amazing night haven’t had cause to rate any fight higher for drama and gut-wrenching excitement.
“Oh, it was a great fight. A spectacular fight,” Shaw told me a few days ago. “But that was Corrales. He always said that they would have to carry him out of the ring before he’d ever stop fighting. He was the ultimate never-give-up guy.
“I actually thought the fight was going to be over in that 10th round. Diego had gone down a second time and was on his hands and knees. I was thinking as a promoter would, `What am I going to say at the press conference? How am I going to bring Diego back?’ The next thing I knew, I had almost an out-of-body experience. When I looked up, Castillo was sagging against the ropes and the referee (Tony Weeks) was waving the fight off. Incredible.”
Said referee Tony Weeks, who drew the assignment as third man in the ring: “That fight definitely is the highlight of my career. It will go down in history. It is history. And those guy guys, Corrales and Castillo, made me a part of that history. I’m forever indebted to them. They epitomized what true champions are.”
As amazing rallies go, Corrales’ comeback from the brink was like a baseball team that was six runs down with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series somehow pulling out the victory. If such a stark momentum shift in a boxing match can be equated to a miracle, well, this was it.
“In the 10th round, Castillo nailed Corrales with a left hook and he went down,” Weeks recalled. “There was the mouthpiece issue, of course. (More on that a bit later.) Corrales got up and he seemed to be OK, so I let things go on and, boom, he goes down again. At this point I’m thinking it’s a brutal fight, I might have to stop it if he goes down another time. But, somehow, Corrales was able to turn the tables. If you look at the film, you can see my focus shift from Corrales to Castillo.
“It was unbelievable, and it all happened so fast. One minute I’m counting over Corrales and the next minute I’m stopping the fight with Castillo out on his feet.”
As is often the case with any story that has a rich vein of silver linings, there are dark clouds of controversy and even tragedy that stick to Corrales-Castillo I like lint on a Velcro brush. Jay Larkin, the Showtime boxing boss who was instrumental I making the fight, was ousted from the position he had held for 21 years later in 2005. He was 59 when he died, after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, on Aug. 9, 2010. Corrales was never the same after that first go-round with Castillo; he lost his final three bouts, including the rematch, retired and, inebriated and reportedly despondent , he died in a motorcycle crash in Las Vegas on May 7,2007 – two years to the day after the signature victory of a praiseworthy career in which he went 40-5, with 33 wins inside the distance.
“When I received the news (of Corrales’ death), I was devastated,” Weeks said. “I couldn’t believe it. For it to happen on that particular date … that was devastating. I got to know Corrales through boxing, in the ring and out of the ring. He was a real nice guy, a real likable guy. He would always cater to the public as far as giving autographs and taking pictures with fans. You would never think he was such a fierce warrior if you met him outside of the ring.”
More so than most, I have a deep connection to Corrales-Castillo I because, in some small way, I feel like I helped make it happen. I was the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America in 2005, and it was my decision, at the suggestion of Las Vegas-based writer Kevin Iole, to bring the 80th annual BWAA Awards Dinner to the Strip for the first time after many years of it being staged exclusively on the East Coast, most often in New York.
As part of the process of transforming that plan into a reality, I contacted officials at both Showtime and HBO and said the event could only be staged in Las Vegas if it was in conjunction with a major fight the following night. I gave a list of preferred dates to both premium cable networks and told them, basically, that we’d partner up with whichever stepped up first.
Larkin clearly was on board. “We very much want to be involved,” he told me, “and I’m prepared to go a half-million dollars over our normal budget for a Showtime Championship Boxing telecast to make it happen.”
What he delivered was a showdown between Corrales, the WBO lightweight champion, and Castillo, who held the WBC title. It was an attractive fight, given the reputations of both fighters, but it wasn’t a megafight. In fact, the announced attendance that night in the Mandalay Bay Events Center was 5,100, well short of capacity, although the correct figure is probably somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000.
To my way of thinking, anything good that took place on May 7 was gravy. The BWAA Awards Dinner, thanks in large part to Mandalay Bay public relations director Gordon Absher, who was instrumental in the event selling out with a celebrity guest list that included, among others, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Vitali Klitschko, Winky Wright, James Toney, Shane Mosley, Chris Byrd, Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster, Erik Morales, Glen Johnson, Wayne McCullough, Jeff Lacy, Zab Judah, Kevin Kelly and Richie Sandoval.
But the BWAA Awards Dinner, star-studded as it was, merely served as an appetizer to the real main event the following night. Corrales and Castillo hurled themselves at one another with uncommon fury from the opening bell. The exchanges were frequent and torrid, clinches rare, and the ebb and flow suggested something lifted from a WWE script. It was obvious seconds into Round 1 that those spectators who were fortunate enough to be in the arena, and the Showtime viewing audience, were witnessing an instant classic.
The toll of the punishment being dished out both ways soon became apparent, most noticeably on Corrales’ face, which was a gargoyle mask with angry, purplish lumps under each eye. He later described them as “marbles, big, hard marbles.” And as those marbles enlarged, a curtain was slowly being drawn across the slits his battered eyes had become.
Asked afterward if he was concerned about his diminishing field of vision, Corrales, well, lied. Distorting reality is something desperate fighters do to buy extra time from a referee or a ring physician upon whose judgment their further participation in a bout hinges.
“It’s not my job to worry about swelling,” he said of the mouses that had become rat-sized, offering still another magnificent prevarication. “It’s not my job to worry about knockdowns. It’s not my job to worry about anything that might hinder me. It’s the corner’s job to worry about those things. It’s my job to fight.”
Make no mistake, Corrales’ trainer, Joe Goossen, was fretting enough for the entire corner team. And what he told his fighter, or what Corrales decided on his own, might have proved the difference between a spectacular, back-from-the-brink victory and near-certain defeat.
In his most notable fight prior to his trench war with Castillo, Corrales had wrested the WBO 135-pound title from Brazil’s Acelino Freitas on a 10th-round TKO on Aug. 7, 2004, in Mashantucket, Conn. It did not escape Corrales’ attention that, whenever Freitas appeared to be in real trouble, he would “accidentally” lose his mouthpiece, obliging referee Mike Ortega to call time to have it rinsed off. A slick ploy, but one that ultimately did not prevent Freitas’ championship from changing hands.
Twenty-five seconds into Round 10, Castillo landed flush with a left hook that sent Corrales crashing to the canvas. His mouthpiece was dislodged by the shot, which probably was done legitimately, but Corrales – who had demonstrated remarkable recuperative powers throughout his career, in which he previously had been decked eight times – got precious additional seconds of recovery time.
The second knockdown, also from a left hook, had “Chico’s” chances of winning hanging by a slender thread. Even before Weeks reached a count of nine, a clearly buzzed Corrales removed his mouthpiece, apparently intentionally.
“The first time it came out, it came out by itself,” Corrales said. “The second time, I took it out to breathe. But I didn’t drop it on purpose.”
Weeks deducted a point from Corrales for intentionally spitting out the mouthpiece and directed him to his corner, where Goossen took his sweet time in rinsing it off and re-inserting it. When Corrales turned to face Castillo again, 28 seconds had elapsed.
Would Corrales have been stopped without the break in the action? Possibly. But Corrales, still in desperate straits, got there first with an overhand right, which he followed up with a barrage of blows, driving the Mexican back against the ropes, his head vibrating like it was on a swivel. Weeks believed he had no choice but to step in and wave things off at the 2:06 mark.
At the time of the stoppage, Corrales led, 87-84 and 86-85, on the scorecards of judge Lou Moret and Daniel Van de Wiele, with Castilo up, 87-84, on Paul Smith’s card.
“Castillo was naked,” Weeks said of the stoppage. “He was being hit with bombs. He went limp. He was unable to defend himself. He was out on his feet. His eyes rolled back, his arms were at his sides. I had to stop it.”
Not surprisingly, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who promoted Castillo, went ballistic.
“Forget the Long Count (in Dempsey-Tunney II),” Arum fumed. “Twenty-eight seconds. Nearly half a minute. If Jose Luis had spit out his mouthpiece, maybe he would have gotten 28 seconds (to recuperate).”
Shaw, of course, saw things differently.
“There’s nothing worse than taking away from a night like this,” he said. “This fight cannot be sullied by controversy.”
For his part, Weeks stands by his decision to allow Corrales enough time to have his mouthpiece rinsed and re-inserted, a ruling which was in accordance with Nevada State Athletic Commission rules, according to Marc Ratner, then the NSAC executive director.
“I would not do anything differently,” insisted Weeks, one of boxing’s best referees. “The first time (the mouthpiece came out), I didn’t see Corrales spit it out. Even the second time, I didn’t see it. But it was out, so the second time I thought, `We got a situation here.’ The appropriate thing was to deduct a point, which I did.”
Maybe Shaw is correct; the mouthpiece controversy doesn’t seem quite as big a deal now, maybe because the action was so indelibly printed on the minds of all that were privileged to have seen one of the great prizefights of all time. Fifteen years into the 21st century, there still hasn’t been anything to quite match it, not even the Gatti-Ward troika and, money considerations aside, not Mayweather-Pacquiao.
“The thing that bothers me the most (about the May-Pac fight) is they made it about money, instead of what a great fight really should be about,” he said. “I have a lot of mixed emotions about Saturday night in relation to Corrales-Castillo because those guys didn’t get anywhere near the money that Mayweather and Pacquiao got. But they were the ones who fought their hearts out and put everything on the line. Mayweather and Pacquiao didn’t, in my estimation.”
The measure of what Corrales-Castillo I was is the fact that it remains a measuring stick against which other fights are judged. Prior to junior welterweight Lucas Matthysse’s 12-round, majority decision over Ruslan Provodnikov on April 18 in Verona, N.Y., Provodnikov’s promoter, Art Pelullo, raised the possibility of a reasonable facsimile of May7, 2005, again taking place.
“I believe it’s going to be Corrales-Castillo I,” Pelullo opined. It wasn’t, but it is indicative of just how special a fight that was that boxing people still bring it up with a reverence that Mayweather-Pacquiao dwarfed in revenues generated but not where it counts, inside the ropes.