DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT TAMAS PRADARICS — Rivalries always make boxing more popular. They help the sport borrow the attention of general sport fans who normally do not follow fist-fighting.
Rivalries sometimes outlast complete generations of fight fans. Fathers tell tales about them to sons and the lineality flows on.
There are celebrated ones. Everybody remembers the Ali-Frazier trilogy. Old timers remember Robinson-LaMotta, Pep-Angott, McLarnin-Ross. Younger fans of the sport had the chance to witness the rivalries between Barrera-Morales and Marquez-Vazquez.
There are also forgotten ones, like the rivalry between Ruben Olivares and Chucho Castillo. Casual fans do not really remember the three fearsome battles these two bantamweight greats fought with their heavy and willing fists.
On April 18, 1970 Olivares and Castillo fought for the first time. That was 47 years ago this month.
Both Castillo and Olivares learned their craft in the smoky gyms of Mexico City, building respectable records against tough local opponents until the watchful eyes of promoters caught them and brought them to the Los Angeles area.
Jesus ”Chucho” Castillo turned pro at the age of 17 in 1962. He won only 21 of his first 27 fights, losing four inside the distance because of severe cuts suffered by gloves or heads. He shifted gears in the summer of 1966 with a third round demolition of tough gatekeeper Edmundo Esparza.
Ten more straight wins, some of them against top rated bantamweights like Waldemiro Pinto (#6 by The Ring at bantamweight), Joe Medel (#7) and Bernardo Caraballo (#5), led Chucho to an elimination bout at 118 pounds against fellow Mexican Jesus Pimentel (#1).
It was time for Castillo to travel to the US to perform for the first time. The location turned out to be The Forum in Inglewood, California, the venue that was then home for most of the big bouts on the West Coast along with the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Chuchu defeated Pimentel, winning a 12-round unanimous decision.
The newly built Forum was owned by Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke. George Parnassus was the venue’s boxing promoter. Parnassus was born in Greece in 1897 and arrived to the United States at age 18. First he ran a restaurant in Pheonix, Arizona, then became the manager of one of his regular guests there, featherweight contender Kid Carter. In California, Parnassus became known for making the biggest fights and making them at the right time.
Ruben Olivares turned pro in January 1965 with a first round knockout win over fellow debutant Isidro Sotelo. That was a prologue that paved the road for young Olivares’s future reputation.
Ruben made quick work of his opponents in 33 of his first 35 bouts before he faced his stiffest test in #7 ranked bantamweight Salvatore Burruni in late March, 1968.
The undefeated prospect severely battered Burruni, a former flyweight champion. Oliveras was credited with a TKO when Burruni turned his back on him in the third round.
Five months later, after stopping #2 rated flyweight Octavio Gomez, Olivares had his own US debut at the Forum against journeyman Bernabe Fernandez. Chuchu Castillo was also on that card. They shared the bill with Australian Lionel Rose, who happened to be the reigning world champion at 118 pounds. Like Olivares, the Aussie was making his U.S. debut.
Parnassus matched Rose against tough Joe Medel whom Lionel beat on points in ten frames. Castillo dispatched Evan Armstrong in the second round. Olivares demolished Bernabe Fernandez in the third.
It was not the first occasion the Mexican contenders shared a prize ring the same night in separate bouts. In fact, they were on the undercard of Jose Napoles-Eugino Espinoza in December 1966 in Mexico City. In 1967, again in Mexico City, they were again on the same show when each of them silenced top rated opponents before Vicente Saldivar painted his masterpiece with a twelfth round TKO over tough contender Howard Winstone in the main event.
The fact that Castillo and Olivares did not face each other in a prize ring in their early years in the paid ranks in Mexico was most likely nothing more than pure coincidence, regarding the all-inclusive matchmaking habits back in those years when the live gate of the event presented the vast majority of the income it generated.
On the other hand, the fact they did not face each other in the US until April 1970 could not have been more perfectly planned.
Again, George Parnassus knew his trade and did not match the participants until he made them heavy ticket-sellers in separate bouts. He was an early bird in marinating fights into mega events.
Chucho got his chance to win the title in December 1968 against Rose. The champ received $75,000 for his services. That set a new record in the bantamweight division. Castillo’s share was $20,000, a massive payday for a challenger in the smaller categories at the time.
After a close 15-round encounter Rose got the decision in controversial fashion. The verdict sparked an ugly riot. Chairs were stacked and burned, bottles were flying inside the arena and cars got overturned in the parking lot. As an aftermath of the incident, officials of The Forum considered a ban on boxing.
Following the bout, Olivares said Rose rightfully got the win against his countryman. That statement just added fuel to the fire in a heated personal affair between Ruben and Chucho.
In August 1969, after Olivares shut off a pair of top rated Japanese 118-pounders in Kazuyoshi Kanazawa and Takao Sakurai, the Mexican Massacre walked through Rose in five rounds and become the new champ at bantamweight.
Now Parnassus knew the big fight between Olivares and Castillo was just around the corner.
In his first defense, the promoter matched Olivares against his mandatory in Alan Rudkin. The latter was yet to get stopped in 42 previous fights. Rudkin and manager Bobby Neill predicted the bout to go the route. Ruben instead demolished the Brit in less than six minutes.
On the undercard, Castillo showed his brilliant infighting skills, beating up world rated Raul Cruz in ten rounds in a rematch that served as a title eliminator.
Olivares vs Castillo was next.
Leading up to the huge all-Mexican brawl scheduled to take place where else than at The Forum on April 18, 1970, Castillo claimed he was more dedicated than Olivares whom he tabbed a clown.
18,762 fans paid a total of $281,840 to witness the bout live. Both turned to be numbers the venue had never produced on a boxing event before. Gate receipts were also second highest for an indoor event in the rich history of California. Olivares’s share of the purse was $100,000 while Castillo earned $30,000 as the challenger.
Olivares entered the bout as a 13-5 favorite with an unbelievable 57-0-1 record. Fifty-five of those wins came by way of knockout. Only two opponents were able to survive and hear the final bell (Felipe Gonzalez and German Bastidas; both bouts took place back in 1967) and both got stopped in rematches. These numbers could not help but plant the idea in the fans’ minds that Olivares was going to follow his tradition and stop Castillo, who had been stopped earlier in his career on four occasions.
This was the matchup that made George Parnassus arguably the best fight promoter in the whole world at the time.
Olivares started the fight better. He moved well, settling in at a distance that served him well going forward. He was a well-skilled slugger in front of a well-skilled brawler in Chucho. In the last thirty seconds of the third heat Castillo landed a short right hand that dropped Olivares. The champ rose immediately.
As the bout rolled on, Olivares seemed to be more mobile, had better timing and was effective enough with his trademark left hooks to keep Chucho from taking the lead. Castillo took everything Ruben could offer and came back for more. The challenger was never in serious danger of his murderous punching counterpart.
Olivares was forced to go fifteen rounds for the first time in his career. He did enough to get the nod of the judges and he walked away with a well-earned decision win. The crowd, however, was not happy with the verdict.
Based on the many close rounds and the heated actions through forty-five minutes of fighting, the rematch was a must-have and thus brought to bear six months later.
This time Castillo showed a perfect explanation of why George Parnassus years earlier said about him: ”He would fight a bull with a fork and be a 6-5 favorite.”
Olivares came out swinging and brought the war at close range only to get outbrawled by a shorter, more explosive challenger in the majority of the rounds after the fifth.
Ruben got cut early on his left eyelid and the stream of blood bothered his vision during the bout. Still it was he who chose to fight on the inside and Chucho did what he had to do to take the lead.
Referee Dick Young stopped the bout on the advice of the ring physician in the fourteenth heat and Castillo became champion on his third try with a TKO win. Ruben lost his ”O” after a marvelous 62-fight unbeaten streak.
The inevitable rubber match took place on April 2, 1971. Olivares now took his time, was focused and boxed his way into another fifteen round decision, thus winning back his title. Regardless of a sixth round knockdown scored by Chucho, this happened to be the only fight of the trilogy with a clean, unquestionable verdict.
All three bouts brought well over $200,000 in gate receipts excluding other additional incomes such as ancillary and foreign TV rights.
The brutal rivalry brought out the best in each man. Olivares had to dig deep and show the world he was more than just a slugger with enormous punching power in both hands. Castillo, on the other hand, proved that he was at championship level with good overall boxing skills along with an extra set of balls and an unbreakable chin.
Ruben went on to become an all-time great, defending his recaptured bantamweight championship twice and then won a pair of featherweight titles. Castillo had one more give-and-take war following his second loss to Olivares, where he dropped a controversial decision against Rafael Herrera. In his very next fight Herrera went on to dethrone Ruben for bantamweight supremacy.
Ruben Olivares and Chucho Castillo are forever remembered as greats of a beautifully brutal era of pugilism. And they are remembered largely because of a rivalry that started 47 years ago this month.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tamas Pradarics writes from Tihany, a village in Hungary. With Golden Boy Promotions CEO Oscar De La Hoya hailing his forthcoming May 6 promotion as the most anticipated Mexican vs. Mexican showdown of all time, we thought this piece was especially timely. Mexican fight fans who were around in 1970 would likely take exception to Oscar’s pronouncement.
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