Outside of the boxing ring Diego “Chico” Corrales was a mixture of wide-eyed kid and aw shucks mentality. Inside the ropes he was a locked-in human surface-to-surface missile armed with a nuclear warhead.
Ten years have passed since the boxing world and sports lost the Las Vegas prizefighter to a horrific motorcycle accident. Despite his early passing, many will never forget him.
My first glimpse of the stick figure slugger from Sacramento was on the undercard of Oscar “The Golden Boy” De La Hoya meeting Julio Cesar Chavez at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was May 7, 1996 and it was blazing hot. Corrales won that fight and would go on to win many more before losing.
Next I saw him on a January 1997 fight card at the Inglewood Forum. Jorge “Maromero” Paez and Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez fought separate co-main events back in 1997. At the time I had been laid off by the L.A. Times and was working for Uppercut Magazine. Corrales blasted out some kid named Sal Montes in the first round.
After the fight card, the magazine’s editorial staff met at our headquarters in East L.A. All agreed that Corrales was going places. Each writer and editor believed the tall, lanky Corrales packed a wallop and at 130 pounds looked unbeatable.
The magazine used to have a section called Too Dangerous where we wrote about young unknown boxers that others stayed far away from. Corrales was number one on the list. Despite his scrawny and thin body frame, when he connected others could not continue.
A few months after the Inglewood fight, he fought on a Las Vegas card on April 1997. Facing “Chico” was a slick-fighting southpaw Steve Quinonez Jr. out of Palm Springs. Both were prospects with Top Rank and it was pretty much the moment of truth for both fighters. That night it was all Corrales and by the fourth round it was all over when Quinonez could not continue.
“He just hit too hard,” said Quinonez.
A year passed before I saw Corrales back in the ring when he fought at the Olympic Auditorium. Once again he cracked somebody in the first round and it was over. One month later, at the same historic venue, Corrales was bumped up to the main event. This time his opponent lasted nearly two rounds, but barely.
Another year passed when Corrales met Angel Aldama at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio. The main event saw Antonio Margarito win a close split decision against San Diego’s Danny Perez. That same night, Corrales battered Aldama until he could not continue at the end of the fourth round.
IBF world title
Oxnard’s Robert Garcia had won the super featherweight world title a year earlier in 1998 and defended it twice. Now the two 130-pounders were meeting at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Both had come up simultaneously through Top Rank and now, finally, here they were meeting in the prize ring. On one side was a smallish, aggressive over-achiever in Garcia. On the other side stood the skinny but tall Corrales who had power and definitely knew how to use it.
It wasn’t the main event that night. Mike Tyson was fighting Orlin Norris and the fight ended ridiculously quick. Later it was changed from a knockout to a no decision. Some young guy in the front row kept shouting “I spent $2,000 for a one round knockout.” He repeated this several times. I guess he wanted people to know he spent a lot of money and was some kind of player. I got tired of hearing him and told him “You must not know anything about Mike Tyson. Most of his fights end in one round.”
The fight between Garcia and Corrales was brutal and mesmerizing. Despite the firepower packed by Corrales, the titleholder Garcia would not go down and refused to quit. Both exchanged some horrific blows on each other. But as the rounds mounted, it was clear that the taller Corrales was maintaining his strength while Garcia’s blows were ebbing in power.
“That was my favorite fight,” Corrales told me. “It was great. We both didn’t want to quit.”
Finally, in the seventh round the fight was stopped and Corrales was the winner. After the fight was called, Corrales stayed around the arena talking to reporters and fans. I made introductions to the other members of the magazine. The publisher asked him if there was anything he wanted.
“I sure could use a pop,” said Corrales.
The publisher gave a surprised look and asked “A what?”
“A pop. A soda pop,” Corrales replied.
The publisher and I laughed.
Corrales defended the IBF title four times in impressive fashion. His fourth defense was a three round demolition of Chicago’s Angel Manfredy. Before the fight, Manfredy prepared in Big Bear. Everyone in the camp talked about how aside from Corrales’ power there was not much to him. But when they met in the ring it was like a man against a boy as Corrales battered Manfredy until it was stopped in the third round.
Another super featherweight named Floyd Mayweather had emerged and captured the WBC version with a dominating victory over Genaro Hernandez. Despite the knockout win, many saw Corrales as the favorite when the fight between him and Mayweather was announced in late December 2000.
Mayweather had beaten some pretty talented guys after winning the world title including Hernandez who only lost two fights in his entire career, vs. Oscar De La Hoya and Mayweather. Others Mayweather beat were Carlos Gerena, Goyo Vargas and Emanuel Augustus. All very talented.
They held a press conference in downtown Los Angeles at the Hilton.
“Floyd’s a very good fighter,” said Corrales during the press conference. He never once promised a knockout victory but was convinced he would win. “I’m going to pressure him.”
Most of the media was convinced that Mayweather was over his head against the taller and lethal punching Corrales. But until the two super featherweights met on Jan. 20, 2001, both were undefeated and confident as a weatherman predicting hot weather in July.
Mayweather was far too quick, far too clever and far too elusive for Corrales who was floored many times throughout the 10 rounds that it lasted. Up and down went Corrales like a bowling pin. But never did he seem hurt or dazed. When his corner stopped the fight at 2:19 of the 10th, the rangy fighter yelled at his father and team. Of course Corrales always felt he could win a fight. Years later he would prove he is never out until he is out.
After the loss Corrales spent 13 months in prison for domestic abuse. They were dark days for Corrales who had a chip on his shoulder when he was finally released. But though he seemed more serious in spirit, he still was quick to smile.
In 2003, when he finally returned, he quickly accepted four fights in rapid succession at super featherweight. All four fights ended in a knockout win until he met Joel Casamayor. But since returning to the boxing ring, the weight loss just seemed to drain Corrales of energy. He moved up to the 135-pound lightweight division.
Since returning to the boxing ring Corrales seemed to be oblivious to his popularity among boxing fans. When he moved up to lightweight his first opponent was WBO lightweight champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas, a legend in his native Brazil.
Like Corrales, many fans loved Freitas and his amazing power. When he defeated Cuba’s Casamayor in a battle of undefeated in January 2002, he suddenly became a superstar in his country.
Now Popo was meeting Chico in a battle of supercharged lightweights at Foxwoods in Connecticut. Slowly but surely Corrales began imposing his will and power on the shorter Freitas who could not keep the always charging Corrales away. The fight ended in the 10th round.
Corrales was the new WBO lightweight champion and he did not seem to understand the significance.
The next week a fight card at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas was taking place. As I walked through the long corridor Corrales was walking toward me alone and seemingly lost.
“Hey Diego how you doing,” I shouted to him. “That was a big win you had against Freitas. Your life is going to change.”
Corrales looked at me in surprise.
“It is?” he said.
Just then another reporter walked toward us and I asked the reporter German Villasenor to tell Corrales the significance of his win.
“That’s a big time win,” Villasenor told him.
“I’m hungry,” replied Corrales.
We all nodded and headed to a buffet at the Mandalay Bay. We grabbed a tray and began filling it with various foods. Corrales grabbed a tray and filled in with at least a dozen pastries.
Everyone who knows me knows I love pastries and anything sweet. But Corrales loved sweets even more than me. He munched those pastries quicker than I could finish my scrambled eggs. He saw my pastry and asked if he could have mine. I nodded and he ate that quickly too.
We talked about his win and about the difference and weight. Corrales seemed amazed that his win was a big thing. He also seemed amazed that anyone cared. While we were eating people began walking over to our table to ask for Diego’s autograph right on queue.
After finishing our meal we walked outside into the Mandalay Bay corridor. In seconds there were dozens of people gathering around Corrales. He had a big smile and seemed truly surprised by the adulation. I never forgot it. It was August 2004.
The reigning WBC lightweight champion was Mexico’s Jose Luis Castillo, a square jawed fighter from Sonora who nearly toppled Mayweather in their first meeting. He had defeated a number of lightweight contenders in consecutive fights such as Juan Lazcano, Joel Casamayor and Julio Diaz in world title fights. It didn’t look like anyone could dethrone the square jawed Castillo.
When it was announced in spring 2005 that “Chico” Corrales would be the next to try to dethrone the Mexican lightweight, it was Castillo who was the betting favorite. The press conference to announce the fight took place at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. It was an outdoor press conference near the Mexican eatery by the pool. Dozens of reporters lingered about the patio interviewing the two prizefighters known for action fights.
The title fight was held at the Mandalay Bay and though both fighters were popular, not that many fans showed up for the fight held on May 7, 2005. About 5,000 fans filled the arena that could hold 12,000. It was a surprise to me and others that the fight did not draw better. The media section was not as crowded as usual but it was well represented because of both Corrales and Castillo’s reputations.
One thing about Corrales was that he was a big favorite of other top fighters. They all loved his warrior spirit and quick-to-smile personality. Shane Mosley, James Toney and Winky Wright were all good friends of Corrales and could often be seen hanging together around Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I ran into them one time at a club show in Las Vegas. They were all there just to hang out. There was no one in particular they wanted to see fight, but they all loved boxing so there they were.
People loved Corrales upon meeting him. My wife and her family got a chance to meet him accidentally in Las Vegas and the next time we ran into Corrales it was like a family reunion. He always seemed to make time for fans and friends.
So when Corrales entered the ring to face the mighty Castillo you could hear the cheers erupt from the small crowd and guys like James Toney walking toward the ring shouting encouragement.
The fight itself was mesmerizing. I’ll never forget the constant barrage of blows both fighters exchanged. It was one of those fights where even the calloused boxing writers looked at each other and shook their head.
It was both brutal and beautiful to watch two skilled power punchers try to out-do each other in both blows and willpower.
Every round seemed to be better than the previous. The slender and taller Corrales would absorb tremendous blows from the stockier and more muscular Castillo then reply with his own barrage when it seemed he should be getting weaker. Fans were on their feet.
In the 10th, it looked like the end for Corrales. He was caught with some vicious left hooks and went down. He spit out his mouthpiece which gained him time but he got up. He went back to exchanging with Castillo and got caught again. It really didn’t look good for Corrales. I remember looking around and seeing Winky Wright and James Toney shouting encouragement while Joe Goossen washed out the mouthpiece. After the second knockdown the referee was wise and took away a point. But the delay tactic and the point deduction gave Corrales enough time to muster strength and when the fight resumed Corrales exchanged still again. Castillo looked confident that the end was near when a Corrales right suddenly connected solidly and rocked Castillo. The taller Corrales unleashed a barrage and the Mexican fighter’s eyes closed for a moment. Referee Tony Weeks jumped in and stopped the fight.
People literally jumped up and down and shouted. Toney and Wright ran around the arena shouting with their arms raised. Corrales calmly walked back to his corner with the look of a sleepwalker who suddenly realized where he was. Even the seen-it-all boxing reporters looked at each other with jaws dropped. I remember looking directly at Rich Marotta who looked at me and mouthed the word “wow.”
It was one of those wow moments.
After that fight Corrales remained the same. His victory that night was ammunition for sports teams and other fighters to realize “it’s not over till it’s over.”
But two years later, on the exact same day May 7, it was over for Corrales who passed away during a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas.
I remember getting a phone call from a female fighter Vaia Zaganas who said with sadness that Diego Corrales had passed away. She lived in the same area that the accident happened.
I called a promoter for verification and they said they would call back. Instead they fed the information to the LA Times.
It really didn’t matter to me or other reporters who actually knew Corrales. It was like losing a baby brother. But the memories he provided both in and out of the ring are burned in my mind. Chico Corrales was one of a kind.
Painting by Richard T. Stone
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