The rises and falls of Diego Corrales

Sacramento’s former championship boxer is out of prison and fighting his way back to the top

Diego Corrales won this fight against Michael Davis on a fifth-round knockout earlier this year.

Diego Corrales won this fight against Michael Davis on a fifth-round knockout earlier this year.

Courtesy Of Tom Casino, Showtime

Vaulted from anonymity to stardom overnight, Diego “Chico” Corrales was Sacramento’s best-known boxer three years ago, with a limitless future that seemed his for the taking. He was just 23 years old, but his formidable hands held the International Boxing Federation (IBF) 130-pound championship; he was a regular on HBO Boxing, commanding purses that eclipsed the career earnings of other fighters. Corrales was affable, likeable and electrifying in action, sending his fellow junior lightweights flying with the kind of power rarely seen in lower-weight boxers. His boyish demeanor and unpretentiousness combined with the violence he dealt out in highlight-reel doses made him a difficult contradiction to resolve.

Intuitively, he seemed to know when to turn on the aggression and how to relegate it to the past tense when the gloves came down and the microphones went up. He fought, usually starting slowly until hit, and then he came alive, as would a man waking from a dead sleep realizing he is being attacked.

But unchecked, his aggression nearly destroyed his career and his life. As a kid, Corrales battled with it early on. Sprung from the tough streets of Oak Park, he was introduced to boxing by his stepfather, Ray Woods, and knew it was his life’s calling the first time he put on the gloves.

“My dad kept me going in the gym. I was an aggressive kid, pretty strong, and I always got in fights,” Corrales said. “Ray said, ‘I’ll take you every day to a place you can get in a fight, never get hurt and never get in trouble.’”

The ring took Corrales places he thought he’d never go. “I just moved so fast. My first national tournament, I’m in Newark and fighting for the national title. I remember going to the Statue of Liberty, and I came home with a silver medal. I realized, ‘Hey, this can really pay off.’”

Corrales had a 115-7 record as an amateur and then went on to a professional record of 33-0, including three title defenses of his IBF belt. A match with rival Floyd Mayweather was slated for January 2001 with a record purse of $1.5 million each. On the surface, everything seemed to be falling into place for Corrales. In reality, though, everything was falling apart.

If Corrales was on top of his game inside the ring, he was losing control outside it. An argument with his then-wife Maria had escalated into a violent dispute, and Corrales’ court date loomed. A high-profile match with Mayweather was hurriedly put together, with some people contending that Corrales was being auctioned off—cashed out by the promoter while his career was still viable.

In the months leading up to the Mayweather fight, Corrales also found out his IBF 130-pound title had been abdicated by managers—and conveniently given to another fighter in their stable.

“I had a real-estate company at the time in Phoenix. Next thing I know, one of my friends comes on the computer and says, ‘You vacated your belt?’” said Corrales. At that time, he was having difficulty getting his weight down. “I’m starting to read this article about me giving up my title. And I felt like I didn’t have the opportunity to give up my belt. It was my right to give that up.”

Corrales sued his managers and settled in arbitration for an undisclosed sum. It was another distraction he didn’t need.

But Corrales didn’t care about any of that; he simply wanted to fight Mayweather and resolve their bitter rivalry in the ring. It was time to settle affairs with a man who’d taunted him endlessly about his personal problems with his wife and virtually everything else, too. Corrales is not quick to exchange verbal barbs; he bided his time, seething as Floyd milked every public appearance with a mounting tide of threats, insults and goading. Finally, Corrales succumbed, and the bad blood was flowing freely in both directions. With combined black and Hispanic fan bases, the bout was a natural headliner to kick off HBO’s 2001 broadcast schedule.

For Corrales, it meant making the dreaded 130-pound limit one last time; one final episode of long days with only a grapefruit to eat, of jogging in rubber suits and of endless steam baths to get down to the limit. One more time, and he’d be off to the 135-pound lightweights and living fat, never having to take off those terrible final pounds again.

He walked up to the scale, and the fight was, in a sense, lost right there. For all his efforts in the steam bath that morning, shedding 8 pounds, he was still 132—two pounds overweight. He went back and sucked the 2 pounds off in time for the weigh-in. A day later, his body both starved and waterlogged from his ensuing rehydration, he entered the ring—146 pounds at fight time—and the results were a disaster.

“I didn’t really realize ’til the third or fourth round that everything was going bad,” said Corrales. “And I was cramping up. … My legs started cramping real good, and I’m going, ‘What’s the deal here?’”

The blood feud had gotten the best of Corrales, his fury clouding years of training and technique. After being picked apart in a surgical manner, Corrales was floored three times in the seventh. He kept pressing, and Mayweather kept hitting him. Finally, in the 10th round, after the fifth knockdown, his stepfather waved the bout off and saved him from moot punishment.

“What the hell are you doing?” screamed Corrales. Woods, mindful of his stepson’s pride, shook his head—mute, yet resolute. Chico would take no more.

“I would rather fell out dead in that ring than let that fight pass me by like it did,” Corrales said. “I don’t think I talked to my dad for two weeks after that. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him about it. When it came up, I told him, ‘Hey, I felt what you did was wrong. But it’s water under the bridge.’”

Soon after the Mayweather defeat, Corrales returned to an even more disastrous personal life. After looking at the police report and the charges before him—and recognizing that a conviction could land him several more years—Corrales figured his best option was a plea bargain.

Corrales admitted involvement in a violent incident between him and his ex-wife, who was pregnant at the time, but said he cannot and will not specify exactly what occurred. “Before being so quick to persecute somebody, people should find out the facts first,” Corrales added. “My family took a huge beating behind a bunch of nonsense. And that makes for hard feelings.” Corrales claimed his ex-wife had her own agendas, both personal and financial. The evidence did not agree with him, however, and he was no longer a free man.

Corrales served 14 months in prison in Tracy, with enough solitude to contemplate the impulses that had led him down the wrong path. He says he didn’t encounter any trouble there and mostly was left alone to jog the yard, shadow box and pass the time.

“It was definitely a tough thing to go through,” Corrales said. “Actually, I got pretty fat. I came out about 180 pounds. I ate very well.”

It was at this point that Corrales’ story took yet another twist, when James Prince—Mayweather’s manager—showed up at Tracy. After a standoffish introduction, the two got to talking. With his time for release due in June 2002, Corrales felt he’d gained a rare friend in a time when few could be counted on.

“He says, ‘Hey, I wanna talk to you. I wanna meet you,’” Corrales recalled of Prince’s surprise visit. “I’m like, ‘Whatever. I’ll listen to you.’ I’m still a little hot about what went on. He came down there. He talked about us getting together and doing business together. He said, ‘I’ll be back next month.’ He kept his word and came back the following month. He said, ‘This will be the last time I’ll see you,’ but he sent someone down there the last six months for my term. I can respect a man that keeps his word like that. He checked up on my family, and I respect that.”

Corrales’ current wife, Michelle, who was his girlfriend at the time, also stood by him. “At the time I went to prison, I gave her all my money and said, ‘This is to keep the house in order,’” he said. “I said, ‘I won’t expect to see you when I get out.’ She said, ‘I can’t believe you said that, but I can’t wait to prove you wrong.’”

Corrales said she visited every weekend—“missed maybe a couple”—the whole time he was in prison. “Once I was outta the gates, I’m looking at this woman and saying, ‘This is an amazing woman,’” said Corrales. The couple married on New Year’s of 2003.

With his new manager, new family and a new fight airing April 24 on Showtime, the 25-year-old Corrales insists he still has plenty of time to redeem himself and fulfill his potential. A rematch with Mayweather is still a year or more away, with numerous hurdles to negotiate in the interim. He has to fight himself back into contention and show the world that he’s as imposing as he was when he was a champion. He has to show that elemental fire, the controlled fury that made him a unique attraction among little men.

The once-noxious problem of weight has been kept in check with thrice-daily training sessions. With his metabolism kept revving, Corrales has been surprisingly able to drop back down to the 135-pound lightweight class. He has won two fights in his comeback, in low-level shows against modest opponents. His record now stands at 35-1, with 29 knockouts.

On April 24, he’ll take another step up the ladder against Antonio Cermeno, who is a better opponent than his previous two foes but still a couple notches removed from championship-level competition, where he used to live and prosper. It’s a gradual process, but Corrales, despite the detours he’s taken, has youth to burn.

“I don’t think it’s going to be very difficult for Corrales to regain his form,” said Steve Farhood, a Showtime boxing analyst. “He’s young enough to have survived the layoff and jail time without crippling effects. Corrales was one of the hardest hitters in the game as a 130-pounder. I’m sure he’ll carry his power with him to lightweight. So far, the evidence is that he’s done just that.”

But Farhood added that Mayweather “has the right style to frustrate him” and said he’d likely pick Mayweather again if the two had a rematch.

Right now, though, Corrales, can’t worry too much about that. He looks back at the things that his career unveiled during his nascent, naïve early 20s, and readies himself for a second run—while he’s still young enough but wise enough to avoid the things he didn’t see coming.

“I just want to get back to being a world champion,” Corrales concluded, “and supplying a good living for my family. As long as I can do that, that would be great.”