To hell and back—again

Oak Park native battles for lightweight title, rebuilds life after downfall

Diego Corrales following his May 7 win over Jose Luis Castillo. Corrales will defend his title in a rematch with Castillo on October 8.

Diego Corrales following his May 7 win over Jose Luis Castillo. Corrales will defend his title in a rematch with Castillo on October 8.

Courtesy Of Tom Casino

A fighter is most dangerous when he’s hurt.

Of course, when he’s been dropped twice in the 10th round of a grueling war, legs splayed, eyes reduced to purplish slits, that classic boxing axiom fades in the harsh light of likely outcomes. But, for Oak Park native Diego “Chico” Corrales, getting up when knocked down—in and out of the ring—is a recurring theme.

With his May 7 win over fellow belt-holder Jose Luis Castillo, Corrales partially unified the world lightweight title with a comeback that defied even Hollywood logic. Dazed and battered, fined a point for losing his mouthpiece for the second time in the round, Corrales trudged to his corner as trainer Joe Goossen gave him a succinct edict while putting the gum shield back in, his wearied charge looking like a 3 a.m. jackroller’s dream.

“You gotta fucking get inside on him,” snapped Goossen. “Now!”

Castillo pounced in for the kill. But Corrales sprang to life and unleashed a torrent of punches, and the rugged Mexican came apart in phases, like a building being wrecked from its foundation, tilting helplessly as his hands sunk. Corrales kept bombing. Castillo was unconscious on the ropes, still standing, but saved by the referee. It was a stunning momentum shift that only happens in boxing, and it left an indelible memory on those who witnessed it.

Goossen says it’s an injustice to categorize their brutal first encounter as merely the best he’s ever seen.

“It’s No. 1, to the 10th power,” Goossen told SN&R. “I’m very serious about that. It was brutality.”

“He gave as good as he got. It hurt,” Corrales said of Castillo, who wears foes down with oppressive persistence. “I was so determined. But it’s like a tree. You chop at it long enough, it goes down.” Corrales slugged it out from the opening round, and for most of the bout they stood chest to chest trying to break each other’s will.

After the bout, controversy swirled over Corrales’ dislodged mouthpiece following both knockdowns, which cumulatively gave him an extra 30 seconds to recover while it was twice reinserted in the final round. Castillo believed it played a key role in rescuing Corrales.

Castillo will try to take the lightweight championship away from Corrales on October 8. The pay-per-view rematch figures to provide more of the same drama. It is expected to sell well, not on mainstream name recognition, but as something deliciously rare at the championship level of the sweet science.

Corrales’ roller-coaster ride through life has been punctuated by riveting highs and crushing lows. After winning the International Boxing Federation’s 130-pound title in 1999, he became an HBO fighter, the rare small man who merited such attention because of crushing power and an action-first style.

But after a one-sided drubbing in 2001 against rival Floyd Mayweather Jr., Corrales’ personal life came apart.

After the loss, he pleaded no-contest to a felony charge of spousal abuse against then-wife Maria, who was pregnant, and he served 14 months in a prison in Tracy. After police reports that Maria suffered serious injuries from the assault, Corrales was left with few defenders. Nowadays, the Vegas-based fighter returns to Sacramento only to visit select family and friends.

Corrales has admitted a confrontation took place that he regrets, but he says he’s not the monster the media and critics portrayed him to be. He steadfastly maintains that he took the plea to avoid additional charges and time behind bars. Either way, he seemed to be another doomed footnote in boxing’s endless chronology of squandered potential.

Before he went to prison, Corrales turned his money over to then-girlfriend Michelle, now his wife. He figured if she was still there when he got out, he could trust her. She was, and he does.

She is pregnant, Corrales happily informed SN&R, and the couple is expecting its first child together in March. “If Michelle told me to lay out in the middle of the road, I would,” he said. “I trust her that much.”

Since his release from prison in June 2002, Corrales has reeled off seven wins in eight bouts, avenging a loss to Joel Casamayor in 2003 and stopping previously unbeaten Acelino Freitas in 2004. At 40-2 (33 knockouts), he is back on top once more, and with another win over Castillo, he has a host of options in front of him. At the 140-pound level, there’s Mayweather, Miguel Cotto and world champion Ricky Hatton. But Corrales declined to discuss future foes. He’s focused on Castillo.

SN&R polled boxing media on the prospects for the rematch. Among them were Nigel Collins, editor of Ring Magazine; eminent boxing columnist Michael Katz, an alum of The New York Times; Thomas Hauser, author of 30 books, including Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times; and Showtime announcers Steve Farhood and Nick Charles.

A rough consensus emerges: It should be another epochal struggle.

Collins said the first fight was “among the very best I’ve ever seen. But, for me, the ending and the mouthpiece controversy detracted a bit from its aesthetic quality. That said, I’m filled with admiration for what Castillo and Corrales have given us.”

Hauser agrees that the mouthpiece controversy marred an otherwise perfect fight.

“Corrales can make it easier if he boxes more,” Hauser added. “The big question is whether or not Castillo will be willing to walk through fire again.”

Katz expects Corrales to box and use his height and reach in the early rounds.

“I think he’ll try, but sooner or later, another great fight will break out,” he said.

Charles said Corrales is boxing’s most thrilling fighter.

“He proved he’ll never quit,” Charles said. “Given the bloodletting on both sides, it’s amazing they’ll do it again five months later.”

Farhood added, “Expect another great fight and an all-out war.”

Corrales has been floored 10 times in the ring. He has always gotten up, buoyed by the prospect of revenge.

“This is my success story. It comes out of a terrible mess,” Corrales said. “I fought back from nothing. And here I am.”