Castillo vs. Corrales: Symmetry and the Sweet Science
Castillo said, “this fight will be like two buffaloes colliding.”
For ten brutal, exhilarating rounds, it was. They stood eye-to-eye in the center of the ring and moved only closer together, head bent aghast over the other’s shoulder. Castillo threw uppercuts and Corrales responded each time with a right hook and the sickening ratatat of low body shots.
Castillo (or El Temible, literally The Fearsome, but used in Spanish more like “dread,” as in The Dread Castillo) came into this fight with a legendary right hook himself, and a penchant for body shots that bordered on savage, and which had been challenged as illegal (too low) several times during his rise to Lightweight Champion
Diego Corrales had seen the two buffaloes, as well, and brought with him a studied technique that would match Castillo’s swing after swing, and shut him out. But when two buffaloes collide, there are no techniques, there is no subterfuge, no trickery. Strength is measured against strength, and death. So with Corrales and Castillo. They squared up and punched and punched and punched, Corrales in his knowledge of El Temible and Castillo in what little there was to understand about Chico, a man known only for his ferocity, his ability to hit just a little harder, just a little longer than he could withstand getting hit. Castillo lacked two inches on Corrales, and he knew that staying close, staying square, and abandoning his usual style for the chance at a few powerful upward throws was the best gambit in a war of attrition. Corrales, for his part, sought only to answer Castillo’s style in kind, to “hook on a hooker,” as Steve Albert calls early in the fight.
Corrales had also been called upon by his trainer Joe Goossen not to depend on his left hook, which had become his trademark. Instead, Chico had said, he wanted to stay out and jab, keeping the shorter but equally powerful Castillo to the outside and allowing him to move quickly around Castillo’s devastating right hand, should it appear. But in the first three rounds, It had been Corrales who set the mark by moving inside, his forearms knocking against Castillo’s, firing off combination after combination–right hook, left low, left hook across, like the high sandy crackle of a Kalashnikov–and staying there, moving out only to duck with startling quickness and dart back inside like a breaching butterfly swimmer.
By the end of the third, Chico’s left came out, lashing at Castillo. Castillo seemed like a wellspring of strength, while Corrales’s gait started to wobble. Almost without fail, every time Castillo landed an uppercut Corrales recovered with impossible celerity and answered with a hook, or a quick succession of body shots, or a two-or-three hit combo that belied his inertial pitch forward and the blood that had begun, somewhere in the fifth minute, to trickle over his right eye.
But in the fourth round, Chico finds new life, somewhere, bouncing giddily on the balls of his feet and finally moving outside for the benefit of that left hook, his electric reflexes and what little reach advantage (70” to Castillo’s 69”) he could muster. He seems to regain focus, and you can see it clearly through the screen, through whatever distance separates Cleveland and The Mandalay Bay, through six years and the gauzy lens of glory, and of death.
He was like some medieval superstition, relieved by bloodletting from the scourge of hysteria– of thinking too much when only strength will do. They called his stance Orthodox for a reason.
In response to Chico’s sudden return, Castillo bears down, folding into himself and snatching out jabs to Corrales’s ribs. By the end of the fourth round, It’s Castillo’s left eye that’s bloodied, adding a thin dash of color to the two fighters’ fearful symmetry. Like two buffaloes, colliding.
By halfway through the fifth round, in the heart of what will be a ten-round match, the Press Row has 38s, all the way across. An even split.
The lightning-streaked blood on the side of Castillo’s face has the opposite effect as it had on Corrales, and as he’s being patched up in the corner there’s something like stress beginning to show across his otherwise broad and formidable brow. Meanwhile, Corrales bounces up and back in, and he has only this dulled, hazy-eyed glance. It’s the way you imagine a toreador looks when he thinks no one is watching. He is losing himself into the fight, and taking up his advantage.
A month after the fight, writer Thomas Gerbasi interviewed Corrales.
[Gerbasi asked] whether he pondered quitting at any time during the punishing bout with Castillo.
He didn’t hesitate to respond.
Did you ever think about it?
Not even for a brief second?
“It’s not even a thing that pops into my head.”
To watch the fight enter its second half, it’s difficult to doubt him. In Corrales’s face there’s a lack of thought, not just a lack of strain and worry but a lack of things like resolve, or determination, or whatever qualities you’d think a title fight would require. Diego Corrales is now like a satellite in low-earth-orbit: he needed strength only to get up there. Once he’s there, only inertia carries him forward, or downward.
And at the end of the sixth, El Temible, after landing a particularly shattering series of hits, comes deliciously close to dragging Chico into the fire, but for the bell and referee Tony Weeks prying the two apart. Corrales trots off towards his corner with classic nonchalance, but to watch the replay, which Showtime ran right into the beginning bell of round seven, it’s clear that Corrales, for a second, tasted metal. In the waning seconds of an increasingly savage seventh round, Corrales himself shakes Castillo to his marrow with a left hook, his perfect left hook, and the symmetry, somehow, is maintained.
Castillo’s trainers, daubing his cheek and trying to close the cut, shout to him el es muerte, el es muerte, and El Temible’s head lolls back and to the side, slightly. Meanwhile, Joe Goossen says to Corrales, “it’s all balls, am I right?” Chico nods blankly and demands water quickly because he doesn’t want to lower the pace, doesn’t want to give Castillo the rest he desperately needs. As the water flattens across his head and falls in a hundred spirulets onto his shoulders, you can almost see the purple welt under his eye grow. Corrales can feel time running out.
He moves into the ring with all that urgency pressing into his back, and he sets upon Castillo with a combination less devastating than foreboding, like the distant drums of a Spartan war march.
The familiar rhythm of a fight takes hold: the fighters move by some mysterious energy, like they’re being continually woken from a dream, as the crowd cries out with greater and greater ferocity. Fewer punches are blocked, but they’re executed with less precision. Chico’s focus comes and goes, and in the eighth he lets out a three-hit burst just before spitting out his mouthpiece like he doesn’t need it, or like he’s no longer there.
Goossen says, “it’s about you or him now,” as if it weren’t before. When the ring doctor presses onto Chico’s welt, he asks if he can see. Goossen immediately answers for him, “oh yes he can, Doc.”
As if to test Goossen’s prognosis, Castillo levees several of those proprietary low blows, but it’s like Corrales doesn’t even notice. Now El Temible starts landing high combinations, each to each, but every big punch has an answer from Corrales, and as the ninth bell rings, the two fighters are still even.
Mike James compares this fight, in its frenetic savagery, to Hagler vs. Hearns, the historic middleweight championship of almost exactly twenty years previous. It reminds me more of what I’ve read about Roman boxing:
If the fight lasted too long the boxers agreed not to move, but to stand still and receive the blows without using any means of defence, except a certain position of the hands. The contest did not end until one of the combatants was compelled by fatigue, wounds or despair, to declare himself conquered which was generally done by lifting up one hand.
In what is to be the final round, both men enter the ring bloodied and exhausted, and set to work with dizzied tenacity, jabbing and deflecting, pacing around each other like jackals. Chico falls to a stinging left hook low on his jaw, and his central nervous system seems to suffer a rolling blackout. He drops to one knee then keels to the side, and his mouthpiece is out again. He’s regained himself, sickeningly, at the seven-count and is back on his feet. As he climbs up, he stares at Tony Weeks like he just woke up from a hundred years’ sleep. He trots back to the corner, and Goossen gives him a new mouthpiece: “Get inside on him!” he shouts, through the roar of a thousand oceans in Corrales’s head.
But soon Chico falls again, to a short left that seems minuscule compared to the sweeping hook that preceded it. It was like Castillo drove the car right to the edge of the cliff; only a turn of the radio dial was enough to send it over. On his feet again at the nine-count, after being penalized for spitting his mouthpiece for the third time, Corrales looks at Weeks imploringly like some daredevil boy whose father took away the keys.
(Corrales would later be accused of spitting his mouthpiece to buy himself a rest, like how Chocolate Thunder used to break the backboard to decrease the rate of play.)
At this moment, Chico seems at his most desperate. Twice felled, on his fourth mouthpiece, and suffering the deafening cries of a bloodthirsty crowd, he breaks his glare at Weeks and is led to his corner, where he stands for a moment staring at nothing. We see only the back of his head, the faces of his children tattooed onto his shoulder blades and, beyond that, darkness. Goossen steps into frame at just this moment, precisely halfway through the tenth round. Somehow above the screaming crowd, above the grating insistence of the announcers, and by some luck of the microphone, we can hear what he says. With perfect clarity, in a quiet, almost chiding tone, he says to Corrales,
You’ve gotta fuckin’ get inside on him, now.
As Goossen dismisses himself, Chico turns fully into view, his mouth agape and his right eye swollen shut again, and his left eye not much better. He takes only two steps before he ducks and swings outward and up with gorgeous fluidity, and he’s taking shot after shot to the head yet he’s still there, unmoved, like Castillo is boxing in a foreign language.
Then as if by some script, unrealized until that moment, Castillo is the one against the ropes, and he moves like maybe, somewhere, he’s scared. The old rhythm, from the first round, rings through again: El Temible’s uppercut glances off, and is returned tenfold by that right hook, the Castillo-style right hook that Corrales packed with him so as not to be caught without fire. Soon we see Corrales’s shoulder blades again, but this time Castillo is caught between him and the blackness and the end has made itself clear: Corrales batters The Dread Castillo over and over with blows that would break a lesser man’s neck, and just before Tony Weeks calls the fight, Corrales throws one of the most beautifully devastating punches ever recorded. Castillo’s eyes roll back, they are white, white like the ghoulish grin of his mouthpiece, and then Chico’s arm is up, not to declare himself conquered like a Roman, but to declare himself conquerer.
In the end, he won because somebody had to lose.
José Luis Castillo, now 37, fights mostly in his home of Sonora, Mexico, one of the most primordially vibrant and most violent places on Earth.
On May 7th, 2007, two years to the day after defeating Luis Castillo, Diego Corrales died in Las Vegas on his 1000cc Suzuki streetbike. He was 29, and he left behind his pregnant wife and his four children.
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