I usually don’t need any reminders when May 7 rolls around. Even 18 years later, the epic first bout between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo remains at the top of my list as the greatest fight I’ve ever seen.
My longtime colleague Steve Kim apparently agrees, so when the anniversary of the 2005 classic slipped my mind, he tweeted the same sentiments, adding that he believes the combatants should have a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
I agree, with the disclaimer that even if voters don’t believe Corrales and Castillo earned a spot in Canastota for their individual careers, there should be a wing for fights such as the one that occurred at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
It was that special. And it’s still special all these years later. For nearly ten full rounds, Corrales and Castillo waged war, and while that phrase is overused these days, in this case, there is no better way of describing it, because war changes a man. And after that fight, neither fighter was the same again.
Yes, Castillo defeated Corrales in a rematch five months later, beginning a 14-6 run over the next nine years, but whenever he stepped up his level of competition, he was turned back, three times by knockout. As for the victor in May of 2005, Corrales fought three more times, losing to Castillo in a rematch and Joel Casamayor in their rubber match, before a one-sided defeat to Joshua Clottey in April of 2007.
A month later, on the two-year anniversary of his greatest victory, Diego Corrales was dead, killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 29.
It was much too young for someone with so much life in them, but it almost felt inevitable. Corrales was a fighter, and if couldn’t be one at the level that took him to world championships in two weight classes, what was going to be next for him?
But that kind of speculation about his life at the time and his future is just that – speculation. What’s left is a life lived fast and lived by a certain code, one where quitting was never an option.
Just four years before he battled Castillo for the first time, Corrales was 33-0 and about to engage in a highly anticipated clash with fellow unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr. It was a beautiful piece of matchmaking, but the anticipation was marred by the reality that Corrales was likely to spend his post-fight time doing time in a Tracy, California correctional facility for domestic battery on his then-pregnant wife.
The charges came as a shock to those who knew the affable Corrales, and while there were extenuating circumstances attached to the situation, “Chico” knew that putting your hands on a woman for whatever reason was something you don’t do.
"In order for any situation to escalate to the point that it escalated, absolutely, you have to take some part in it," Corrales told me in 2003. "For me to give a complete denial and say that I had no piece in this, no, that wouldn't be true. I had some wrong, but nowhere near what the media portrayed. But in order for any situation to escalate to a horrible situation, there has to be two parties involved. If there was only one person involved there is nothing to escalate to."
With that hanging over his head and Mayweather poking him verbally about it every chance he got, Corrales still had every intention of showing up to the ring, something his trainer and stepfather, Ray Woods, wasn’t on board with.
“If you remember, Diego was in trouble with the law, we had a terrible training camp, we had people in the training camp that had no business there, and they were a distraction,” Woods told me in 2012. “Plus, Diego had bronchitis, and he would cough himself all out of air. I tried to get Diego to call that fight off, but that was the first time he was gonna make 1.4 (million dollars) and he didn’t want to. He wasn’t ready for that fight, not at all. It was a circus, I wanted to call it off, nobody agreed with me, and we went on with the fight. Before we walked out to the ring, Diego was coughing and wheezing so bad in the dressing room, I thought at any moment he might have called it off before he even walked out. It was bad. But Diego was a warrior, he never made no excuse, and he said it was Floyd’s night.”
It was Floyd’s night, as he brilliantly picked Corrales apart, dropping him five times. After the fifth knockdown, Woods intervened, much to the chagrin of an incensed Corrales. Woods never regretted his decision to rescue his son from further punishment.
“If I would have just let it go on, it could be one shot too many,” Woods said. “The fourth time, I told (cutman) Miguel Diaz, ‘It’s getting close to the time to stop this. If he goes down again, I’m stopping it.’ We’ll fight another day, and I don’t think we had no business in this fight anyway.”
Corrales and Woods didn’t speak for a long time. When they did, father explained himself to his son.
“Man, you could have taken one shot too many. You could have been paralyzed for life or you could have died in the ring. You lost all muscle strength in your neck, and you were about to get hurt real bad.”
“It’s my life, and I want to go out on my shield.”
“Not on my watch.”
Before the night of January 20, 2001, boxing was the only thing Corrales felt he had control over, and if he couldn’t control it and fight until the end, on his own terms, what else was there for him, especially with his life spiraling out of control? After the Mayweather fight, Corrales, now divorced and dating his future wife, Michelle, who he met before the bout, was facing serious time behind bars.
So he took a plea deal and had some tough conversations.
"I was sick, and I just wanted my life to come back to normal," said Corrales in 2003, before his bout with Felix St. Kitts. "I didn't talk to my wife, who was then my fiancée, about it. I didn't talk to my parents about it. I just went in and made the deal to turn myself in."
Then came the conversations.
"I told them, ‘I want you guys to know that this is what I did, and I can explain some of what I did and why I did it,’” Corrales recalled. "I remember watching my mom and my wife, and they bawled. They cried, and they pleaded for me to not do it and to fight this thing out. All I could tell them was that I just want my life back. I just want to be me and for my life to go back to normal. I remember feeling the kind of hurt inside that you just need to get away from you. That was probably the lowest point my life could hit. Everything after that just stayed that low. The next three months home stayed that low. It never worked itself back up until I started getting closer to coming home from prison. Things started getting better and I started getting more life back."
It didn’t all come back, though.
"Good, bad or indifferent, stories sell," he told me. "Most of the time it's bad. There is no news unless it's bad news. You don't really see things on TV or on the news about the guy who did something great; you see the person who did something bad. That's news, that's the media. It was real difficult because I never got to explain my position. I never got to explain anything. All you could do is sit back and watch people pound you verbally. That's a hurtful thing. That's a real hard thing to take. And I told my wife before, ‘These people really just killed ‘Chico' and just left Diego.' There was a very fun loving, childish ‘Chico.’ That was me. That part was taken."
When Corrales returned, he did so with a fury, winning four in a row by knockout. A wild 2003 bout with Casamayor ended with the Cuban victorious when two cuts in the mouth ended the former champ’s night. But Corrales won the rematch, halted Acelino Freitas to win the WBO lightweight crown, and then came Mexico’s Castillo and a night that changed everything.
“I’m sitting there and I’m scared to death,” Michelle Corrales told me in 2015. “Everyone always said how tough Castillo was. And it was a big thing to Diego because his dad had told him not to fight Castillo. He’s bigger, stronger, just don’t fight him. That made Diego that much more determined to win. After what happened with the Mayweather fight, the last thing he wanted to hear was his dad doubting him.”
Corrales and Castillo fought as if more than a couple championship belts were on the line. And the craziest part about the whole thing was that while they were brawling and going toe-to-toe, the fighting was at such a high level that it was a master class on the almost forgotten art of infighting. But as the bout entered the tenth frame, it appeared that time was ticking on Corrales’ title reign.
One knockdown. Then a second. Then Joe Goossen telling his charge, “You gotta f***in’ get inside on him now.”
“I think I nearly crushed the fingers of Jin Mosley, who was sitting right next to me,” Michelle said. “I just kept saying, ‘He’s okay, he’s okay.’”
He was, even if they were the only two people in the building who knew it.
“If I felt like he was in trouble or anything was going wrong, he’d give me a look,” she said. “And he looked at me when he was on that canvas. He looked at me like, ‘I’m okay.’ When that happened, I knew it was okay. I knew he was about to go to work. As long as he made that eye contact with me, he could have got knocked down three more times, I felt like he had it in him.”
He did. Quitting wasn’t an option. Only winning. And staying down for a ten count never crossed his mind. A month after he went to the dark places only fighters know, I asked him three times if he ever thought about it. Each response was a quick “No.” I asked once more.
“It’s not even a thing that pops into my head,” Corrales laughed. “That’s my dad’s doing. My dad believed that you push hard, and when you’re done pushing harder, keep trying to push. So that’s where it comes from. No matter what you do, it’s just an extraordinary drive. It’s my dad. I can never give up. I can’t do that. That’s something I was taught never to do. No matter what you do, you put everything in it; you leave it all on the table. And if you have anything left, then I didn’t do that.”
Whatever Corrales had after that second knockdown in the tenth frame went into his fists. He threw, threw and threw some more. And once he inexplicably hurt Castillo, he finished him. It was over. Corrales had won the greatest fight of all time and everyone loved him for it. But those close to him knew that there wasn’t going to be another night like this. It was the price to be paid for leaving it all in the ring.
“I literally had to take care of him and bathe him and everything because his eyes were swollen shut,” remembered Michelle. “It was pretty bad. The pains, the aches, the urinating blood. They beat each other.”
No belts, no money, no glory was worth this, right?
Michelle wondered the same thing.
“You really thought that was worth it?”
“Every second of it.”
Michelle remembers a conversation with her husband about his fighting philosophy.
“He said, ‘You know, I’m willing to die in the ring.’ And I would say ‘Diego, stop talking crazy. You’re not going to die in the ring. Don’t talk like that.’ ‘No, I’m serious. I need you to know that I’m prepared to die in the ring. I will never quit.’ And I thought ‘He really means this.’ Before, to me it was always a sport. You go out there, you’re going to fight with your style, you’re gonna take a little, give a lot, but never once did I equate how much he’s willing to give it all in that ring. I knew he would never quit. But I never interpreted that this could be death. It never sunk in. I knew he would give it his all, but he would come out okay.”
At the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual dinner, Goossen was surrounded by fighters wanting to talk about Corrales-Castillo I.
“Each and every one of them that came up to me after the fight, they all said, ‘Man, that’s the type of fight we want to be in. The fight I always dreamed of,’” he told me in 2016. “And I would always say to myself, ‘That’s not the fight you want to dream of. That’s not the fight you want to be in.’
“That’s an attractive proposition to some of those guys – on paper. But be careful what you wish for. This is not the type of fight you want to be in. We happened to be in it, but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. That type of fight is a career-killer, to tell you the truth. Everyone dreamed of having the technique, the courage, the tenacity, the determination that was shown that night in the ring. And I guess it’s something good to aspire to. So I’m not gonna deny anybody that. But deep down inside, I dread for a fighter to have to be in a fight like that because they both ended up in the hospital and they were both severely damaged from that fight. But you’re not gonna see many fights like that. That was a marathon inside fight and a grueling match and both of them refused to lose that fight.”
“That second fight with Castillo, I told him don’t take that fight,” said Woods. “You need a lot of time off. Even Castillo needed some time off. Those guys took a lot out of one another that first fight.”
Diego Corrales was never the same, and two years later he would leave us. It was a tragedy of the highest order, but he probably had no regrets for the way he lived and fought. Maybe the only one would be the way that his mindset affected his family.
“Nobody wants to see their wife cry, and especially when I’m doing my job,” he said. “Nobody wants to see that. That was kinda difficult, but this is the way I make my living.”
And he lived it. Until there was nothing left to give.