Monday, December 24, 2007

Light a Candle for Diego Corrales

Diego Corrales as he appeared shorty before his untimely death in May 2007.

It was springtime in the desert and Diego “Chico” Corrales simply wanted to drive his new motorcycle and be free from his troubles. He had just become the proud owner of the suped up machine - and like every day of his own life - he was anxious to push the iron horse to its limits. It didn’t matter that his license had been revoked for nearly a year. Diego Corrales was going for a ride.

He couldn’t have known it then, but that was going to be his final spin on the highway of life and that day was going to be his last among the living.

His marriage was not going the way he wanted it to go and his boxing career was on the rocks, too. But Diego Corrales, only 29, was trying to make some sense of it all. He was a father to five children and his current wife, Michelle, was six months pregnant.

He had tried to wash the rancid taste of the fight game out of his mouth earlier that day with a few drinks, and he hopped on the back of that stallion of a bike to let the wind carry his worries away. As he sped down Fort Apache Road in Las Vegas, you can imagine that even in his haze, Diego Corrales was thinking about how he could put all the broken pieces of his life back together.

“Diego lived life to the fullest,” said his friend Pat Lamparelli, who used to go on father-son outings with his son, Corrales, and Corrales’ son. “He lived life as if every day was his last day.”

He was just the type of fighter that the people loved to see because he was willing to leave all of himself in the ring. In a professional boxing career that spanned eleven years, Corrales won world titles at 130 and 135 pounds, as well as legions of fans from around the world. At just over six feet tall he was a stick figure with freakish punching power and he won forty pro fights with thirty-three knockouts.

Corrales became a hero who always made time for fans from all walks of life.

“I think he wore his emotions on his sleeve, if you will, when he was in the ring,” says Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein, who called many of Corrales’ final fights. “And I think fans really related to that. Every one of his fights was like a passion play. He was always one step away from either triumph or disaster. And neither he, nor us, nor the fans knew which it was going to be.”

His first fight against Jose Luis Castillo, the one Diego won by knockout in the 10th round, will go into the history books as perhaps one of the greatest fights in boxing history, and also as the last fight that Corrales would ever win. It would be exactly two years later, to the day, that his life would end.

“He fought recklessly and he lived recklessly,” said his promoter, Gary Shaw. “That was his style.”

Regardless of how he lived his life, the first fight against Castillo made him a legend.

Both he and Castillo inflicted heavy punishment on each other’s bodies all night long and as the fight wound its way toward the final rounds it was Corrales who seemed to be wilting. In the 10th round, with his left eye just a slit and his right eye threatening to close, Corrales was felled by a Castillo left hook. He would get up, eat two more left hands and go down again from another hook. Again, though, Corrales would rise.

Castillo, sensing certain victory, lunged in to administer the coup de grace, but it was Corrales who would strike back, pin Castillo’s back to the ropes and flail away until the referee was forced to rescue a suddenly helpless Castillo.

“I’ve never seen anybody come back like that, from those knockdowns,” said Corrales’ trainer Joe Goossen. “We were very worried in the corner. But I remember Diego telling me, ‘If you ever stop one of my fights, I’ll kill you.’

Those who witnessed the fight called it the greatest fight they had ever seen and some have even called the fight the greatest in all of boxing history.

In victory over Jose Luis Castillo, Corrales became a legend for the ages.

Corrales was the type of all action warrior that made himself famous because of the images that he left in the minds of the people that were lucky enough to see him perform. In some fashion or other every one of his performances seemed to be a struggle.

There was the afternoon in 2001, when he very nearly failed to make weight the day before he would fight Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in Las Vegas. Corrales always had to sweat to get his weight down to the limit and on this day in particular he missed the 130 pound limit on his first trip to the scales. After heading to the sauna he came to the scales an hour and half later and he had to strip naked in order to make the weight. His skin had a gray pallor and his dark brown eyes looked huge inside his sunken cheeks. He had the look of a prisoner of war.

The next night, he was no match for Mayweather as “Chico” had left every last ounce of himself on the scales the day before. And although Mayweather knocked him down five times, Corrales’ heart enabled him to struggle to his feet every time. After his father stopped the fight, Corrales yelled and screamed at him and didn’t speak to him for weeks.

“I'm better than being stopped,” said an extremely disappointed Corrales, who was a 5-4 favorite going into the Mayweather fight. “I worked damn hard all the way around. No way that should have been stopped. I kept getting back up. I was clear every time I got back to my feet. Nobody has the right to stop that fight. Nobody. I don't care what their concern was.”

Then there was the night in his first fight with Joel Casamayor, when, after having his mouthpiece driven through his upper lip, the ring doctor stopped the fight because Corrales was swallowing too much of his own blood. He was pleading as he sat on his stool, “Give me one more round! Just one more round!”

When asked to give his thoughts on Corrales the fighter, Al Bernstein, who has been calling fights for over a quarter century had this to say: “There were boxers with more skills than him, though he had a lot of skills. Boxers that were more powerful, and certainly boxers that fought better strategic fights. But there were no boxers with more grit or courage than him. And I think that courage and that fortitude, ultimately, is his legacy.”

When the inevitable finally happened on that lonely Las Vegas road, the end came as a surprise, but not the manner in which it happened. It’s easy to imagine that after he was flung off his motorcyle and onto the pavement -in an episode of carelessness that took no more time to happen than it does to blink your eye - that Diego Corrales was likely trying to rise up for one more round.

He was a man that forever clung to the coattails of life. And as a fighter and a human being, he was something that even the dark hand of death will never eclipse.

Diego Corrales’ candle is out now, but his light still shines.

December 2007

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