Sports views: In a hurt business, Corrales still willing to accept risks

Posted: Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Leavander Johnson didn't have to die for Diego Corrales to understand how brutal boxing can be.

In a ring just down the Las Vegas Strip from where Johnson lost his life, Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo nearly beat each other to death earlier this year in a fight so savage it was difficult for even the most bloodthirsty fan to watch.

Corrales stayed at the hotel that night, hurting terribly inside. In the morning he woke up unable to see, his eyes so swollen that he had to ice them for two hours just so he could walk across the casino floor.

Corrales knew the risks going in, but he chose to fight Castillo mano-y-mano in the middle of the ring anyway because that's what real fighters do. Both he and Castillo fought like their lives were at stake. And they were.

Like Johnson, Corrales was a lightweight champion. Unlike Johnson, he lived not only to win but to fight another day.

''I love what happened. I always wanted my war and I got it,'' Corrales said. ''You always wonder if you have it in you to do it. I was glad to see I did.''

Just three weeks after Johnson lost his life in the ring, Corrales and Castillo return to it Saturday night for a rematch of a fight so vicious you have to wonder whether five months was enough for either fighter to recover.

They're doing it because the money is good, and this is what they do for a living.

They're doing it because they are both warriors in a sport where the term really means something.

And they're doing it knowing even more in the wake of Johnson's death that any punch they take could be their last.

Think about that the next time you hear a golf announcer talk about a player showing courage.

''We all know what can happen in this game,'' Corrales said. ''I love what I do and I love my job, but there's a bad side to every single job in the world.''

That bad side still haunts boxing, nearly a century and a half after the Marquis of Queensberry rules were drawn up and the sport began evolving into its present form. Rules can only do so much when the object of a sport is to hit your opponent in the head hard enough to knock him to the canvas.

Corrales got off that canvas twice in the 10th round in May to stop Castillo in an epic fight that will live in boxing lore. Both probably paid a price in career longevity because of the battle, but both are fighting again.

Johnson wasn't so lucky. He entered the ring against Jesus Chavez as a champion for the first time in 16 years, finally ready to make some real money and a name for himself.

Like Corrales and Castillo, he and Chavez also fought a brutal fight. Like them, he was a warrior, refusing to allow his father and trainer to stop the fight after the ninth round and somehow staying upright even as it ended with a vicious volley of punches in the 11th.

Johnson's bruises, though, didn't heal. He didn't wake up the next morning to ice his eyes.

It was the second ring death this year in Las Vegas, and the fourth time this year that a boxer has suffered a brain injury in the city. Nevada boxing officials responded by creating a panel to study ways to protect fighters, but any recommendations will come too late to save the father of four.

Doctors aren't really sure why some boxers fight for years without suffering damage, while others are killed or injured in the ring. They don't know whether Johnson died from a punch in the first round or the last, or whether he came into the ring already injured.

Doctors also can't tell you how Corrales and Castillo inflicted such damage on each other, yet both are clear headed and ready to fight again. Both underwent MRI's recently because boxing officials wanted to make sure their brains hadn't been damaged in the first fight.

''This is not a tea party,'' Corrales' trainer, Joe Goossen said. ''It's a violent sport, a brutal sport and sometimes a deadly sport.''

Corrales knows that, but is philosophical about it. His wife, Michelle, is pregnant with their first child together and he's debating whether to have her at ringside Saturday night like usual.

They've talked about the chance something might happen. He consoles her — and himself — with the thought that if he should die in the ring he would die doing something he loves.

He also understands what sells, and the proof of that is that his fight with Castillo made him a star in his sport. When they fight Saturday night, he says to expect more of the same.

Neither fighter will back down. They can't. It's not in their nature as fighters or men.

''Brutality is what brings fans to the game. Savagery is what has made boxing great,'' Corrales says. ''It has elegant moments and it has savage moments. But it's still a great game. One on one it can be beautiful.''

Boxing writer Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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