Remembering Diego 'Chico' Corrales On The Anniversary Of His Debut

The wars, the wins, the will. Corrales' career will live forever
09:36, 19 Mar 2024

On 7th May 2005, Diego ‘Chico’ Corrales won arguably the greatest boxing match of all-time. Two years later to the day, he tragically died in a motorcycle accident aged just 29. Great boxers so rarely get the ending they deserve. Corrales gave the sport everything it could have asked for and more in 45 exhilarating fights. Unfortunately life never returned his sacrifices in kind.

The fact Corrales found worldwide fame was a miracle in itself. Running with street gangs at the age of 13 in Oak Park, Sacramento, the life of young Diego could have ended up brutally even shorter than the 29 years he was permitted. Corrales witnessed his childhood best friend’s death in a drive-by shooting. At an age where most children are still playing with cap guns, the South Carolina-born youngster got a visceral taste of the real thing.

Boxing has a way of finding people when they need it most, and its arrival in the unravelling life of Corrales was timely to say the least. The future star began training at ‘Sac Pal’, the Sacramento Police Athletic League. Finding untapped talent and a new focus, Corrales amassed an amateur record of 105-12. He was a losing finalist at the United States Amateur Championships in the featherweight division, and also qualified for the World Championship.

The pro ranks is where we would see the best of ‘Chico’ though. Corrales raced to 28-0, including a win over then-unbeaten future world champion Gairy St Clair. His 29th bout saw him pick up the IBF super featherweight championship. Corrales stopped champion Robert Garcia, now Anthony Joshua’s trainer, in seven rounds. The new champion would win his next four bouts, the pick of which was a stunning three-round destruction of highly-rated Derrick Gainer. The beaten man would win the WBA title before the year was out, showing what a quality win this was for Corrales.

Very few fighters can remain unbeaten forever. Unfortunately Corrales ran into one of the few that has ever retired without taking a professional defeat. Floyd Mayweather was a super featherweight puncher at this point in his evolution and Corrales felt every bit of the power ‘Pretty Boy’ had at 126lb. Five times Corrales hit the canvas at the rapid fists of Mayweather. It was an absolute rout from the future ‘Money’. The sort of victory that can ruin a young career. But it paled in comparison to what was happening in Corrales’ life outside the squared circle.

The boxer spent 14 months in prison following the Mayweather defeat due to domestic violence against his pregnant girlfriend. Speaking to MaxBoxing, Corrales pinpointed his time inside as the moment his life turned round. “While I was in prison I realised how important family was. I also learned to cherish what little time we’ve got. You don’t realise how quick you can give up pieces of your life, whether you do right or wrong.” What Corrales did was horrible and he deserves no sympathy for facing the consequences of his actions. But he did channel them into something positive and found the will to continue with his life and career upon getting out.

Two years and five days removed from his defeat to Mayweather, Corrales was back in the ring. He beat the forgotten Michael Davis that night in the fifth stanza of an eight-rounder. Another trio of stoppages would follow as the troubled fighter looked to reclaim the in-ring status he had lost, even if his outside the ring reputation would take longer to repair.

After feeling his way back into the sport, Corrales took on his first world class test since returning on the undercard of James Toney’s heavyweight victory over Evander Holyfield. Former world champion Joel Casamayor had only tasted defeat once heading into his clash with ‘Chico’. The two men would prove to be perfect dance partners. In an utterly thrilling contest, both men hit the deck in Las Vegas. Both rose and the fight was stopped in the sixth round due to two cuts on the inside of Corrales’ mouth.

After six rounds of absorbing action stopped in such an unsatisfying way, the natural thing to do was to go again. The WBO wisely pinned their vacant super featherweight championship to this highly-anticipated rematch. It would prove to be a sensible decision as the South Carolinian clashed with the Cuban in another absorbing battle. Showing the warrior spirit that was fast becoming his trademark, Corrales once again recovered from a knockdown at the powerful fists of Casamayor. This time though, he rallied to take the win by split decision. Corrales was a champion of the world once again.

He would stop the great Acelino ‘Popo’ Freitas in his first title defence, becoming the first man to halt the brilliant Brazilian. That set up a unification bout with Jose Luis Castillo in which the WBC, WBO and The Ring lightweight titles would be on the line. But this fight would go beyond belts. It would become part of the very fabric of the sport of boxing.

Corrales and Castillo were both world class boxers. But neither had come to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas to box. The base instincts of both men kicked in as they stood toe-to-toe and just absolutely battered each other. They say some fights could take place in a phone booth, such is the close proximity of the combatants. For this battle, you could have erected ropes around a postage stamp to contain the two men. No quarter was asked, and none given. This was as violent as sport is allowed to get before it is classed as a criminal offence.

The tenth round will be passed down through the generations. It should be taught in schools. It is quite simply everything that keeps us enthralled by this often grubby little sport, writ large in a prize ring. Castillo knocked Corrales down heavily 30 seconds into the session. The downed fighter spat out his gumshield in order to buy himself valuable recovery time. It did not work. At least not yet.

Castillo blasted him down once again. Corrales was up at nine but, crucially, his mouthpiece was not. More time to work with. Referee Tony Weeks deducted a point from Corrales for the gumshield shenanigans. It didn’t matter by now, it was clear this wasn’t a distance fight. It also appeared clear Castillo was about to win. But Corrales had been counted out before. The boxing fraternity counted him out when Mayweather bounced him off the canvas like a basketball. Society counted him out when he spent over a year in incarceration. Everyone had written him off when Casamayor had slashed him to pieces during his comeback. Now, Las Vegas was preparing to count him out as another silenced voice in the desert. 

The Nevada fight capital would claim a soul that night, but it would not be Diego Corrales’. A crunching, tide-turning right hand sent Castillo into the ropes. Corrales unloaded with a flurry of cathartic blows. This one’s for Mayweather. This one’s for losing my freedom. This one’s for Casamayor. This one’s for knocking me down, twice. This one’s for immortality. Weeks stopped the fight. Corrales was the unified lightweight champion of the world.

Corrales never won another fight. He almost didn’t need to. He had done something that would live forever. As with any boxing classic, a rematch was made. Castillo came in overweight for that and used his size advantage to drub ‘Chico’ in four more action-packed rounds. A third bout was scheduled and Castillo tried the same trick, but Corrales refused to fight an over-sized opponent again. 

He lost a third bout with Casamayor before ending his career with a welterweight defeat to Joshua Clottey. Exactly a month later, and two years to the day of his Castillo triumph, he was dead. The motorcycle accident that claimed this brave warrior was brutal. For a man who had overcome so much, it was a cruel ending. ‘Chico’ deserves to be here on the anniversary of his 1996 debut. These tales should be his to tell, not mine. But people will never stop talking about Diego Corrales. What he did in the boxing ring will live forever. It’s up to us to tell those stories for him.

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