The fight didn't go the way anybody figured—except, naturally, Ruben Olivares won, making half of the people and all of the bartenders in Mexico happy. It's just that it took the jaunty little playboy—an undefeated 3-to-1 favorite—the full 15 rounds to defend his world bantamweight title against Chucho Castillo last Saturday night in Los Angeles, and he hasn't had to work that long in one day since he gave up wood carving six years ago. Usually he's on a plane to Acapulco half an hour after the fight starts. He's better than Nembutal. In his 57 fights before Castillo, Olivares had scored 55 knockouts. And yet when it was over Saturday, there was Castillo, bloodied and gasping, but wide awake. As they read the votes, all for the champion Olivares stared at his fists as though they had betrayed him. "Oh, well," he said, "at least maybe now all of Mexico will accept me as its champion."
World title fight? Ha! That was just the gravy. For Olivares and Castillo, this was to prove who was the No. 1 bantamweight in Mexico, and to them that was much more important. There was a bitterness between them, and it had been building for a long time. "Winning the title is not important," Castillo had said. "The only thing I want to do is beat that loudmouth, that clown. It is what I live for, what I dream of. Olivares does not deserve to be champion. I am the national champion, and I am the one that Mexican fans want to be the world champion, and I will be."
And that is about all he said before the fight. Castillo is a quiet, moody 25-year-old off the toughest streets of Mexico City. His father, who was killed in a traffic accident three months ago, eked out a living selling used clothes from a pushcart. The family lived in a two-room hut. Food was a luxury. Castillo grew up withdrawn, suspicious and angry.
"He was always quiet," said Geronimo Lopez, his manager, "but when his father was killed he became even more so. He is in a very dark mood. He will only talk to me. He has dedicated this fight to the memory of his father."
When Castillo became the champion of Mexico in 1967, Olivares challenged him. Castillo told him that he would have to wait his turn. Finally a fight was set, but when Castillo was given a shot at Lionel Rose's title late in 1968, Olivares was again told to wait. "He knows I'll beat him," said Olivares. When Castillo lost a controversial split decision to Rose, Mexico almost severed relations with Australia. The Mexican fans who were crammed into The Forum in Los Angeles that night rioted for over an hour. "Why all the fuss?" said Olivares. "Rose won. I was surprised the voting was that close." Ruben didn't win any popularity contests in Mexico after that. Then stories circulated that Olivares was paying more attention to tequila than to training, and he became even less popular. Mexicans expect their boxing heroes to become drunks. It's something of a tradition. But they want them to wait until they retire.
When Olivares knocked out Rose to become bantamweight champion last August, he thought all would be forgiven and forgotten. It wasn't. At least half of Mexico was still in Castillo's camp. They demanded a second chance at the title. Rankled, Olivares made Castillo wait while he knocked out British Empire champion, Alan Rudkin last December. Then he agreed to meet Castillo. For the fight he would be paid $100,000, tying a bantamweight record.
"But it is not for the money." he said. "It is for the pride and respect of my people. That is why I am fighting Castillo." He was serious for a moment, and for him that is a world record. Olivares came off the same tough streets as Castillo, but by a different route. He enjoys life to its fullest, and to find him you have only to follow the laughter. "But don't tell Parnassus what I said about the money," he said. "He might not want to give it to me then."
Parnassus is George Parnassus, the 75-year-old Greek who has become boxing's No. 1 promoter. The Olivares-Castillo fight was the 10th championship he has put on in the last 18 months. "This fight," chortled Parnassus, "will be the greatest in Mexican history." It was suggested that he put it in the 50,000-seat Mexico City bullring. Parnassus said no. For one, the government says you can charge no more than 60¢ for the cheap seats. For two, the government says all fights must be put on free live TV. For three, Los Angeles is second only to Mexico City in Mexican population. Parnassus put the fight into the 18,762-seat Forum and it sold out almost immediately. The gross gate was $281,840, a California indoor record.
So was Parnassus happy?
"Hell, no," he said. "I could sell 40,000 more seats if I had them. If the weather wasn't so lousy this time of year I would have put it in the Coliseum. And why are the papers turning this into a grudge fight? We don't need that. We're sold out."
The final week before the fight, the Mexican population of Los Angeles almost doubled. Training sessions drew 800 to 1,000. Castillo, a smart boxer-puncher who had seven losses in 39 bouts before Olivares, trained hard, nearly destroying his sparring partners. When he was finished, he would disappear into his room, reappearing only for meals. Olivares trained the way he always trains—lousy, but with a lot of laughs. He has never won a round in a gym. At one press party he showed up in a Beatle wig and oversized sunglasses. It was minutes before anyone discovered he was there. Then, giggling, he said that was what he was going to wear whenever he did any drinking. At a dinner party he donned a white waiter's coat and went around collecting dollar tips in a large bowl. "He is a press agent's dream," said Bill Kaplan, one of Parnassus' press agents.
"Olivares is making a lot of loud noise," said Juan José Torres Landa, "but he is like a man whistling in the graveyard. He is building his courage." Torres is Castillo's lawyer and financial advisor. His father, Juan José Torres Landa Sr., former governor of Guanajuato, is one of the richest men in Mexico.
For the Olivares fight Castillo was paid $30,000. All of it will go into government bonds. Torres has no trouble talking him into saving his money. "My problem is trying to get him to spend a little," he said. "When Chucho goes someplace with someone, he doesn't expect to buy. He won't even carry money with him. When he came here he had something like eight pesos in his pocket."
Torres sighed. "Ah, this fight is such a big thing for both of these boxers. Whoever loses will never be the same again. Maybe the winner will never be the same. He will be such a big hero in Mexico. It will go to his head. If Chucho wins, I think he will handle it much better. But Olivares, if he wins I will be afraid for him. And the loser. Nobody knows what will happen to him."
Ah, such a big fight. And, as it turned out, not so great. Castillo came out cautiously and stayed that way. Except for one flurry when he fought his way off the ropes in the third round, he hardly moved forward. But that flurry! A hook and then a right to the chin, so fast and so powerful, and Olivares was down. But he jumped to his feet and took the mandatory eight count that continued after the bell. "That was the only time he hurt me," Olivares said later.
"Hurt him?" wailed Geronimo Lopez. "How could Chucho hurt him? He never threw any punches. He never threw his right hand. Always he used the right to guard his chin. He was afraid of Olivares' left hook. He'd come back to the corner and I'd beg him to use the right, I'd order him. He'd say yes, I'll do it, but he never did."
And as Castillo remained cautious, defensive, Olivares bored in. In the fourth round he bloodied Castillo's nose, and it bled the rest of the way. "It bothered his breathing quite a bit," said Cuco Conde, the veteran manager who worked Castillo's corner. "That one punch didn't look like much, but it might have had a big difference on the outcome. But Chucho, damn it, why didn't he use his right hand? We begged him."
By the eighth round, Olivares was beginning to trap Castillo on the ropes, and there, inside, the little champion is a master. He never stops punching. "He's a damn machine gun," said Rose after he lost to him.
In the 12th round Olivares almost got his man. A left-right combination to the head and Castillo's knees buckled.
"Right then I was worried," said Conde. "But when Chucho got to the corner he was fine. There's nothing wrong with that kid's jaw."
There wasn't. Which, no doubt, means a rematch. "And he can have it," said Olivares. "He's a good tough fighter and he gave me my toughest fight." But he has to add, "He was in the supercondition of his life. That's what held him up. And he'll never again be able to get into that kind of condition."
There he goes again.