WHEN DIEGO CORRALES struggled up from his bed to pee, out came a trickle of fluid the color of cranberry juice. When he looked in the mirror, he saw that puce air bags had been deployed under each of his eyes. His ears were ringing. He tasted blood in his mouth, his jaw ached and his face was so grotesquely swollen that even his wife's fashionably oversized sunglasses didn't fit. And he couldn't recall when he'd ever been happier.
That was early on the morning of May 8; hours before, Corrales had engaged Mexico's José Luis Castillo in a fight that was less a lightweight unification bout than 29 minutes of unmitigated assault and battery. Corrales and Castillo stood inches apart and threw lefts and rights, jabs and haymakers, roundhouses and uppercuts with little discernible effect.
Two minutes into the second round the Showtime commentators were already throwing out superlatives like "amazing" and "incredible." At the end of the sixth round the 5,000 fans at Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay Events Center showered the fighters with a prolonged ovation.
There could hardly have been two more appreciative principals. A former sparring partner of Julio César Chàvez, Castillo, 31, is a veteran known more for his courage than his native ability. Corrales, 28, is pure purist, more interested in the craft of boxing than in the trappings of success. "In the buildup to the fight, there wasn't trash-talking," recalls Corrales. "I said to him, 'Let's make some history, bro.' I wanted a painful, bloody, brutal war. And that's what I got."
In the 10th round Castillo floored Corrales with a sharp left hook. He got up, but 25 seconds later Castillo dropped him again. At the count of three Corralesspat out his mouthpiece, then tried in vain to reinsert it. After Corrales beat the count, referee Tony Weeks walked him to his corner so that his mouthpiece could be reinserted. As Corrales's trainer, Joe Goossen, took his time cleaning the mouthpiece, he channeled Burgess Meredith, telling his fighter, "You gotta f-----' get inside on him now."
Cue the music. Taking full advantage of this break to regain his wits and his wind, Corrales came back strong. He tagged Castillo with a hook. Then another. And another. Barely 30 seconds after having been on the canvas, Corrales unloaded a fugue of punches that knocked Castillo out on his feet, and Weeks called the fight. Watch the tape closely and you can see other fighters seated ringside--Winky Wright, Shane Mosley, Chàvez--wearing masks of awe. "That was," says Wright, the No. 1 middleweight contender, "the most amazing thing I've seen in boxing."
Perhaps more amazing still is what didn't happened next. No gloating, no chest-pounding. When Showtime reporter Jim Gray thrust a microphone in Corrales's distorted face and asked him to characterize the fight, he said, "It was an honor.... I'm proud to have met a great and graceful champion and matched mettle." Then he encouraged the viewers to "support cancer research." Castillo was similarly gracious in the ring, saying, "I, too, am proud to have fought a true champion."
Nevada plasma centers be warned: On Saturday night, after having barely enough time for the swelling from the previous fight to go down, Corrales and Castillo will have at it again, this time before a sold-out crowd at Vegas's Thomas & Mack Center. And don't bother questioning the wisdom of this rematch. "You have a fight like that, and you gotta do it again," says Corrales, who sports a tattoo reading pain for love. "We both have too much pride not to."
a funny concept, pride. Applied correctly, it's an indispensable, trait for a boxer. It's what impels him to keep fighting when his body would much prefer to do otherwise. But not for nothing is it one of the seven deadlies. Misapplied, pride can overwhelm sound judgment--leading one to, say, give a rematch to a man who quite recently spent 10 rounds making carpaccio out of your face--and get you into a hell of a lot of trouble. Corrales knows this too well.
As a kid growing up in one of Sacramento's rougher sections, Corrales was an estimable Golden Gloves fighter. He avoided the gangs, but by the time he was in his mid-teens he was joyriding in stolen cars, missing school and generally headed down the road to perdition. Boxing was becoming less of a priority, and--here comes pride--rather than "disrespect the sport" by training halfheartedly, he quit and moved to Amarillo, Texas. He got a job in the shipping department of Montgomery Ward and might still be there had a talent scout from Top Rank not tracked him down, talked him out of retirement at age 19 and signed him up.
At nearly six feet, Corrales is an uncommonly tall lightweight, with polished skills and a taste for combat. He quickly ascended the ranks, winning his first 33 pro fights, all but six by knockout. He then returned to Sacramento and was eyeing a big money fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Life was good. Then Corrales's pride--this time horribly, indefensibly misguided--wreaked havoc. In July 2000 he received a phone call from his pregnant wife, Maria, that he interpreted as insulting. Corrales, who by way of explanation says that "alcohol was involved," returned home to assault the 98-pound Maria, leaving her with a broken collarbone and ribs and a bruised spine. Corrales was charged with felony domestic violence. Though the baby survived, the deputy district attorney called the beating "absolutely brutal."
As Corrales awaited trial, the fight went on as planned in January 2001. Mayweather, not surprisingly, trumpeted Corrales's arrest and vowed to "beat Corrales like a dog on behalf of all the battered women in the world." He also invited Maria, who had divorced Corrales, to sit in the front row and watch him pummel her ex-husband. She declined. Mayweather did give Corrales a beating, and against Corrales's protestations--foolish pride, again--his corner threw in the towel in the 10th round.
Worse punishment was to follow. In February '01, Corrales pleaded guilty to felony domestic violence and spent 14 months in a California state prison. "It's a different world in there," he says. "Guys getting sliced open, a guy trying to escape getting shot. I saw things there you wouldn't believe."
Corrales says he left prison not only deterred but also reformed, and his conduct since suggests as much. He met his current wife, Michelle, before he went to prison; they live with their four children on a Las Vegas cul-de-sac. A wild night entails swimming in the backyard pool or watching tapes of old fights in their home theater. "My wife met Diego and was like, He was the one who went to jail?" says his promoter, Gary Shaw. "For the life of me I can't square it [either]."
Since Corrales's release from prison in 2002, he's gone 7--1 with six KOs. In his lone defeat, to Joel Casamayor, Corrales suffered severe cuts inside his mouth, and the ring doctor called the fight after six rounds, over Corrales's protests. "I've never seen a fighter so willing to pay the price," says Goossen. "Diego has unbelievable reserves."
If all goes according to plan, Corrales won't need to tap those reserves on Saturday night. Corrales plans to use his reach and athleticism to keep the action on the outside. "Everyone wants another great battle, and I think they'll get it," Corrales says. "It just might not have the same look."
Then again, if the conservative strategy doesn't work and Corrales finds himself locked in another slasher flick of a fight, he'll deal with it. "Whatever I have to do, I'll do," he says, the smile disappearing for the first time in hours. "A lot of fighters say it, but I mean it: I will die in that ring."