THE GHOST OF THE RUST BELT

There
was a great middleweight fight in Atlantic City last night between the
champion Jermain “Bad Intentions”  Taylor
from Little Rock, Arkansas, and challenger Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik (above) from
Youngstown, Ohio.  It was great because it had a three-act
narrative structure with bold contrasts and startling turn-arounds, and complicated emotional themes.

Taylor gained the championship and kept it for a while with workmanlike
victories that never seemed to challenge him in any profound way — to
test his character.  People started to think he was a champion
merely faux de mieux
Pavlik was a relatively inexperienced fighter with an unbeaten record
and a powerful punch.  The punch made it a fight fans might get a
bit excited about — the inexperience made it a fight that Taylor's
handlers weren't afraid to make.

In the first act of the drama, Taylor's handlers looked wise. 
Pavlik was aggressive coming out, using his jab well, but sloppy on
defense.  In the second round he paid for his sloppiness when
Taylor put him to the canvas with a flurry of hard, flush
punches.  Even when he managed to get up again, Pavlik looked like
he was out on his feet.  But he dodged and clinched, weathered a
few more terrifying blows and managed to survive the round.

But he actually did much more than survive.  When HBO commentator
Larry Merchant asked him after the fight how he felt down there on the
canvas, Pavlik replied, “You want to know the truth?  I thought,
'Shit, this is going to be a long night.'”  He was already gearing
up for what he had to do to stay in the contest.

What he did was recover quickly in the next round, worrying Taylor
constantly with a hard, accurate jab.  The worry was just enough to
keep Taylor from using his faster hands and superior boxing skills to
wear Pavlik down or catch him again with a terminal combination. 
Pavlik grew stronger round by round — Taylor didn't fade exactly, he
just never found a way to step things up from his end.

Finally in the 7th Pavlik hit Taylor with a right that stunned
him.  Pavlik didn't hesitate — he closed in and beat Taylor
nearly senseless.  Pavlik didn't lose his head at that point,
either.  He paused, thought about it for a moment and delivered a
clincher — an upper-cut that sent Taylor to the canvas, defenseless,
at which point referee Steve Smoger stepped in and called an end to
things, not a moment too soon.

Ironies abounded.  Taylor had fought one of his best fights ever,
delivering the kind of excitement that fans found lacking in his
earlier victories.  But when he had Pavlik hurt in the second he
lost his focus, couldn't summon the composure to put him away, as
Pavlik did in the seventh.  The less experienced fighter showed
more ring savvy than the veteran.

Youngstown was a steel manufacturing city, once upon a time, but all
that is in the past.  Now it's rusting and suffering.  It has
produced more than its share of boxing champions, including the
incendiary Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and now it has new champion in
Pavlik.  It must seem like a miracle — like a ghost rising from
the rust.

What a story — what a fight.

DIEGO CORRALES

This
past May, boxer Diego Corrales (above) died in a high-speed motorcycle crash
here in Las Vegas.  He’d been drinking and was driving without a
valid license — trying to outrun his demons, I guess, whatever they
were.

Exactly two years to the day before his death he fought one of the
most remarkable fights in modern boxing history against Jose Luis
Castillo.  I was there.  Here’s my report of the fight,
written the day afterwards, reprinted as a tribute to a man who lived
out his “crowded hour” with distinction, honoring everyone who was privileged to see it:

CORRALES-CASTILLO

8 May 2005

They’re already calling it a classic, one for the ages, the fight of
the year — a year which isn’t even half over and which has also seen
the recent epic combat between Morales and Pacquiao.

If you’re a member of the Fancy you know I’m talking about the awesome
battle between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo at the Mandalay
Bay Events Center in Las Vegas last night. If you’re not, take a look
at a rebroadcast or tape of the fight sometime and try to believe your
eyes. I saw it in person, and I still don’t believe mine . . .


For the rest of the report on Corrales-Castillo, go
here.

For more boxing reports, go here.

CORRALES-CASTILLO

[Above, promotional decor for the first Corrales-Castillo fight outside the restaurant Aureole at Mandalay Bay.]

CORRALES-CASTILLO

8 May 2005

They're already calling it a classic, one for the ages, the fight of
the year — a year which isn't even half over and which has also seen
the recent epic combat between Morales and Pacquiao.

If you're a member of the Fancy you know I'm talking about the awesome
battle between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo at the Mandalay
Bay Events Center in Las Vegas last night. If you're not, take a look
at a rebroadcast or tape of the fight sometime and try to believe your
eyes. I was there, and I still don't believe mine.

There were some goofy undercard fights which did not prepare one for
what was to come — but looking at the faces of Corrales and Castillo
on the big video screens as they made their ways to the ring one could
see that the mood of the night was about to shift. These guys had the
air of men facing something terrible but inevitable.

Castillo is a fighter who doesn't move exceptionally well on his feet
or punch exceptionally hard, but he's a skillful enough boxer. He likes
to go forward and pound away at an opponent and grind him down.
Corrales is taller and rangier, with more speed and a harder punch but
not known for his sturdiness. Like many rangy fighters he can't always
absorb punishment well and has been knocked down, though not out, a
lot. Both men have awesome wills, though, and never give up, so the
fight did not figure to go the distance.

My sense of it was this — either Corrales would knock Castillo out
sometime in the first four rounds, or Castillo, if he survived the
early going, would knock Corrales out sometime in the last four rounds.
Beyond that, prediction would be foolish.

In the end it went much (though not quite) as I had foreseen, but on a level no one could have imagined.

Corrales did indeed dominate the early rounds, but just barely. He hit
Castillo repeatedly with combinations that would have felled a lesser
man — and almost felled Castillo. But Castillo gave almost as good as
he got and the rounds were very close.

When the fourth ended, I thought — now Castillo's time has come . . . now he will win.

But the balance never tipped too far in either direction and as the
battle wore on I was gripped by a strong feeling of sadness at the
thought that someone was going to lose this fight. It had become a
battle of wills, a contest on a moral and spiritual plane. By the 8th
round I had a feeling that Corrales had the edge. He seemed to be
landing the harder blows and he seemed, surprisingly, fresher. But that
just made Castillo's refusal to surrender all the more admirable.
Still, moral determination can take you only so far — in the end the
body has its limits. But anyone who watched this fight now knows that
those limits are sometimes wider than the mind can easily conceive.

In the 8th Castillo made a startling comeback, fighting it seemed on
willpower alone. He opened a cut under one of Corrales's eyes and
nearly closed both of them. By this point both men seemed to have
abandoned defense altogether, willing to take any amount of punishment
to find the opening that would end things decisively.

And then, in the 10th, it happened — exactly as I had predicted.
Castillo landed a combination that put Corrales down. He got up to
continue but he looked dazed and unsteady on his feet. The crowd, which
heavily favored Castillo — Las Vegas boxing fans are overwhelmingly
pro-Mexican, and Corrales was a mere American — had been roaring
incoherently throughout the fight. The roar turned mournful in the
middle rounds, with an undertone of shock and anger. Now it soared into
the realms of delirium.

A guy behind me screamed, “It's over!” — and I agreed with him.
Corrales's destruction was now just a matter of time, and not much time
at that. Castillo struck with more combinations and Corrales went down
again. Somehow he got up on all fours and then up on his feet to beat
the count, but he looked like he was somewhere else, far from Las Vegas
and this ugly beating he was getting.

Both times he went down Corrales lost his mouthpiece — by crafty
design or simply from punch drunkenness. Fighters who are ready to give
up often spit out their mouthpieces in unconscious anticipation of
surrender. In any case, retrieving the mouthpiece and getting it put
back in by his cornermen gave Corrales a few extra seconds to get his
head together and his legs coordinated.

Referee Tony Weeks, a seasoned veteran, seemed to take his time
transferring the mouthpiece to Corrales's seconds — I had a feeling he
was giving them a chance to stop the fight, because Corrales looked on
the verge of absorbing some vicious and possibly debilitating further
punishment. But Joe Goosen, Corrales's trainer, obviously had no
intention of throwing in the towel. Indeed, after the second knockdown
he gave his fighter a stern and admonitory look — as though trying to
convey to him the gravity of the situation. Goosen appeared serious but
oddly calm — which may have had some influence on what happened next.

The fight resumed. Corrales didn't yet seem to be all there, but his
dislocation from reality took an astonishing form. He stood up
straight, with no attempt at defense, and attacked Castillo fearlessly.
There was no time to tie up and regroup — he'd lost three points in
the 10th, two from the knockdowns and one from Weeks, who had penalized
him, quite correctly, for spitting out his mouthpiece the second time.

At times in the middle rounds I'd had a sense watching Castillo of
seeing a ghost in action. Physically beaten, he was operating by pure
will, transcending the physical. Now Corrales seemed to have entered
the same disembodied territory. His body was beaten — something else
was fighting in the ring in its place.

[AP Photo]

He hit Castillo with a punch that stunned him, sent him back into the
ropes. He hit him again four times as he leaned against the ropes, his
hands down, his eyes rolling upwards, out on his feet. Weeks called an
end to the fight to prevent certain permanent damage to Castillo and
possibly his death.

Corrales had come back from the dead and was now champion. Castillo,
who'd had the fight won in merely mortal terms, had lost. I discovered,
when my mind settled a bit, that my mouth was wide open and that I was
holding my head in my hands — a perfect cartoon-figure expression of
shock.

The cry from the crowd was indescribable — filled with sorrow and
astonishment and an almost inhuman excitement. The place seemed
suddenly crowded to the rafters, bursting its seams — a case of
emotional standing-room only.

At the end of the night, Steve Albert and Jim Gray, the Showtime
announcers, made their way past me out of the arena. Someone shouted
something to Gray, who turned back and said, “You'll never see a better
fight than that.”

I'm sure I never will. Joe Goosen, when asked about the possibility of
a rematch, on everyone's mind after such a contest, said, “These two
should never fight each other again — it's too much.” They will, of
course, boxing economics being what they are — but it's hard to
imagine any other outcome than one of them killing the other in the
bout.

I went over to RM Seafood, an ultra-moderne restaurant at the Mandalay
Bay, for some soothing crabcakes and beer. I couldn't think about the
fight — there didn't seem much to think about. All its meaning had
been fully explicated and exhausted in the ring. What remained for me
was a kind of wonder, an expanded sense of the horizons of the human
will.