Saturday, May 17, 2008

Revolving Doors

Chris Byrd dropped nearly 40 pounds in seven months in hopes to compete at light heavyweight.

Shaun George dropped Byrd three times – once in the first round and twice in the ninth – in hopes to compete with the top fighters at 175 pounds.

Friday saw not only Byrd’s debut in the division, but also a presumable end to his career.

Byrd asked referee Jay Nady to stop the fight as Nady was administering the count after George floored Byrd for the second time in the ninth round. Byrd suspected he dislocated his left shoulder but fought through pain until the final knockdown.

Byrd (40-5-1, 21 KOs) won the silver medal at 165 pounds in the 1992 Olympics. He turned professional the next year and fought at heavyweight since his third bout.

Usually outweighed, Byrd relied on his ring savvy, speed and heart to compete with larger opponents. What he lacked in strength, he made up for in smarts. He was a perennial factor in the division.

Byrd, 37, has lost three of his last four fights, all by technical knockout. With the shoulder injury and disappointing performance lingering, it is unlikely he will ever be a factor again.

He was never the most entertaining guy to watch, but Chris Byrd always handled himself with class and dignity. Modest and soft-spoken, he was a credit to the sport.

George, on the other hand, entered his name in the mix of light heavyweights chasing down Joe Calzaghe’s recently won championship.

The 29-year-old's performance over the former two-time heavyweight titlist made him a threat to the aging crop of top 175-pounders.

In the post-fight interview, George (17-2-2, 8 KOs) said he is willing to face anyone:

Predictions for tonight’s HBO Boxing After Dark

Gamboa KO4 Jimenez: Yuriokis Gamboa may be the most violent fighter since Mike Tyson. Darling Jimenez is slick and won his last six fights by knockout, but Gamboa (9-0, 8 KOs) is a beast.

Angulo W10 Gutierrez: This is a toss-up, flip-a-coin-type match. Richard Gutierrez is Alfredo Angulo’s stiffest test yet. Gutierrez will give Angulo all he can handle, but I see Angulo taking at least six of the 10 rounds.

Albert KO6 Kirkland: Yep, upset special. Eromosele Albert has a height advantage and has faced tougher competition than the undefeated power-punching James Kirkland. Kirkland was also down in the first round of his previous bout, which he won by first-round knockout.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bittersweet Anniversary: Remembering Chico

It was May 7 of last year.

I got the call from my friend as I was doing yard work. It was hot. Blistering, in fact. I answered, expecting a break from pulling weeds and raking leaves. I told my caller to shoot when he asked if I was sitting down. Maybe I should’ve taken his advice. Blue skies dissipated when he told me the news.

Diego Corrales had died in a motorcycle accident.

Corrales had lost a decision to Joshua Clottey a month prior to the devastating blow. It was his first fight at welterweight, skipping the 140-pound division as he moved up from lightweight. He was knocked down in the ninth and tenth rounds but finished on his feet. He was also penalized for spitting out his mouthpiece, a maneuver he’d been criticized for in at least one other bout.

I scored Corrales’s welterweight debut 100-87 in favor of Clottey, but it was as a disinterested viewer. In my heart, I wanted Chico to win.

He was my favorite boxer.

Flash back to Jan. 20, 2001 when Corrales, 33-0 with 27 knockouts at the time, squared off against undefeated and current pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. The title fight was a total wash-out, Money May easily out-slicking Corrales and scoring five knockdowns before the fight was stopped by Chico’s corner in the tenth.

Yet Corrales, all but oblivious to the fact that a decision wouldn’t go in his favor, vehemently protested the action. He nearly attacked his father for throwing in the towel and had to be restrained.

But he knew he lost. He didn’t make any excuses, even if he could’ve thrown a few at scribes wanting to spice up an otherwise frail story. He could’ve mentioned taking the fight on relatively short notice, having to lose close to 40 pounds in a matter of weeks. He could’ve alluded to the managerial and promotional problems he was enduring. He could’ve hung his head in shame at the defeat and blamed it on his legal situations, how he was about to face 14 months in prison for alleged spousal abuse.

He didn’t use any of these, though, so I will. He just wanted finish the fight and was upset about the first blemish on his record.

Upon being released from prison, Corrales racked up four knockout wins. There were talks of him clashing with higher-tier fighters like Erik Morales. Instead, a title eliminator against current lightweight champion Joel Casamayor was presented.

This marked the beginning of a rivalry. Perhaps not on the level of a Barrera-Morales, Gatti-Ward or the sensational Vazquez-Marquez trilogy, but one florid with hatred.

In his first true test since Mayweather, Corrales was knocked down twice, though returning one of his own and seemed to be growing stronger as the sixth round commenced. Then ringside doctor Margaret Goodman declared the fight be stopped as Corrales’s mouthpiece shattered, causing a severe cut that had him steadily spitting blood.

Again, Corrales was incensed by the stoppage, begging, pleading, for one more round. It was then I knew, as anyone witnessing the spectacle knew, that Diego “Chico” Corrales would rather go out on his shield than to give up.

Which brings us to Aug. 7, 2004, a potential firefight between Brazilian power puncher Acelino “Popo” Freitas and Corrales. Chico had avenged his loss to Casamayor via split decision five months prior.

After seven rounds of stalking Freitas and seemingly down on the scorecards – BAM! – Chico scores a knockdown in the eighth. Then – BOOM! – Corrales connects with a left that ejects Popo’s mouthpiece. The tenth round saw – WHAM! – Freitas disheveled on the mat once again.

Freitas then did the unspeakable, pulling his “no mas” card to show referee Clark Sammartino.

Now, it was May 7, 2005.

It’s a date that would link two names together forever in the annals of not only boxing, but sports. Jose Luis Castillo would defend his lightweight championship against Diego Corrales. Boxing writers and fans were anticipating a war and received even more than that.

In one of the greatest fights of this era, if not all-time, the two warriors battered and bloodied each other with vicious assaults consisting primarily of left hooks, the punches in which each were known to eliminate foes. It was even, constant and brutal action through nine rounds.

Then the tenth round’s bell sounded.

Not even a half-minute into the round, Chico was down, mouthpiece spat. He rose to his feet on the count of eight, taking a warning from referee Tony Weeks about the infraction. Twenty seconds later, Corrales was on his back again, and once more the mouthpiece spewed out. Weeks asked if he was all right to continue, Corrales nodding, but the referee said he was taking a point for excessive spitting out of the mouthpiece.

The hard-fought fight appeared to be closing on finality when trainer Joe Goossen rinsed and shoved the guard back into Chico’s mouth.

Then something great happened. Something greater than the all-out demolition the fighters were imposing on one another. Corrales, both eyes swollen, began trading punch-for-punch with Castillo. The tide turning as if a harvest moon was on the rise, Corrales backed Castillo onto the ropes an unleashed a flurry of power punches that made Castillo’s eyes roll into the back of his head.

Tony Weeks stopped the fight in concern of Castillo’s safety at 2:06 of round 10.

Today’s the eve of May 7.

The weekend had secured sports fans’ hopes that true warriors sustain and overcome adversity. University of Tennessee basketball player Chris Lofton revealed he fought cancer throughout the season. Eight Belles, a filly, competed against the colts in the Kentucky Derby and finished second before being euthanized on the track due to broken ankles suffered out of the gate.

Maybe the spirit of Chico lives within all of us, and we just have to search deep within to find that last breath, that final punch.

Diego Corrales had the key and always unlocked that vault when he needed. That’s what made him special, and that’s why I miss him.

Promoter Gary Shaw had said Corrales lived his life as recklessly as he fought. When he was honored with a 10-count at many fights after his death, many said the act was inappropriate.

Chico always got up by nine.

R.I.P. Diego “Chico” Corrales
(40-5, 33 KOs)

Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo I (rd. 10)