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Chico and the Man III

MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sports Writer

What started out as the Fight of the Year on May 7, 2005, will likely culminate Saturday in a Showtime-televised event from Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

WBC lightweight champion Diego “Chico” Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo will meet for the third time in 13 months in a bout that may ultimately answer the question as to which fighter actually is the best in the world at 135 pounds.

“I’m excited. I’m happy training is almost done,” said Corrales Monday via cell phone following one of his final pre-fight workouts in Las Vegas. “Things are absolutely great. But I’ll be happier Friday, Saturday after my last night of sleep before the fight.”

The same can be said for boxing fans, who will be looking for a repeat of Corrales-Castillo I, which was widely hailed as the best fight since Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns in 1985.

From the opening bell Corrales and Castillo traded bombs in a toe-to-toe slugfest. Castillo looked to be on the way to a knockout after twice dropping Corrales in the 10th round. But Corrales somehow dug deep enough to reverse the momentum and force a stoppage in the same round after rendering Castillo helpless along the ropes.

In the controversial rematch five months later, Castillo failed to make the 135-pound weight limit, coming in at 138 1/2 and thereby eliminating any chance at fighting for the title.

Worse, a member of Castillo’s camp was seen trying to manipulate the scales in favor of his fighter.

Although the 5-foot-11 Corrales knew he’d be sacrificing strength because he melted down to 135, he nevertheless went through with the fight. And for the duration of the contest, it was once again a punch-for-punch battle, but Castillo nailed Corrales with a left hook and scored a four-round knockout.

“He never intended on making the weight,” the 28-year-old Corrales said of Castillo, of Mexicali, Mexico. “When you have one person not trying to make weight, it’s an advantage for him. If I came in at 138 1/2 too, it would’ve been good for me, too. But making lightweight (at 135) was a big difference. It’s hard enough to get down to 140, much less 135.”

In what may be a surprise to some, Corrales, 40-3 with 33 knockouts, said he and Castillo are not enemies outside of the ring – even in light of Corrales’ contention that Castillo basically cheated the last time out.

“We do like each other,” said Corrales, originally from Sacramento but now fighting out of Las Vegas. “We have a great relationship outside of the ring. We fight like we fight, but we enjoy each other’s company. Still, we try and kill each other.”

With a 4-inch height advantage over the 32-year-old Castillo, 54-7-1 (47), Corrales would seemingly be able to take advantage of his superior boxing skills by creating some distance between himself and Castillo. But whether it’s machismo or that he’s just stubborn, Corrales said he would not change his style for this fight.

“I honestly believe I had the right plan the first fight,” said Corrales, a former junior lightweight titlist. “I kept him close, made him work and tried to make him tired. In the second fight I had the right plan, but I made one mistake and dropped my hands.

“My game plan is to eliminate the error and keep it a war, keep it a battle and keep it close.”

If employed, this tactic will not only thrill Castillo, who knows only to come straight in and punch, but the fans who attend the fight.

“Make ’em love it,” Corrales said of his plans to entertain the crowd by going to war again for the third time in 13 months, something Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward did in their exciting trilogy in 2002-03.

Although the 13-month span may not match that of some other great trilogies (Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake La Motta fought three of their six fights in just under five months in 1942-43, and Barney Ross and Jimmy McClarnin went three times in 12 months in 1934-35), it does outstrip other memorable rivalries.

Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano fought three times in 21 months (1946-48), Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles did the same in 18 months (1951-52) and Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep turned the trick and fought three of their four meetings in 23 months (1948-50).

Although unspecific, Corrales said it was worth it for him financially to engage in such punishing fights in such a short period of time. He said this bout could lead to several other lucrative matchups, such as a possible meeting at 140 pounds with former junior welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, who will be attending the fight.

“Absolutely,” Corrales said. “I’m young and my future is really up in the air, with all the great fighters, the possibilities for me out there. But it all begins June 3. I have to keep on top of things and box well to make sure all of these possibilities happen for me.”

Corrales is married with five children and said they will eventually play a part in when he retires.

“I’m happy with my career and life,” he said. “I have a beautiful wife and a great family. They’re helping me get through this. I’ll stay as long as I can compete on an elite level. As long as I can compete with the top crop, I’ll be happy. When I start losing it, I’ll be ready to go. Or if my wife goes, ‘Hey, babe, it’s time for us to have time with you. You’ve been doing this 11-12 years.’ Then we’ll talk about it.”

Corrales also said he realized he has transcended the sanctioning bodies and whom they choose to recognize as their champions. Corrales unified the WBO and WBC belts when he fought Castillo the first time. Now, for some reason, former knockout victim Acelino Freitas is the WBO beltholder and Jose Armando Santa Cruz claimed the WBC Interim lightweight title when he stopped equally unknown Chikashi Inada.

“I’m in it to fight the best names,” Corrales said. “I’m trying to secure my legacy. I know that, to me, it’s not about the belts anymore. It’s about who I fight and what kinds of fights I can make.”

And if he and boxing fans are fortunate, Corrales’ third meeting with Castillo on Saturday may turn out to be yet another Fight of the Year candidate. There’s no surer way to secure his legacy than that.

Showtime begins its telecast of the Corrales-Castillo fight at 9 p.m.