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Jose Luis Castillo: The Way Back from Scandal

When Jose Luis Castillo meets Herman Ngoudjo on HBO on January 20, it'll be Castillo's first appearance near a ring since his failure to make weight for his rubber match with Diego Corrales resulted in that fight's last-minute cancellation in June.

As if the fine and suspension imposed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission weren't punishment enough, Castillo was mostly vilified in the fight press in the days and weeks that followed. Many observers downgraded his stature among his peers and pronounced his record permanently stained. Fans who had paid for airfare to see the fight in Las Vegas and consequently lost money when it fell through justifiably raged in Internet chat rooms and on message boards.

Castillo shouldn't fret too much. If history tells us anything, it's that press and fans alike have short memories when it comes to fighter-scandals. All Castillo has to do is be a fighter.

There was perhaps no worse villain in all of sport than Roberto Duran when he introduced the phrase "No mas" to the American sporting lexicon in the eighth round of his rematch with Ray Leonard in New Orleans in 1980. Up until then, Duran had been viewed as the consummate warrior in the ring, the epitome of fighting spirit and ruthlessness. His submission to Leonard, of all people, was an unpardonable sin against real prizefighters everywhere.

Sports writers and fans turned on Duran and it would take a long while before he won them back. But he did. With wins over Pipino Cuevas and Davey Moore, with a brave showing against Marvin Hagler and finally an improbable, impossibly exciting upset win over Iran Barkley, he won their hearts again. It wasn't so important that he won all of his fights, but that when he lost he did so with courage. Indeed, during that stretch Duran lost to Thomas Hearns, Wilfred Benitez and others. He even lost to Leonard again after it was all over but because he won a good amount of big fights, had personality and was exciting, he was forgiven for quitting and today is a beloved figure.

You would imagine that if there is any scandal worse than a star of the sport quitting in a huge fight, it's a star of the sport losing intentionally. There's no coming back from that, right? Wrong.

It wasn't until 1960 that former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta admitted that he'd thrown a fight against Billy Fox in '47. But you'd have to have been blind not to know it was a fix when LaMotta, whose iron chin was legendary, caved in against Fox, an unremarkable light heavyweight, in the fourth round. Everyone knew he'd taken a dive.

LaMotta did it to get a shot at the middleweight title, which he did, and from there he continued his career, winning and losing the title and continuing his wonderful series with Ray Robinson. Never a beloved figure in the first place -- at least not until the film Raging Bull was made, some 20 years after his last fight -- LaMotta didn't suffer too greatly from his scandal.

LaMotta wasn't the only big name from that era suspected of throwing a fight. Though he vehemently denied it, Willie Pep was accused of throwing a fight against Lulu Perez in 1954. A huge rush of late money on Perez raised eyebrows and when Perez knocked out the great Pep in the second round, those suspicions intensified. Nothing was ever proved, however, years later the magazine Inside Sports ran a feature that implied that Pep threw the fight. Pep sued for libel and the jury returned a verdict in the magazine's favor.

Today, no one holds it against Pep or LaMotta for doing what they did because the good work they got done before and even after their indiscretions overshadowed everything else. Some scandals, however, are so big and are perpetrated on such a grand scale that even if their effects are overcome, they are never forgotten.

It is unlikely that anyone who saw Mike Tyson bite off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear in the third round of their rematch in 1997 will ever be able to think of Tyson without also recalling that night. That Tyson chose that fight, which garnered a huge pay-per-view audience, to snap, was, depending on how you look at it, either wonderful or terrible for the sport.

From a purist's perspective it was a blow to the game to have it embarrassed in that way, an opportunity lost to have boxing uplifted in front of the masses. The other school of thought held that Tyson's sheer lunacy reinforced the belief that anything can happen in a prize ring and your best bet is to tune in to be sure you don't miss anything.

At any rate, the enormous fall-out from "The Bite" didn't diminish Tyson's drawing power. He remained a huge draw in fights against such nondescript opponents as Frans Botha and Orlin Norris, and his eventual loss to heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis in 2002 was a tremendous financial success, due wholly to Tyson's strange, compelling charisma.

Of course, the incident was only one of Tyson's myriad scandals. Others include the rape of Desiree Washington, for which he was imprisoned for three years, the alleged battering of his one-time wife Robin Givens, several assaults, a recent drug arrest, the list goes on. Tyson is a magnet for scandal, but none of it ever had any effect on his ability to put fans in seats. If he could fight at all he could fill an arena. Say what you will with the benefit of hindsight, but if Tyson came back tomorrow and put together 10 wins you'd pay to see him try to regain the title, scandals or no.

There was perhaps no worse villain in all of sport than Roberto Duran when he introduced the phrase "No mas" to the American sporting lexicon in the eighth round of his rematch with Ray Leonard in New Orleans in 1980.

Of course, boxing is not the only sport in which the athletes are at the center of scandals, particularly in this age, when participants in many pro sports use prohibited steroids to gain an edge. The fight game, which lacks a credible central governing body, doesn't test for steroid use as consistently as do other major sports, but that doesn't mean it doesn't occasionally catch cheaters.

It was bad enough for Fernando Vargas when his arch nemesis, Oscar De La Hoya, stopped him in 11 rounds in their showdown in Las Vegas in 2002. It got worse after the fight, when the Nevada Commission announced that he had tested positive for steroids. Vargas had hired a nutritionist in the weeks leading up to his bout with De La Hoya and ingested any number of what he said he assumed were nutritional supplements. He denied knowingly talking any banned substances, but accepted full responsibility, telling the press, ""I don't place blame on anyone except myself. At the end of the day I'm the captain of my ship.''

Vargas was fined and suspended, but it didn't harm his popularity with the fans or media. Always a favorite for his passion and bravery in the ring, Vargas wasn't the same fighter anymore when he fought again a year later, but he drew crowds like the steroid scandal had never happened.

James Toney couldn't claim to be as beloved as was Vargas, but he suffered too when he tested positive for steroids following his win over John Ruiz in 2005. His unanimous decision win -- which had netted him the WBA heavyweight title -- was vacated when the New York State Athletic Commission announced he had tested positive for a banned substance. Like Vargas, Toney claimed ignorance, saying he had taken medicine prescribed by doctors for injuries he had recently suffered -- namely a torn Achilles tendon and a torn biceps. However, he never formally appealed the ruling.

Either way, the scandal didn't hurt Toney from a fan's perspective; as long as we could watch him slip right hands and counter and do what only James Toney can do, no one -- outside Ruiz -- cared much one way or the other.

People like not to think about it now, but Muhammad Ali, arguably the best-known prizefighter in history, was beset with one scandal after another early in his career. What scandals? Take your pick. There was the national furor that arose when he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. There was his second fight with Sonny Liston, which is debated to this day, with many believing still that Liston threw the fight. There was his refusal to be drafted, which resulted in the suspension of his license and a three-year hiatus from the ring.

There was a time when Ali was deeply hated by many Americans, both as an athlete and as a public figure. How did he overcome all the enmity? He won. He did what great fighters do: he fought everybody, he did his best, and he won. That's all Castillo has to do. He has to fight hard and with honor and it wouldn't hurt if he won a few. It has to start with Ngoudjo.

Either way, the scandal didn't hurt Toney from a fan's perspective; as long as we could watch him slip right hands and counter and do what only James Toney can do, no one -- outside Ruiz -- cared much one way or the other.

Posted 12:00 AM | Jan 20, 2007

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