Ron Borges takes a look at the challenge both Ricky Hatton and Jose Luis Castillo faced: in the opposite corner and in the work it took to get into the corner at all—at 140 pounds.
Juan Urango did Ricky Hatton a favor of a sort last January 20 when he slammed him with a body shot that Hatton later conceded changed his thinking and his fight plan that night. More importantly, what it also did was remind Hatton what the most important thing would be in preparing for his June 23 showdown with two-time lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo in Las Vegas.
Although sparring would be important, sparring was not the only answer this time. Although mental preparation would be important, it would not be the key element either. The most important ally Ricky Hatton will have against one of Mexico's best body punchers is something simpler than that. It is perhaps the most old fashioned of training tools. His friend these days is a 10-pound, leather-covered ball.
"We'll have to go to work with the medicine ball," Hatton's father, Ray, admitted after his son easily outpointed the previously undefeated Urango but in a way that seemed to disappoint rather than buoy Hatton's raucous British followers after Urango's relentless body attack began to sting in ways Hatton had not experienced before.
"He was the first opponent who gave me a really sustained body attack," Hatton admitted after that fight. "It hurt."
Since that night, a medicine ball has become the daily companion of the younger Hatton and that of his old-school trainer, the multi-tattooed Billy Graham. The latter is no preacher but he has been singing the gospel of the medicine ball by slamming it regularly into Hatton's stomach before and after the sometimes belly challenged champion does an inordinate amount of sit-ups. Both exercises are designed to steel Hatton's body against the assault he knows is coming from Castillo when they meet on HBO for the IBO junior welterweight title Hatton still holds after he was most unfairly stripped of his more significant belts for reasons that, of course, had nothing to do with making the best fights for fans to watch.
The fact of the matter is the title at stake is the least of what the two will be fighting for. What they will really be debating is whether either is the leading 140-pound fighter in the world, and whether they have somehow successfully licked their own difficult battle with their waist lines in pursuit of such a hard-won designation.
Hatton is an admitted party hearty kind of guy whose weight problems seem directly connected to his penchant for strong ale and pub food when not in training while the 33-year-old Castillo's body simply seems to outgrown not only the 135-lightweight division he once ruled but perhaps even the 140-pound weight class.
In Castillo's last two fights with Diego Corrales he failed to make the 135 pound limit, finally saying after he stepped off the scale for the last time 4 1/2 pounds over that weight, "I'm just not a lightweight. I just couldn't do it (anymore)."
In fairness, Castillo had been trying to convince his handlers of that for some time but with money to be made as lightweight champion they didn't want to hear it until the scales spoke and Corrales did as well, refusing to put himself at risk a third time against a guy who not only hit as hard as he did but who would outweigh him by at least one weight class if not two in their scheduled rubber match.
This precipitated Castillo's move to 140 but even then he struggled to make the division limit for his fight with Herman Ngoudjo in January. Although he did it, Castillo's weight has been closely monitored this time as he prepared for Hatton while the fighter himself has insisted the move up will make him stronger and more dangerous than ever because for the first time in years he will not have to thoroughly deplete himself to reach a weight his body long ago abandoned.
"I don't feel the same pressure that I felt at 135," Castillo claims. "The last few fights there was a lot of pressure to make weight and I just couldn't do it. I tried but I couldn't make 135 any more. This is better."
Castillo's record (55-7-1, 47 KO) makes clear the danger he brings into the ring with him when he's fit and energized, and he is especially worrisome for someone like Hatton because what Castillo does best -- which is throw left hooks to the body and short, stinging uppercuts on the inside - seems to dovetail perfectly with the aggressive style Hatton favors. Both fighters have alluded to this since the bout was first made, arguing that there is no way their confrontation can lead to anything but a punishing night for both of them and an exciting one for the people paying to watch them bring the pain.
"Ricky and I are the type of fighters people enjoy seeing," Castillo said. "We belong in the group with Corrales and (Arturo) Gatti as fighters who will always bring excitement. He likes to come forward and fight and that's great because that's what I like to do. It should be a great war."
Hatton agrees and the work he's done in getting his weight down and his body hardened under the demands of both Graham and strength and conditioning coach Kerry Kayes make the point more readily than anything he could say. The presence of former IBF super featherweight champion Steve Forbes among his sparring partners also speaks to the seriousness with which Hatton is taking Castillo, a departure from his approach with Urango and the light-hitting welterweight champion, Luis Collazo. Those fights came on the heels of his greatest moment, his stoppage of future Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu two years ago. While Hatton may have respected Urango and Collazo neither compared to the legendary Tszyu nor were they capable of launching the kind of numbing body attack he knows Castillo is likely to put on him. The presence of such stiff challenges changes everything for a fighter because in boxing fear tends to focus the mind more readily than any other emotion.
It is not a paralyzing fear but rather one that pushes a man to prepare in new ways because he knows what's coming and what will be required to repel the onslaught. "This fight can't be anything other than exciting," Hatton (42-0, 30 KO) told a contingent of fight writers after a recent training session in Manchester, England, his hometown and training base. "My fights are never a walk in the park. Me and Castillo are two fighters that no matter how good or bad the opponent is we never make life easy for ourselves so this one can't be anything but fireworks. Look at our styles.
I don't feel the same pressure that I felt at 135," Castillo claims. "The last few fights there was a lot of pressure to make weight and I just couldn't do it. I tried but I couldn't make 135 any more. This is better.
"Castillo comes to fight. I come to fight. We both want to get inside. We both come forward. We're both body punchers. We won't have to look hard to find each other." Certainly Castillo knows he won't have to look hard to find Hatton's body.
Attacking it may be a bit more difficult, and certainly carries with it the potential for a high asking price to get inside, but Hatton seems to have conceded that eventually the 33-year-old former champion will test him in a place where only one thing can save you -- hard conditioning.
"Obviously I do a lot of stomach work like sit-ups and medicine ball to solidify that area of me body but maybe a little bit more with Castillo because I think that's where he's going to sling a few of them in," Hatton said, after joking that "two months ago the medicine ball would have disappeared (in his loose stomach)."
That's no longer the case thanks to that 10-pound leather ball and the hard work Forbes has given him in sparring. Hatton and Graham insist Forbes was brought in to work Hatton over on the inside both with crisp uppercuts and the adroit use of his elbows, a part of the art of in-fighting Castillo long ago mastered. While they concede he doesn't carry with him the kind of firepower Castillo represents, his hand speed is superior and his intentions on the inside are the same. Bad intentions if you're in Ricky Hatton's position.
Often fighters with Hatton's level of past success don't look for the kind of testing in training that Forbes' arrival promised but his presence in the ring with Hatton day after day only served to reinforce that what the undefeated Mancurian expects on June 23 is a hard night with a very hard man, one that will test both his resolve and his abdomen.
Hatton has told the British press that he is haunted by visions of Castillo, seeing him when he's hitting the speed bag, pounding the heavy bag, working on the hand pads or sparring with Forbes. Visualization has become a big part of the mental side of successful athletic competition but one doubts Hatton spent all that much time visualizing Juan Urango or Luis Castillo as he went about his daily regimen.
That doesn't mean he was not preparing for them earnestly, which was proven by the fact he prevailed over both despite not being at his best. What it means is that Castillo's record speaks loudly to him of the danger he poses inside the ring.
Certainly Castillo's two classic battles with Corrales bore that out. In the first Castillo was stopped in dramatic fashion in the 10th round at a moment when he was so sure he had pummeled Corrales into submission after dropping him twice and bloodying his face that he unwisely threw all caution to the wind and paid dearly for it when Corrales got off the floor and rendered him helpless along the ropes.
He did not make that mistake in their second meeting however, knocking Corrales cold in four rounds. Then again, he also didn't make weight that evening after Corrales had struggled to get down to 135. What that says to Hatton is that Jose Luis Castillo will very likely be at least as dangerous at 140 pounds as he once was as a lightweight because that's what he truly was the night he finally flattened Corrales for good. It is a danger Ricky Hatton has labored through an inordinately long training camp to prepare himself to face and one Jose Luis Castillo has worked just as hard to provide him with.
What all that work will lead to they will decide but one thing both have accepted is that they know what's coming on June 23 -- an opponent who wants to win and who understands that the fighter who prevails on that night will not only be the one who delivers the most pain but also the one capable of absorbing the most, too.
Castillo comes to fight. I come to fight. We both want to get inside. We both come forward. We're both body punchers. We won't have to look hard to find each other.
HBO WCB - Jun. 23, 2007