HBO WCB - Jun. 23, 2007

Ricky Hatton vs Jose Luis Castillo

Have The Tires Worn Thin?

Those who go off to war rarely come home the same. Those who do so one too many times, suffer the fate immortalized by General Douglas McArthur in his farewell address to Congress in 1951: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Is Jose Luis Castillo about to fade away?

On June 23, the thirty-three-year-old Castillo will step into the ring for the sixty-fourth time. His opponent is Ricky Hatton, which guarantees this fight will be another war of attrition for the Mexican. Hatton is a brawler in the finest sense. There will be no prisoners taken.

Castillo has been there and done that. Again and again. Over the course of his distinguished 17-year career, which began at age 16, he has gone to battle with a Who's Who of elite fighters, beginning with Stevie Johnston in back-to-back fights in 2000. Since then he has been in the ring with some of the best lightweights of his generation, including Floyd Mayweather Jr. twice, Joel Casamayor, Julio Diaz and Diego Corrales twice.

If you are considering wear and tear, then also factor in what may have been the harshest four years of Castillo's boxing life. From 1996-2000, Castillo was the chief sparring partner for one of the most savage fighters in history, the great Julio Cesar Chavez.

Sparring countless gym wars with Chavez over that span helped turn Castillo from a decent, Mexican-based fighter with four losses, into a top level boxer. Castillo was twenty-three when he first started sparring with Chavez. He was young enough that he could absorb the daily pounding and the lethal left hooks to the liver that were the great Mexican champion's trademark. It was with Chavez that Castillo would perfect his own crushing body attack. But even at that young age, those sessions have to be considered as part of Castillo's long-term, wear and tear mileage.

In his final year with Chavez, Castillo would emerge from that brutal hothouse and take on elite lightweight champion Johnston in April of 2000. Largely unknown at the time, Castillo won a hard-fought, close majority decision that Ring Magazine named "Upset of the Year."

A rematch with Johnston ended in a draw. From that point on, Castillo was a top echelon fighter, one whose most impressive fight arguably might have come in defeat.

In April of 2002, Castillo became the first fighter ever to come within a few points of defeating Floyd Mayweather, and many felt he had won. A better pure boxer than Chavez, Castillo skillfully cut off the ring and forced Mayweather to go toe-to-toe, where Pretty Boy felt the sting of crushing body blows for the first time in his career. That fight undoubtedly led to Mayweather's decision to box from a distance in their rematch, a tactic he would use many times in the future when facing tough, inside fighters.

In the rematch, Mayweather was awarded a unanimous decision, but it would by the closest scores of any fight the pound-for-pound king would have until he won a split decision over Oscar De La Hoya in May. The three Mayweather-Castillo judges each had it, 115-113.

Two years later, Castillo would begin a succession of wars in which he beat Juan Lazcano, Casamayor and Julio Diaz, before running into Corrales in their classic match in May of 2005, a fight which saw both fighters take an incredible pounding.

Just when it looked like Castillo was about to put Corrales away in the 10th round, his opponent rallied seemingly out of nowhere to hammer him so badly the referee had to step in and stop it.

It was the kind of thrilling fight a young boxer makes his bones on, win or lose. For older ones like Castillo, it often marks a turning point where the bones simply go weary.

History is littered with great fighters going to battle once too many times. "Arguably, (Erik) Morales slipped slowly by degrees after the first war with (Marco Antonio) Barrera and through the rematches," said HBO commentator Larry Merchant. "Riddick Bowe had little left after his three killer fights with Evander Holyfield and two with (Andrew) Golota. The (Arturo) Gatti trilogy took a toll on Micky Ward (who retired after the third match)."

Serious weight problems -- rarely a good sign -- also surfaced for Castillo in his rematch with Corrales in October of 2005. For the first time in his career, Castillo failed to make weight, coming in three and a half pounds over the 135 limit. Stripped of his title, he went on the next night to knockout Corrales in the fourth round. The last scheduled fight of the trilogy was for June last year. Again Castillo couldn't make weight, coming in at whopping 139 ½ pounds. The bout was scrapped, and the Nevada State Athletic Commission fined Castillo $250,000, suspended him for the rest of the year and banned him from fighting below 140 pounds in the state.

"Castillo lost a million dollars (in purse money) when the rubber match was cancelled, a fight he probably would have won," Merchant said. "The suspension cost him at least one good purse, plus the $250,000 fine in Nevada, which he hadn't paid in full before his last fight. All of which emphasizes how big the Hatton fight is for him."

He has the frame of a welterweight," Merchant said. "Win or lose, I believe he will move up to that class. A good win could set him up for fights with any of the top welterweights except Mayweather, whom he has fought twice.

When Castillo decided to move up to 140 pounds in January, he was something of a disappointment. Fighting then unheralded Herman Ngoudjo, who had just 15 fights (all victories in Canada), Castillo looked lethargic. He barely eked out a split decision, raising questions about whether he had entered the slippery slope. Merchant isn't totally convinced of that, however.

"Castillo has had some tough fights in the past, but my recollection is that the first fight with Corrales was the only one in which he took a serious beating," Merchant said. "My guess is that his sluggish performance in his last outing was due primarily to the long layoff (11 months) and weight issues. Even 140 isn't easy for him."

Another possible reason that Castillo may have lacked his usual pop is that it was the first time he was wearing ten-ounce gloves. Last July, the Nevada Commission ruled that all fighters weighing 135 pounds and over had to wear ten-ounce gloves in the state, two ounces more than before, and the same size as heavyweights.

According to Top Rank publicist Ricardo Jimenez, who is also Castillo's long-time translator, the Mexican did not feel comfortable in the bigger gloves for his fight with Ngoudjo, and at one point complained he had trouble feeling his hands closing.

All questions about the tread left on Castillo's tires will almost certainly be answered in his fight with Hatton. Hatton's style is non-stop aggression, always pressing and coming forward. That is also Castillo's style, although he is a somewhat more skilled boxer than Hatton.

Given that Hatton will try to break Castillo down, this will be a defining fight for the Mexican boxer. If Castillo is able to go to war again with Hatton, and look good doing it, the doubts will go away and he will begin his second act.

No matter what the result, Merchant feels Castillo will move up to welterweight, a division much deeper in top boxers and money fights. "He has the frame of a welterweight," Merchant said. "Win or lose, I believe he will move up to that class. A good win could set him up for fights with any of the top welterweights except Mayweather, whom he has fought twice."

In the end, Jose Luis Castillo may have to answer to a higher power than Ricky Hatton. Father Time will be the fourth judge at this fight. His decisions are rarely disputed.

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