By Thomas Gerbasi
Once Michelle Corrales got the look, she knew everything was going to be all right.
Her husband, Diego, had just been knocked down for the second time in the tenth round by Jose Luis Castillo in their WBC / WBO lightweight title fight at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The date was May 7, 2005, nearly ten years ago, an anniversary that doesn’t feel real to Michelle.
“Absolutely not,” she laughs. “It does not feel like ten years whatsoever. I just got chills even thinking about those moments back then and how it seems more like yesterday than ten years ago.”
If you called the fight between Corrales and Castillo the best you ever saw, there might be other options, but no one would argue, at least not if they saw a bout that epitomized everything that is great about the sport of boxing, even if it didn’t feel like boxing, but like a war of attrition, a brutal dance in which neither fighter would give an inch to the other.
But in the tenth round, it appeared that Corrales had finally run out of miracles. Mexico’s Castillo had already put him down once, breaking open a close fight, and when “Chico” hit the deck a second time in the round, the only hope was that he wouldn’t get hurt before the fight got called. The fans were thrilled, but Michelle still had to watch the man she loved take punch after punch until he was knocked to the canvas. And knowing her husband, he wasn’t going to go away willingly.
“Diego would never quit,” she said. “His thing was always ‘I’d rather die in the ring than to ever have anyone throw in the towel.’”
The towel was thrown in twice on Corrales in the only two previous losses of his career. In 2003, the ringside physician stopped his bout with Joel Casamayor when he suffered two bad cuts in his mouth. But the one that always stuck with him was in 2001, when his father and trainer Ray Woods pulled his son out of a fight with Floyd Mayweather after Corrales hit the deck five times.
Four years later, Woods didn’t want his son to fight Castillo, a desire that only pushed the Sacramento native even harder, but as he pushed himself beyond human limits, his wife was concerned.
“I’m sitting there and I’m scared to death,” she said. “Everyone always said how tough Castillo was. And it was a big thing to Diego because his dad had told him not to fight Castillo. He’s bigger, stronger, just don’t fight him. That made Diego that much more determined to win. After what happened with the Mayweather fight, the last thing he wanted to hear was his dad doubting him.”
Michelle met Diego before the Mayweather fight. She didn’t know he was a boxer, and he wasn’t exactly volunteering that information at first.
“I thought he was a farmhand or something,” she laughs. Corrales was training at Mount Charleston, Nevada at a ranch that housed a gym, but after their first date, Michelle was smitten.
“I called my brother at five in the morning and said ‘oh my God, I just met my husband,’” she said, and the two became inseparable. Corrales did have a past that was creeping into his present, namely a domestic violence charge that would land him in jail after a plea bargain.
“I found out about that while we were watching a fight,” Michelle recalled. “My eyes got as big as half-dollars. He said ‘I guess I got some explaining to do.’”
He did, Michelle stood by his side, and they eventually married, staying together through whatever storms would come up. And it wouldn’t get stormier than when her husband faced Hurricane Castillo in Las Vegas.
“I think I nearly crushed the fingers of Jin Mosley, who was sitting right next to me,” Michelle said. “I just kept saying ‘he’s okay, he’s okay.’”
And he was. It was just that no one knew it but man and wife.
“If I felt like he was in trouble or anything was going wrong, he’d give me a look,” she said. “And he looked at me when he was on that canvas. He looked at me like ‘I’m okay.’ When that happened, I knew it was okay. I knew he was about to go to work. As long as he made that eye contact with me, he could have got knocked down three more times, I felt like he had it in him.”
Corrales rose from the knockdown, and in one of the most dramatic moments in boxing history, trainer Joe Goossen put his fighter’s mouthpiece back in, telling him “You gotta f**kin get inside on him now.”
The fighter did as instructed, hurting Castillo and then finishing him in an improbable and dramatic comeback that was so remarkable that Hollywood would have rejected it as too far-fetched. But it was real, and it was something that anyone who ever saw it would never forget.
In a term that would seem over the top, but that is certainly fitting, it was glorious.
That’s for us. What about the fighters and their families? Michelle Corrales talked about the aftermath, saying “I literally had to take care of him and bathe him and everything because his eyes were swollen shut. It was pretty bad. The pains, the aches, the urinating blood. They beat each other.”
In the midst of this, Michelle asked Diego a question.
“You really thought that was worth it?”
“Every second of it.”
“And we laughed about it because that’s what he loved.:
The greatest fight in boxing history wouldn’t be duplicated in their rematch five months later, an overweight Castillo knocking Corrales out in the fourth round. Corrales would lose two more times, at the hands of Casamayor and Joshua Clottey. Castillo continues to fight past his ‘sell by’ date. When asked how much the first fight took out of the two, Michelle doesn’t hesitate in her response.
“To me, both fighters left so much of themselves in that ring. I think they’ll always be combined, and that was the climax of both of their careers in my opinion.”
On May 5, 2007, two years to the day of the first Castillo fight, Diego Corrales was killed in a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas. He was 29. Some said that his greatest moment in the ring started what would become a tragic end, that his fighting spirit and disregard for his personal safety just didn’t equate to a long life. Michelle recalls a conversation she and her husband had between the two Castillo fights.
“He said, ‘You know, I’m willing to die in the ring.’ And I would say ‘Diego, stop talking crazy. You’re not going to die in the ring. Don’t talk like that.’ ‘No, I’m serious. I need you to know that I’m prepared to die in the ring. I will never quit.’ And I thought ‘He really means this.’ Before, to me it was always a sport. You go out there, you’re going to fight with your style, you’re gonna take a little, give a lot, but never once did I equate how much he’s willing to give it all in that ring. I knew he would never quit. But I never interpreted that this could be death. It never sunk in. I knew he would give it his all, but he would come out okay.”
Sometimes you can give too much, and that was the impression Diego Corrales left. Yes, he fought three more times after that epic first bout with Castillo, but it was never the same. And after his death, Michelle wanted nothing to do with boxing.
“I was just so hurt,” she said. “I stayed around a little bit, but it was so painful that I really stopped engaging with the sport up until Diego was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. Then I got reengaged.”
Today, Michelle works with the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame, and is intent on preserving Diego’s memory and legacy. She has remarried, and when it comes to boxing, she isn’t bitter.
“I don’t blame boxing for Diego at all,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I actually think that God blessed him and gave him the life that he wanted and also the ending that he wanted. Not that he wanted to pass on a motorcycle, but I know he didn’t suffer. Everyone said that he died instantly.
“Boxing gave Diego happiness,” Michelle continues. “He cared about the sport and about a legacy as much as he cared about breathing and eating. He really lived. He told me ‘I don’t foresee myself living long. But I do everything.’ He lived his life every day as though it was his last. I just want people to know that he was one of the best guys you’ll ever want to meet. He had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. He truly loved the sport of boxing, he loved the fans, and he wanted everyone to love him. I married a wonderful guy, I had children with a wonderful guy. It saddens me to know that that guy’s gone, but he did what he wanted to do in life.”
If there would be any regret, it would be that he never met his son, Diego Jr., who Michelle was pregnant with when the former world champion passed away. Corrales’ son is now seven, and not surprisingly, he’s found a love for his father’s former profession.
“Boxing holds his attention more than anything,” Michelle said. She’s brought him to the gym a few times, where he’s worked with Roger Mayweather. Recently, the youngster caught a cold and missed his meetings with Mayweather. Michelle joked with her son, saying, “Roger’s gonna think you quit because he hasn’t seen you.”
“Oh no,” Diego Jr. responded. “He knows I don’t quit. We never quit.”
Dad would be proud.