Tonight at the UIC Pavilion
in Chicago, Illinois, ESPN2's “Friday Night Fights” features a doubleheader of
two local products from the “Windy City” versus two distinguished old veterans
seemingly at the end of the line. Light heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara takes on
Glen Johnson and Ivan Popoca is paired with Jose Luis Castillo in a
welterweight tussle. The local promoters are billing this card “Crossroads”
which is an oft-repeated term in this business as old lions are fed to younger
ones in the name of progress. This sport doesn't treat its elderly well and
it's rare that anyone can outrun Father Time.
For Johnson and Castillo,
it's not so much the crossroads but really perhaps the end of the road.
But this isn't a column
deriding these match-ups or asking rhetorical questions as to why these men are
still boxing (we all know the reason why. It's what they are and what they do).
It’s to give them proper tribute for what they have accomplished in this game.
They were, in every sense of the designation , “old-school fighters.” Nothing
was ever handed to them and they had to come up via the toughest of roads to
make a mark in this sport. They were never the darlings of the premium cable
networks- who seemingly place a premium on undefeated marks and pound-for-pound
rankings- nor were they the marquee attractions who had the leverage to take on
(or avoid) select comers. The records of Johnson (51-16-2 with 35 knockouts)
and Castillo (63-11-1 with 54 knockouts) speak to the very last of a bygone era
when fighters actually- get this- fought often and truly learned the craft of
No, they won’t be inducted
into the Hall of Fame (they both fall a tad short in gaining permanent entry
into Canastota, in my opinion) but during their storied careers, they got
all they could out of their God-given abilities, gave something to the sport
and provided long-lasting memories. And when it's all said and done, isn't that
all we can reasonably expect from our fighters?
The story of Johnson's
boxing odyssey kicked off on February 19th, 1993 at the Airport
Hilton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he began his career by stopping Yurek
Del Rio in one round. For the next few years- ironically fighting close to home
in South Florida- he built up a record of 32-0 facing handpicked opposition.
Still, it was good enough to get a crack at IBF middleweight champion Bernard
Hopkins, who himself was years away from any real notoriety. This fight took
place in 1997 on a typically warm July summer afternoon at the Fantasy Springs
Casino. To put into perspective how long ago this was, this bout was actually
broadcast on CBS and this casino was still more than a decade away from constructing
its indoor facility which now houses their boxing events.
Johnson was stopped (for the
only time in his career) in 11 rounds by the well-schooled Hopkins who showed
him what real world-class boxing was about. It was just then that Johnson's
career and skills would really begin to blossom. It also showed that, as
numerous losses mounted, early undefeated records in boxing are perhaps the
most overrated thing in sports.
The loss to “The Executioner”
was then followed by successive losses to Merqui Sosa and then Joseph Kiwanuka.
These losses were followed by a four-fight winning streak but then Johnson
would hit the road (a common theme in his career) and lose to Sven Ottke in a
very disputed decision for the IBF super middleweight title in Germany. He then
dropped a 10-round decision to Syd Vanderpool in New Orleans, a controversial
loss to Silvio Branco in Italy and a majority 10-round decision defeat to Omar
Sheika at the Blue Horizon in Philly.
A familiar pattern was
developing in Johnson’s career; he was more than willing- and quite frankly, he
had no choice- to go on the road and fight guys in their backyards. It was he,
not Mel Gibson, who was the real “Road
Warrior” in a career that has seen him fight not only in all parts of the
United States but in various locales in the Bahamas, Germany, Italy and the
United Kingdom. You look at his record on Boxrec.com (http://boxrec.com/list_bouts.php?human_id=7361&cat=boxer)
and it seems the only places he hasn't fought are Antarctica and Timbuktu. And
like many other tourists, he has been the victim of robbery while on foreign
After dropping successive
fights to Derrick Harmon and Julio Gonzalez, it seemed that in 2003 Johnson
would end up being a tough journeyman and nothing more. But like his dogged
temperament in the ring, where he simply wouldn't quit and take no for an
answer, he kept at it. After a highly questionable draw with Daniel Judah (that
he avenged years later) and a victory over Eric Harding, Johnson earned a crack
at the vacant IBF light heavyweight crown against Clinton Woods. And it would
take 24 rounds to win that belt as he had to travel twice to Sheffield to face
Woods after their first encounter was ruled a draw. But his 2004 was just
getting started because having that title made him an ideal choice for Roy
Jones, who was coming off his initial loss to Antonio Tarver. Over nine rounds
in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson dominated Jones and knocked him out cold. To
finish off the year, he took on Tarver at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and
won a close, well-contested 12-round decision.
This was his year. Three
outings, all in places that couldn't be more different than each other, Johnson
had won defining fights. For his yeoman effort, he was named the “Fighter of
the Year.” The man who had supplemented his income for years by working on a
construction site had broken into the next tax bracket by sheer will and
time on top of the mountain was short-lived as he lost the rematch to Tarver
the following June and soon he was back to hitting the circuit of short money
and fights on ESPN2. Maybe his blue-collar style and gentlemanly manner wasn't
glamorous or flashy enough for the executives of either HBO or Showtime who, at
times, seem to crave more sizzle than steak. But Johnson continued to ply his
craft where he could against whoever would face him. He could still beat the
George Khalid Joneses and Montell Griffins of the world but the “Ol’ Battleship”
(as this scribe nicknamed him for his travels all across the globe) has looked
like a weathered vessel recently. At age 43, his pressure style, reliant on
coming forward and throwing a high volume of punches, is really built for
Even then, Johnson was still
able to stop the likes of Yusaf Mack and Allan Green with his combination of
guile, savvy and toughness. And late in his career, it's his losses that speak
to the quality and character of this fighter. He gave Chad Dawson all he could
handle in 2008 and Dawson has never been quite as “Bad” since and he boxed as
cautiously as could be in their rematch a year later. Tavoris Cloud needed a
late rally to defeat Johnson in 2009 and the latter gave Carl Froch a
reasonably good run last year in the semifinals of the “Super Six.” It was only
against Lucian Bute last November when it looked like the “Battleship” would be
Regardless, Johnson's had
quite a run.
The story of the 38-year-old
Castillo actually begins three years before Johnson started his pro career
despite being five years younger. Castillo was several months shy of his 17th birthday when he made his debut (yeah, they start ‘em young in Mexico).
Fighting mostly in Baja, he rolled up a record of 18-0 but soon started to take
his lumps as he was stopped by Javier Jauregui (twice), Cesar Soto and Julio
Alvarez before celebrating his 23rd birthday. During this time, Castillo
was cutting his teeth as a sparring partner for the great Julio Cesar Chavez
and as he developed his skills as an apprentice, “El Temible” came into his own
as a formidable lightweight.
Brought in as a relatively
safe opponent to the skilled Stevie Johnston on the afternoon before Shane Mosley
upset Oscar De la Hoya later that night at the Staples Center, Castillo upset
Johnston on a sweltering hot day at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens. An
immediate rematch was scheduled on Johnston's home turf of Denver and in what
was a closely contested match, a draw was eventually ruled (after the initial
scorecards were read with Johnston winning). His next title defense was a sixth
round KO of Cesar Bazan and after a few soft touches, Castillo was matched with
the highly regarded Floyd Mayweather. What was thought to be a relatively easy
belt-taking fight for the “Pretty Boy” was instead perhaps the most harrowing
experience of his Hall of Fame career. Using his advantage in size and
strength, along with his underrated boxing skills and long jab, Castillo gave
Mayweather fits on that April night in 2002. Many observers believed he did
more than enough to retain his title but alas, the future was with Mayweather
and so eventually was the verdict.
Castillo was not Chavez but
you saw a lot of Chavez-like qualities, from the ability to work inside and
break down the body to his heavy-handed attack and a strong finishing kick.
During his heyday at lightweight, he faced the likes of Mayweather (twice), Bazan,
Juan Lazcano, Julio Diaz and Johnston (twice) but it will always be his rivalry
with Diego Corrales that will be his everlasting legacy (Yeah, yeah, even more
for being the guy alongside Joan Guzman who will be defined by the maddening
habit of not making weight).
The night of May 7th,
2005 will be one that boxing fans will remember fondly. Quite frankly, it will
take one helluva fight to beat that one for best fight of this century. If you
think that's an exaggeration, then you probably haven't seen it. Yeah, you can
say, “What about Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti?” OK, think of that fight with a
better caliber of fighters. Over 10 pulsating rounds, Corrales and Castillo
waged a savage battle that never let up in its intensity or execution. Corrales
with his sharp, stinging punches and Castillo with his skilled in-fighting
fought on brutally even terms from the first bell. Finally, in the climactic 10th,
Castillo sent “Chico” to the canvas twice- on the second trip, Corrales spit
out his mouthpiece, giving him valuable time to recover. And just as it looked
like Castillo was going in for the kill, the fight suddenly turned as Corrales stunned
Castillo with a series of compact punches off the ropes.
In as dramatic a turnaround
as you will ever see, the fight was halted by refereeTony Weeks as Castillo was
dazed as he was dangling off the ropes, nearly unconscious. You watch it today
and you still have a hard time comprehending it. Unfortunately, neither fighter
came out of this contest the same way they entered the ring that night at the
They had a rematch but it’s
at that time when Castillo's problems making weight began. He stopped Corrales
five months later in a fight that seemed unfair given that only “Chico” made
the effort to hit 135 pounds. A rubber match was scheduled and then infamously
scrapped as Castillo again failed to make weight. Both Castillo and Corrales
reached the apex of their glory that night in 2005 but it was also their
ultimate demise. They had simply given too much of themselves against each
other. Castillo was easily dispatched by Ricky Hatton in June of 2007,
basically ending his period as a true world-class fighter. A month before,
Corrales tragically died in a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas, two years to
the date of their classic war.
Since then, Castillo has
fought on the fringes, able to defeat the likes of Robert Valenzuela and Carlos
Urias but losing anytime he's on the big stage. In March of 2010 on the Manny
Pacquiao undercard at Cowboys Stadium, he was served up as an opponent for Alfonso
Gomez, a former contestant on “The Contender.” He even lost to Jorge Paez Jr., notable
because back in 1999, Castillo beat his father. Most recently, he notched a
victory over Sammy Ventura, who had a record of 26-21 coming into their fight.
Both Johnson and Castillo
have seen better days but those days should never be forgotten.
Here's one fans take on the
September 15th snafu and I think this gentleman sums it up best (and
yes, it's the brother of the “Amazing Swider-Man”)...
days since Lopez was ‘confirmed’ as the opponent for Canelo and here are some
of my thoughts:
am not entirely sure, as a boxing fan that is not going to either one of these
cards, I dislike that there are two cards going on the same night. I can, and
will, watch both main events. Certain sports have become one of the last
experiences you need to consume live; yet I do not think boxing is one of those
sports. You cannot escape NCAA or NFL football scores, NBA playoffs, etc. for
more than 30-45 minutes, even when trying to avoid them. I do not think the
same is true for boxing. So, if the presence of GBP on that date causes TR to
do an overall better show, then I win. Similarly, if TRs card pushes GBP to try
and stack the undercard with more competitive fights given its less quality
main event, I again win. I have said it before, unregulated monopolies in any
form (whether US Steel or a given date in September) hurt consumers. Any
additional competition increase our marginal benefit. We have seen in the past,
cards featuring JJCJr or Canelo alone are often packaged with filler because,
like hot dogs, people will still consume them that way. Why waste additional,
costly, ingredients? We will see more, and high quality, boxing on Sept 15th because of the two shows than if only
one was on, and that is a microe-conomic reality
Lost in all the comparisons between the two cards, the unanswered question is
what if Lopez is actually a competitive match-up for Canelo? Full disclosure, I
think Canelo is a dog-sh*t fighter. I have never seen anything in the ring that
has me thinking he is better than a gatekeeper/sparring partner. Two years ago
Canelo was busy getting buzzed by the bad Cotto, a guy that made his name
(albeit the small part that Miguel did not make for him) fighting at 135. Why
are we so sure that he rolls over Lopez who will walk in at 144? I fully
appreciate the weigh difference, and that Lopez himself is an average fighter
that outlasted a dumb guy, but still. Canelo should be the heavy favorite, but
I think a lot of the moaning over the match-up is because of the date/location.
If this was held in Mexico, on September 14th, then we would say
this is a decent stay busy fight for a guy taking his 5th fight in 15 months.
But as they say, if my aunt had a set of balls then she would be my uncle.
Clearly you do not fly out to the desert that weekend unless you are a boxing
fan. Too much other stuff going on in the sports world. And if you are a boxing
fan, and you chose to go to Canelo over the TR card, I assume you also got
tickets to see Bette Midler and Cher the night before. One of the few
commonalities between Canelo and JCCJr is that they both have disproportional
fan bases relative to their skill set. However, while both bloated fan bases
are Mexican in nature, JCCJr gets the older crowd that lived and died with his
dad’s fights. Canelo gets the teeny-bopper girls. Which do you think are more
likely to fly to Vegas? Ratings on Showtime might be OK, but there is no amount
of lipstick to cover the pig that will be the live gate at the MGM.
And the CBS thing was a fine smoke screen, you know, if it lasted more than a
day. Being on CBS would have changed the narrative for the GBP card to be sure.
Anytime someone mentioned the card, the first thing said would have been “on
broadcast TV”. Now that it is on Showtime, the first thing said will be “going
against the JCCJr PPV”. Even when GBP card gets written about for September
15th, TR card will get mentioned. However, I think that far less likely (but will
still occur) when people write about the TR card. The only relevant story line
for the GBP card is that it is competing in a pissing match with TR. TR
story-lines include Sergio’s title take back, the prior avoidance of Sergio,
and JCCJr getting his first real test. All of those narratives can be written
without the mentioning of GBP.
Not to say it will happen, but I am guessing there will be some decent rumbling
about Showtime blowing a chunk of its budget on a crap fight. While execs
clearly do not care about boxing programming so long as they do not have to
deal with it, at what point would the bad publicity raise eyebrows for the real
power-brokers at CBS? CBS prides themselves on their brands (“CBS is Americas
most watched network” is said a trillion times in a single NFL game) and a
surefire way to piss them off is to sully that brand. Will this have that kind
of impact? I do not know, but the fact that it is even possible is why Espinoza
should have avoided it (you know, if he was not a total shill for GBP).
Finally, I am fascinated to see this all play out. I think all the abuses and
ills of the current boxing model are coming together on the 15th. It
is a social experiment. Many of our commonly held assumptions about what is
wrong with boxing (do belts matter, TV ratings, what is PPV quality, is Vegas
an outdated location for non-superfights, rival promoters refusing to
collaborate, etc.) will get tested. If both cards are wild successes (the
alternative hypothesis to the null hypothesis that the 15th will be catastrophic), then how does
that shake up the sport? To quote Bart Scott “CANT WAIT!”
W. Swider, Ph.D.
Honestly, I'm not sure if I
could've said it better myself.
The Sept. 21st edition of “Fight Night” on NBC Sports Network will feature light heavyweight
Gabriel Campillo versus Sergey Kovalev and welterweight Ronald Cruz against
Antwone Smith...The weigh-in for tomorrow’s bout between Amir Khan and Danny
Garcia is open to the public at 3 p.m. PT at the Mandalay Bay Events Center...And
yes, this fight is at the Mandalay Bay, even though you wouldn't know it by
much have your views changed on Joe Paterno now?...OK,
can the Lakers get any real help on the bench?...And no, Kobe, this Olympic
team cannot beat the '92 Dream Team, c'mon...