Make no mistake about it: Saturday night's fight between Britain's Ricky "Hitman" Hatton and Mexican warrior Jose Luis Castillo is a big fight. Considered by many to be the two best 140-pound fighters in boxing, both the undefeated Hatton and the battle-tested Castillo have something to prove in Las Vegas.
|Castillo has a chance to re-establish himself as one of boxing's best.|
The fight with Johnston launched Castillo's star. A draw in their rematch didn't discourage anyone from the idea that Castillo was a fearless and dangerous fighter at 135 pounds. He scored knockouts in his next four fights (though against inferior opposition, and with Castillo often out of shape, fighting as high as 150 pounds in 2002 against Juan Angel Macias) before he met up with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., in 2002.
For all of Castillo's heroics and memorable moments, the fact that he gave Floyd Mayweather, Jr., what were possibly his two toughest fights is the most overlooked feat of all. Mayweather has made a career out of simply embarrassing most opponents, even the good fighters. But Castillo kept pace with Floyd in their two bouts, losing both by tight unanimous decision. In the first, the scores were 116-111, 115-111 and 115-111. In the second, 116-113, 115-113 and 115-113.
Since the second loss to Mayweather in December 2002, the career of "El Temible" has been more than a little bit rocky. He fought a trio of rebound opponents in 2003/2004 before taking on Juan Lazcano and outpointing him to win back the WBC lightweight strap, and then embarked on a hellacious schedule. He beat Joel Casamayor, knocked out Julio Diaz, and then came the legendary fight with Diego "Chico" Corrales, where two of boxing's toughest went toe-to-toe, Castillo on the verge of a knockout in round 10 before Corrales stormed back to put Castillo down in one of the most miraculous rounds in boxing history.
He failed to make weight for the second Corrales fight five months later, and knocked Chico out in the fourth round. After beating Rolando Reyes (weighing in at 138 pounds on both sides), a third fight with Castillo was scheduled, but it was cursed from the get-go. Originally scheduled for February 4, 2006, Corrales was forced to pull out due to a training injury. When the bout was rescheduled for June, Castillo couldn't make weight, checking in at 139 1/2 pounds.
Jose Luis Castillo was out of the ring for 11 months before fighting unknown Montreal product Herman Ngoudjo in January of this year. No one knew what to expect from Castillo, though he was the heavy favorite against a 27-year old with only 15 fights on his record. Castillo struggled mightily against a very game Ngoudjo, who fought like he thought he could beat Castillo. Frankly, he was right -- he could have beaten Castillo on that night. There's no arguing that the Jose Luis Castillo we saw in January was the Castillo of yore.
It's easy to say that ring rust was to blame for Castillo's performance in January, but it would be foolish to think that it was just the inactivity that was at fault. Castillo had a hell of a time getting past Ngoudjo's jab early in the fight, and Ngoudjo fought like he had no fear of Castillo despite his reputation. And he fought very intelligently, too. But the truth of the matter is that at this stage of his career, Herman Ngoudjo shouldn't have been giving Castillo that much trouble, even with the 11-month layoff. To me, Castillo won January's fight thanks to his performance in the 10th and 11th rounds of the contest, because he went out and lost the 12th pretty decidedly. The split decision victory was not worthy of a vote of confidence for the Castillo camp.
Another thing to consider, though, is this: Castillo was fighting that night underneath Ricky Hatton's return to the junior welterweight division, Hatton's debut in Las Vegas, and the card was meant as a set-up to a future Castillo/Hatton showdown. Everyone knew this going in. Hatton won easily against Juan Urango, who really could not have gone into the bout with a worse gameplan. By refusing to pressure Hatton, he allowed Ricky to pick and peck the entire 12 rounds. Maybe Urango, who is probably the physically stronger of the two, wanted to lure Hatton into a brawl in close, where he thought he could throw the harder shots.
Urango fought a stationary fight, which in the past might have gotten Hatton overexcited and anxious to throw, which could have left him open to counter shots. Instead, Hatton turned in a very "professional" performance. He simply boxed the hell out of Urango, and took home an easy victory. And again, why not? We all knew these two fights were just appetizers.
|Some have questioned Hatton's undefeated record for a long time, and the questions could remain even with a win.|
It's not like Hatton fought tomato cans or scrubs. He fought some pretty good fighters, and he beat them all. Ben Tackie completed the death of his career with a lopsided decision loss to Hatton in 2003, which had been preceded by lopsided decision losses to Kostya Tszyu and Sharmba Mitchell. Mike "No Joke" Stewart was knocked out by Hatton in 2004, a loss he's never really recovered from. There is really a decent list of fighters that Hatton either retired or essentially retired, chief among them Kostya Tszyu himself, in what was Hatton's biggest win in 2005 in Manchester, when Tszyu failed to answer the bell for the 12th round. It was Tszyu's first loss in eight years, and the second and final of his career.
But this is where folks often disagree on Ricky Hatton. Was Kostya Tszyu simply washed up by the time Hatton got to him, and would Hatton have stood a chance against Tszyu in his prime? A lot of Hatton detractors will say yes and no, in order, to those questions. Castillo himself has said in the build-up to this fight that Hatton's only real win is over Tszyu, and that Tszyu was old in the fight.
To me, it's hard to say that Kostya Tszyu was old in that fight. He was 35, close to 36. A few months prior, he knocked out Sharmba Mitchell, flooring him four times in less than three rounds. Before that, he beat the hell out of Jesse James Leija. It is true that those were Tszyu's only two fights in the two years before fighting Hatton, but so what? Kostya Tszyu was a wrecking ball at his very best. He lost to Vince Phillips in a huge upset in '97 and beat everyone in his path before Hatton.
I think it's unfair to Hatton to say that Tszyu wasn't a good fighter at the time of their bout, because it's not like Tszyu went out there and stunk up the joint flat-out. It was a competitive fight. Hatton was ahead on every card at the time of the stoppage, but he hadn't dominated Tszyu to the point where you couldn't imagine a judging disaster awarding the fight to the veteran.
The problem with Ricky Hatton since then is that while Hatton's star was on the rise, he was seen as something of a working-class kind of fighter, a take all comers guy who wasn't afraid to fight Ray Oliveira two months after he fought Mike Stewart. He fought four times in 2004, three times in 2003, and four times in 2002. But after Tszyu, he became more of a marketed fighter, with a far more cautious schedule. Some of Hatton's blue collar appeal was lost once he became a legitimate star. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm just saying that's the way it goes.
After beating Tszyu, Hatton took on Carlos Maussa and won via ninth round knockout. Maussa was coming off of a knockout win over American Vivian Harris, but that win was just expected for Hatton. Maussa was a fine follow-up opponent, but that's as far as it goes.
Hatton then further hurt public perception with an ill-advised foray into the welterweight division, where a tough, strong Luis Collazo proved that Hatton is simply no welterweight. Hatton took a close unanimous decision that night, but many (including myself) thought Collazo won that fight. Eight months later, Hatton decided to return to the 140-pound ranks, and he beat Urango.
The questions are what make this fight intriguing, plus the fact that if all goes according to plan, it should be a really entertaining matchup. Both guys like to come forward, although Hatton didn't show a whole lot of aggressiveness against Collazo (who would have knocked him out if he had) or Urango (who just stood still, mostly). Castillo, when he gets riled up and going, can't be convinced to not come at his opponent, though, and Hatton won't be able to pick his spots with discerning taste as he did against Urango.
But is Castillo really a good fit at 140? The fact that he's often considered to be part of the 1-2 in the division shows a lot of respect for what he's done in the past. But his performance against Ngoudjo didn't speak highly of his chances for a second career as a junior welterweight. If he doesn't have the gas to go 12 rounds, he could run into serious trouble. I don't see Castillo knocking Hatton out without the fight turning into all-out warfare, in which case his body work and thunderous left hooks could put anyone down. Hatton can battle and he can throw the leather, but he's not Diego Corrales, who made it almost a mission to see how much punishment he could withstand. If Hatton gets in trouble, he'll go on the defensive and try to wear the older Castillo out. As far as conditioning goes, Castillo is guilty until proven innocent anymore. We know that Hatton -- despite his off-time nickname of Ricky Fatton -- is always in good shape come fight night.
In a previous post, I picked Castillo. I may have done this just because I really like Castillo and want to see him succeed. On paper, his age, conditioning questions, and recent track record don't add up to a win over Ricky Hatton. He's been a great champion in his career, and at times, a truly sensational fighter. He's one of those guys whose fights will live on forever, and he'll always be respected for the fact that he took on the best.
This fight should be Ricky Hatton's time to shine, though. He's younger, probably stronger, and far more experienced at this weight. But if he beats Castillo, it should only take about five minutes for non-fans to point out that, again, he beat a top fighter who was on the downside of his career. The questions will linger, even if they aren't really deserved.
Despite any of the reservations about who can do what and who is at what stage of their career, this is a must-see fight. It has the potential to be an action attraction, and what's more is that nobody's charging 50 bucks to see it. Is Hatton truly good enough? Does Castillo still have gas left in the tank? We're five days away from finding out. Bad Left Hook will there, as always, with round-by-round coverage, analysis and scoring of the bout. I'm looking forward to it.