Maybe we don't all call them "heroes," but we all have heroes in boxing. Guys that go beyond "favorites," the ones with whom you form a sort of strange, unspoken bond.
Usually, they're tough guys. Men's men. Warriors. The fighters that can be beaten, but won't go down without leaving everything they have in the ring, trying to win until the final desperate moment.
Guys like Jose Luis Castillo.
The 34-year old Castillo (56-8-1, 48 KO) is a trench-dwelling, steel resolve sort of a guy. Or at least he was, back when he was at his best. Like fellow Mexicans Antonio Margarito and Humberto Soto, Castillo's record is marred by early losses that don't reflect just how fantastic a fighter he would become once he fully grew into himself as a professional.
In 2000, WBC lightweight titleholder Stevie Johnston took on a 27-year old fighter named Jose Luis Castillo, who came in with a 40-4 record, having been knocked out four times in Mexico. Sure, he had two straight wins over Jorge Paez and Steve Quinonez, but Johnston was a big step up no matter how you sliced it. The American would win and move on, just another W on his sheet.
Instead, Castillo scored the Ring Magazine Upset of the Year. Three months later, they fought to a draw, memorable because miscalculation adding the scores led to an original announcement of Johnston regaining his title, which Castillo learned about when Johnston showed up in his dressing room to return the strap.
It was Castillo's career that would march upward. He twice took Floyd Mayweather, Jr., to the absolute limit, giving the former pound-for-pound king his two toughest fights. He notched victories over plenty of good fighters (Joel Casamayor, Juan Lazcano, Julio Diaz, Cesar Bazan).
The watershed moment of his career came via another loss, when he was dramatically knocked out by the late Diego Corrales in 2005 in the greatest fight I have ever seen.
Then, the troubles began.
Castillo came in overweight for the rematch, beating Corrales but failing to gain the title that was supposed to be on the line. When he couldn't make weight for a scheduled third bout, he lost a great measure of respect within the boxing community. Corrales refused to take the gamble against the heavier Castillo again.
Castillo fought just once in 2006, beating Rolando Reyes in a catchweight bout, and returned as an official 140-pounder in January 2007, finding himself with his hands full against a largely-unknown young fighter named Herman Ngoudjo.
Five months later, he clashed with English superstar and 140-pound champion Ricky Hatton in what many expected to be a tremendous, grueling bout.
Instead, Hatton pummeled an absent-seeming Castillo fairly relentlessly. It was an ugly fight; lots of holding on both sides. In the end, it was a body shot from Hatton that sent Castillo to a knee in the fourth round.
He didn't get up. Castillo, long a symbol of in-ring grit and pride, stayed kneeling on the mat as referee Joe Cortez counted him out. He made no effort to get to his feet. If he'd seemed disinterested in the fight, it's likely because he was.
What we feared looked to be true: Castillo was fighting on solely for the money, his wallet having taken some beatings of its own thanks to his failures to make weight against Corrales.
He beat a journeyman named Adan Casillas in a return to the rings of Mexico four months later, weighing in at 139 1/2 pounds compared to Casillas' 144 1/2. The win -- right or wrong -- landed him an eliminator bout with young American Timothy Bradley in Mexico on March 8.
When it came time to weigh in, Castillo wasn't even close. He was at 147 1/2 pounds the day before the weigh-in, and when he came down prior to the officially scheduled time to check himself out on the day of the fight, he was still well over.
He went home. Just like that. He left Timothy Bradley hanging, wasting the time of another fighter that could have been doing something else and making money. Bradley would be awarded the mandatory shot at Junior Witter, and we all know how that turned out.
But Castillo was further disgraced. Having started as a featherweight, the 5-foot-8 Castillo now couldn't even make junior welterweight. Though many called for him to retire, it's simply not going to happen. He needs the money. And this is his way of getting it.
He's a fighter. He fights.
Now, he returns again, headlining this week's Wednesday Night Fights card on ESPN2 in his welterweight debut. Prior to his untimely death, Castillo's famous rival Corrales had tried to jump to welterweight after his own problems making weight at 135 pounds. Chico was battered and dominated by Joshua Clottey for 10 rounds.
Is Castillo similarly just too beaten up and too unfit for 147 pounds? He'll face Argentinian veteran Sebastian Lujan (29-5-2, 20 KO), certainly a dangerous enough opponent for a faded, aging "El Terrible." The 28-year old pugilist came to America once before, losing a fairly competitive fight to Antonio Margarito in 2005 via 10th round TKO, a fight mostly famous for the gross disfigurement that Margarito caused Lujan's ear. (If you're not squeamish, here's a photo.)
We'll see if Castillo has anything left. If he does, he could find himself another payday as a welterweight. A lot of guys at 147 are looking for decent opponents, and Castillo's name still means a little bit. Who knows? Maybe if he looks good, he could even land a date with Miguel Cotto. Maybe a title shot against young Andre Berto.
I fear, though, that we're about to see Jose Luis for the last time. As much damage as he's done to his own legacy, I'll never forget watching him at his best. When he was downright heroic.