Jesus “Chucho” Castillo died last January, and with his death came memories of the days when fighters earned their accolades and their riches in ways at odds with the contemporary corporate boxing scene in America.
And “Chucho,” God bless him, earned his reputation as much as anybody did. Castillo, hard-bitten and sullen, was one of the top bantamweights in an era full of little big men. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sweet science beyond the heavyweight division was all but dead in America, it was Bobby Chacon, Danny Lopez, Chango Carmona, Mando Ramos, Gato Gonzalez, Jesus Pimentel, and a jawbreaking bon vivant named Ruben Olivares who kept boxing from hearing the last nail being banged into its splintered coffin lid.
Castillo, born in Nuevo Valle de Moreno, Guanajuato, turned pro in 1962 with the goal of earning enough money to buy a race car. His first dream, it seems, was to be the Mexican Richard Petty. In order to make the kind of cash that would have paid for a Plymouth Belvedere or a Chevy Bel Air, Castillo decided to become a boxer. After serving the kind of grueling apprenticeship that no longer exists in boxing, Castillo began to edge into the top ranks. By 1966, when he was 22 years old, Castillo began to hit his stride. He ran off a streak that included wins over Waldemiro Pinto, Bernardo Caraballo, and the fearsome—and very much feared—bomber Jesus Pimentel. All three men were ranked in the top 10 by the Ring at the time Castillo beat them.
In 1968, Castillo challenged for the world bantamweight title and dropped a split decision to Lionel Rose at The Forum. It was a verdict that led to a riot. Two months after causing a ruckus in Inglewood, Castillo was back in the ring, this time against future two-time champion Rafael Herrera. Then, on October 16, 1970, Castillo became the first man to hang a loss on Ruben Olivares. “Rockabye” Ruben, who entered the fight with a gaudy 61-0-1 record and the love of every Chicano and Mexican national above ground, had already beaten Castillo a few months earlier, but they fought again, because that was where the money was, and where the money was was where you needed to be. In a way, it was a professional courtesy for both men to swap punches on three separate occasions in less than a year, since they were fighting during a time when purses were not given out based on imaginary pound-for-pound lists. Because Castillo dreamed of driving in a NASCAR event, he fought the best fighters of his era, and was paid commensurately for the risks he took. In those days, promoters had to put on the best fights (or the best attractions) to guarantee the biggest paydays for all involved.
What no one could have guessed is how less than 20 years later, boxing—that Kafkaesque pursuit—would manage to make more money than ever with only a fraction of its 1970s audience. Satellite dishes, cable television, and pay-per-view have all joined forces over the last 25 years to strip American boxing of its professionalism. Now fighters without distinction are allowed to call shots based on nothing but the delusions of network executives. What we have today are manufactured stars like Chad Dawson, fighters who have enriched themselves without being able, for the most part, to move the spectator in any way. Of course, there are often few spectators to move whenever Dawson fights, and this, naturally, is part of the conundrum.
Traditionally, the “prize” in “prizefighting” was what a boxer could directly generate. When boxing first began to take hold in America, fighters fought for stakes, and these stakes were gathered by backers of each fighter. As Elliott J. Gorn noted in The Manly Art: “Placing bets and contributing stake money were not merely profit-and-loss decisions, moreover, but expressions of individual, neighborhood, and ethnic loyalties.” In other words, the community itself had to care enough about a fighter to raise funds in support of his bout. Can you imagine a community raising funds for Chad Dawson?
Similarly, promoters of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s would have dashed across the street had they seen Dawson or Andre Ward coming down the block. And Sugar Ray Leonard had to fight Thomas Hearns in order to make the astronomical sums involved in a super fight because of the technological limitations of the time. Only the biggest names in boxing could lace-up on closed-circuit television because such an endeavor involved expenditures and layouts that cannot be imagined in an age where almost anyone can headline a pay-per-view.
Today, the modern HBO/Showtime/pay-per-view model has sucked the professionalism out of boxing the way the chupacabra sucks the blood out of its hapless victims. No longer does the mercenary, professional aspect exist in boxing, except, paradoxically, among those who are outside of the corporate power structure: fighters who have failed, for one reason or another—or none, which, in boxing, often amounts to the same thing—to catch the fickle eye of a man in a Brooks Brothers suit.
Now we are left with the memories of daring fighters like Castillo, whose careers were more than just the whims of conference room schemers. No, these men, who saw visions of racing cars or some other glory, were dreamers. For them, and for those who remember what they stood for, the days run away like wild horses. Nothing can ever bring them back again.
This article originally appeared in Esquina Boxeo in February 2013.