Katsidis to fight with heavy heart
It was Oct. 19 and Michael Katsidis was deep in his training camp about 90 miles from Bangkok, Thailand, where the Australian brawler has prepared for numerous fights.
Trainer and manager Brendon Smith said they have always been comfortable there since first working out there years ago when Katsidis was a sparring partner for former junior lightweight titlist Yodsanan Nanthachai.
"We were very impressed with the tough, hard conditions and the humbleness," Smith said. "It's a very simple lifestyle while you're training."
However, the tranquility of Katsidis' camp, where he was training to challenge lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET), was suddenly shattered.
Katsidis, who holds an interim title and had looked forward to facing Marquez in a mandatory fight for some time, was out for a run when Smith received a call from Katsidis' mother.
She had bad news. Katsidis' older brother, Stathi Katsidis, had been found dead of a possible drug overdose in his Brisbane home by girlfriend Melissa Jackson, the mother of his 4-year-old son.
The fight was less than six weeks away and Katsidis had lost the man who was not only his brother, but also his best friend. Stathi, who was a star thoroughbred jockey in Australia, had been troubled by past drug problems.
When Katsidis heard the news he was faced with a decision: Break camp and go home to mourn with his family and perhaps call off the fight or stay the course, keep training and go through with the biggest fight of his life.
Katsidis, who comes to the ring wearing Greek gladiator garb, had earned the reputation as a warrior through and through inside the ring. He's never backed down from a tough fight and has thrilled fans for years with his aggressive, never-say-die attitude in the ring.
So it didn't come as a shock when a couple of days after the death of his brother, Katsidis announced that he would go through with the fight, releasing a statement that made it clear he had no intention of pulling out.
"I have lost my closest friend, my inspiration in life, my one and only brother," Katsidis said in his statement. "This is something I could never imagine, but for some reason I feel his life is not a loss. My brother is me! We live our lives through each other. We dedicate our triumphs to one another and share the challenges we face in life. The fight will go on!
"I will do this for Stathi, my family and myself. The moment I walked in for a grueling sparring session after hearing the news of his death earlier that day, my trainer, Brendon Smith, shook my hand and said to me, 'You are about to take the bravest step of your life.' We nodded, smiled and went to work. I worked as I have never done before. He is with me and will be all the way. I am happy about this. I have never experienced anything like I felt that day. Stathi is inside me! We will fight this fight together. I know this is what he wants."
"I instantly thought this fight has to be postponed. It was such a tragedy he would have to pull out," Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya said. "But then something in the back of my mind told me Katsidis is one of those fighters that when he steps inside the ring, he really believes he's a warrior, a fighter who just doesn't give up. I would have understood if he wanted postpone it. It was very exciting that he wanted to go through with it, but that's who Michael Katsidis is. He believes his brother will be in his corner and taking care of him."
Marquez (51-5-1, 37 KOs) said if he was in Katsidis' shoes, he would also fight.
"It would be very painful, but I would need to fight," said Marquez, whose younger brother is former bantamweight and junior featherweight champ Rafael Marquez. "If something happened with my family or brother I would do the same thing Michael Katsidis did and fight."
Since that statement, Katsidis (27-2, 22 KOs) understandably has refused to discuss his brother's death or anything related to it in the few interviews he has given.
"Emotions will be running as high as they can be," De La Hoya said. "It's going to be very interesting to see what emotions he will take up to the ring."
De La Hoya knows how Katsidis feels. He lost his mother to cancer before his storied run to a 1992 Olympic gold medal, which he dedicated to her.
"Michael really believes that his brother will be with him," De La Hoya said. "I remember when my mother passed and I went to the gym for the first time and I laced up the gloves for sparring and I thought I was going to kill a guy, that's how angry I was and my emotions were so strong. I could have sparred 50 rounds and knocked everyone out. That's how intense it was.
"It all boils down to how he feels when he makes that first step on the canvas and the emotions are racing through his mind."
Katsidis asked Golden Boy Promotions publicity director Monica Sears to make sure reporters did not ask him about his brother. Those who did would suddenly find their interview over.
"My first thought was when he announced he would go through with the fight was that he will come in even stronger and that much more motivated to win this fight for his brother," De La Hoya said. "I thought to myself, Marquez is going to be in a very difficult fight, no doubt about it. Then you think about the situation with [middleweight prospect] Daniel Jacobs [in July], where his grandmother passed away and it was a distraction for him and he got knocked out. So it all depends on Saturday night when you step inside the ring and all the emotions are running through your head and the crowd is cheering and you start remembering your lost loved one. That's when you know how you're going to react."
HBO also has two other fights on the tripleheader. Welterweight titlist Andre Berto (26-0, 20 KOs) -- who is in the running for a fight with Manny Pacquiao, as is Marquez -- makes his fifth defense against Freddy Hernandez (29-1, 20 KOs), and Celestino Caballero (34-2, 23 KOs), the former unified junior featherweight titlist and featherweight contender, moves up in weight to face Jason Litzau (27-2, 21 KOs) at junior lightweight because nobody in his own division would fight him.
When Katsidis appeared at Tuesday's final news conference he made his first public remarks about his brother's death.
"There's been a lot of speculation about me with this fight," he said. "It was a very tough training camp but nothing in this sport is ever easy. We've endured some tough times. I've had to face a lot of demons. I'm ready and I'm here to win. I'm here to talk about the fight. I don't want to talk about anything else. If you want you can ask me after the fight."
While he won't discuss the sensitive subject, you can count on him fighting hard Saturday night.
"We have been in training camp for three months. We're here to fight and we're here to win. This topic I won't speak about and nor will Michael. After, it's something we'll speak about, but at this stage we won't be speaking about it. I do apologize," said Smith, who knew Stathi, a one-time amateur boxer, since he was 10. "We've prepared for this fight and we've come to Las Vegas to pick a fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. But we won't talk about his brother. He put out his statement and the statement says it all."
Katsidis has usually let his fists do the talking anyway in a series of outstanding fights. His fifth-round knockout of Graham Earl in England was one of the most action-packed fights of 2007 and launched him on the world stage as he won an interim title.
Later in 2007, Katsidis engaged in another thrilling slugfest when he outpointed Czar Amonsot in Las Vegas on the Bernard Hopkins-Winky Wright undercard. Then came back-to-back-losses on HBO in two more thrilling fights, a sensational battle with Joel Casamayor and a tight decision against Juan Diaz.
Since those defeats, Katsidis has regrouped and has won four fights in a row, including a knockout of former titlist Jesus Chavez, a decision against 2004 U.S. Olympian Vicente Escobedo and a surprisingly easy third-round knockout of Kevin Mitchell on his British turf in May.
All along one of Katsidis' goals was to be considered No. 1 in the world at lightweight.
"It's been nine years in the making," Smith said. "We set two goals when we commenced his pro career in 2001. The first goal was to win a world title and the other was to be No. 1 in the world and he gets that opportunity this weekend. This is the pinnacle of his career."
Marquez, a three-division champion, will be making his third lightweight title defense. He won the lineal championship by knocking out Casamayor in the ninth round in emphatic fashion two years ago. He picked up a couple of vacant alphabet belts in his next fight, knocking out Diaz in the ninth round in the 2009 fight of the year and outpointed him again in a July rematch. Between the Diaz fights, Marquez jumped up to welterweight for a big payday against unretiring Floyd Mayweather Jr. and lost a lopsided decision.
But after beating Diaz in the rematch, Marquez decided to honor his mandatory against Katsidis rather than move up to junior welterweight to fight titlist Amir Khan.
Although Marquez is a fierce warrior inside the ring too, he certainly is respectful of Katsidis' situation.
"I know what happened with his family and with his brother and I want to say I'm sorry, but I prepared myself very hard for this fight," Marquez said. "I know he has great motivation but I do too. I want to thank Michael Katsidis because he stayed in the fight and didn't pull out of the fight. I really appreciate it. I spent 3½ months training. I train very hard and I don't want to cancel the fight, so I want to thank him."
When Marquez heard about what had happened, he initially thought Katsidis might withdraw.
"Yes, I think maybe he would cancel the fight," Marquez said. "But now everyone will watch two warriors in the ring. We are also human beings. It's very sad to lose a brother, to lose a family member. It's very sad. I felt very sad for what happened, but I know he's going to come to the ring very motivated. This is not a typical situation. He is in a sad situation, but he is a warrior and we are both professionals. I know it's going to be a great fight."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
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