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Corrales is year's top fighter -- so far

8/10/2004

Antonio Tarver may have something to say about this later this year, and
Oscar De La Hoya gets a chance to state his case on Sept. 18, but as
of right now, Diego "Chico" Corrales is the "Fighter of the Year" in the
wake of his second consecutive big win in 2004.

In March, he gained revenge over Joel Casamayor -- who had defeated him
six months earlier -- to capture the WBO junior lightweight belt, and this
past weekend, at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino, he took the WBO
lightweight crown by stopping previously undefeated Acelino Freitas in 10
exciting rounds.

We haven't even hit the primaries in this election year, but as of right
now, Corrales gets this vote.

"I'm on fire," he says. "I can't go wrong and I'm excited. I'm loving this
year; it's been a really, really high year."

Indeed, his come-from-behind win over the Brazilian superstar is his second
win over a fighter that many had in their pound-for-pound rankings. But
Corrales doesn't want to rest on his laurels and wait for 2005.

"The rest of the year, honestly, I would like to work on trying to grab the
rest of these belts," he said, when asked what he'd like to do next. "As
champions, we should be having a round-robin, so I think that'll be something really
important to do."

And right now, the lightweight division is replete with marketable titlists,
from Jose Luis Castillo (WBC), Juan Diaz (WBA) and Julio Diaz (IBF) for
Corrales to battle against. On paper, not a single matchup would be a bad
one between any of these belt-holders.

But before Corrales sent Freitas to the canvas in the 8th, 9th and 10th
rounds, to finish off "Popo" he first had to catch the skittish, herky-jerky
Brazilian, who doesn't so much box, as much as he gets on a pogo-stick and
hops around. Under the direction of Oscar Suarez, Freitas has gone from a
Barry Bonds-type slugger to a Freddy Patek slap hitter. But against Corrales
-- who has always had difficulty with movement -- the style was effective
early on.

"I think it was quite apparent that if you studied Freitas, he was quick, he
was quirky and he's unorthodox early," said Joe Goossen, who is now 2-0 with
Corrales. "The type of energy he puts out, I knew he'd have a tough time
sustaining 12 rounds. I told Diego this was always a second half game -- wear
him down a lil' bit, let him throw a lot of shots and hopefully we'll block
most of them -- Diego took a couple of good, hard right-hands, but took them
real well -- and then Diego got the jab going midway through the fight and
landed it."

But while Freitas did built an early lead on the scorecards, he had spent
the equivalent of 12 rounds of energy in just four or five. And slowly,
surely and steadily, Corrales kept closing the distance. If this was a
marathon, he fell behind by about two or three miles at the halfway point,
only to come on like a Kenyan at the end. But through it all, as he chased a
frenetic Freitas around the ring, he never lost his cool or composure.

"It wasn't frustrating at all," he said afterwards, via cell phone, in the
midst of a post-fight dinner/celebration at Foxwoods. "I was just waiting to
make my move; I was expecting him to move like that. We worked for it."

And while he was losing the early battles, he felt he was winning the war
early on. Corrales may have not been landing the punishing shots that he
landed later in the fight, but he saw things changing early on.

"Midway through the third round, I started seeing that I was catching up
with him; my shots were landing a lil' more and I was getting close with my
right hand," he explained. "I knew things were changing."

And soon, Freitas would face an avalanche of big power punches that had him
on the canvas spitting out his mouthpiece as if he was a Pez dispenser. The
bottom line is that Corrales was not only the better fighter on this night, he was
also the tougher one -- the one willing to walk through fire to regain his
stature he lost after his lopsided loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2001.

It was written all over his hardened face as he walked into the ring
accompanied by loud boos and catcalls from a partisan crowd that sounded as
if they were directly imported from Rio de Janeiro. In Freitas, he wasn't
just facing a fighter, but a whole country.

"Oh, I know that, I like that, it's cool," he said of the crowd's reaction
towards him. "I love that; that is something that really just juices me up.
It's always been an exciting thing for me, I love to see people boo me. That
means when things go my way, it's going to be completely silent. I love it.

"I was on a mission; there was nothing that was going to stand in the way of
me winning that title. I was not going to leave that ring without that belt.
I showed it."

From the abyss of his tumultuous 2000 and 2001, he is now at a personal
apex. Chico's back and he may be here to stay.

"I knew that Diego was a very good fighter even after his loss to Floyd
Mayweather," said Gary Shaw, who promotes Corrales. "I heard the
circumstances on how he lost to Mayweather and everything that went into it. I knew that he was a
real talent and that the deck was stacked against him on that particular
night and that's not taking anything away from Floyd; Floyd's a great
fighter.

"I think that Diego had some rust on him and we got it off. Showtime backed
him on every show that I did and he's only improved, where Freitas was not
fighting top-quality guys -- and remember, Diego went against Casamayor twice. He's a
great champion, he proved it, he was down tonight on the scorecards, he was
patient and when he hits someone he can put 'em to sleep.

"I think right now he's the star between 130 and 140."