I won't be so presumptuous as to call Diego Corrales a friend of mine.
Ours was both a casual relationship and a professional one. I was the writer; he was the fighter. I was the interviewer; he was the subject.
But the Las Vegas boxing community is a small fraternity. When I lived in the desert city, I would bump into him on numerous occasions, more often than was the case with most other boxers: ringside for fights large and small, at boxing gyms, in social settings. Even if we weren't exactly inviting each other out to the movies, we knew each other. In our limited interactions, we got along well.
Corrales was always amenable, always approachable, always generous with his time. Leave a message for him, and he would call right back (not a guarantee with professional athletes, believe me) and willingly talk.
The last one-on-one interview I conducted with him was for a profile on ESPN.com before his rubber match with Joel Casamayor in October 2006. I was there at the weigh-in for that bout, when he tipped the scales 5 pounds over the lightweight limit -- a transgression loaded with irony, given the fact that earlier that year Corrales and promoter Gary Shaw had sued Jose Luis Castillo for doing the same. That caused the cancellation of what would have been the concluding bout of a trilogy.
And I was ringside when Corrales, despite scoring a fifth-round knockdown, dropped a split decision to his Cuban rival.
After that fight, I didn't see, or speak with, Corrales again.
Seven months later, the day before Floyd Mayweather defeated Oscar De La Hoya, I stood outside the media room at the MGM Grand, talking with two friends -- one a fighter, one a manager, both close to Corrales. Conversation turned to our mutual associate, to concern over his well-being.
His career was less at a crossroads than at a standstill. (After his loss to Casamayor, he had stepped up to welterweight and had been dominated by Joshua Clottey, his third straight defeat.) He was separated from his wife, Michelle, who was pregnant with his child.
None of us had heard from him lately; each of us expressed our hope that he was all right.
Three days after that conversation, Corrales was dead, killed instantly when he was flung from the motorcycle he had crashed at high speed into the rear of a car.
I was on the East Coast when it happened. I was fast asleep when my phone rang in the middle of the night. I didn't hear the messages or notice that I had had any calls until I woke up the next morning.
Later that day, as the sun rose in Las Vegas, I picked up the phone and dialed. As I listened to the pain in the voices of his closest friends, I felt that pain, too. As I heard the sobs on the other end of the line, tears ran down my cheeks as well.
I was far from my extended boxing family. When friends and colleagues looked at my crestfallen face and asked me what was wrong, I just reached for the explanation that was the simplest and most easily understood, even though it was not the most precise.
"A friend of mine just died," I told them, and they understood. Or thought they did.
It is an interesting contradiction that, in their dealings with people other than those they are being paid to hurt severely, many professional boxers are extremely polite and usually quite reserved. It is a reality that jars with the violence that they must be prepared to mete out and absorb when the bell rings, and it was all the more acute in the case of Corrales. His popularity among fans was greater than most, not just because he was especially approachable and devoid of airs and graces outside the ring, but also because he went about his business with particular ferocity inside it.
Freakishly tall for the weight divisions in which he fought most of his bouts, he nonetheless refused to use his height to his advantage by boxing outside, choosing instead to stand and fight. And whenever he was knocked down, he almost always clambered back to his feet again, never giving up. He once told trainer Joe Goossen that he would "f---ing kill him" if he ever tried to throw in the towel.
Conversely, because Corrales was so affable and open, because he spoke so honestly and with such a quiet voice, it was hard to comprehend that he was the same man who fought so many inner demons. Those were the demons that led to his imprisonment on assault charges, the demons with which he was seemingly struggling again in the weeks before he met his end.
Personally, I choose to remember him as the willing interviewee, the friendly acquaintance, the troubled but well-meaning young man whom friends of mine knew and loved dearly.
I shall remember him also, as will millions, as a fearless in-ring warrior. Particularly, I will always remember May 7, 2005, when I was privileged to sit ringside as he somehow peeled himself off the canvas in the 10th round against Jose Luis Castillo to come roaring back and win what was the greatest fight I have ever seen and likely ever will.
I wrote that night: "Many fighters boast that their opponents have to kill them to beat them. Corrales means it. Had Castillo beheaded him and thrust a stake through his heart, he still might not have denied him." But I also wrote, "As fantastic a fight as this was, it was 30 minutes of mayhem that made both men's careers, and at the same time, surely shortened them dramatically. Neither man is likely to ever be the same again …"
Indeed, Castillo earned just one more significant victory, and that was a tainted one: A knockout defeat of Corrales in the rematch after he had weighed in over the lightweight limit.
Corrales would not even have that much. His historic win over Castillo would be the last time his hand was raised in triumph in a boxing ring. Then came three defeats inside the ring, an unraveling outside it, and the sudden, shocking end, when he was finally felled by a blow from which even he could not recover.
That end came two years to the day of his greatest triumph, in the shadow of the arena where that triumph had taken place. In the near distance that night, the lights of the Mandalay Bay burned brightly, so near and yet so far away.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.