December 6, 1968: Lionel Rose SD15 Chucho Castillo

Sometimes a fight isn't just a fight. And way back in 1968, when the first indigenous Australian world champion Lionel Rose met Mexican battler Chucho Castillo at The Forum in Inglewood, the post-fight melee overshadowed almost everything about the fight itself.

Only a small percentage of fighters in more than a century have been able to wrest actual control of their destinies from promoters, managers, advisers and filthier. It’s largely because boxing is easily one of the most unforgiving and predatory sports conceivable. For fighters stuck in the role of a pawn, a career guided by someone competent and compassionate is the only thing to hope for. A wholehearted plundering of body and soul well beyond financial ruin is always possible, if not likely.

Nevertheless boxing itself is both as weapon and shield, devil and savior. The sport has long been a vehicle — a medium to showcase the most breathtaking and inspirational highs of humanity, and the grays of inhumanity.

“Dempsey and Firpo,” the incredible painting by George Bellows depicting the 1923 brawl between heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and Luis Ángel Firpo at the Polo Grounds in New York City

The ignivomous reaction from the crowd who witnessed Lionel Rose defend his bantamweight title against Jesus “Chucho” Castillo suffocated any possible appreciation of their hard-fought bout on December 6, 1968. All at once, the everything of boxing was laid bare, glimmering bright before feeling the pressure of a sport that often struggles to support its own gravity.

Born and raised in Jackson’s Track, a rural area outside of the small town of Warragul in the Australian state of Victoria, Rose was the eldest of nine children in an indigenous family that generally lived on a minimum. His father Roy, a tent show fighter, encouraged Rose to learn how to box, though usually with makeshift equipment and also at tent shows. Roy died before Rose captured the Australian amateur flyweight title at 15-years-old. At 16, Rose turned professional when he failed to be selected for Australia’s Olympic team.

Through three years as a professional, Rose constructed a record of 27-2  with 8 knockouts, winning the Australian bantamweight belt. He had officially defended it once when he got a call that Jesús Pimentel rejected an offer from bantamweight champion Masahiko “Fighting” Harada. Rose, the 6th ranked challenger for Harada’s WBA strap, was apparently up next.

Lionel Rose, Australia’s first indigenous world champion

In February of 1968, Rose took the fight to Harada in a number of rounds at Budokan in Tokyo, aggressively counter-punching a charging Harada and outmaneuvering him. Rose seized the bantamweight title by decision in front of about 10,000 Japanese fans, becoming the first Aborigine to win a world title.

After a showcase non-title win in Australia against Italian Tommaso Galli, Rose defended his title, albeit just barely, against Takao Sakurai in July of 1968. A defensive and awkward fellow, Sakurai surprisingly put Rose down with a southpaw left hand in round 2. But after that Rose went on the offensive, often missing, but making the fight much of the way. When Rose took a majority decision, officials suggested that Sakurai’s clinching inside tilted the verdict toward Rose.

A Mexican fighter named “Chucho” Castillo caught the attention of Rose’s manager Jack Rennie by not only seizing the number one ranking at bantamweight, but also calling out Rose whenever his mouth found a microphone. Jesús Castillo was born in Nuevo Valle de Moreno, outside of León, Guanajuato, México. In his teens Castillo moved to Mexico City and began learning how to box, eventually catching the attention of ESTO — a Mexican sports publication that Castillo credited with turning him into a boxing fan — in 1961.

Jesús “Chucho” Castillo skips rope in training

A local amateur tournament in Colonia Guerrero, a neighborhood in Mexico City, pitted Castillo against fellow bantamweight and future fringe contender Raul Vega. ESTO sent a reporter and photographer to interview Castillo and cover the fight, which reportedly brought down the roof. About one year later, Castillo turned professional, losing a six round decision to a fighter named Carlos Navarrete, who tabbed easily the biggest win of his career. A streak of 14 wins in a row was interrupted by two straight losses inside the distance before 1964 had concluded, and from there, seas didn’t calm for a while.

Castillo righted the ship with five straight wins, including one over contender Edmundo Esparza, who defeated an unbeaten Fighting Harada a few years earlier. But then he dropped four of his next six, all by stoppage to experienced foes with winning records, all within six rounds.

Castillo’s primary issue was a tendency to sacrifice the finer points of the sport for blunt force trauma — the pugilistic version of fitting a square peg in a round hole. While nearly universally respected, it prevented Castillo from getting more out of his ability as he often over-exerted himself early in fights. Two of the losses were to Guillermo Tellez.

In need of confidence and a quality win, Castillo halted Esparza again, this time in three rounds. Hammering out win after win, he captured the Mexican bantamweight title from durable contender José Medel in April of 1967. Seven more wins carried with them a bounty of bonuses: revenge over Tellez in a defense of his belt, double revenge over old conqueror Miguel Castro, and a defeat of former title challenger Bernardo Caraballo, all within the distance.

Chucho Castillo swings a left uppercut at Rubén Olivares in one of their three meetings at The Forum (Credit: Theo Ehret)

Somewhere along the way it became clear Castillo was a significant attraction, drawing thousands of spectators to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. Additionally Castillo made his Los Angeles debut in June of 1968, bludgeoning the usually-sprightly and dangerous Jesús Pimentel with ease at the Inglewood Forum, a new venue that soon became part of West Coast boxing mythology.

After the Pimentel showing Castillo voiced his desire to face newly-crowned champion Lionel Rose, claiming he’d be ready for the bout in days and suggesting Rose wasn’t interested in fighting him. But Rose’s manager Jack Rennie responded, “Castillo is the best bantamweight I’ve seen — outside of Rose. However, if Mr. Parnassus can show us a lot of that American green stuff, I think we can make the match.”

Castillo just missed out on being named “Fighter of the Month” by the World Boxing Association in June of 1968 for the win against Pimentel. Instead Bob Foster understandably received the honor for his brutal knockout of Dick Tiger.

Bob Foster obliterates Dick Tiger with a left hook in 1968

Rose and Castillo were matched against different foes on the same card in August of 1968, Rose against Medel, and Castillo against Scottish battler Evan Armstrong, who was coming off a decision loss to Medel. Rose had difficulty in earning his decision win; he knocked Medel down in the 4th round before losing touch and getting decked himself later in the fight. Castillo burned through Armstrong, though, wasting little time before sending his man to the canvas in round 1 and ending the bout in round 2.

Rubén Olivares, a brisk draw at The Forum in its early years, boosted the relevance of the card by stopping Bernabe Fernandez in the main event.

Mexico City native Rubén Olivares talks to reporters

Rennie initially intended to make a few bucks in the U.S. before staging Rose’s first title defense in Australia, but the money was too good to pass up. Offers flew in, initially reported as $40,000, then to $50,000. But the $75,000 that enticed Rose to L.A. from his usual haunts in Melbourne and Sydney was reported as being the largest ever for a bantamweight at the time. Castillo’s guarantee of $20,000 wasn’t exactly chump change either.

George Parnassus, the former matchmaker for the Olympic Auditorium dubbed the “Golden Greek,” controlled much of the promotion for The Forum, and announced the December bout in September.

Los Angeles promoter George Parnassus in 1958 with two fighters (in the process of being edited out of the photo)

Rose opened up a slight favorite. But perhaps fearing some kind of disadvantage away from home Rennie met with California officials in an attempt to waive a California rule that if a fighter were ahead in a fight after one round then cut by an accidental headbutt, the fighter with the cut would win, while if the fighter with the cut were behind after one round, the fight would be declared a draw. Rennie was unsuccessful, however, and the rule could not be set aside.

Since rematch clauses were not permitted at the time by the WBA — nor by some state commissions — Rennie told reporters there was a handshake agreement to hold one in Australia, should Castillo win.

In his L.A. training camp Rose worked with sparring partners like “Irish” Frankie Crawford, a local trial horse that went 1-1 with future lightweight champion Mando Ramos but was stuck in a rough patch. Much of this kind of limelight was new to Rose, who found himself the subject of not only admiration, but more curiosity than usual.

Two days before the fight Elvis Presley requested the presence of one Lionel Rose on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor film lot. Elvis, a martial arts fan and karate black belt, wanted to talk shop with Rose, who couldn’t have refused a request from “The King” even if he’d wanted to, on the grounds that his mother was a huge Elvis fan.

Lionel Rose meets Elvis Presley on the MGM film lot in 1968

Rose would later say he was surprised by Elvis’ physical condition and that Elvis was in good shape, “not fat and flabby like later.” The meeting was described in Australian publication The Monthly: “As well as conversation, there was a little light sparring — strictly for the camera — and an autographed US dollar bill for Lionel’s mum back home.”

The day before the bout, when asked whether Rose would be looking to send a message by knocking Castillo down, Rose replied, “I have no fight plan as such. It will develop as the fight develops. I just hope it will be a good fight.” Rennie told the same Associated Press reporters, “Lionel likes ’em to come in. If Castillo comes in, keeps it up, that will be lovely. Lionel has never looked good against guys who keep turning away.”

The Australians should have been careful what they wished for.

Rose, after having struggled to make the bantamweight limit, manned the early rounds, displaying deft footwork and reactionary timing, slipping much of Castillo’s work upstairs and bringing an educated, busy jab into the fray. Castillo struggled to keep up, but he wasn’t without recourse; a stream of body shots found center mass regularly, and though Rose excelled at masking their effect, he later admitted that Castillo’s work downstairs stole his air a few times.

Martin Kane, covering the bout for Sports Illustrated, described part of the action. “By the fourth round it had become a full-fledged fight, and Rose took it on all cards, starting out with three rapid, flashing jabs in a row. Then he blocked Castillo’s hook off the jab and revealed a defense against punches to the head greatly reminiscent of Archie Moore. He would hold his right arm horizontally across his face right below the eyes. It is a defense seldom seen nowadays, although it can be found in pictures of fights from the bare-knuckle days, and it seemed to baffle Chucho.”

Lionel Rose, George Parnassus and Chucho Castillo await their share of turkey ahead of their 1968 bout

In the 4th round, however, a small cut on Rose’s left cheek was opened leading to hard-fought rounds 5 and 6. Castillo continued to press somewhat effectively, but was often just barely behind with his timing. In the 6th, Rose caught Castillo with a few snapping punches but went to the canvas on the momentum of a missed punch and a right upstairs when he tried to follow up. Castillo just couldn’t find a way to capitalize and sustain success.

Rounds 7 and 8 had Rose slowing the pace down just enough to win control in shifts, again closing rounds strong by pivoting out of the corners and throwing combinations. Castillo darted forth with lead left hooks from time to time, surprising Rose and serving a reminder that he was still a serious threat, and he could make it ugly quickly. The 9th round saw Rose maneuvering well still, his jab-right hand combinations swelling Castillo’s left eye,  refusing to engage enough to allow Castillo a sincere loophole.

The 10th round breathed new life into a fight that was slowing due to Castillo’s inability to turn a corner. A series of left hooks and sharp right hands in the second minute of the round seemed to slow Rose considerably, and with about 50 seconds remaining Castillo disguised a right hand behind a jab that caught Rose flush and shifted his legs out from under him, sending him down and the pro-Castillo crowd into a frenzy. Rose fought his way out of the round more than he survived it, but the knockdown was pivotal.

Chucho Castillo knocks Lionel Rose down in the 10th round of their 1968 bout

If nothing else, the knockdown gave Castillo fans a moral argument that their fighter should win. No matter what happened in the final five rounds, Castillo built his case with a combination and a knockdown.

The ratio of Rose’s sharp countering and jabbing to Castillo’s rushing salvos shrunk, with Rose slowing down to a rate that was more manageable for Castillo, who also slowed and was also swelling near his right eye. Rounds 11 and 12 were challenging for Rose, who couldn’t keep Castillo away like earlier in the fight, even if he also had limited success chucking hard while trying to create space. The 13th round was an extension of the previous two, except more skewed toward the challenger, who amplified the attack on a likely-fading Rose. As he had in round 10, Rose tried to use his offense to push Castillo back in the 14th, but he was expending more energy than it was worth, as Castillo was still inflicting more damage.

A climactic 15th round consisted of Castillo dipping sideways and leaping in with left hooks, sailing forward with overhand rights, and slamming straight into uppercut counters and desperate defensive strikes from Rose. Castillo still had to give chase at times, but he was landing effectively here and there, despite Rose’s grasps at a jab’s worth of control. The indecipherable crowd noise propped up the wild swings that closed out the contest.

The official AP scorecard had it 8-5-2 for Castillo, while a poll of ringside media resulted in a relatively even split. The judges turned in close scores of 7 round to 6 twice for Rose, and 9-7 Castillo were announced. Then all hell broke loose.

After the decision was announced fans began hurling objects like bottles, cans and trash into the ring, followed by more serious projectiles like the Forum’s wooden folding chairs. As a pile of chairs formed near the ring other troublemakers set anywhere from 10 to 20 fires around the venue. A force of roughly 50 police personnel swelled to 200 before the outburst could be contained, but oddly no arrests were reported. About 20 spectators and four police officers were treated for injuries at a nearby hospital.

One of the piles of chairs made by fans in the riot after Lionel Rose’s decision win over Chucho Castillo at The Forum

Referee Dick Young, the only official who scored the bout for Castillo, caught a bottle behind the right ear, incurring a bad gash that required medical attention. Even Rennie couldn’t escape the incoming fire, slipping and cutting his elbow while executing a dodge.

The normally soft-spoken Rose was furious Rennie had been injured, and he delivered a regrettable, profane assault to Australian press on hand to cover the bout. His comments can be summed up by his outburst, “A man has to be mad to step into the ring against a Mexican in this place!”

Rick Farris, former pro fighter based out of Burbank and current fight historian, described attending the bout as a teenager and finding trainer Canto Robledo injured in one of the Forum exits. “[Ruben] Navarro said he knew a shortcut [out of the Forum] so Al [Boursse] and I followed Ruben back down to the floor and slipped out through the dressing room area. As we headed up the ramp to the parking lot we saw Canto Robledo, an old trainer who was totally blind. Robledo had been separated from his guide and had been hit with several bottles and was bleeding. Navarro took Canto by the arm and led him away from the trouble. Outside, cars were being tipped over and the riot squad was arriving just as we pulled out of the parking lot. All over a close decision.”

Damage from the riots was estimated at about $50,000, or roughly two-thirds of Rose’s purse. Parnassus reportedly gave a tearful resignation, saying he no longer wanted to be involved with boxing — a decision he changed his mind about one day later.

As is often the case with the controversies, which survive like remora off the crumbs a blood sport like boxing provides, the crimson mess left in the wake consumed the fight itself, etching itself into the history books over what was actually a worthwhile affair. Some attempted to draw attention to the storied pugilism in it all, though.

An AP report the next day said, “Boxing writers for Mexico City’s 12 morning newspapers generally agreed yesterday that Australian Lionel Rose merited his victory over Mexican challenger Chucho Castillo in their world bantamweight title fight Friday night. And they were unanimous in deploring the riot which caused damage to the Los Angeles Forum after the announcement of a split decision in favor of the Australian world champion. Only one of the writers said the decision was wrong, and that Castillo should have won. The others either voted for a draw or agreed Castillo just couldn’t handle Rose.”

Lionel Rose jabs at Chucho Castillo at The Forum in 1968 (Credit: Art Rogers)

A news conference was held in the office of Parnassus, in the Alexandria Hotel, two days after the fight. When asked about the rioting, Castillo said, “I think the public is the judge in fights and the fans were expressing their judgment of the fight.” But when reporters asked Rose about a potentially controversial decision, Rose responded, “I’ll cry all the way to the bank.”

Rennie said, “Our fight plan was to use all the corners of the ring and come back later in the fight. I think we did this. Lionel’s days as a bantamweight are numbered. If he wants to fight as a bantam for much longer he may have to cut off a leg.”

Rose made a close defense of the title over Alan Rudkin, then in typical fashion pulled out a close non-title decision. Olivares stole the title from Lionel by terrible knockout in August of 1969, and Rose’s record from then to his retirement in 1976 was 8-8, never again fighting at bantamweight. Rose was honored at various times throughout his life, until his passing in May 2011.

Castillo went on to go 1-2 in a three-fight rivalry with Olivares, with the first bout breaking a record for ticket sales on an indoor event in California. Thereafter he fought 12 times, with a record of 5-7, his brief bantamweight reign his magnum opus.

After retiring in 1975, he collected money on the real estate he’d bought in previous years and ran a clothing store. In 2013, Castillo passed away due to complications during surgery.

That these two men brought out the best in each other, even on just a basic stylistic level, was overshadowed by ugliness. On some far-away level, the interesting exchange of fistic ideas between Rose and Castillo was better and classier than some extreme fans would have the world believe.

And it didn’t stop destiny anyway.

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