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It’s a Familiar Ring to Castillo

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jose Luis Castillo is more than just a regular at his hometown team’s games in the Mexican winter baseball league. The World Boxing Council lightweight champion often takes batting practice with the Mexicali Eagles, and Castillo has been known to sit on the Eagles’ bench--in full uniform, his name stitched to the back.

Still, it’s not as though the fans and opposing teams don’t know who he is and what he does for a living.

“They like me being there,” Castillo said in Spanish with a grin, “just in case a fight breaks out.”

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Many, though, seem to think that Castillo, 28, will need an entire baseball team in his corner Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas when he defends his belt against Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Mayweather (27-0, 20 knockouts), the WBC super-featherweight champion, is a heavy favorite, even though he is fighting at 135 pounds for the first time. Castillo (45-4-1, 41 KOs) is a natural lightweight who will be making his third title defense.

Castillo, a former sparring partner of Mexican boxing icon Julio Cesar Chavez, is taking the slight in stride.

Besides, he has been through this before. Castillo was an unknown when he took the title from Stevie Johnston on June 17, 2000, and with his 12-round majority decision considered a huge upset, he was the decided underdog for the rematch.

Castillo kept the belt with a 12-round draw three months later.

Against Mayweather, though, Castillo will be facing a fighter many have anointed as the sport’s best, pound for pound.

“They used to say that about Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya too,” Castillo said. “But obviously, everybody loses sometime.”

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Top Rank Chairman Bob Arum, whose job is to drum up interest in the fight as its promoter, insists that Castillo is a real threat to Mayweather.

“If it’s the same Mayweather that fought Jesus Chavez, Castillo will win the fight,” Arum said of Mayweather’s ho-hum nine-round TKO

“[Castillo is] very, very strong. He takes a very good punch and he doesn’t lose his determination easy. A lot of these guys get in with Floyd, and he’s so damn fast, that they give up. They give up because they feel they can’t hit him. Castillo is never going to give up. He’ll be in there trying and he throws good body punches also, which you need to slow up a Mayweather.”Castillo has already beaten Mayweather, sort of.

During a break in training at Castillo’s camp in Otomi, where Mexico’s Olympians train high in the mountains of Toluca, someone broke out a video game.

Castillo sat down to play “Knockout Kings 2000” and set up a fight against Mayweather. Castillo knocked out the virtual Mayweather in the second round.

In real life, however, Mayweather, 25, has been downplaying Castillo’s significance, joking that he has trouble remembering and pronouncing his opponent’s trio of names and that he plans on making short work of Castillo.

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“It will be a very difficult fight, very complicated,” Castillo said. “He’s been doing a lot of talking, talking about knocking me out in three rounds. That means he has to come at me. Let’s see if he can do that.

“I know that he’s a great boxer, but he has no power. If he couldn’t knock out guys like Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez, how does he think he can knock me out at 135 [pounds]?”

Castillo’s fighting style of crouching back and unloading to the body is reminiscent of Julio Cesar Chavez’s, which should come as no surprise since they were sparring partners for four years.

Castillo, who turned professional in 1990 and won the Mexican featherweight and super-featherweight titles, said he began thinking he could contend for a world championship when he was helping Chavez train for his second fight with De La Hoya in 1998. Castillo remembers giving his idol all he could handle in the ring.

Castillo is the son of a boxer who once fought for a Mexican national title. His father, also named Jose Luis, enjoyed taking his sons with him to the gym but now has trouble watching his son’s bouts.

Castillo and his wife, Karelia Romero, are steering their sons, Jose Luis, 8, and Christian, 3, away from boxing. “It’s too hard,” he said, “too difficult a life making a career with your fists.”

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One of seven children, Castillo is dedicating Saturday’s fight to his late sister, Maria Mercedes, 15, who died in December of leukemia.

“Floyd keeps saying that he is bringing the lightning,” Castillo said. “Well, I’m bringing the thunder. He should be worried about me. If he beats me, then he can worry about other fights and [unifying] titles.”

And Castillo can go back to batting practice, wearing his Mexicali uniform and sitting on the Eagles’ bench while waiting for bench-clearing brawls.

Just in case.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* Fight Card Who: Jose Luis Castillo, Mexico, vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Grand Rapids, Mich What: World Boxing Council lightweight title bout, 12 rounds When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (HBO). Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas Records: WBC lightweight champion Castillo is 45-4-1 with 41 knockouts. WBC super-featherweight champion Mayweather is 27-0 with 20 knockouts

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