When reaching out to Lenin Castillo, the purpose had been to shine a light on some of the Dominican Republic’s former Olympic representatives, where had they gone? What had become of them? Castillo, outpointed when stepping up to challenge Dmitry Bivol for his WBA light-heavyweight title in Chicago in 2019, had just returned to the ring for the first time in almost two years.  

He fought unbeaten Venezuelan Ronald Gonzalez and he won. But while translating questions and answers, Castillo was handed one of the biggest fights of his career. He’ll now travel to London and square off with former super-middleweight ruler Callum Smith on the undercard of Anthony Joshua versus Oleksandr Usyk, in Tottenham’s glittering new stadium on September 25t. From the shadows to the centre stage, the recently forgotten man had his own genuine shot at redemption.  

“It felt very good to be back, it was very exciting for me. There was a lot of joy and a lot of adrenaline felt to get back into the ring; it was necessary for me to fight again. That fight [against Dmitry Bivol] taught me to train harder. I think I could have won the fight and I will certainly look for that rematch at some point,” Castillo (21-3-1, 16 KOs) told Boxing Social.

Bivol’s own career hasn’t quite caught fire despite his obvious pedigree, but the same could be said for Castillo, now 33 and looking for the quickest route back to the top of boxing’s world rankings. He represented the Dominican Republic back in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, losing his first contest to Olexandr Stretskyy. That dream, while briefly fulfilled, was short-lived. He signed professional papers in the spring of 2012 alongside countrymen Felix Diaz and Argenis Mendez and has flown under the radar of boxing fans ever since. Now, with his massive bout in September finalised and just weeks away, Castillo has the chance to grab headlines he believes are long overdue.  

“It will be the most important victory of my career without a doubt.” Castillo states, barely pausing for contemplation. “He has just moved up to the light-heavyweight division and they already have him [highly ranked], that’s how important this victory will be. This victory would leave me at the gates of the world title of any organisation. I think it will be the biggest event I have ever been to, but nothing will matter inside the ring; it will just be me and him, that’s it. I feel very good, the preparation is going well, the weight is good, and we will arrive in top condition.” 

He continued: “Callum Smith is a great boxer without a doubt, but on that night, I will win the fight and emerge victorious. You can only tell him that I am going to give everything to take that victory and position myself on the road to a world title. That’s all I have to say right now.” 

As talented as Liverpool’s Smith may be, he hasn’t lived the same life as his opponent or had to claw his way up the ladder with smaller promoters. Castillo, now accomplished and capable of performing at the top end of the division, hasn’t always carried that same confidence.

Early life in the country’s capital city presented many instances of bullying, and it was in an attempt to toughen up that his father nudged him towards to the ring: “I am from a neighbourhood called Katanga in Los Mina, Santo Domingo. My parents were always worried, hoping that me and my two brothers were okay and always guiding us on the right path. The problem was when I entered school, the [other kids] always beat me and I cried all the time, so, my father wanted me to learn to defend myself and he took me to the Julito Lopez club, where the teacher Jesús Eduardo Diaz Pujols taught me the art of boxing. After realising how quickly I had learned, I talked to my father so that he would let me practice boxing, to eventually compete. This is how my boxing story began.

“After I had learned just a little bit, I felt confident and no one at school fought with me again. They didn’t know I was boxing either, it’s something strange, people can perceive when you are confident or afraid. No, I didn’t really want to be there at first, but my dad told me that I had to go, and I would obey him until I started to enjoy it. Then they signed me up for baseball and instead of going to that practice, I actually just went back to the boxing gym. That was all I wanted to do.” 

Gilberto Lenin Castillo kept coming back for more. And he has ever since. Technical sessions, sparring, junior and senior competitions, and major tournaments worldwide prepared him for this moment. On September 25, he’ll be the underdog once again, as he was when challenging undefeated, Russian world champion Dmitry Bivol. This time, though, he exudes confidence.

That two-year break from the ring was a stark reminder of his brief childhood interlude to baseball. Boxing prevails. Now, it’s back to the gym and back to the sport that gave him character. Castillo may be well-travelled, but he isn’t done quite yet. And neither is the Dominican Republic: “Many fans think that I am easy prey for him, but the fighters do not think the same. themselves, so they do not give me the opportunities that I deserve. We have many guys [from the Dominican Republic] who come very, very hard and they are world-level prospects. Dominican boxing is growing like never before, I’m sure of it.” 

Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.