Juan Diaz (right) throws a right to Juan Manuel Marquez in the third round of their lightweight championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 31, 2010, in Las Vegas. Marquez retained his RING, WBA and WBO belts with a unanimous decision over Diaz, who stepped away from boxing for two years after the fight.
After a tough two-year stretch that saw him suffer losses in three out of four bouts, former unified lightweight titleholder Juan Diaz took a break from boxing in 2010 following a unanimous decision rematch loss to Juan Manuel Marquez.
A return to the ring the following year was nothing more than a false start as Diaz pulled out of a proposed ESPN2 fight, announcing his retirement from the ring instead.
Diaz, who turned 30 just a few weeks ago, fights on Saturday on the untelevised undercard of the much-anticipated junior welterweight title clash between Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov. His opponent is the unheralded Juan Santiago.
The most important thing to note about the fight is that it begins a six-fight, 18-month deal with Top Rank. The other important thing is that the fire is back in the Houston native’s belly.
Diaz recalled the exact moment more than two years ago when he realized he needed a break.
“After the Marquez fight, I went a whole year without fighting in 2010,” Diaz told RingTV.com. “I came back in 2011 (and) that ESPN show was going to happen. I started training for that fight. One morning, my alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. in the morning for my strength and conditioning, and I pushed snooze. Second time it went off, I pushed snooze again. The third time, I just turned it off.
“I called my trainer Brian and told him, ‘Brian, I’ll call you later, I’m not going to make it today.’ I didn’t show up for about a day or two and then I called a meeting with my trainers. I took then to dinner and told them, ‘Guys, it’s not in me no more. I’m done.’ That’s when I decided to stop.”
Diaz returned earlier this year, content to answer the snooze button he had applied to his ring career. He tested the waters as a promotional free agent, first with Golden Boy Promotions back in April and later Top Rank in August. After some deliberation, Diaz ruled that Top Rank was the better fit over his former promoter.
“Top Rank decided to give me that fight in August in Laredo, Texas, so I took that fight and thereafter that fight we started talking, negotiating a bit more,” said Diaz.
“They really want to see me as the world champion; they want to work with me, take it easy with me and not push me too hard. They want me to feel comfortable, and that made me real happy, so that’s why I chose to sign with Top Rank.”
Diaz felt that when speaking with Golden Boy, they were more concerned about putting him in tough right from the outset.
“Right after when I fought Pipino Cuevas Jr., they wanted to put me in with a top ten contender, which I didn’t feel I was ready for. That is why it took so long for me to get another fight; I was trying to work with Golden Boy because I already know them, I know the people, I know how they operate, how they work.
“So, I wanted to give them a chance. But I didn’t see any changes in what they were trying to do with me so I started talking to Top Rank.”
Golden Boy is currently backing a different 135-pounder from Texas, undefeated phenom Omar Figueroa. Diaz, who was a huge draw in Houston at his peak, thought that it was pretty clear from the beginning that in the back of their minds they felt that he could serve as a great torch passer to Figueroa.
“I believe Golden Boy was trying to use me as a stepping stone for Figueroa,” he said. “All the stacks were going to be against me in that fight if we were to fight, so I knew that wasn’t a good position to put myself in.”
That isn’t to say Diaz wouldn’t have been interested in a fight with Figueroa. The only issue was that he wanted a little bit more time to work off the rust so that he was fully prepared.
“I believe that if Golden Boy would have gave me another tuneup fight in August, I’m ready to fight Figueroa after this fight, at the beginning of the year,” said Diaz.
“If they would’ve said the plan was for me to feel comfortable in my comeback, then I don’t have a problem with that fight. I see a lot of positives and a lot of negatives in Figueroa.”
In the 32 months that Diaz wasn’t an active fighter, he made some solid moves as a businessman. He started a sports management company and even branded his name on his own coffee, the aptly titled “Baby Bull Coffee,” as well as getting involved in the trucking business. Diaz said the excitement of shaking hands on a well-negotiated business deal just didn’t carry the same buzz that accompanied being in the ring.
“That just wasn’t cutting it for me,” said Diaz of the life of a businessman.
“It wasn’t as exciting as being in the ring and fighting one-on-one with another fighter and knowing that you’re better than him. So, eventually I got tired of that and said I’m still young enough, it’s time to get back in the ring.”
Diaz’s fight with Santiago on Saturday will be at a contract weight of 136 pounds. Though he took a lot of time away from boxing, Diaz said he has no problem making the 135-pound limit where he was once the unquestionably number one fighter in the division.
“I can still make it very comfortable,” said Diaz.
“I want to win another title at the lightweight division. When I left the sport, I wasn’t champion. Something in me tells me that at one point I was undisputed, I want to be champion again, and then move up.”
Top Rank works with a number of 135 pounders that are in the title picture. One such name is Mexican tactician Miguel Vazquez, who has put viewers to sleep in two major TV appearances, on HBO and HBO pay-per-view, respectfully.
“He’s a boring fighter, I’m just going to be honest with you,” said Diaz of Vazquez’s style.
“He’s one of those guys that isn’t really a crowd pleaser. But it’s okay. In the end, everybody does it for the money, I know. But that’s not my main concern here.
“My number one priority is to make a statement in my comeback. First is to become a world champion in the lightweight division. Whoever it may be at the time, I know the fight might not be considered that lucrative, but I will be considered a champion. I will have a little more prestige being a champion and moving up to 140.”
At 140 pounds is where Diaz will have the opportunity to participate in some big fights if things go his way. Saturday’s fight between Alvarado and Provodnikov could produce a quality opponent for Diaz. To Diaz’s credit, he was in a lot of action fights during his sunnier days. Either one of those guys would produce a great fight against the style Diaz employs.
It’s that fighting style that has Diaz promising he won’t be fighting into his late 30s.
“I will not go past 35 years old,” said Diaz rather emphatically.
“I’m the type of fighter that puts a lot of pressure but that also gets hit a lot. So, I want to make sure I’m there for my kids in the future and that I’m able to communicate properly to my family members and my loved ones. I don’t want to stay in the game too long.”
That isn’t to say that Diaz launched into his comeback with second thoughts.
“I’m very excited to be back but I’m also carefully looking at each fight, at each training camp, making sure that I feel good. I’m the type of guy that’s a realist. If I realize I shouldn’t be in the sport, I’m not going do it. I’m doing it because I love it, I have the passion right now; I have the energy. I feel that I can still compete at the championship level. But the minute that I don’t feel that way, that’s the minute I’m going to give it up.”
Based on his earlier fights this year, Diaz shouldn’t struggle to feel like a championship fighter against the opponent that will be in front of him on Saturday. It’s the fights that loom in 2014 that could promise to be both exciting for the boxing community and worrisome for Diaz’s team.
Either way, Diaz will approach it the way he’s fought, always coming forward.
Photos / Ethan Miller-Getty images, Al Bello-Getty Images
Mark E. Ortega is a contributing writer to RingTV.com as well as a regular writer of a boxing column for the Northern California tri-weekly newspaper, the Martinez News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]or followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarkEOrtega.