LOS ANGELES – Julio Diaz, John Molina and Jerry Belmontes know why they were selected to face Keith Thurman, Lucas Matthysse and Omar Figueroa Jr. on this Saturday’s Golden Boy Promotions tripleheader in Carson, Calif.
They were chosen to test and push the up-and-coming action fighters, but ultimately lose to the potential “star” fighters. Hardcore fans call them “B-sides.” They’re credible opponents, but apart from helping to make for entertaining fights for the Showtime audience and the fans at StubHub Center, they’re supposed to make the “A-sides” look good.
Diaz, Molina and Belmontes know how the boxing world views them, but they don’t see it that way. All three B-sides have a habit of bouncing back from setbacks, and all three have stepped on A-sides who viewed them as stepping stones in past bouts.
So the underdogs enter their fights with an unwavering self-belief.
“This is a big opportunity for me,” Diaz (40-9-1, 29 knockouts) said of his scheduled 12-round welterweight bout against undefeated contender Keith Thurman, which headlines the Showtime Championship Boxing telecast.
“Thurman is a very dangerous opponent but I want to let the boxing world know that I’ve still got it and I want to get back to the top. Beating Thurman will do that. Fighting for a world title wouldn’t excite me as much as fighting Thurman because he’s a feared man. I have to take the risk.”
Diaz, a former two-time IBF lightweight titleholder, isn’t afraid to roll the dice against a formidable foe such as Thurman, who has scored 20 knockouts in 22 consecutive victories and has looked like a complete fighter in his recent bouts.
The 34-year-old veteran of 50 pro bouts has lost in every conceivable manner – controversial decision (vs. Angel Manfredy), shocking knockout (vs. Juan “Pollo” Valenzuela, Rolando Reyes and Kendall Holt), competitive decision (Victor Cayo), late stoppage (Jose Luis Castillo and Juan Diaz) – but he’s always rebounded from adversity.
How does he do it? Many fighters – regardless of how talented or connected they are – lose all confidence after suffering the kind of knockouts Diaz has experienced. Many become disillusioned after being robbed as Diaz was against Manfredy back in 2001.
Diaz – like Molina and Belmontes – credits his career resiliency to his mindset. The lifelong Coachella, Calif. resident never viewed his losses as anything more than a challenge.
“I’ve always felt like a champion, I always feel like a champion, because how you come back from a loss is what defines a champion,” Diaz said at a media workout at the West Side Boxing Club on Wednesday. “Whenever I’ve lost, I’ve come back better. When I lost my title, I had to go get another one.
“I was knocked out by Kendall Holt in 2011 but I’m still here and I’m in the main event on Saturday. This will be my third main event in a row.”
Those previous two main event bouts were decision losses to current IBF welterweight titleholder Shawn Porter and to former 140-pound beltholder Amir Khan. Prior to those bouts, which took place last September and last April, Diaz held Porter to a 10-round draw in December of 2012 that many observers believe he deserved to win.
The draw earned Diaz a shot at Khan, who he dropped, rocked and nearly outpointed in the 2004Olympic silver medalist’s native England. It looks even more impressive given Porter’s last two fights – a title-winning decision over Devon Alexander and brutal fourth-round stoppage of respected veteran Paulie Malignaggi.
“I thought I won the first fight with Porter,” Diaz said. “I thought I beat Khan, a very talented, fast and strong boxer. This ‘old’ fighter kept up with him, knocked him down and hurt him late in the fight. What does that say about me?
“I may have lost the second fight with Porter but I was still competitive. That’s why I’m getting this shot against Thurman. It’s not always about winning. Sometimes you win but you really lose because of the way you won. I lost two fights in a row but I’m still relevant because of the way I lost.
“Winning isn’t everything. Porter didn’t win his first fight with me but that fight helped him grow as a fighter. It made him better, and now that he’s won a title and defended it, his confidence is growing. Shawn Porter is going to go far.”
Molina (27-3, 22 KOs), who faces Matthysse in the co-featured bout of Saturday’s card, agrees with Diaz’s view of the dreaded “L” word.
Like Diaz, the 31-year-old puncher from Covina, Calif., has experienced a variety of losses – a one-sided decision to veteran Martin Honorio, a first-round stoppage to then-WBC lightweight titleholder Antonio DeMarco and a majority verdict to spoiler Andrey Klimov – but he bounced back from each setback.
“I’ve never let a loss get me down because they were learning experiences for me,” said Molina, who scored come-from-behind stoppages of then unbeaten talents Henry Lundy and Mickey Bey after his losses to Honorio and Klimov. He knocked out fellow puncher Dannie Williams just a few months after his disappointing showing against DeMarco.
“I started boxing late and I only had 22 amateur fights, so I’ve been learning on the job. The DeMarco fight was my first time on the big stage. I needed that.”
Molina says he won’t be caught in the moment with his second shot at the big stage against Matthysse (34-3, 32 KOs), THE RING’s No. 1-rated junior welterweight.
“I feel like I’m here for a reason,” he said. “I feel like I belong with the best, but I have to prove it to the rest of the world.”
Molina will prove himself to a lot of fans if he’s merely competitive with Matthysse, a 31-year-old KO artist from Argentina who is still highly regarded despite coming off a unanimous decision loss to RING champ Danny Garcia last September. Molina says he’s used to being counted out.
“I wasn’t the favorite against Bey or Lundy, either,” he said. “I know they’re not on Matthysse’s level but I still believe in myself. I’ve been in sports my whole life and I learned a long time ago that if you don’t believe you belong, you won’t succeed.”
Belmontes (19-3, 5 KOs), who challenges Figueroa for the WBC lightweight title in the opening bout of the Showtime broadcast, was one of the best junior amateur boxers in the country during the years that Molina was playing baseball and wrestling in middle school and high school.
Belmontes beat Figueroa five times during an amateur career that includes national titles in the Silver Gloves and Under-19 tournaments, as well as a bronze medal at the World Cadet championships, but unlike Molina, the 25-year-old Corpus Christi native admits to having his confidence shaken after he suffered losses in the professional ranks.
Belmontes won his first 17 pro bouts before dropping a 10-round decision to late-sub Eric Hunter in December 2012. The loss prompted Main Events to drop him from their roster just 10 months into their promotional relationship.
“It was really hard on me,” said Belmontes, who was promoted by Top Rank for the first two years of his pro career but dropped by the Las Vegas-based company when he couldn’t deliver a more entertaining fighting style. “When I was dropped by Main Events, it crushed me.”
The crafty boxer’s low spirit may have contributed to the back-to-back decision losses he suffered to fringe contender Andrew Cancio and 2008 Mexican Olympian Francisco Vargas last year.
“I wasn’t training right when I fought them,” he said. “I wasn’t giving 100 percent in training and I wasn’t listening to my corner. I stood in front of those guys with my hands down, fighting their fights.”
The losses to Cancio and Vargas made Belmontes take a hard look in the mirror.
“I thought about hanging up the gloves but I want to be a role model for my kids,” said Belmontes, who has two boys – 4-year-old Gavin and 1-year-old Jerry Jr. “I didn’t want them to look at my amateur trophies and pictures of my pro fights and ask me ‘Why’d you give up so quick, Dad?’
“I didn’t want to be a quitter. I refocused, got back to doing things the way I used to do them, and gave 110 percent in training before my next fight.”
That bout came against unbeaten Australian contender Will Tomlinson, who Belmontes outclassed on the Canelo Alvarez-Alfredo Angulo undercard last month.
“My confidence is way up after the Tomlinson fight and my ability is way up because of it,” said Belmontes, who says Figueroa (22-0-1, 17 KOs), an ultra-aggressive slugger from Weslaco, Texas, is tailor-made for his boxing style.
“Omar fights the same way that he fought in the amateurs. He’s a come-forward fighter with no defense. He loves to get hit. He’s fought like that from day one. The only difference is he’s taller and he has more power.”
Belmontes says punching power isn’t a factor when his mind and spirit are in the right place.
“Tomlinson had a reputation for being a big puncher but it didn’t matter,” he said. “People think I can’t punch because I only have five knockouts but I’ve hurt everybody I’ve fought. I just don’t finish them.
“Omar’s power won’t matter because I’m a lot faster, quicker and smarter than him. He gets frustrated when he can’t land his punches. It’s going to be an easy fight on Saturday. This is the perfect opponent and the perfect opportunity.”
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @dougiefischer