Diaz relies on character
Juan Diaz faces the media the week of the biggest fight of his career, Saturday's showdown with lightweight champ Juan Manuel Marquez. Since turning pro at age 17, Diaz has exhibited the character to meet every challenge boxing has thrown his way. Photo / Tom Hogan
Juan Manuel Marquez is considered one of the three best fighters in the world, pound for pound. Juan Diaz is not.
Marquez has fought the likes of Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao and given the future first-ballot hall of famers all they could handle. Diaz has not.
Odds makers favore Marquez to defend his RING world lightweight title against Diaz this Saturday, and few can argue against the chalk.
And yet, nobody really feels comfortable counting Diaz out of the HBO-televised bout from Houston.
Why is that?
Is it the age factor?
At 25, Diaz is 10 years younger than the champ. But we know that age alone isn’t a reason to pick Diaz to win.
The last time the young man fought a veteran as experienced, tough and skilled as Marquez – Nate Campbell, who was also 10 years older than Diaz – he lost for the first and only time in his career.
Could it just be a matter of style?
Marquez is arguably the best technician and counter puncher in the sport, but boxers need time and distance to operate effectively. Diaz’s constant pressure and high punch output won’t allow for much time or breathing space. That’s part of it, but we know the “styles make fights” argument goes both ways.
Marquez’s skill and grit were enough to contain the explosive speed and power of Pacquiao. Shouldn’t he be able to handle the frenetic style of Diaz, who has a tendency to slap with his punches and only possesses 17 knockouts among his 34 victories?
The real reason late betting money is coming in on the underdog and diehard Marquez fans are feeling progressively nervous as Saturday’s showdown approaches has more to do with Diaz’s intangible attributes than his age or fighting style.
You can boil it all down to one word: character.
Diaz has it.
Hardcore fight fans know this because they’ve literally watched the Houston native grow up in the ring over the past eight years.
We watched him breakdown emotionally after struggling to a split-decision victory over tough journeyman Ubaldo Hernandez in 2001 even though the 18-year-old novice got up from a knockdown and acquitted himself like a seasoned professional.
We watched him cut his prize fighting teeth out-hustling crafty fringe contenders and rugged awkward spoilers like Eleazar Contreras Jr. and Francisco Lorenzo as he developed from prospect to contender.
We watched him upset the odds when he dominated hard-punching veteran Lakva Sim to win his first major title at the age of 20.
We watched him defend that title against formidable opponents like then-undefeated Jose Cotto by adding a jab and lateral movement to his relentless style.
We watched him unify his WBA belt with the WBO and IBF titles by wearing down talented and more experienced beltholders Acelino Freitas and Julio Diaz.
We watched him lose all three titles, as well as his brief elite status, when he was outhustled, out-gutted and out-smarted by perennial contender Nate Campbell.
We watched him rebound with an impressive display of skill and activity against Michael Katsidis in his most recent bout.
We know that Diaz is the kind of fighter – and person – to overcome the odds.
The full-time college student who volunteers his time to civic and social causes while dedicating himself to the almost unbearable physical grind of being a professional boxer is the definition of an overachiever.
Diaz wasn’t born with phenomenal athletic ability, great size, brute strength or punching power, but he more than makes up for it with his work ethic in the gym and in the ring.
Veteran manager Shelly Finkel, who will be in Houston to watch his fighter Rocky Juarez challenge WBA featherweight titleholder Chris John in the co-featured bout of the card, is one of the many boxing insiders who likes Diaz’s chances Saturday.
“If I’ve learned one thing in all my years in boxing is that for a fighter to be successful he has to have character,” said Finkel, who advised Diaz during the first half of the lightweight’s pro career. “A boxer is going to get hit. He’s going to be hurt. He’s going to get cut. No matter how talented he may be, he’s going to experience adversity at some point. If he has character, he’ll get through it, and he’ll learn from it and get better because of it.”
That’s Diaz. Against Campbell he ran face-first into a brick wall that not only matched his punch output, but threw the harder and more accurate shots on the inside. After an evenly fought first four rounds Diaz was cut in the fifth and from that point on Campbell gradually took over the bout. The punishment Campbell dished out was severe enough to merit a mercy stoppage, but Diaz willingly persevered to the final bell even though he knew he would lose for the first time as a professional.
Somewhere in the back of the college student’s mind, he was taking notes and vowing to himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes if he ever found himself in a similar situation.
“I learned from that fight,” Diaz said during a recent media conference call. “I let my own promoter, Don King, influence the way I was thinking. I was worried about contract issues and promotional issues (going into that fight); things that were not my job.
“My job is to fight. I learned that no matter what the circumstances are, I have to stay focused on the fight and listen to my corner because they are the ones who are going to lead me to victory. That night, I didn’t listen to my corner. It wasn’t working to fight him on the inside because on that night (Campbell) was better at that. I needed to change what I was doing but I didn’t.”
Rest assured if Diaz finds that one approach isn’t working against Marquez, he’ll switch to plan B. “The Baby Bull” is known for his pressure fighting and body attack, but he has an educated jab, underrated footwork and boxing ability.
In Diaz’s last fight, a split decision over Katsidis, it was his skill as much as his will that overcame the ultra-rugged Australian contender.
Marquez acknowledged his foe’s ring intelligence on a recent conference call.
“He’s a very smart fighter,” Marquez said.
When a writer from a Mexican publication tried to make a joke of Diaz’s college enrollment by asking if Marquez planned to “take him to school”, the 35-year-old veteran remained serious and gave the young fighter his due respect.
“I’m going to have to use all of my skill, intelligence, and experience from all these years of boxing to beat (Diaz),” he said.
When another reporter asked Marquez’s longtime coach Nacho Beristain to compare Diaz’s style with two of Marquez’s recent foes, Pacquiao and former lightweight champ Joel Casamayor, the respected trainer said:
“It’s probably the most difficult style we’ve ever faced. Diaz is a very strong fighter, he fights three minutes of every round. If he could fight during the breaks, he would. It’s going to be a very violent fight.”
Many of Marquez and Diaz’s peers in the lightweight division agree that the two will put on a hell of a fight Saturday, and a slight majority believe the younger man will prevail.
Former titleholders Carlos Hernandez and Julio Diaz see a nip-and-tuck battle, but favor Diaz.
“He’s going to set a pace that will eventually wear down Marquez,” said Hernandez, a 38-year-old veteran who fought much like Diaz does during his prime.
“I think Marquez is the better boxer, but Diaz will probably win it because he’ll overwhelm him with volume punching,” said Diaz, who lost a ninth-round TKO to the Baby Bull in 2007. “He’ll land three punches to every one that Marquez lands, and he’ll be able to take whatever Juan Manuel dishes out. Diaz is a durable kid.”
Two-division titleholder Jesus Chavez and undefeated contender Edwin Valero are undecided.
“It’s a very even fight,” said Valero. “I don’t see either man having an advantage.”
Chavez, 36, shares the experience Marquez brings to the table but identifies with the aggressiveness that is Diaz’s trademark.
“They both have strengths that make it an even match,” Chavez said. “Juan Diaz lacks the craftiness that Marquez has. Marquez lacks the go-get-’em attitude that the Baby Bull has. It’s an interesting fight based on styles.”
Based on styles, Joel Casamayor thinks it’s an easy fight – for Marquez.
“Marquez is a brilliant boxer,” said Casamayor, who suffered an 11th round knockout to Marquez last September, “he’ll control Diaz from the outside the whole fight.”
Diaz wouldn’t blame Casamayor one bit for his confidence in Marquez. He believes the Mexico City master boxer is special for the same reason fans, insiders and fighters think Diaz can pull off the upset: character.
Diaz credits Marquez’s longevity to it.
“To be this good at his age, it says something about him as a person,” Diaz said during the conference call. “It says something about his character; that he’s lived a good, clean life.”
Because of this Diaz knows he can’t rely entirely on his youth and style.
“I know when I step into the ring I have to be real smart in there,” he said. “Marquez is a very smart fighter. If I let him fight his fight, he will beat me. I have to fight my fight and not let him fight his fight.
“I know he’s a great counter puncher, but he’s going to have to make sure that he can keep up with me. I’m going to throw three or four punches and he’s going to counter, but then I’m going to counter right back.”
Diaz, who is scheduled to graduate from college in May, considers Marquez his final exam in boxing. Saturday is a test he believes he’s ready for.
“I’m still a student, but the student will become the teacher with this fight,” he said. “It’s my time to shine.”
Homepage photo of Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis by Tom Hogan
Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]