Emanuel Navarrete expects Christopher Diaz to be tough, but says he’s ready for big fights
Emanuel Navarrete burst on the world boxing scene in December 2018 by scoring an upset unanimous decision victory over Isaac Dogboe to claim the WBO junior featherweight title.
The notion that perhaps Navarrete’s victory was in any way a fluke was erased six months later when they met again in a contractual immediate rematch that Dogboe exercised. In the sequel, Navarrete, throwing punches from all angles, handily retained the title. He dropped Dogboe twice — in the sixth and 12th rounds — before Dogboe’s corner threw in the towel during the final round.
Navarrete had arrived and would soon continue on a fighting spree few world titleholders have pulled off in recent years. Including his rematch with Dogboe, Navarrete would make five defenses in nine months and gain tremendous exposure with two of the bouts coming on cards headlined by heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.
Navarrete was in a great spot: His purses were increasing, he was extremely active, healthy and ripped through all five title challengers by knockout. The problem, however, was that other than beating Dogboe in the rematch, his opponents were virtually unknown: Francisco De Vaca, Juan Miguel Elorde, Francisco Horta and Jeo Santisima. Murderer’s Row they were not.
While Navarrete relished the activity he said he was disappointed he did not get a chance to face a marquee opponent or have a unification fight.
“I was looking to do that at 122. I wanted to unify the division but fighters were not willing to face me,” Navarrete told The Ring this week through a translator. Difficulty continuing to make 122 pounds forced Navarrete to make the move up to featherweight, where he debuted with a knockout win in June soon after boxing cards began to be staged again amid the coronavirus pandemic, and in October, he knocked down then-unbeaten up-and-comer Ruben Villa twice to win a unanimous decision and the vacant WBO featherweight title Shakur Stevenson relinquished to move up to junior lightweight.
Now, Mexico’s Navarrete is set for his first featherweight title defense against the most notable opponent of his career other than Dogboe. He will fight Puerto Rico’s Christopher “Pitufo” Diaz, a former junior lightweight world title challenger, in the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN main event on Saturday (ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET) at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida, a Puerto Rican hotbed on the outskirts of Diaz’s adopted hometown of Orlando.
Navarrete’s goal is to do what he did at junior featherweight, but ideally face better known opposition.
“I loved that I did that at 122 and I’m looking to do the same at 126 — have as many title defenses as possible,” Navarrete said. “I love to be active. And eventually I would like to do the same thing at 130. I’m here to fight the best and I don’t have any time to lose.
“I am looking to unify the division at 126 and hopefully this time around the fighters are more willing to face me.”
Diaz (26-2, 16 KOs), 26, whose losses came by decision to Masayuki Ito for the vacant WBO junior lightweight title in 2018, also in Kissimmee, and by 10-round decision to Stevenson in a 2019 regional featherweight title bout, didn’t hesitate to agree to face Navarrete.
“I’m not playing. I’m fighting for my babies now,” said Diaz, the father of toddler twin girls and an older daughter. “I want to make sure their future is good. I’m working hard for them and my family and my mom. I’m hungry. I want to be champion. The fans like aggressive fighters, and that’s what I do. I move forward, but I can box, too. For every fight, I come ready. The fans pay to see the fights, and I appreciate that. I come to fight. I give a great show to the fans, that’s my job. I fight for me, but I fight for the fans, too.
“Emanuel Navarrete is a good opponent, a tough fighter. He’s an awkward fighter, he throws punches from everywhere. He has a Mexican style, like (Antonio) Margarito or something like that. But we’re ready for whatever he brings. We’re going to outbox him all night – watch.”
The card is heavily Puerto Rican, including Diaz and unbeaten super middleweight knockout artist Edgar Berlanga in the co-feature, so the 3,500 available seats sold out long ago.
“We coulda sold 10,000,” Top Rank chairman Bob Arum told The Ring.
The 26-year-old Navarrete (33-1, 28 KOs) said he had no issue going to Diaz’s backyard to defend his title in a Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry fight.
“I’m not worried about that. I’m a mentally strong fighter,” Navarrete said. “I know we are going to be in Pitufo’s territory basically. But inside the ring it’s only going to be him and me, so I am not worried about that at all.”
Arum would have liked have gotten Navarrete a bigger fight during his junior featherweight title reign. He said it wasn’t as though Top Rank was looking to protect him by matching him with soft touch opposition. On the contrary.
“There wasn’t very many bigger fights,” Arum said. “We gave him the best available guys. We matched him without regard or any fear or anything. It was whoever was available.”
Diaz is not only a bigger man, having dropped down from 130 pounds to 126 four fights ago, but also probably the best opponent Navarrete will have faced, Arum said.
“It’s really good fight because Navarrete is powerful son of a gun without a lot of the finesse and Diaz is a very tough fighter also,” he said. “We’ll be able to see how good Navarrete is on Saturday. He’s fighting a real professional who is fearless in Diaz. We’ll see how good Navarrete really is.”
Navarrete said he watched Diaz’s fights with Ito and Stevenson and that even though he lost those bouts, he showed he was a quality boxer.
“I have seen Pitufo fight before, not at the time they happened but I studied them later on the internet,” Navarrete said. “I saw when he fought Shakur and Ito and I think he’s a very good fighter. He comes well prepared. He’s always ready for a war and even though he lost to those two fighters I believe those fighters are elite fighters, so there is no shame in losing to them. I know he’s going to be a great challenger, but I am also ready to defend my title and bring it back to Mexico.
“We know that Pitufo has trained very hard for this fight, so we cannot get overconfident at any point during the fight. I also have prepared very well and know that he is going to be ready for a war.”
There are likely to be few options for Navarrete to have a major fight at featherweight if he wins. Top Rank stablemates Oscar Valdez and Stevenson vacated the WBO title in quick succession to move up in weight. WBA titlist Leo Santa Cruz and inactive WBC titleholder Gary Russell Jr. are both with Premier Boxing Champions and also unlikely to continue boxing at 126 pounds.
“I understand things are a little bit complicated in the division right now, a lot of moving parts and a lot of fighters where we don’t know what they’re doing,” Navarrete said. “Are they staying at the weight? Are they moving up? I would like to face one of the champions if possible. If not, I would like to face someone with a good record for a vacant title or someone that could help me get my name bigger.”
Arum said while he hopes somebody of consequence will emerge to face Navarrete, or Diaz should he win, the plan is to take the winner to Australia this summer to defend against the 23-year-old WBO-rated challenger Brock Jarvis (18-0, 16 KOs).
“We are talking to the Australians. They have a featherweight over there, Brock, that they’re offering really good money for us to go to Australia once the quarantine is lifted this summer to fight this guy,” Arum said. “(That’s) my plan, assuming the pandemic and quarantine are over. It would be a very big fight in Melbourne.”
Navarrete said as long there is a ring and a good purse he will travel anywhere to defend his title.
“Of course, I am looking for and am open to these big opportunities where I can keep improving and increasing the value of my name,” he said of a possible trip Down Under. “We’re gonna get past Diaz and defend my title and, of course, we’re available and ready to fight whoever is going to bring a big name and bigger purses to the table.”
First up, however, is Diaz.
“I believe I still have a lot of things to work on and to learn but I also believe that this is a big opportunity to keep pushing forward and getting better in the ring,” Navarrete said. “I believe everything will depend on the game plan Pitufo brings but what I am going for — I am going to press him to get the knockout.”