Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Baby Bull is Raging

WBA Executive VP Gilberto Mendoza presents Juan Diaz and his manager Willie Savannah with a championship belt. The presentation was made at the 82nd Annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner held at the Copacabana in New York City on June 8, 2007.

The critics tell you that Juan Diaz, otherwise known as “The Baby Bull” can’t punch.

But the critics aren’t the ones taking the shots that rattle bodies like a jackhammer does concrete. The naysayers claim that he slaps when he punches. But, if you’re lucky enough to have a ringside seat to one of his fights, you know that when those punches thunder to the body that they are much more than slaps. Those wrecking balls land with a thud and they sound like a car door being slammed shut.

You must realize that Juan Diaz wouldn’t be the WBA and WBO Lightweight Champion of the world if he couldn’t at least punch just a little bit. Give him some credit, because in his last fight he made the Brazilian with a heart like the cowardly lion, Acelino “Popo” Freitas, quit (again) in a fight that many figured Diaz had no chance in.

You must remember that Juan Diaz is really still a boy. He just turned 24 last month and already he has seven title defenses of the WBA title and an undefeated record of 32-0 (16) KO’s. According to The Ring Magazine, the only other 135-pounder on the planet that is better than Diaz is Cuban expatriate, Joel Casamayor, and Casamayor hasn’t stepped through the ropes since he decisioned the late Diego Corrales over a year ago.

Saturday night at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, just outside Chicago, he’ll be looking to add a third world title belt to his collection when he takes on Julio “The Kidd” Diaz who happens to be the lightweight belt-wearer according the IBF rules. If he wins the fight, Juan Diaz makes a strong case for being the best lightweight on the planet because then he will hold three of the four available world title belts.

When you first meet Juan Diaz, the first thing you notice is how young he is. He has a boyish face and a dusting of peach fuzz on his top lip where a mustache is supposed to be. It tells you that puberty and Juan Diaz are not distant acquaintances.

Then you notice how small he is. At barely 5’6” tall and only 135 pounds he’s not exactly physically imposing. But aside from those things, and perhaps most importantly, you notice how polite the young man is. He’s the type of sincere person that will say, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “Please” and “Thank you” and you just know that none of it is an act.

And get this; he’s enrolled in pre-law classes at the University of Houston. He hopes to one-day help poor Mexican immigrants, which is fitting because his family came from Mexico and they are of distinct working class roots.

You see, Juan Diaz has never been afraid of hard work, or a challenge. How else do you explain that he maintains high grades and rarely misses a class? He became a prizefighter when he turned pro in Mexico at only 16 years old. His long-time manager, the wise Willie Savannah, thinks so highly of his industrious young charge that he figures Juan, “Will probably be the mayor of Houston before he turns 30.”

And at this point, who would doubt it?

He sobbed in the ring after his twelfth fight, a particularly tough, nationally televised split-decision win over the much more experienced Ubaldo Hernandez, in which he was decked with a left hook in the second round. He got up, of course, and he eked out a win in front of a Texas crowd that booed the decision of the judges. They had forgotten that Diaz was only a boy of 17. He had to be consoled by promoter Gary Shaw and he put his head on Shaw’s shoulder and cried out loud after being interviewed in the ring.

After the fight he would tell the media, as he wiped away tears, “I got dropped…I don’t know what happened…I’ve never been down before in my life…I don’t know what happened. I don’t really remember the knockdown. I was going back and then I got caught with the hook.”

When asked about the unhappy crowd, Diaz was at a loss for words. “Things happen, I don’t know. Tonight, I guess wasn’t a good night for me. I like to please the crowd and do what’s best. But things happen.”

Diaz still maintains that the fight with Hernandez was his toughest. “So far, at this point in my career, the most dangerous and hardest fight was Ubaldo Hernandez,” he says. “I got knocked down, I got cut, I got hit low, you know, something I had never experienced in my life. And to this point, I've never been knocked down before in another fight. So I’ve got that experience of being knocked down, being cut and I can deal with those things now.”

After that momentary blip on an otherwise crystal clear radar screen, Diaz hasn’t looked back. In July 2004, at only 20 years of age, he won the WBA lightweight title with a twelve-round unanimous decision over Mongolia’s Lavka Sim. In April of this year he added the WBO belt to his resume with the stoppage win over Freitas.

On the outside everyone sees Diaz as a respectful and unassuming kid with the temperament of a wallflower. But on the inside, Diaz is bullish about his goals.

“At the age of 20, when I became a world champion, the next morning I told my manager, Willie Savannah, I said, ‘Look, I want to fight the best guys. Put me in there with the other champions,’ says Diaz.

Savannah, however, showed brilliant managerial restraint in not putting his 20 year-old titlist in with the other belt-holders, at least right away. Savannah saw rough edges that needed to be sanded down and wrinkles that needed to be ironed out before the young Diaz was ready to take on “A” level, word-class competition.

What followed was six fights over three years, with solid fighters, each with different styles and strengths. Diaz bowled them all over while barely losing a frame on the judges' scorecards.

When asked about the delay in going straight for the other champs, Diaz was thankful that Savannah was able to see what he could not. “That's where the management comes in and Willie takes care of that,” he says.

“So Willie said, ‘No, no, you know, you became champion and that's what you wanted. Let's hold off a little bit and wait and see what happens,’ so he knows. He brought up, you know, Ronnie Shields, and a lot of other top contenders, professionals, and he knows how to do it. He knows the game. I was a little upset at first, but I knew that with time, my opportunity would come.”

And the opportunity is now loudly knocking at his door. Should he get by his opponent on Saturday he will become the only fighter in boxing with three world title belts. One gets the sense that Juan Diaz has more in store for himself than what he tells you and that he won’t always be content to quietly fight his way to the top.

The last time I saw “The Baby Bull” was a few months back at the Copacabana in New York City. There was a big crowd in the room and he was quietly sitting at a small table with his parents while sipping on a non-alcohol drink. He was smartly dressed in a suit and tie and barely anyone seemed to notice him.

But things are slowly beginning to change for Diaz. With his success is coming notoriety.

Into the room walked former middleweight champion of the world, “The Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta. The still charismatic and sharp-witted 86 year-old LaMotta was wearing his customary black cowboy hat and when he spied Diaz out of the corner of his eye he sauntered right over to where he was sitting.

“I know you kid,” said LaMotta in his gravelly voice with the Bronx accent. “I used to be a bull one time too.”

October 2007

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