Saturday, February 21, 2009

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

The amiable Juan Diaz and HBO's Larry Merchant share a laugh and a smile after one of Diaz' recent wins.

If you're old enough to have grown up watching 'Sesame Street' you can probably remember the fun little song called, 'One of These Things is Not Like the Others' sung by Bob and Susan.

The chorus was 'One of these things is not like the others, One of these things just doesn't belong, Can you tell which thing is not like the others, By the time I finish my song?'

Well, if you're a boxing fan, the one fighter that is not like the others is Juan 'The Baby Bull' Diaz.

He's preparing right now to face one of the best fighters in the world in Juan Manuel Marquez. The two will square off Saturday night in Diaz' hometown of Houston, Texas for The Ring magazine, WBA and WBO lightweight titles.

It's a highly anticipated bout that will be televised by HBO to what will likely be a raucous, full house at the Toyota Center in Houston. The winner will be recognized as the best 135-pound fighter in a lightweight division that is jam packed with top tier talent. The opportunities for the victor will be limitless.

While nothing about any of this fight is that much different from what happens in the sport of boxing on a fairly regular basis, what is different, very different, is Juan Diaz.

At only 25 years old, Diaz has already been a professional fighter for nine years. He is a former IBF, WBA and WBO lightweight champion who successfully defended parts of those titles seven times over three and a half years. He possesses an overall career record of 34-1 (17)KO. His only loss was last year and it was a costly one to Nate Campbell in which he lost all of his titles and his undefeated record.

In an upset loss, Diaz took his lumps against a resurgent Nate Campbell who proved to be the only one of Diaz' professional opponents that could hang with him.

But while he was busy accomplishing all that and cracking other prizefighters upside the head, Juan Diaz has also been cracking the books. In May he will graduate from the University of Houston with a degree in Political Science and he hopes one day to become an attorney.

"I want to do all my future fighting in a courtroom and not in a boxing ring," he proudly says.

Diaz has made the sacrifice over the past several years to fit the studies into his busy schedule as a full-time world champion. While many boxers struggle to maintain the focus to train and fight a few times a year, Juan Diaz successfully did that while rarely missing a day of school. If he fought against some of the best boxers in the world in Connecticut or Mexico or Las Vegas on a Saturday night - he could be counted on to be in attendance for class in Texas first thing Monday morning.

He has become a millionaire from boxing and he doesn't spend his money recklessly. Up until a few years ago he still resided with parents and younger brother in a humble home without all of the trappings of fame and fortune. But Juan Diaz studies as hard in the classroom as he does in the gym and he has a burning desire to lend a hand to the less fortunate, particularly the Mexican immigrants that form the basis of his heritage.

"I thought about not going to school this semester because of the big fight coming up against Marquez," explained the soft-spoken and very polite Diaz. "But you know, I decided that in a lot of ways this is just like my other fights and in some respects Marquez is just another guy. I didn't want to hold back graduating and so I decided to put the work in and do it."

Diaz attacked Acelino Freitas round after round with such reckless abandon that he finally forced the Brazilian to quit.

Diaz is a stocky fighter with a thick waist who drives forward while relentlessly throwing punches. His swarming, pressure style typically grinds his opposition down to the point where they are exhausted with having to fend off the perpetual motion assault that is constantly coming at them. He doesn't have the one-punch power that can take out a top guy with one shot, but he focuses on the lost art of body punching and when he goes downstairs the opposition feels it. The punches land with a thud and they sound like one of those big heavy car doors from the 1970s being slammed shut.

Diaz claims his plan to deal with Marquez on Saturday night is not going to deviate from the norm. Although Marquez, ten years older than Diaz, is generally ranked as the #2 fighter in the world in the pound-for-pound ratings, that doesn't worry him.

"My game plan is to tire those old legs of his out," says Diaz who claims his weight is now down to 137 or 138 pounds after eight weeks spent training. "What I'm going to do is make him work and I'm going to make him earn his paycheck. The plan for us is to make him have to really work. We want to make him work every second and every minute of every round that he is in there in the ring with us."

Diaz is managed by Willie Savannah, who has been with him since he first laced up a pair of boxing gloves and who he still sometimes respectfully refers to as "Mr. Savannah." He is trained by veteran trainer Ronnie Shields. It's this this solid support base that has helped to keep him centered over the years. Now promoted by Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions after a tumultuous few years with Don King, Diaz feels as though he is in a great position to take on Marquez who he calls, "probably the biggest name opponent I've ever faced."

Juan Manuel Marquez (left) and Diaz met up at the press conference to announce their fight that will take place in Houston, Texas.

Diaz knows that Marquez is an exceptional pugilist and he seems well-versed in the weapons that he will bring to the ring.

"What makes Marquez so dangerous is that he's a smart fighter," explains Diaz. "He doesn't get hit with a lot of good, clean punches and every time he goes in there he can do it all. He can counterpunch you, he can fight you, he can box you. The thing about him is that he can do a lot of things that a lot of other boxers can't do. He has been in so many epic fights and people talk about him being 35 years old, but him being 10 years older than me means he has that much more experience in the ring than I do. But then again that's 10 more years of wear and tear on his body."

While Diaz has spent many hours studying Marquez, he has also spent some time studying things such as statistics, politics and economics. His studies have also talked about the financial crisis that has enveloped the world. He knows that the people who will show up on Saturday night to see him are parting with money for tickets that has not come easily to them. Diaz respects that and he has a message for his fans. It's a message from a different type of prizefighter - a self-effacing, seemingly selfless athlete - which is a rare find in this day and age.

"I appreciate the fact that people are willing to spend the few extra dollars that they have to come and see me fight and enjoy a great night of boxing," he says. "I feel that it's my responsibility to train hard and give those people their money's worth."

It's a message that tells you Juan Diaz is definitely not like the others.

February 2009

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