Saturday, December 12, 2009

Will Tonight be Juan Diaz' Marquee Fight?

In a fight that will have major repercussions, Juan Diaz (left) and Paulie Malignaggi will meet again tonight in Chicago.

When you talk to Juan "The Baby Bull" Diaz, it's easy to forget that he punches other people in the face for a living.

Diaz is polite, articulate and unassuming. He’s accomplished enough over the course of nearly a decade as a prizefighter that he would have a lot to brag about - but that's not Juan Diaz.

You won't find him wearing platinum necklaces, diamond rings, throwing one hundred-dollar bills from balconies or drinking Cristal Champagne in nightclubs.

No, you're more apt to find Juan Diaz studying in a university library or calling somebody "Sir" or "Ma’am" before he opens the door for them.

At age 26, he retains a boyish persona and he's already won three lightweight titles. He’s defended those titles seven times and along the way has managed to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Houston.

By any measure one wishes to use, Juan Diaz has accomplished much in a boxing career that saw him turn professional in a dusty Mexican ring as a pudgy 16-year-old.

After 37 pro fights, he could retire now. He has money in the bank, his mental faculties, a son and a college education. He has hopes of one day becoming a lawyer so that he can lend legal aid to those less fortunate. His manager, Willie Savannah, even believes that Diaz could one day become the mayor of Houston, Texas.

Back in August, Diaz and Malignaggi took turns tearing a page out of each other's book. It was a close fight and a rematch was in order to settle any doubts.

So with all that he has going for him, why is Juan Diaz still associated with a sport that sometimes reeks like a sewer, and why is he stepping into the ring tonight against Paulie Malignaggi in Chicago?

"I'm a fighter and that's what I do," Diaz said earlier this week. "I get paid to fight and I didn't want to leave the fans with any doubt."

He didn't have to take this rematch with Malignaggi. After all, Diaz won their first bout this past August via unanimous decision. One judge had it 115-113 and another 116-112 in Diaz' favor. But it was a ludicrous 118-110 scorecard handed in by judge Gale Van Hoy that has caused this rematch to happen.

At best, their first fight could have been scored as a one or two round swing in either direction for either guy. But when Van Hoy called 10 rounds for Diaz and 2 for Malignaggi, it sent the conspiracy theorists – and mostly Malignaggi – into a state of hysteria.

While Diaz is quite well aware he didn't have to accept this fight, he did so because he felt it was the only way to put the questions that surrounded the decision in the first fight behind him. He says he has put that fight in his rear-view mirror, but he believes Malignaggi and the public have not, so he agreed to the rematch.

"The fight in August was in August, that was the past," Diaz explains. "Now I'm looking forward to the future. December twelfth is another night, another city and another public. I think all of the fans wanted to see a rematch between the two of us. I don't want to leave any of my fights in doubt. But I love it when people doubt me. That's really what drives me. That's when I come to the top and rise to the challenge. When my back is against the ropes, that's when I perform at my best."

Earlier this year, Diaz and his manager, Willie Savannah, traded a robe and trunks for a cap and gown.

Diaz claims he used the firestorm of protest that enveloped the first fight to help fuel him on to new heights. As a result, he feels that tonight will see him at or near his peak form.

Diaz indicted he may not have been in the best of shape the first time around and mentioned that he wasn't as focused for Malignaggi as he had been for past fights when he was the 135-pound champion. But after a solid 10-week training camp, in which he weight-trained under the auspices of strength trainer Brian Caldwell and paid strict attention to a well-balanced diet, Diaz feels tonight is his night to shine. For this bout, neither fighter can weigh more than 139-pounds

"This time around, I've had a little more time to adjust and I didn't have as much time to rest up since the last fight, but that's the way I like it," he said. "I'm a real active fighter and I like to stay active as much as I can. I've been eating right day-in and day-out."

In a year that has seen him engage in a fierce, fight of the year type battle versus Mexican great Juan Manuel Marquez (in which he was knocked out in the 9th round) and the controversial bout with Malignaggi, Diaz just wants to set the record straight before the book is closed on 2009.

Something else that becomes clear as you speak to Diaz is that while he is most always amiable, he does have an extremely competitive spirit that sometimes bubbles up from under the surface.

"I told my manager, Willie Savannah, to make this fight," says Diaz. "It doesn't matter where we fight and these guys that talk a lot don't scare me. When I step into the ring, I'm not afraid of anything or anyone. I'm going to be there with pressure and ready to go to war."

But the question is, after all of these years in the sport, with three world title belts, financial riches an education and a bright future ahead of him – why does Juan Diaz still fight on?

"I have everything you've mentioned," he replies. "But I want the marquee fight that I was successful in and I want to come out on top. I want to go down in the history books and I want the history books to say that I was a great fighter. The people that are remembered for doing great things are in the history books because they did great things. I've studied history and political science and in all of those books are people that are remembered. That's what I want."

To do that, he’ll have to get by Paulie Malignaggi. If he’s lucky, maybe it will be the marquee fight that Juan Diaz has always wanted. It would appear as though he has just about everything else.

December 2009

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