LOS ANGELES — A battle between two former super featherweight champions unfolded at 135 pounds on Friday when Joseph Diaz Jr. made his division debut to fight Javier Fortuna.

Diaz was the highly credible replacement opponent of Golden Boy stablemate Ryan Garcia, who abruptly pulled out from his announced fight with Fortuna in April citing mental health issues.

Diaz’s (32-1-1, 15 KOs) unexpected opportunity turned out to be a worthwhile one, as the South El Monte native displayed a valiant effort and battled adversity after suffering a cut over his left eye and a questionable point deduction to score a unanimous decision win over Fortuna (36-3-1, 25 KOs) in his backyard at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles.

The affair was an intense, aggressive and evenly-matched fight, and Diaz was awarded for his efforts with scores of 117-110, 116-111 and 115-12. Diaz celebrated in the middle of the ring by cradling his newborn son immediately after. 

Diaz also picked up the vacant lightweight WBC interim title with the victory, and the sanctioning body is now supposed to order a title fight against champion Devin Haney.

The win put a halt to a tumultuous last 12 months for Diaz, who battled many distractions away from the ring.

Diaz dropped his 130-pound IBF crown on the scales in February after he blew weight in a mandatory defense of his title against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov. The fight ended in a majority draw, but his next bout proved to end more definitively, even though Diaz barely outlanded Fortuna in total punches, 203 to 193. 

The first round between Diaz and Fortuna unfolded at a tit-for-tat pace, with both pugilists picking their punches one at a time. Diaz got the better of the exchanges by attacking the body with a pair of calculated blows that was setup with a shot to the chin in the final 30 seconds. 

The pace in the second round was slow, as Fortuna tried to use his speed to sling-shot jabs off his back foot. Diaz was the one who was landing the cleaner connections, however. 

The plot thickened in the third when Diaz suffered a cut over his left eye from a head butt. It was the same eye Diaz was cut in 2020 during his world title win over Tevin Farmer. 

A determined Diaz opened the fourth with a three-punch combo to the body. He followed with a right uppercut and straight left. Seconds later however, Diaz hit Fortuna with a rabbit punch before the break and was deducted a point by referee Raul Caiz Jr. It was a quick and questionable decision for Caiz Jr. to take a point away.

The foul seemed to invigorate Diaz as he pressed forward and dished as many punches in bunches as he could. 

The fighter nicknamed “Bumble Bee” stung Diaz with a strong right in the fifth to get the 2012 US Olympian’s attention. Fortuna featured a fierce attack highlighted by a nine-punch combination. 

Diaz still asserted himself even though his face was adorned by a crimson mask. The fight momentarily switched to a phone booth-like affair as they stood in the middle of the squared circle and slugged away. 

By the sixth round, Fortuna, who was exclusively fighting off his back foot, switched his strategy and started walking down Diaz and threw more punches. In a moment of gamesmanship, Fortuna stuck his tongue out and halfheartedly flicked his right hand after eating three straight punches from Diaz. 

Diaz opened up a bit more in the seventh, looking to clearly land a home run swing, which came 30 seconds into the round. 

Fortuna unleashed a seven-punch combination in the eighth, but Diaz fended it off, as he slowly started gaining momentum. 

It was a close fight, but Diaz was getting a tad bit better in the exchanges. Through eight rounds, it appeared to be a coin-flip fight heading into the championship rounds. 

In the ninth, the 28-year-old Diaz started noticeably hurting the 32-year-old Dominican, who instead chose to dance around the ring for the latter half of the round rather than continue engaging at the high-action pace. 

Diaz continued dishing heavy leather in the tenth, but the pace was a bit slower. In the last 30 seconds Diaz enjoyed the best moments of the fight to that point by landing several heavy overhand left hands that got the partisan crowd on its feet. 

Diaz started pulling away in the 11th, a round arguably won by Fortuna.  

As the 12th round started, realizing he was losing the fight, a relentless Fortuna trekked forward and tried to force the action, but a theatric ending was not in the cards, and the extra effort was a little too late. 

The fight took place as part of the Golden Boy Promotions card headlined by the Gilberto Ramirez vs. Sullivan Barrera bout and streamed on DAZN.

Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist, writer and broadcast reporter. He’s also a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and MMA Journalists Association. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan, via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com or on www.ManoukAkopyan.com