Nothing is easy in boxing, but Joseph Diaz Jr. could have taken an easier route for his lightweight debut this weekend than fighting Javier Fortuna. But that’s just not the way the former 130-pound world champion is built. So, what does that say about him as a fighter?
“That nobody has the balls that I have, that's for sure,” laughs Diaz. “It shows everybody that I'm willing to take on the toughest challenges, and I want my career to be a very good one, and a career with longevity, where people 10,15,20 years from now are gonna look back and be like, 'Damn, man, I remember Joseph Diaz, he used to fight the top contenders all the time - 126, 130, 135.’ So I think it's good for the sport and good for myself, because not only am I putting on a good performance and good fights for the fans, I'm putting tough challenges on myself both physically and mentally, and that makes me a stronger individual in my boxing career and outside of my boxing career in life.”
The 28-year-old is in good spirits before his fight at the Banc of California Stadium in LA, confident, ready, and even able to eat well, something he wasn’t able to say as he tried and failed to make the 130-pound limit before his last fight against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov.
Clocking in at 133 ½ pounds for the February 13 bout, Diaz lost his IBF title on the scale, bringing back memories of when he was unable to make weight for a 2018 featherweight title fight with Jesus M. Rojas. Diaz won that bout via unanimous decision but didn’t leave with the belt, and against Rakhimov, a draw verdict was rendered after 12 rounds.
As soon as the bout ended, Diaz wanted to fight as soon as possible and put a hellish year filled with a myriad of issues to rest, and when Ryan Garcia withdrew from his July 9 meeting with Fortuna, Diaz made a couple phone calls.
“After my last performance, I wasn't satisfied with how I looked and the outcome of my fight,” he said. “So I hit up MTK, my advisors, and my promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions, and let them know that I wanted to fight ASAP and get back into the ring with a top tier, elite opponent. They were working on a few names, but nothing too intriguing, so I started praying and was still focused training every day, and this opportunity came. Ryan Garcia ended up pulling out of the Javier Fortuna fight, and I knew that nobody was gonna step in for that opponent because Javier Fortuna is the so-called boogeyman, where a lot of fighters want to avoid him. So, I knew that this was an opportunity for me to jump in and take full advantage of this and grasp the opportunity. I ended up hitting up Golden Boy Promotions that day, saying, 'Line me up with Javier Fortuna. Let's save the date. I can compete at 135 and we can make this fight happen.' And they were very, very intrigued, and three or four days later, we got the fight signed.”
It came as a surprise to many that Diaz would jump right back into the fire against an opponent few are lining up to face, but should the former U.S. Olympian pull off the win, all of a sudden, he’s a player in one of the most high-profile divisions in the sport right now. And that could make all the turmoil of the last 12 months somewhat worth it.
“This is a really good opportunity for me, not only for me to showcase that I'm fighting top tier opponents, but to actually have it be my coming out party at 135 pounds and letting everybody know at 135 pounds that I'm coming and I'm here to compete. So what's up? Who wants to fight next?”
Diaz laughs, happy to talk about boxing and an upcoming fight, and not about anything else. It feels like it’s been a long time since that was the case, and I wonder if any of the negatives have taken away his love of the game.
“The love of the game was always there because I love the sport of boxing,” he said. “But it did have some kind of blinding effect to it because of all the negativity and all the bulls**t that I was going through in my boxing career as far as management and not getting the right deals and things like that. So it was kind of depressing and not motivating to make me go out there and be the best that I possibly can. Still, every single day I just tried to remain positive and still tried to be the best person and fighter that I possibly could be at that given time. But God works in mysterious ways, and I feel like he put me through those dangerous and tough roads for a reason. Now, I feel like there's nothing but brighter days ahead. Given the fact that I've been through so much and I learned so much, now I'm just grasping every opportunity and taking full advantage of what's in store for me now.”
There was a bright spot last November when his son Zenith Joseph Diaz was born, and that’s kept him focused when focus was the last thing on his mind. Plus, there is the fact that throughout the ups and downs, he’s stayed true to himself. I remember asking him shortly after he turned pro if he was too nice for the boxing business. I reminded him of that conversation and asked if that’s cost him in a career where he’s done good things but hasn’t received the attention some of his peers have.
“I don't think it has because I'm not gonna be something that I'm not,” Diaz said. “I'm just gonna be myself and not let anybody else make my boxing career change the person that I am. I'm generally a nice person, but when I'm inside that ring, it's a whole different story. But it (everything I’ve been though) did make me learn a lot in my life in general, and I'm glad that I was able to learn that and experience all those rough patches and go on those tough roads that God has put me through, because it made me a better person to know who's good and who's bad and just be more thankful for everything God has blessed me with.”
Today, Joseph Diaz Jr. can be a fighter again. And on Saturday, he’s a win away from getting closer to everything he’s fought for. That’s gotta make him smile.
“It's relieving and it's joyful and it's satisfying and a big weight off my back knowing that all the hard work and everything that I've been through and I put my body and mind through is finally gonna pay off,” he said. “I feel like I'm barely into my prime and I finally got rid of a lot of leeches around me, where now I can take full advantage of my talent and my career and really grasp the opportunities that God has created for me and really do something with it. I feel like the sky's the limit now and it all happens with this opportunity with Javier Fortuna. I feel like this fight is really gonna keep me on top of the game with the brilliant performance I'm gonna be putting on July 9th, and it's gonna give me the bigger fights and the bigger paydays.”