Mercito Gesta rose to the occasion at a time when Joseph Diaz Jr. was in desperate need of a redemption story.

An entertaining ten-round main event proved far too difficult for the California judges to properly score. In the end, it was Gesta who prevailed by split decision in their makeshift main event Saturday evening on DAZN from the Walter Pyramid on the campus of California State University-Long Beach.

Judge Pam Hayashida (97-93) awarded the fight to Diaz after ten rounds of action. Her wide scorecard in favor of the former IBF junior lightweight titlist was countered by equally lopsided tallies by judges Alejandro Rochin (99-91) and Pat Russell (98-92) for Gesta in what oddsmakers viewed as a significant upset.

“He gave me a hell of a fight,” Gesta told DAZN’s Chris Mannix after his career-best win. “We gave the fans a good fight right here. I’m happy with the outcome. I’m a professional and a gentleman.”

Gesta entered the fight essentially having conducted back-to-back training camps. The San Diego-based Filipino southpaw was previously due to face Ryan Garcia on a January 28 DAZN show. However, Garcia pulled the plug on the event as he instead opted to head straight into his super fight with Gervonta Davis on April 22 in Las Vegas.

Golden Boy Promotions founder and chairman Oscar De La Hoya not only provided an opportunity for Gesta but upped the ante.

The Hall of Fame former six-division titlist moved forward with Saturday’s show even after losing the original main event when Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez (44-1, 30KOs) was grossly overweight for his planned light heavyweight bout versus Gabriel Rosado. Diaz-Gesta was upgraded to main event, and with De La Hoya vowing prior to the fight that the winner would face Golden Boy-promoted lightweight Floyd Schofield Jr. on the Davis-Garcia undercard next month.

Gesta spent the early rounds fighting as if he was auditioning for the high-profile slot. The former title challenger constantly beat Diaz to the punch in the opening round. He didn’t land anything of consequence, but his superior work rate was easy to score while Diaz was patient to a fault.

Diaz made his presence felt late in round two, in a fight he desperately needed to win. The 30-year-old southpaw—who represented the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics—entered the night with just one win in his past four fights since a career-best twelve-round victory over Tevin Farmer to win the IBF junior lightweight title in January 2020.

The fight was also preceded by a recent arrest on February 27 for which Diaz was charged with DUI, child neglect and driving with a suspended license. Also looming is a civil lawsuit with a Jane Doe who alleged that the boxer sent her a nude picture of himself when she was just 17 years old. Diaz also remains in a legal battle with former managers Ralph and Moses Heredia which is the subject of two separate lawsuits.

Needless to say, a win was in much needed order on Saturday.

Diaz’s conditioning left a lot to be desired as the fight contracts were modified to better suit his career-heaviest official weight of 139.4 pounds. He entered the ring visibly fleshy but in hopes of turning things around with the addition of head trainer Julian Chua.  

The former titlist did his best to turn a corner in round two after getting outworked early by Gesta. A right hook by the South El Monte, California native landed clean, though Gesta responded with four consecutive jabs. Diaz came back with a left hand late in the round, met with a left by Gesta who left his chin open just long enough to eat another power shot right at the bell.

Gesta was forced to overcome adversity midway through round three. Diaz pinned the Filipino along the ropes as he threw and landed in combination. Gesta shook off a right hook to the temple to land a right hook to the body but it was Diaz who got by far the better of every sequence in the round.

Both boxers went back to their opening round roles in the fourth. Gesta heeded the advice of head trainer Marvin Somodio to offer more movement and pumped his jab from the outside. Soft right hooks landed to the body of Diaz, none of which had any heat but was enough to allow Gesta to dictate the pace. Diaz landed a combination with 15 seconds to go in the round and connected with a right hook over the top just before the bell.

Diaz once again drove Gesta to the ropes, where he connected with chopping left hands in round five. It came after Gesta jabbed his way around the ring as Diaz fought behind a high guard while waiting for the right moment to explode. Gesta returned to the jab after his opponent’s brief power surge and managed his most impactful punch of the night, a cupping right hook late in the frame.

Gesta offered constant lateral movement to open the second half of the fight. Diaz followed his fellow southpaw around the ring, looking for power punching opportunities. Gesta continued to circle the ring but had to adjust after a partially blocked combination by Diaz was enough to briefly stop him in his tracks.

“I saw JoJo’s motivation in there,” noted Gesta. “This is boxing. You have to be smart, you have to be tactical.”

Diaz let his hands go at the start of round seven. Gesta was able to block most of the incoming but saw his punch output dulled as he was forced on the defensive. Diaz jabbed to the head and body, which he followed with straight left hands upstairs. Gesta remained on the move but Diaz cornered him just long enough to land a right hook to the body.

Gesta was reminded of the value in a stick-and-move style, which he employed in round eight. A straight left hand landed for the 35-year-old lightweight hopeful, which Diaz took well. Diaz seized control of the action in the final minute. Gesta was pinned against the ropes but avoided any significant damage and even landed a brief flurry late in the round.  

Two-way action ensued in round eight, which worked to the benefit of Diaz who landed the far more telling blows. Gesta reached with his jab to the body but was forced back on the move after Diaz worked his way inside to land hooks and left hands.

Diaz drove him a right hook to the body during a brief moment where Gesta was stationary in round nine. Gesta jabbed his way out of trouble, but the damage was done as Diaz clearly held the power edge whenever the two were at close quarters.

Gesta sensed he needed a dramatic finish to seal the victory and let his hands go to start the tenth and final round.

Diaz was unrattled as he maintained a tight defense while riding out the brief and low-impact flurries. Gesta continued to outwork Diaz with jabs upstairs and combinations down the middle as he tried to maintain his desired distance. Diaz throw overhand lefts in the final thirty seconds but often missed the mark. Gesta landed one more left hand in the final ten seconds, as both raised their arms in victory after the bell sounded to end the fight.

Diaz fell to 32-4-1 (15KOs), with both his career and personal life caught in a tailspin. The loss was his third in a row, in addition to mounting legal issues outside the ring.

Gesta improved to 34-3-3 (17KOs) with by far the most significant win of his 20-year career. He came up short in separate title bids versus then-IBF lightweight claimant Miguel Vazquez more than a decade ago and again in a January 2018 challenge of three-division and then-WBA lightweight titleholder Jorge Linares.

Just four fights followed preceding Saturday’s contest. One was his lone stoppage defeat in a March 2019 upset at the hands of Juan Antonio Rodriguez who forced referee Zachary Young to halt the contest in the ninth round.

Gesta was then held to a technical draw later that year, followed by the pandemic which left his career prospects in doubt. He resurfaced last April to outpoint Joel Diaz, riding two early knockdowns all the way to the finish line in a ten-round, unanimous decision atop a Golden Boy Fight Night card.

The unexpected headliner on Golden Boy’s main DAZN series breathed new life into Gesta’s career.

“This win means a lot to me,” noted Gesta. “I started a new chapter in my life. We just had a baby.  It’s such a blessing… to be a father. I won this fight not just for myself but also for our newborn baby.”

It also came on a night when it left Diaz’s boxing future in doubt—including his promotional alignment.

“I want to thank Oscar De La Hoya for the opportunity,” Diaz told DAZN, confirming his free agent status after having fought for Golden Boy throughout his ten-plus year pro career. “We’ll see what’s out there for me.”

As for Gesta, all he wants is any top lightweight out there.

“I’ll see what (Golden Boy) says is next for me. I know fans have their opinion. We have our opinion, too, and that’s what matters most.”

As for a five-week turnaround to land on perhaps the biggest stateside card of the year?

“That sounds good, too,” Gesta said, with a smile. 

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox