When JoJo Diaz stepped on the scale to weigh in ahead of his bout with Javier Fortuna, he looked like a completely different person than the one who fought back in February.
Earlier this year, Diaz was scheduled to defend his IBF super featherweight title against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, but badly missed the 130-pound limit and was forced to vacate the title on the scale before fighting to a disappointing draw. Despite a titanic battle to melt off the last few pounds, using every DIY rapid-cutting method possible without access to a sauna or a gym facility at the height of COVID protocols, Diaz lost the race to the career-high 174 pounds he claims he weighed coming into training camp. A series of life events including the birth of his child, a DUI arrest and managerial turmoil combined with a pandemic that made him more sedentary than ever before had done too much damage.
Standing on the stage, accepting his fate as he was announced 133.6 and no longer world champion even before the bell rang, Diaz looked pale and tired, lacking much definition. In the ring, he fought in spurts in the way one would expect a physically depleted man to operate, conserving just enough energy to finish the fight and not lose.
Five months later, Diaz weighed in less than a pound heavier at 134.4, albeit in a new division at lightweight. But now he flexed with defined abdominal muscles and bulging traps. Beyond that, his colorful fade was now natural dark hair slicked back, and his friendly babyface covered with a tailored beard. Diaz looked like a movie character redesigned and reintroduced in a sequel with an aesthetic that made it obvious to the audience that they had a different attitude.
Physical appearance aside, Diaz went on to look like perhaps the best version of himself we’ve seen yet in scoring a unanimous decision over Fortuna, a consensus top-10 135-pounder, in a bout broadcast by DAZN on Friday night.
His aesthetic changes correlated with an obvious shift in attitude from Diaz. When Ryan Garcia bowed out of a scheduled fight with Fortuna as he battled with his mental health, Diaz immediately offered to step in. Clearly eager to shift the narrative surrounding him and his career trajectory and to eradicate the stench of the Rakhimov debacle, Diaz found the perfect opportunity to do all of those things. When fighters miss weight in the manner that Diaz did (the second time he’d done so for a world title fight), the boxing community tends to label them undisciplined and uncommitted, labels that are tough to peel off.
But if there’s any way to do it, it would be by travelling down the path Diaz chose. For one, he tacitly conceded that being at 135 pounds is healthier for him by offering to move up in weight. Not all instances of missing weight are made equal, and while Diaz would admit that he didn’t put himself in the best position to make 130 last time out, it was never a walk in the park in the first place. Second, he volunteered for a difficult, risky fight without the advanced notice one might receive for a fight of this caliber—something one wouldn’t do if they hadn’t been keeping themselves in excellent shape in the interim, or if they lacked ambition. Indeed, Diaz said he entered training camp for this fight almost 30 pounds lighter than he did for his previous bout.
“It all started after my fight and my last performance. It was absolutely nothing that I wanted to happen in my career,” Diaz said of his changed mindset recently on Ak & Barak's DAZN Boxing Show. “But it did happen and I wanted to get right back into it. I started thinking and plotting on how to get right back into the ring and how to get my name on a household name once again, and on that pedestal. I need to be there again. And I really need to go out there and (show) everybody that wasn't me that night and I'm an elite fighter, and I'm a star."
Before he even stepped into the ring on Friday, Diaz had accomplished some of what he set out to do from a public relations standpoint. Although the bout against Fortuna likely wouldn’t have happened if not for his weight issues in February, very little of the pre-fight coverage from main boxing outlets centered around that narrative. The story became not why the fight was happening, but that the fight was happening, which reflected well on Diaz.
When the bell rang, he backed it up. Despite his new musclebound frame, there were questions about Diaz’s ability to be physical and to take a punch at 135, both of which he answered firmly against Fortuna. While Diaz began his career in the pros as more of a jabbing speedster, the current version of Diaz depends on his ability to stand his ground and fight on the inside. Not only did he seem unbothered by Fortuna’s shots, but he managed to affect Fortuna with body work and had him backing up out of necessity more than once during the bout. In addition, Diaz’s hand and foot speed carried up from 130, enabling him to land chopping left hands with full extension off of quick pivots at close range, a tremendous weapon against a dedicated shoulder-roller like Fortuna.
It was a statement victory, one that stacks up with the best wins fighters like Garcia and Devin Haney have recorded at 135, and puts him in a position to fight either one of them and net a career-high payday. But more importantly, it’s one that recalibrated the career of Diaz, finally managing to balance the scales with ambition and dedication where tumult and distraction once sat.
After the fight, Diaz got on the live mic and decided to pay it forward, advocating for a second chance for his opponent—but also, issuing a challenge for his division mates to follow in his footsteps.
“He’s an experienced, hell of a fighter. Hats off to Javier Fortuna, I wish him nothing but the best, I hope he continues. And all of you f---ing p---y ass fighters, you better give Javier Fortuna a fight,” said Diaz.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator from Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.