Jojo Diaz, a 23-year-old former Olympian, is training today in a hot boxing gym inside a community center in the town where he grew up. We’re just east of Los Angeles and just west of the Hacienda Hills, in the dry San Gabriel Valley. That topography seems to press down on the place — all its local facilities are concentrated on one block, including city hall, the library, the pool, the schools, and summer camps.
It’s a quaint location, especially given the fact that this Saturday night, Diaz (21-0) will face the little-known (but very game) Andrew Cancio on the undercard of the latest Golden Boy–promoted pay-per-view show, live from the Dallas Cowboys’ massive stadium.
Mexican folk hero Canelo Alvarez, who is a massive draw in Texas, headlines the card, but he’s a heavy favorite and known quantity. Golden Boy, and its founder Oscar De La Hoya, need Diaz to announce himself to the world as a legit contender. Too much of its stable — including Cuban heavyweight Luis Ortiz — has already defected to other exclusive outfits. Diaz, who fought for Team USA in the 2012 Olympics, needs to become an attraction for a promoter with less and less to promote.
A bit after 3, Diaz arrives and begins pad work with his father, Joseph Diaz Sr., who doubles as trainer. Diaz is a southpaw boxer with technical ability, speed, and just enough power (the last of which the team works to improve today by having Diaz sit down on his shots more).
Now Diaz finds himself in one of pro boxing’s deepest divisions. At 126 pounds, there are talented (and title-holding) fighters of every variety. Fast craftsmen such as Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton, buzzsaw KO artists such as the Mexican Óscar Valdez, and skilled Americans such as Washington D.C.’s Gary Russell — another former Olympian.
Just beneath these ringmasters in the ratings is Diaz, currently 13th at featherweight, according to the boxrec.com. He scored a nice-looking second-round KO on July 30, but the victory didn’t tell much of his development — the opponent Golden Boy lugged in had spent six years out of the ring between 2010 and 2016.
Diaz was bullied as a kid. He was a good student invested in his schoolwork in a gang-riddled neighborhood, and he was small — as you might expect for someone who’s 5’6” and 126 lbs.
His dad, without any prior experience, brought him to a boxing gym and began to train him. Truth is, Diaz enjoyed playing baseball more as a kid — he had that low, lefty Griffey swing with the special pop sound only certain players can apply to the ball with lumber (or aluminum in this case).
But his natural talent in the ring couldn’t be ignored. He twice won amateur national championships at bantamweight and qualified for the Olympics by beating three opponents in the 2011 Amateur World Championships (including the aforementioned KO artist Oscar Valdez). He failed at the Olympics at the hands of yet another incredible Cuban.
His challenge now is to show he can take the final step in the pros that eluded him in the amateurs. His two weapons are his clubbing straight left and his right hook, so those are the power punches he hones repeatedly today — banging the large circular foam pad his father holds, which is soon covered in their commingled sweat.
Saturday night, that power may not be necessary. His opponent, Cancio, is ranked 22nd in the world at 130 pounds. And Jojo has shown he has plenty of moves already, having defeated former title-challenger Jayson Velez in a unanimous decision in March.
Jim Lampley, who’ll call Saturday’s fight for HBO’s PPV production, compares Jojo Diaz to Vasyl Lomachenko, who’s often touted as the most accomplished amateur in boxing history and fought for a world title in just his second pro bout. “I see him as a minor league Lomachenko,” Lampley said. “Very good craft, not as good as VL. Decent pop, not as much as VL. Creative mind, not nearly as creative as VL.”
All of which to say that Diaz shows sparks of being special — his footwork and feints betray a deep-rooted knowledge of the game, and their speed reflect his natural gifts. And Lampley believes the 23-year-old is still improving.
He had better be — that’s what Oscar and HBO both need to see for Golden Boy’s plan to work — for a Canelo-successor to be born. Which seems like a tremendous burden for any 23-year-old to bear, no matter how accomplished (he recently acquired his first house).
“Actually, it makes me more motivated and more dedicated to the sport,” Diaz said. “When they told me I could be fighting on the September 17 card, I was like, ‘Man!’ I’m very excited.”
Diaz punctuates many sentences with an earnest “man!” If he can spread that enthusiasm to viewers Saturday, he’ll begin rendering a bout with a Haymon or Top Rank fighter too profitable for either group to pass up. In that case, 2017 will be the year Diaz challenges for a title — not just for himself but for his backers.
The Olympics are over, but a multiple-ring contest for the heart of boxing has just begun.