Juan Diaz is not what the doctor ordered to cure the ills of Acelino Freitas.
The World Boxing Organization lightweight champion is coming out of a brief, self-imposed retirement on April 28 with the intention of unifying a portion of the 135-pound title by snatching away from the 23-year-old Diaz the WBA version he first won 33 months ago to become the youngest world champion in boxing and the youngest lightweight champion in over 30 years. The 31-year-old Freitas, as well as the people around him, believe this is inevitable because of Freitas' superior punching power and his distinct edge in experience over young Diaz but experience comes only with the passage of time and since Freitas quit in the middle of the 10th round of what had become a one-sided beating from then lightweight champion Diego Corrales 2 1/2 years ago, time has passed uneasily for him in the ring.
Although the Corrales fight is the only loss of his career, Freitas (38-1, 32 KO) has not looked like the same bold, power puncher he was prior to being stripped bare of his cloak of invulnerability. While it is true he's won three times since, two of those wins came against nondescript opponents back home in Brazil and in the third Freitas struggled mightily to capture a split decision from light-hitting and often reluctant Zahir Raheem to reclaim the WBO title he lost to Corrales. Frankly, the latter was not the kind of performance that would inspire confidence in Freitas, especially after he announced a brief retirement not long after that fight, but it certainly has in young Diaz.
"This is a great opportunity for me,'' Diaz (31-0, 15 KO) said of his upcoming first appearance on HBO. "Freitas is obviously a great fight for me. It's what I've been waiting for my whole career.
"I was a little surprised he agreed to fight me but I'm happy he did. At the beginning of his career, he came forward a lot and put a lot of pressure on his opponents but against Raheem he was going backwards a lot.
"I have to respect his punching power but I'm an aggressive fighter. I'm not a one-punch knockout guy like him but I put a lot of pressure on you. I throw 80 to 100 punches a round every round. I go to the body. I make my opponents work hard. That's how I get them tired and worn down.''
For a 31-year-old champion no longer at his peak like Freitas, Diaz's kind of relentless aggression and willingness to punch to the body seems a likely recipe for disaster. He did not seem stout mentally early in the Raheem fight in the opinion of veteran trainer and ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas and only survived because Raheem would not do what Diaz has always done since first turning pro at the age of 16 over six years ago in Mexico - put on withering pressure from the start of a fight to its conclusion.
"I think Freitas, after the way he was brought to the place where he submitted by Corrales, is not near the same fighter he was,'' Atlas theorized. "He was ready to cave in against Zahir but Raheem was not the guy to make him do that. Diaz is. He's just what Freitas doesn't need. He's a game young guy who goes to the body and pressures you. If you have some shadow of doubt in the back of your mind, Diaz is the kind of guy who will bring that out front.''
Oscar Suarez, Freitas' trainer, has been preparing him for this fight in Puerto Rico and does not believe the former two-time super featherweight champion harbors any doubts about himself however or about his ability to handle the younger Diaz. In fact, although he acknowledged Diaz's relentlessness and youth, he cautioned that one powerful hook from Freitas can take all that away, as has happened to 32 of the 38 men who chose to stand in front of Freitas.
It is the kind of one-punch power Diaz admittedly has never felt before. The kind that, if properly applied, renders youth and any other physical advantage a non-factor because those things matter little once your brain has been short circuited.
"I'm getting Acelino ready for anything and everything,'' Suarez said. "Diaz has never faced a power puncher like Acelino. We're not focusing on a knockout but I expect an explosive fight. Diaz cannot match Freitas' power.
"At the time of the Corrales fight Acelino was struggling with a lot of problems outside the ring. Those problems have been taken care of. He has a clear mind now. The only reason he retired was he wanted a rematch with Corrales and after what happened to him against (Joel) Casamayor that wasn't going to happen so he got frustrated.
"Zahir is not an easy fighter to look good against. People should not make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on that. In the end, Acelino wanted that title more than Raheem and he got it. Sure Diaz is more aggressive but that means he has the perfect style for us to look good. No disrespect to Juan Diaz, but he's the right style for Acelino Freitas. The thing that worries me most is that Juan may take everything Acelino will deliver. For a fighter who depends on his power like Acelino that can be a problem.''
The larger question in the mind of Diaz's long-time manager, Willie Savannah, is not how much Diaz will take from Freitas however. It's how much will he dish out to an older champion with spotty defense at best and who has shown signs of decay not only in defeat but also in his latest victories.
"Freitas is a very dangerous puncher,'' Savannah conceded. "We know the risk. We know it's a dangerous fight but Juan is ready to make that step. Freitas has an awkward style and throws wide punches that open him up to be countered. Juan's hands are a lot faster than Freitas'. He'll be able to counter him and he'll keep pressing him. That's what he's done in so many of his fights. He keeps up a pace and an aggressiveness that wears his opponents down. He punishes them round after round.
"Juan's youth is what we're counting on. We know Juan will have to work harder than in any other fight but he's well capable of doing that. Sometimes people look at him and think he's not in shape because he's a little roly-poly guy but in the later rounds he's always the one picking up the pace. He's the one with the stamina and the desire to keep punching.
"We think we're getting Freitas at the right time. He's not the tiger he was before the Corrales fight. I expect Juan to really shine that night.''
So does Diaz. He is respectful of what Freitas has accomplished in his career, one that made him a matinee idol in Brazil so popular that his marriage was televised nationally and put up some of the largest ratings for a live event in the country's history, but he is confident that as the rounds pass and he keeps up a relentless pace he will wear down the older man, eroding his power and taking away his legs until he has him where he most wants him - helpless and with no means of escape.
"Freitas is like (Fernando) Angulo and (Jose Miguel) Cotto,'' Savannah claimed. "Could Cotto beat Freitas? Yes he could and Juan killed Cotto (winning a lopsided decision in his third title defense) like he was nothing. I understand that Freitas is dangerous but so is Juan.''
Dangerous in a different way than Freitas, whose one-punch power as a 130 pounder was legendary but who has stopped only one full-fledged lightweight, the less than stellar Fabian Salazar (21-12-1) in his second fight following his loss to Corrales. Diaz is dangerous in the way that only youth and a relentless obsession with attacking his opponent can be. Dangerous in a way Acelino Freitas may, in the end, realize too late.
"I don't think Freitas is the puncher he was,'' Atlas said. "When you lose some of that attitude like he used to have before Corrales you don't throw with quite the same conviction. Diaz will open up those cracks and short comings and bring them right to the front door. Diaz's relentlessness and his willingness to go to the body is just what Freitas doesn't need at this point in his career.''
He may not need it but to win the WBA title and eventually force the hand of Casamayor or Manny Pacquiao, Acelino Freitas will have to find a way to deal with. Deal with it or succumb to it because there will be no other options available to him April 28. Juan Diaz intends to make sure of that.
"The only way for this not to be an action fight is if he doesn't want to fight,'' Diaz said, "and the chances of that are slim to none.''
Posted 12:00 AM | Apr 24, 2007
HBO BAD - Apr. 28, 2007
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