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The Kid Who Threw His Weight Around

For those wondering whether unbeaten young Juan Diaz will be able to handle the pressure of fighting an older, more experienced champion like Acelino Freitas, consider this:

Imagine you are a roly-poly kid of eight tipping the scales at a whopping 110 pounds. You show up in all your resplendent blubber at the door of a gym in Houston which has fallen on hard times. The owner, Willie Savannah, is getting ready to close down the gym because he can't afford to keep it open. You ask if you can train. Savannah, who has a long history of being a soft touch for strays, looks at you, a pint-size pile of baby fat, and figures, one month, tops, this kid will quit. So he tells you in no uncertain terms, as soon you do quit, he is closing the gym.

There were 15 other kids training there at the time whose fate rested on the shoulders of the new boy. For an eight-year-old, that qualifies as big-time pressure.

"Willie told me right from the start that, 'As soon as you leave, that's it.' But I stayed and stayed and here I am," Diaz said.

Where Diaz (31-0, 15 KOs) is, is in the crosshairs of fellow champion Freitas (38-1, 32 KOs) in a unification lightweight fight Saturday night at Foxwoods Resort Casino on HBO's "Boxing After Dark."

"When Juan first came to me, it was at a time when my wife and I were thinking about closing the gym," said Savannah, who has raised nine stray kids in his own home.

"It was just too much to keep it and the house going. I took on Juan, but I told my wife, 'As soon as this fat kid leaves, we'll close down. He'll last a month and leave, watch. But he was there are the end of the month. Still, I thought he would eventually leave."

He stayed, but the pressure never left. Diaz was so big, Savannah couldn't find anyone his size at his age to spar with, so he put him in the ring with an experienced kid three years older. Diaz took daily beatings, but he was a sticker.

"Willie noticed that when I sparred with him I'd get hit badly and start crying," Diaz said. "But I was back in there the next day and kept fighting him until eventually I wound up beating him."

As the months went by, and the fat started to melt away, Savannah began to notice things about this roly-poly kid that sparked his interest.

"He had this great tenacity and hand speed, and was the nicest kid you would ever want to meet." Unfortunately, while Savannah wanted to get Diaz some fight experience, Diaz's size remained a weighty problem.

"The first year he started to fight, he could only get one bout because there just weren't any other fat kids his age," Savannah said.

Eight years would pass, and not only was Diaz still fighting, Savannah began to think he might have a very talented boxer on his hands.

"I knew even before he entered his first tournament that he was special. I had him in the gym before the tournament sparring with older guys because nobody his age could keep up with him. He was throwing the same kind of body punches he does now back then," Savannah said.

The tournament was the Silver Gloves of Texas, and when Willie Savannah drove with his young boxer to the arena, he was dying to show off what his kid could do. So much so that he flat-out warned the trainer of Diaz's first opponent he was in for trouble.

"I went up to the trainer of the kid he was supposed to fight a couple days before the tournament began. I said, 'How good is your kid?' He says with this cocky smile, 'Very good.' I said, 'My kid is real good, so you better think about whether you want to fight him.' I saw the trainer again the night before the tournament, he must have asked around about Juan and found out he had never been in a tournament before. So I asked him again, 'Are you sure you want to fight my kid?' And he said, 'Damn right!' Juan stopped him the first round."

That same first year, fighting at 139 pounds, Diaz would beat Andre Berto in the National PAL, and Timothy Bradley twice, in Junior Gold Gloves and then Silver Gloves. Today, Berto (17-0), who was a 2004 Olympian, is one the highest regarded prospects in boxing, and Bradley (19-0) is also a blue chipper.

Diaz won that tournament, and would go on to capture three national silver titles. He also made it to the finals of his first international tournament in Puerto Rico before losing. With an impressive 105-5 record, Diaz entered the Olympic Trials in Florida, desperately wanting to go to the Sydney Games in 2000. Diaz got his first lesson in the politics of boxing.

In order to be eligible to fight in the Olympics, a boxer must be at least 17 years old. Diaz was 16, and wouldn't turn 17 until three months later in September. The Olympic committee, however, had the power to make an exception. Savannah claims Miguel Cotto's trainer, who was wary of fighting Diaz, filed a protest.

"Cotto's trainer (Evangelista Cotto) had seen Juan fight before he went to the trials. With both kids fighting at 139 pounds, he knew they would have to meet at some point. So he filed a protest that my fighter was too young and ineligible. There were 19 people on the Olympic panel. You needed all 19 to approve you. The vote was 17-2 in favor, and he was disqualified," Savannah said.

The two votes against him came from Puerto Rico and the U.S.

Diaz, who had been born in Mexico, tried to get to the Olympics through his native country. He made the Mexican team, but again was declared ineligible by the powers-that-be. Frustrated, sitting on a world of talent, Diaz figure the time was right to end his amateur career.

"I said to Willie, 'Why wait another four years, and I might not even make it to the Olympics,'" Diaz said. "It was a good choice. Four years later I was the first one of that Olympic class to become a world champion."

Two months shy of his 22d birthday, the kid Willie Savannah thought would be gone in a month, became a world lightweight champion, beating a battle-hardened 32 year old, Lakva Sim, in July of 2004 by unanimous decision. "At the time, he was the second youngest boxer in history to win a world title," Savannah said.

He also happened to be a full-time college student.

Willie Savannah did more than just teach that fat kid to box, he also developed his brain, making education a mandate. In the academic arena, Savannah was to quickly learn Diaz was also a bit special.

"I enrolled him in this high school here, 'The Contemporary Learning Center.' One day I get a voice message from his counselor, Tonya Malone. She says, 'I don't know how good he is in boxing, but this is the most unusual kid I have ever seen. I can see him one day as a U.S. Senator, or a governor of Texas,'" said Savannah, who still plays that tape from time to time.

When Diaz heard what his counselor said, he was proud, but Savannah was not satisfied. "I told Juan, never settle, always shoot for the moon. He asked me when will I be satisfied with him. I said the day I have to call you Mr. President," Savannah said.

Diaz graduated fourth in his high school class with a 3.8 grade average. He thought he was done with school and could now focus solely on his boxing. Savannah, however, was still shooting for the moon. "I made him enroll in college at the University of Houston Downtown," Savannah said.

Diaz liked school, but the burden of attending classes and training felt like too much for him and he let Savannah know.

"One day he's shadow boxing in the gym, and he said, 'I'm tired of going to school and doing boxing at the same time. I want to quit.' I said, 'Oh fine. I understand 100 per cent. You can quit boxing.' He thought I was kidding."

When Diaz realized Savannah wasn't, he was stunned. "My first reaction was this man is crazy. How is he going to give up on me fighting on network TV and making $50,000 a fight just to get an education. But that was one of the reasons my parents came to this country, was to get me a better education. They told me they would support me (financially) as long as I stayed in school. But if I left school, I would be on my own. Eventually I began to see how important education is. Boxing is not a guaranteed thing," Diaz said.

A pre-law student, Diaz will graduate next year and then enroll in a law school in Houston. His long range goal is become an attorney who has made enough money in boxing that he can help poor people in Houston without concern for income.

At 23, he is also a rarity among world champions in that he lives at home with his parents, Fidencio and Olivia, and obeys a curfew set by his mother of 11 p.m.

"My mother worries so much about me. She wants me to have the best possible chance of winning. When I start to get ready for a fight, she is always on my butt to get home on time and get my rest," Diaz said.

Since winning the title, Diaz has made five straight successful defenses, including a "revenge" of sort against Evangelista Cotto. Last year Diaz beat Evangelista's Jose Miguel Cotto, the then unbeaten (27-0) brother of welterweight champion Miguel.

When Diaz steps in the ring against Freitas, the roly-poly kid who kept Savannah's gym open will still be sporting love handles, and has no intentions of losing them.

"I was criticized at the beginning of my career because of my fat," Diaz said. "Commentators said I would never last the whole fight. But the baby fat which is now love handles gives me stamina. You need gas in the car to run, and once the protein and carbohydrates you eat are gone, most fighters start to burn off muscle. Me, I have fuel in that fat."

There are now 100 kids training in a brand new gym Willie Savannah recently opened, and his best fighter, Diaz. is a world recognized name in boxing. It can truly be said of Juan Diaz, 'You've come a long way, baby fat.'

Posted 12:00 AM | Apr 23, 2007

Juan Diaz vs Acelino Freitas

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