Perhaps it was just a language barrier problem but David Diaz doubts it, partially because he needed no translator to understand the real meaning of Erik Morales' words.
As the reigning World Boxing Council lightweight champion sat on a dais in Chicago on June 13 as the biggest fight of his life was being announced, he knew what the legendary Mexican thought of him. Morales' words had made that clear, at least to the most unlikely champion. Erik Morales didn't think much of him, if he thought of him at all.
That day Morales, who will be seeking to become the first Mexican fighter to win world titles in four weight classes when he faces Diaz on HBO August 4 in Diaz's hometown, was asked what his view of the new 135-pound champion he was preparing to challenge was. The Legend smiled at the thought before he said dismissively of the former U.S. Olympian, "He has a lot of amateur experience. Sometimes he looks like an amateur out there."
Nearly two months later the words still sting, although not as much as the punches of a man known for years as "El Terrible" might. Diaz of course knows Morales' reputation for putting opponents through terrible nights and says only, "It's an honor to fight him," giving back the respect he knows he is not being given. Yet Diaz is unfazed by what will be in front of him, long ago having grown to understand that very little comes easily in boxing. It must all be taken violently for that is the way of the world he chose at the age of eight, when he first entered a boxing ring in Chicago to begin what has become a long and winding road that even he thought would never lead him to a fight like this one.
"I'm pretty sure he's underestimating me but I'll be there for all 12 rounds," Diaz said recently. "What he said sounded a little cockyâ€¦but I guess he's allowed to be. I'm just not much of a guy who says in words what I feel. I'm not a Floyd Mayweather, who can talk and box at the same time. But I know I can fight."
On Aug. 4 he will have to because even in the autumn of his career, Morales is the biggest name on Diaz's resume and the greatest challenge he will have ever faced. The greatest, that is, except for the ones he had to overcome just to still be a prize fighter, let alone a world champion. Not the least of those challenges was the one he posed to himself. The internal ones of self-doubt.
"I never had high expectations," Diaz (32-1-1, 17 KO) said. "Before the (1996) Olympics I didn't know even if I'd turn pro or not. I didn't know if anyone was watching me. When Top Rank (Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum's company) called I was happy but after I didn't win a medal (on the same Atlanta Olympic team that included Mayweather, lone U.S. gold medalist David Reid and Fernando Vargas) I felt down on myself. I left Atlanta before David won because I just didn't want to be around boxing no more. So if no one had called I'm not sure I would have kept fighting."
Unfortunately, Diaz now admits, even after Arum called he didn't keep fighting. At least not in the same focused way he had up to making the Olympics, a spot he won at light welterweight that was nearly as unexpected as his later rise to the WBC lightweight title would be.
In 1996, Zab Judah was the hot U.S. amateur prospect in that weight class. He was supposed to represent America in Atlanta with flair and fast hands but Diaz upset him at the Olympic Trials and then beat him again in the box-offs after U.S. Olympic officials forced the two of them to meet again, believing Judah would this time beat Diaz the required two times to unseat him and win the Olympic spot.
Judah came into those box-offs the same way Morales came to Chicago in June - full of himself. One fight later he left in tears.
"The mood was set long before we fought," Diaz said of Judah. "He was the toughest opponent in the Trials. The first time I was losing in the third (and final) round by a point but I rallied. In the box-offs, I felt he'd come out with his guns drawn but he folded.
"The Opening Ceremony, with the parade of athletes into the stadium and then Ali lighting the Olympic flame, made me so happy. It showed a special appreciation for the boxers, which is rare for our sport. Then to lose a questionable decision (14-6 to future three-time world title challenger Oktay Urkel of Germany in his second fight in Atlanta), I just wanted to go home and concentrate on the rest of my life."
That was Diaz's plan until Arum called with an offer he could neither refuse nor quite fathom. He was to go train in Florida, learn his craft and allow Arum the time to maneuver him into a position where he might at least challenge for a world championship. Diaz was happy about the latter idea but the rest of it, as time passed, eluded him.
"I got a little money in my pocket and subconsciously I felt that it was my big payday," the 31-year-old Diaz admitted honestly. "I lost focus of what I was supposed to do and I suffered for it. I made the decisions. I can't blame nobody but myself. I was supposed to go to Florida, train and be responsible and I wasn't. I was supposed to be mature and I wasn't.
"Top Rank was getting me fights but I missed my family in Chicago. I'd go to the gym and look to get out as soon as I got there. I didn't love professional boxing the way I did the amateurs. I wasn't feeling it."
Soon he wasn't in it either, returning to Chicago to fight and win three more times to lift his record to 13-0 before he simply walked away seven years ago. At the age of 24 David Diaz, U.S. Olympian, three-time national Golden Gloves champion and five times Chicago Golden Gloves champion, was through with boxing.
"I didn't want to fight any more," Diaz (32-1-1, 17 KO) recalled. "My Mom had kidney failure so I tried to take care of her. Then my brother passed away from AIDS in Mexico. It was a hard time for all of us."
Then, after two years in the shadows, David Diaz began to feel it again. Not a lot, to be honest, but faintly like a light tap on the shoulder from a referee when you're concentration is elsewhere. Unnoticed at first but hard to ignore, boxing was calling to him. And he was listening. A little.
"At first I just wanted to get back to the gym," Diaz said of the first day he walked back through the doors of the now closed but still legendary Windy City Gym. "I was just testing it out to see if the itch was there."
It was and Diaz knew only one way to scratch it. Put on the heard gear. Slip in the mouthpiece. Get ready to bleed for you breakfast.
"After a while I just thought, 'Let's do this,"' Diaz recalled. "Let's not be one of those guys at 40 who's thinking, 'What if I'd stayed?' One day I just decided, 'Let's go for it. Let's make a run at it and see what happens.' I didn't have high expectations but I didn't want to settle for 'Okay, I tried."'
Two years, three weeks and one ruptured Achilles tendon after his last fight, which had been a win over a journeyman named Steve Larrimore, David Diaz re-entered the ring at the DePaul Athletic Center in Chicago and stopped Anthony Cobb in the sixth round. It was no mean feat, considering that Cobb had a 4-28-3 record at the time. But it was a start.
It was four fights before he faced an opponent with a winning record and nearly two years before he got back in with another young contender. When he did, it seemed all the work had been for naught. After being dropped in the first round by Kendall Holt and stopped in the seventh that evening of June 2, 2004, all seemed lost. To most observers of matters fistic, Diaz had proven to be what Erik Morales still thinks he is. He was a good amateur in a pro's game.
But there was a difference between this setback and the one he'd created for himself after the 1996 Olympics. This time the itch was still there. The fire, though tamped down, still burned, and so he fought on, fighting his way to six wins and the lightly-regarded IBA lightweight title before he was given an unexpected chance to make something more of himself after the WBC stripped then lightweight champion Joel Casamayor of their title for negotiating with WBO champion Acelino Freitas.
The WBC then named Diaz as cannon fodder for the man they expected to crown interim champion, Jose Armando Santa Cruz. It was all set up, just the way Morales (48-5, 34 KO) thinks his comeback and a fourth world title is for him.
Santa Cruz was 23-1 and seemingly heading for a coronation when a fight suddenly broke out as the 10th round began in Las Vegas last August 8. By then, Diaz's forehead had been cut, his face was badly swollen and he was trailing by a significant margin on the judges' scorecards. In other words, David Diaz's night was going pretty much the way his career had.
Then one explosive left uppercut sent Santa Cruz tumbling backwards onto the floor. When he got up he was reeling and Diaz was all over him, landing a flurry of combinations that sent Santa Cruz down a second time. Again he got up but he could do nothing but backpedal and eat left hands until referee Richard Steele leapt between them at 2:26 of the round and waved the fight to an end so unexpected Diaz at first wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.
"I can't describe the feeling," Diaz said. "I kept looking for my Dad in the crowd. He always believed I'd do it. It was a typical fight for me lately, a war that I won late when it didn't look too good for me. It's been a long road. I'm glad I stuck with it."
That fight was, in so many ways, a re-run of Diaz' career. It was a night he arrived at unexpectedly. When he got there, things did not go well for long stretches. But through it all he persevered and, in the end, found a way to win. Erik Morales may not respect that but David Diaz does. Just as he respects the moment that is about to come, the moment he will slip lightly between the ropes at All State Arena in his hometown and face the kind of fighter he has always wanted to be measured by.
"My wife and I talk all the time about me being called a world champion," Diaz said. "It was so unexpected it hasn't really hit me yet. I'm still David. I still get sent to the store by my wife. I still take out the garbage and cut the grass. I see I've come a long way but you see a guy like Morales and you wonder, 'How would I do against him?' Now I'm getting the chance to measure myself against a great fighter.
"I know there are plenty of people out there who don't believe I'm a fighter or a champion. They feel like Morales does, that I'm an amateur. Well, look at where I am."
On Aug. 4 he'll be in the ring with "El Terrible," wearing a champion's belt and a smile. Perhaps after twice being stopped by Manny Pacquiao and quitting on the floor after three rounds in their second encounter last November Morales will prove to be a spent shell, a hollow man filled with arrogance for unexpected champions and little else any more.
Or, perhaps he will simply be too much for The Unexpected Champion, a test David Diaz cannot pass. The two of them will decide that on their own because they have signed a joint agreement to commit mayhem at each other's expense. There was a time when David Diaz wanted no part of such a deal. He was young and lonely and unsure of his future then, an amateur really. Today he is a different man. At 31, he is a champion with a title belt locked away in a box that, like his own career, he had to make adjustments to create.
"The WBC didn't give me a suitcase for the belt so I use the IBA suitcase," Diaz said, "but I took the IBA logo off it. I know how hard it was for me to win that belt. I'm not going there to give it up."
He's going there to fight "El Terrible" over it. Fight him, win or lose, like a professional.
I know there are plenty of people out there who don't believe I'm a fighter or a champion. They feel like Morales does, that I'm an amateur. Well, look at where I am.
HBO PPV - Aug. 4, 2007
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