In 1996, Diaz defeated Zab Judah twice to make the Olympic team. Two years ago, Jose Armando Santa Cruz got knocked out by Diaz in the 10th round of a title fight Santa Cruz was easily winning. Now Manny Pacquiao faces the enigmatic Diaz on his way to "bigger" things - and he might just want to watch out
That David Diaz finds himself about to get in the ring with the boxer Ring Magazine recently named the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world is something of a miracle, considering his past career. Manny Pacquiao arrived here after a glorious, five-year journey down streets paved with gold. Diaz followed a path of cracked pavement.
By any measure, Diaz's career has until recently been a major disappointment. It's not that he doesn't have a good record (34-1-1, 17 KOs); it's the impoverished quality of usual suspects Diaz has fought since coming out of the Olympics that makes him suspect.
One is hard-pressed to find a former Olympian who has had an undistinguished career as lengthy as Diaz. Typically, Olympians who see that they're going nowhere quit boxing and find a job. Diaz actually did leave boxing for two years to become an ironworker, but then he came back and continued to fight a long list of nobodies that would have broken the spirit of most boxers. Diaz persevered, however, in much the same way he fights -- relentlessly attacking and waiting for an opportunity.
Diaz is 32 now, and it must seem to him like an eternity since he beat Judah in the Olympic trials when he went off to the Games looking for gold at age 20. Certainly there was every reason to believe Diaz had a shot at winning some kind of medal. His amateur record after defeating Judah was 160-16 and included four Chicago Golden Gloves championships and three National Golden Gloves titles.
But after beating his first opponent in Atlanta, he was matched up against a future professional world title challenger, Oktay Urkal, who would go on to win the Silver Medal. Diaz dropped a 14-6 decision in no small part because of an electronic scoring system that gave no credit to his relentless style of attacking.
The defeat was a crushing one for Diaz, but the young boxer's nightmarish journey was just beginning. When he turned pro in November of 1996, expectations for him were still high because of his power-punching style, but something got lost in translation from amateur to paid fighter. Diaz's first six opponents had a combined record of 31-39, yet Diaz did not record his first knockout until his seventh bout.
Although he won five more times without a defeat, the level of his opponents remained stagnant. Finally, with a record of 12-0 and totally discouraged, Diaz quit boxing after beating Steve Larrimore (25-24) in September of 2000. What made him feel all the more down on boxing was the fact that by that year, four of his Olympic teammates were world champions: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Fernando Vargas, Eric Morel and David Reid. It must have rubbed salt in his wounds knowing that seven months before he quit, Zab Judah also became a world champion.
There were also civilian life factors which contributed to Diaz's departure from boxing. In 1997, his older brother, Francisco, whom he was close with, died, and his mother had been on dialysis for years waiting for a kidney transplant.
"My being the small one of the family, I was the one helping out my mom, and most of the time it took away from boxing," Diaz has said. "I also lost track of what I was doing. I was a young kid; I didn't have my head on right. I lost my sight. That's how I like to call it, I lost my sight."
During his hiatus from a sport he had been involved in since he was eight, he met his future wife Tanya, and it was she who encouraged him to return to his dream of winning a championship. Two years and 19 days after he quit, Diaz made a fitting "comeback" -- he was right back fighting the same awful competition, including a first bout against one Anthony Cobb, who sported a 4-28-3 record.
For 13 straight fights Diaz continued to find himself in the ring with boxers who probably worked second jobs at pizzerias and Burger Kings. But finally in his 27th career fight he was matched up with a live prospect and future world title challenger, Kendall Holt, who was 17-1 at the time. It was Diaz's first chance to show what he could do against a top contender.
Alas, Diaz got knocked down in the first round. He got up to continue attacking Holt in his usual way. Diaz's style, however, tends to leave him wide open at times, and Holt, who was three inches taller and had a five-inch reach advantage, landed consistently. In the seventh round, Diaz knocked down Holt, but it would prove to be a brief hurrah. Holt pounded Diaz in the next round until the ref stopped the fight with 24 seconds left to go.
Needless to say, the defeat sent Diaz back to the pizza workers. He fought his next two bouts against nonentities with records of 13-28-5 and 46-40-4. But this long, sad tale of unrealized potential has a happy ending.
In the second of his two fights after Holt, Diaz's trainer Jim Strickland took note that his boxer weighed in at 137 pounds, three under the junior welterweight limit. It wasn't the first time that Diaz had been a pound or two under the limit, so Strickland talked it over with Diaz and his promoter, Top Rank, and a decision was made that would change the course of his career. He moved down to fight as a lightweight (135).
And that's when the worm started to turn. In his first three fights at lightweight, the opponents all had winning if not distinguished records. Diaz won two and drew with the other to raise his deceptively impressive record to 31-1-1. Still, Diaz was 30 years old now and 10 years removed from his Olympic days. It looked like he would need divine intervention to get a title fight. Instead, the sanctioning bodies decided to shine a light down on him.
In August of 2006, a sanctioning body somehow came to the conclusion he deserved to fight for an interim belt with a well-regarded younger contender, Jose Armando Santo Cruz. The decision made sense only in the tortured logic of the alphabet boxing world because in his last fight, Diaz had to go 12 rounds to beat somebody named Cristian Favela, who had an 11-10-4 record.
Most observers expected that Santa Cruz would have no problem walking through Diaz. Nobody, however, told that to Diaz. He had a fight plan which he executed to perfection -- although most observers watching the bout were sure he was on his way to another defeat against just the second quality opponent of his career.
In typical Mexican style, Diaz kept working Santa Cruz's body, not worried that he was falling behind on points. Always a strong finisher, Diaz's strategy paid off in the 10th round. With just over a minute left to go until the bell, the Chicago southpaw caught a tiring Santa Cruz with a vicious left upper cut that sent him to the canvas. Santa Cruz beat the count, but a flurry of punches by Diaz put him down a second time. Again he got up. But when Diaz nailed a wide open Santa Cruz with a flush right, referee Richard Steele stopped it with 24 seconds left in the round. Santa Cruz was leading on the cards at the time, 88-83 twice, and 87-84.
The lost Olympian was found again. David Diaz was a world champion, albeit one who had yet to earn the respect of the boxing community. In a division which at the time had Juan and Julio Diaz as champions, David was regarded as the "other" Diaz.
His first title defense did little to change that perception. Diaz eked out a close decision over Erik Morales, the badly-faded former champion who was moving up in weight and fighting for the last time. Then, after a non-title, stay-busy fight this past March, Diaz caught lightning in a bottle.
Seeing no money fights at junior lightweight, Pacquiao decided to test the waters at lightweight. It is not a classified secret that Pacquiao and promoter Bob Arum chose to fight Diaz out of the top tier of lightweight boxers because he is considered the weakest and most vulnerable of the bunch.
Diaz, who fought 28 times as a junior welterweight, doesn't see it that way, of course. He feels he is bigger and stronger and can beat an elite fighter who began his career as a flyweight.
"This is going to be an all-out war," Diaz said at a press conference. "Manny is a straight-forward fighter, as am I. We're both going to go at it, but the only thing that's going to happen is I'm going to win."
In many ways, Diaz has already won. He is the only one of his Olympic teammates still a world champion. He will be fighting one of the world's best and most popular fighters on his first pay-per-view card ever, and he'll enter a Las Vegas venue for only the third time in his career. Considering where he was just two years ago, Diaz is a poster boy for the fighter who just wouldn't go away. Perhaps he should enter the arena at the Mandalay Bay to "My Way" from Frank Sinatra. Like the song says: the record shows he took the blows. It may not have been a pretty way, but it was his way.