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Caught In The Middle

Juan Diaz's manager says his boxer lost a fight to Nate Campbell before he even got in the ring, a claim many boxers have made before. Now Diaz is trying to erase that memory by beating Michael Katsidis in a fight crucial to both boxers.

There is no way to prove that a boxer lost a fight because of outside distractions. Few people in boxing, however, would deny that an unfocused fighter is an accident waiting to happen. The record book says Nate Campbell won a split decision over previously unbeaten lightweight champion Juan Diaz on March 8, and nothing anybody says will change that. Still, manager Willie Savannah makes an interesting case that promoter Don King took up unwelcome residence inside Diaz's head in the weeks leading up to the fight.

2008 09 06 Diaz Katsidis overview caught in the middle

On the other side, Don King Productions makes a pretty good case that the strong-willed Savannah caused all the disruption. The bottom line is that it really isn't important who was at fault. After speaking with both camps, it's apparent that it would have been very difficult for Diaz, a sensitive 24-year-old who has a father-son relationship with Savannah, to have entered the ring a focused fighter.

In the weeks leading up to the Campbell fight, King and Savannah were locked in a bitter and often ugly contract dispute, which nixed a Feb. 9 bout with Michael Katsidis and spilled venom into the media.

"At the press conferences, King was mouthing off all the time about what bad a person Willie Savannah was," the manager said. "Hearing that really upset Juan. He was totally distracted. He told me he was going to use the fight to show up Don King."

Showing up King, Savannah says, was not exactly the game plan they had worked on for the fight. "He was supposed to come out boxing, but when the bell rang Juan jumped on Campbell's ass and was trying to destroy him."

Everything came to a head in the final press conference for the fight, which was to be held in a Cancun bull ring. According to Bob Goodman, DKP's vice president of boxing operations and public relations, King did not trash or impugn Savannah's character as the manager suggests, but merely pointed out all the things King had done for Diaz during the two years they had been together. King is known for his outrageous stunts at press conferences, but what he pulled this time was unusual, even by his standards.

King set up five small poster boards on the dais, each one stating the gains the promoter had achieved for Diaz, including the fact that he got the fighter two more belts and the biggest paydays his career.

The promoter also read a three-and-a-half-page statement reiterating the points from the board, and then while acknowledging Savannah "has done much for Juan and his family," said the manager was now impeding the progress of his fighter.

"Willie had made it crystal clear he was not staying with Don King when his contract was up (March 31), so at the press conference Don brought these poster boards that made it crystal clear why he wouldn't take the kid back," Goodman said. "And let's be clear on something: Don and the rest of us at DKP had nothing but good things to say about Juan. He's a terrific kid. It was Willie we had a problem with. Willie was trashing Don in the media every day. What was Don supposed to do, just stand there and take it?"

All the bickering, Savannah says, showed its effects on Diaz during training camp. "Juan knew how upset I was, and he told me he would rather give up his belts and not fight than see me having a heart attack or stroke," Savannah said. "He was hardly eating. When fight weekend came, my wife Clara said she didn't like what she was seeing in Juan. She said he was too skinny and fidgety. On Friday night I wanted to go home and give up the belts, but my lawyer said if I did, Don King would keep me in court for years."

As if things couldn't get worse, Diaz's trainer, Ronnie Shields, slipped in the lobby of his hotel on Friday and fractured his right foot. While Shields was able to work the corner, his discomfort could only contribute to a deteriorating situation.

"The corner was a mess," Savannah said. "They had put the first row of seats where we should have been standing. So we had to kneel on the steps to talk to Juan, and the people behind us were pushing us to get out of their way. I had to hold onto the ropes to keep my balance, and the IBF official who was sanctioning the fight told me he would disqualify Juan if I didn't let go of the ropes. Then, in one round the doctor got in the ring to look at Juan and blocked us from getting to him. In a later round, a second doctor came in and did the same thing. After the fight I asked who the second doctor was and was told there was only one doctor. It was total chaos."

What Savannah doesn't say is that, in the other corner, Campbell's team was experiencing the same problem. "When you're fighting in a bull ring and you have people climbing over each other to get seats, that's not Don's fault. We had the same situation with seats in Nate's corner," Goodman said.

The result of all this background fuss was that a wired-up Diaz burnt himself out in the early rounds and suffered the first loss of his career after winning all 33 of his previous fights. But, in the aftermath, Diaz didn't blame his inability to outwork Campbell.

"After the fight Juan told me he had let Don King get into his head," Savannah said. "Juan feels the fight had nothing to do with his ability, that Nate Campbell didn't beat him, Don King did. He said if there were no distractions, he would of course have won the fight."

HBO commentator Larry Merchant, who has heard more excuses from losing fighters than he cares to remember, doesn't put much stock in distraction theories. "At the end of the night, he just lost to a veteran who showed surprising staying power unlike others who just got beat down and couldn't handle the pace," he said. "Many favorites have used distractions as an excuse for being upset. Fighters are human, and sometimes the excuses can be real - especially when making weight is the big issue - but professionals are supposed to just deal with it."

In any case, Diaz is now promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and assumedly distraction-free. He will need to be in order to beat Katsidis, a Gatti-like warrior coming off his first career loss to Joel Casamayor.

"People wanted us to take a tune-up," Savannah said. "Tune-ups scare the hell out of me. The guy you're fighting doesn't think he's a tune-up, and he's going to go all out to beat you. Katsidis considers himself a bully, another Gatti. Well the way to beat a bully is to take the bully out of him, and that's what Juan is going to do. He's going to fight fire with fire."

The match-up is virtually guaranteed to be a war, and not only because both fighters are very aggressive in style. A second consecutive loss could devastate either of their careers.

"This fight is very crucial for Juan. Juan knows going into it that people expect him to prove himself, and I just hope he doesn't go out there and throw caution to the wind. It would be a big blow to either fighter if they lost. Juan is so motivated it is flat out unreal," Savannah said.

And he'd better be. If Diaz loses this time, the only distractions he can claim are the hard-pounding fists of Michael Katsidis.

"Katsidis considers himself a bully, another Gatti. Well the way to beat a bully is to take the bully out of him, and that's what Juan is going to do. He's going to fight fire with fire."

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