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Graduation Day Part 1

In movies, the up-and-coming boxer is a familiar hero. Heavyweight actors from Marlon Brando to Robert DeNiro to Will Smith have all played the role in award-winning performances.

But on a Saturday afternoon inside two sprawling Hollywood studio lots, real life fighters are taking their turns in front of the camera. Clad in full boxing gear, they command the stage one by one and perform.

"Remember this face," says the 26-year old southpaw Chad Dawson.

"I am the future of boxing," declares WBC welterweight champion, Andre Berto, 25.

The unbeaten Chris Arreola, states simply and forcefully, "You will know my name."

His fellow Mexican-American Juan Diaz follows, "I am the next generation."

Though clearly more adept at delivering punches than scripted lines, these men are among a cast of top-echelon boxers who have been cast as "The Class of 2009." Including Paul Williams, Juan Manuel Marquez, David Haye, James Kirkland, Victor Ortiz and Alfredo Angulo, the Class of 2009 marks HBO's showcase of boxing's future. Like every generational wave in boxing, these young fighters are exciting to watch and eager to fight. But many of them bring something new to the ring that boxing hasn't seen before.

Consider Arreola and Diaz. At 27, Arreola is a rare boxing breed - a 6-foot-4 Mexican-American heavyweight with world championship potential. "The legacy I want to leave behind is the same that Jack Johnson did for his people," he says. "I want to be the first Mexican-American to wear the heavyweight crown, and I look forward to doing it this year."

Arreola has reason to be confident. He is unbeaten in his professional career, having knocked out 23 of his 26 opponents. "The Nightmare," as Arreola has been nicknamed, intends to protect this unblemished record. "It's extremely important that I stay unbeaten," he says. "It's very important for the simple reason that it adds extra zeroes to my paycheck."

The brash Arreola stands in stark contrast to Diaz - and not just because of the 10 inches he holds over the lightweight. At 5 feet 6 inches, Diaz fits the standard Mexican-American boxing mold more closely. He's also proven already proven himself. At 25, the former unified WBA, WBO and IBF lightweight world champion is one of the most accomplished young champions in history.

Despite his career success, the traits that set Diaz apart most may be his academic achievements and hopes for the future. "I want to show young kids that it's possible to accomplish your dreams," says Diaz, who graduates from the University of Houston in May and plans to go to law school. "Just because we're fighters, we're not dumb. You can box and go to school and follow your dreams at the same time."

During a break between the video and photo shoots, Arreola and Diaz spoke freely about their careers and what it feels like to be regarded as the new face of boxing.

"This is all a part of big-time boxing," Arreola says, preparing for another take in front of the camera as a production assistant powders his torso. "We all worked so hard to be here, these are just rewards. My first fight was in a tent and I got paid $600. So this is a big difference. But I paid my dues. It's my time now."

"This is something boxing needs," agrees Diaz. "Oscar De la Hoya is one in a million. He didn't need this to make him popular because he has that charisma. But guys like me and all these other guys, we need a little push. This is just going to open the eyes of the world and give us the boost we need to become the next superstars."

Diaz-who recently signed with De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions-could soar into the superstardom on Saturday, Feb. 28, when he meets Mexican legend Juan Manuel Marquez for The Ring magazine lightweight title. The fight at the Toyota Center in Houston, Diaz's hometown, is expected to draw a crowd of 15,000-plus and will be televised live on HBO.

Though he has yet to fight for a title, Arreola feels he is ready to compete with the best - and he's eager to show it. "I'm close to a title shot right now," he says. "I'm already ranked number two by two world associations, so it's just a matter of time and signing the papers." Arreola would settle for a chance at any of the title belts. But Wladimir Klitschko is the champion he really wants to fight. "You always want to get the top dog," he says. "Klitschko has the big 'X' on his back and everybody wants him. If you don't want the top dog, then you don't belong in this business."

Arreola is slated to fight April 11 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on the Paul Williams vs. Winky Wright fight card. No opponent has been named, but Arreola has been brought along at a steady pace by his manager Al Haymon and promoter Dan Goossen and could see his title shot shortly.

Arreola's "classmate" knows all about the challenges associated with earning, and keeping, a world title. "Baby Bull" Diaz (34-1, 17 KOs) lost his first professional bout and the lightweight title last March against the veteran Nate Campbell in a split-decision upset. In September, he bounced back to win a 12-round split decision against Australia's Michael Katsidis and become the new IBO lightweight champion.

"I cherished being an unbeaten champion, but the loss was a reality check," Diaz says. "It was bad that it happened, but in a way it was good because now I don't have that pressure of being undefeated. I can relax in the ring and just concentrate on making sure I win the fight."

And winning fights is what Diaz has always done. He was 105-5 as an amateur, fighting both in the U.S. and in Mexico. He thought he had qualified for the 2000 Mexican Olympic team but was told he was too young to compete in Sydney. On the advice of manager Willie Savannah, Diaz made the decision to turn pro and hasn't regretted it. Since then, Diaz has continued to excel in the ring and in his academics. He may very well be the first boxer to ever claim, "I'm a four-time world champion and I graduate in May with a bachelor's in Political Science, and I'm only 25."

The Class of 2009 already has its valedictorian, but look for Arreola, Dawson, Berto and the rest of the group to graduate to the next level shortly - and with lots of honors.

"I want to show young kids that it's possible to accomplish your dreams," says Diaz, who graduates from the University of Houston in May and plans to go to law school. "Just because we're fighters, we're not dumb. You can box and go to school and follow your dreams at the same time."

Posted 12:00 AM | Feb 26, 2009

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