Unconventional wisdom: Joseph Diaz Jr. challenges Gary Russell Jr.
The fight Joseph “JoJo” Diaz Jr. has been talking about for years will finally play out this tonight, when he faces WBC featherweight titleholder Gary Russell Jr., and, for him to be victorious, the undefeated contender must become the antagonist who prompted his introduction to boxing.
“I don’t know what it is. Everybody wanted to pick on JoJo for no reason at all. Even people that didn’t know him,” recalled Diaz’s father Joseph Sr. He even recalled a time when his son was 4 or 5 years old at Dodger Stadium, where another kid sitting behind them started hitting JoJo with a foam finger for no reason at all. Getting bullied was somewhat of a normal thing for Diaz, as a young kid growing up in South El Monte, California – a predominantly Mexican-American town on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles County, so deeply rooted in Mexican culture, non-Spanish-speaking/”Americanized” households like the Diaz’s could find themselves looked down upon by neighbors. Like all featherweights, Diaz was the small kid but, even today, he doesn’t look all that threatening. At 11 years old, he figured to do something about it by entering a boxing gym, and, once others knew he could fight, Diaz didn’t have issues since.
“In the beginning, it was kind of like, just put him into boxing for self defense and basically I just thought that’s how far it will go,” said Diaz Sr. “Once he learned how to fight, he didn’t have to go around beating everybody up or anything like that. Thank God people knew he was a fighter and they just left him alone. It worked out good that way.”
Diaz Sr. has trained his son the entire time. A few others have helped, like Ben Lira, who also works closely with Abel Sanchez, but Diaz has grown as a coach along the way, even admitting to learning over YouTube videos. However it’s only been in an effort to help his son, not to branch off into a second career.
“Once he started competing and stuff, it was kind of like, OK – he’s pretty good at this,” said Diaz. “He started telling me that he wanted to become a professional at 12 or 13 years old. We kept at it. He was playing baseball at the time and then eventually he decided he didn’t want to play baseball anymore, which kind of broke my heart because I was hoping that he would get a partial scholarship or something. He was a pretty good ball player. He decided he wanted to quit baseball and focus on boxing and that was fine – I’d stick by his side no matter what. Then he kept on winning and won a national championship at 17-years old. I think it was the excitement of seeing my son competing and him having a good time, having father-son time together. That was the most important thing for me. It wasn’t really planning ahead to be the Olympian, to become the world champion, but now that we got into the professional ranks, then we started working our way to this point, of course, thinking about becoming a world champion. It’s every boxer’s dream and, of course, that became one of our goals, now we have that opportunity. He could’ve went other ways but we wanted Gary Russell. Joseph wanted Gary Russell. That’s been his plan the whole time and we’re excited about it.”
Diaz, 26-0 (14), will be traveling to Russell’s home turf tonight in the co-feature of a split-site telecast on Showtime (10:05 p.m. ET / 7:05 p.m. PT). Flying in on Tuesday, the Diazses will get to visit Washington D.C. for the first time but have been well-traveled, going as far as Azerbaijan a year before JoJo’s 2012 Olympic bid in London. JoJo even mentioned fighting in Nicaragua and Italy, when asked about the last time he got booed entering the ring, which is sure to be the case at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. They also go up against another father-son combo but under completely different circumstances.
Had Gary Russell Jr. wanted to play baseball instead of box as a kid, he would’ve needed to be raised under a completely different household. Gary Russell Sr., who is also a self-taught trainer, put his seven sons into boxing at an early age, and named all of them “Gary.” Boxing was an avenue out of the rough and rugged streets of Capitol Heights for the Russells, who have experienced tragedy within the family because of gun violence, and their story is unique, to say the least. The younger Diaz will be facing the most accomplished of the bunch and, without question, his biggest challenge to date, or even perhaps the toughest fight for any contender in the current featherweight landscape.
Russell, 28-1 (17), was one of the most accomplished amateurs the United States has produced. in recent time, but his 2008 Olympic bid in Beijing was marred at the weigh-in, when he collapsed and was disqualified. Still he was able to jump onto the professional scene quickly, back when manager Al Haymon had fewer fighters in his stable. Russell wracked up 19 victories within his first three years until earning a few “Prospect of the Year” awards in 2011. The competition was slow to step up, and so has been the activity for Russell since 2012, fighting only 10 times since the start of that calendar year. Before having a career hidden on undercards across the States, Russell fought Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2014 for a vacant featherweight title but the majority decision loss was convincing, and nothing to be ashamed of, considering the Ukrainian’s success since. That year marked the last time Russell fought more than once in a calendar year, and, after beating Jhonny Gonzalez for the belt he holds today, the annual outing hasn’t been against the best competition. In fact, he’s yet to face a young contender in his athletic prime until tonight and it will be the first time facing an undefeated opponent in his career. That said to his credit, Russell wiped the floor with Patrick Hyland and Oscar Escandon in impressive fashion. As for the inactivity, if there is any boxer on the planet used to fighting seldomly, it would be Russell, who hasn’t shown any real misstep, riding a knockout streak of three, and Diaz Jr. agreed with that notion.
“Exactly. Me and my father had that conversation,” said Diaz before revealing a key factor in his plan. “We had no doubt that he’s going to be at his best. We have no doubt that inactivity will have no factor May 19th because he’s already used to it. Kind of like Floyd Mayweather, when he took a couple years off, then fought Juan Manuel Marquez. He looked tremendous. Sharp, elusive and fast and that’s how Gary Russell Jr. is. He only fights one time a year but he’s used to that kind of that inactivity, so his body is adapted to that. We know that he will be at his best but his best won’t be good enough. I’m hungry. I’m 25 years old. I’m a 126-pounder but, come fight night, I’m gonna be 138 or 139. I’m going to be the bigger fighter in there and I feel like he’s doubting me and taking me lightly, which he shouldn’t.”
Since being signed to Golden Boy Promotions in late 2012, Diaz has been kept active against the typical string of opponents against whom the company pits its prospects. In 2015, Rene Alvarado was the first real step-up for Diaz and it still stands today as one of Diaz’s best outings that started his rise in the WBC’s featherweight rankings. In 2016, another step-up against Jayson Velez was featured on HBO, and Diaz passed the test, having to overcome a cut in the early rounds. Last year was the only time Diaz fought less than four times a year, and both of those fights were wins against unbeaten prospects Manuel Avila and Rafael Rivera, on HBO pay-per-view undercards. Ruben Tamayo, Victor Proa, Andrew Cancio and Horacio Garcia are other Mexican tough guys Diaz didn’t have a real problem with either. Tonight will be Diaz’s second fight of 2018, however, and he’s coming off one of his best knockout wins last February. The third round body shot KO of Victor Terrazas was a highlight for his showcase on ESPN, where just before the ring walk, Diaz took part in an impromptu TV interview calling out the man he would eventually face next. Diaz has had good experience going into his first world title shot, which came from being the WBC’s No.1 featherweight contender, but he hasn’t seen anything yet that would prepare him for Russell’s speed.
“I feel like Gary Russell Jr. is going to want to use the hand speed but I’m not going to let him use it, when throwing combinations,” Diaz said about the match-up. “I feel like he’s gonna want to throw punches in bunches but I’m not going to be there for him to land those effective shots. I’m only gonna be there when he wants to bang on the inside, and, when he wants to bang on the inside, that’s when I clobber on him and that’s when he feels my shots. He said he’s gonna try and get me out of there in four or five rounds but I don’t think that’s the case. I think he’s underestimating me. I hope he’s training his ass off because, come May 19th, I don’t want him to have any excuses. I want him to respect me and I want him to give me that acknowledgement that I came in prepared and I defeated the best Gary Russell Jr.”
Diaz has never been an underdog going into a fight, and before Friday’s weigh-in, he remains that way at 3-to-1 odds. Being the visitor will also be something new for him, and, when approached with the idea of hometown cooking in the event of a close fight, Diaz responded, “Every single round, I will push it to the limit. I have to make sure that there is no doubt that I’m victorious. Yeah, it’s going to be in his hometown but I personally have faith in the WBC. I know that they’re going to bring in the right referee to make sure it’s an even call and an even fight. The best fighter that is supposed to win that night will win that night.”
As for Diaz Sr. on the subject, he said, “Well, the plan is to make sure Joseph is staying busy, dictating the pace, winning rounds and not worrying about that but knowing we need to win every round. We have to beat this guy up convincingly. That’s the plan. We’re not going over there thinking it’s going to be a close fight. We’re confident that we’re going to go there and beat up Gary Russell. That’s just gonna be it. Everyone is gonna see it, and the result is Joseph’s hand being raised. That’s something we visualize and have faith in. God didn’t just bring us this far just to bring us this far. We’re people of faith. I’m a believer in God and I believe He brought us here for a reason.”
At Thursday’s final press-conference, Diaz got a little emotional when talking about what it took and how long he’s waited to get to this point. That’s never really been seen before by Diaz, who has always seemed comfortable on camera and a PR reps dream, when conducting interviews. Maybe it’s a sign of relief that the wait is over or the realization that his shot is almost here. Despite some trash-talk in the lead-up, Russell and Diaz were cordial at the presser and it ended with a no-nonsense stare down with no eye contact at all. Diaz tried to engage optically but Russell didn’t look up to give him the satisfaction. With the weigh-in behind him, the Diazses will go see a George Lopez comedy show, in order to get away. It’s sort of a tradition for them to see a movie the night before a fight but, in this case, it’s a special occasion.
“It’s really important because, after you’re done making the weight, the week of the weigh-in is very difficult,” Diaz explained. “A lot people don’t know that. Once I make the weight, I need to ease my mind, that all the stresses go away. I’m going to eat, enjoy, have a few laughs and then, right after the show, watch a couple of Gary Russell’s films again, then go to sleep.”
For a few years now, “The Come Up” has been a rallying cry made-up and hashtagged by Diaz, and it’s been said about as often as the young hopeful has said his foe’s name: Gary Russell Junior. Perhaps there’s a reason Diaz says the full name – the way anyone would recount a kid with whom they attended school – because tangled in those past memories is the person he needs to be in order to win.
“I have to be the bully in there,” said Diaz. “I have to take away his speed and I have to take him to a point he’s never been before in his entire career. I have to make sure that I’m breaking him down, not only physically but mentally. I want to take everything from him, to the point where he’s just doubting everything that he’s trained for…Every single time that I’m running or every single time I’m just hanging out at my house, knowing that the fight is just a week away, I’m always just thinking about the past, how I got here. Thinking about all the struggles me and my family has been through financially for them to support me in international tournaments. To get me the exposure, to gain all the experiences that make me the person I am today. This fight is not only for myself but for everybody that has been supporting me since day one. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
(All quotes from the Diazses were taken from a media workout, on May 10, at the Azteca Boxing Gym in Bell, California.)