Featherweight contender Joseph Diaz Jr. did not face much adversity on his way up the ladder. He was a 2012 U.S. Olympian, signed to a major promoter in Golden Boy and was given everything needed for success. And on May 19, Diaz, the mandatory challenger, entered the ring for the world title opportunity most expected he would get from day one.
Diaz was so confident that he would lift a 126-pound belt from Gary Russell Jr. on Russell's home turf in Oxen Hill, Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C., that he playfully requested that Russell's fans give him the name of the best restaurant in the area so he would have a place to go to get a great meal in celebration of his victory.
Well, that victory did not happen. Russell, the quicker, more polished and technical boxer, won a unanimous decision in an entertaining fight that was, at times, competitive but one Russell never appeared in any danger of losing.
The result was a bitter pill for Diaz to swallow.
"I'm going to go out there and give it my all and throw a lot of combinations, be very ferocious in there and make sure that I make a statement. I want to excite all the fans. I'm not going to let this one get past me." Joseph Diaz
"I think Gary Russell Jr. is a hell of a fighter. He put on a great performance," Diaz told ESPN this week. "He did what he had to do and he adapted to my style and he came out victorious. It was devastating for myself, not just losing my first professional fight but losing a world title fight opportunity that was presented to me and an opportunity I had been looking for my whole entire life.
"I felt like it was at the right time, and for me not to be able to get that world title it was very unfortunate, and I was very devastated."
But there was a silver lining.
"It was crazy because after the fight I had more fans than when I got in there," Diaz said. "After the fight a lot of the Maryland fans, a lot of Gary Russell fans, they were taking pictures with me, they were saying, 'Joseph Diaz, you're a hell of a fighter, keep at it, you're going to be a champion soon. We loved your fight. We loved how you fought.' So when I was hearing that, it kind of boosted my motivation, and it kind of boosted my ego.
"For about two, three weeks I was very devastated because I really wanted to become a titleholder, and I know I have the potential and I know I am elite [an] 126-pounder where I could defeat these guys, but unfortunately, that wasn't my night."
Three months later, "JoJo" Diaz has received a somewhat unexpected opportunity. Not long after the loss, Diaz got a call from manager Ralph Heredia giving him the good news: Golden Boy had secured another title shot for him.
It's one Diaz really wanted, but by not making weight on Friday, Diaz won't be able to win the title when he faces Jesus Rojas, who owns a secondary featherweight belt, Saturday (Facebook Watch, 9 p.m. ET) at the Avalon Hollywood in Hollywood, California.
The fight will headline the first Golden Boy Fight Night card that will stream live and for free on Facebook Watch as part of a deal between Oscar De La Hoya's promotional company and the social media giant.
Diaz (26-1, 14 KOs), 25, of South El Monte, California, could not have been more excited when he got the news about the fight.
"It's a very tough fight. It's a 50-50 fight. He's going to have to keep him off of him, use angles and get out of the way of the big bombs. Rojas is a dangerous fighter. He's a very, very hungry fighter, Rojas." Golden Boy president Eric Gomez
"I was stoked just knowing that God is presenting another opportunity for me to showcase my skills and for me to get on top of the throne at the 126-pound division again," he said. "That boosted my whole adrenaline and made me motivated. I look back at the Gary Russell fight, and now I don't take it as a defeat. I take it as a learning lesson. I fought the best 126-pounder in the weight class. I came up short that night, but I put on a good fight. Come (Saturday) I'm going to showcase to everybody that I have a whole different arsenal and I deserve to be on top of the 126-pound division."
Golden Boy president Eric Gomez said that even though Diaz lost to Russell, he was proud of his performance and believes the loss will make him better.
"Whenever a young fighter like Joseph has their first loss, they learn more than in all the previous wins they've had. This loss against Gary Russell will make him a much better fighter," Gomez said. "We can see it already in the gym. He's adjusted. He's using his jab more, throwing more combinations. He learned from that fight."
Rojas, however, is an entirely different kind of fighter than Russell. He's more physical and applies relentless pressure.
"It's a very tough fight. It's a 50-50 fight," said Gomez, who also promotes Rojas. "He's going to have to keep him off of him, use angles and get out of the way of the big bombs. Rojas is a dangerous fighter. He's a very, very hungry fighter, Rojas. He feels that now is his time and he has a platform to showcase his ability."
The platform is a streaming service, which has become quite the rage in boxing recently. Showtime streams bouts from the non-televised portion of its events as well as cards from overseas. A major component of ESPN's deal with Top Rank is streaming boxing events on ESPN+, and new sports streaming service DAZN kicks off its eight-year, $1 billion deal to stream Matchroom Boxing cards in September. Then there is Golden Boy's deal for at least five shows on Facebook Watch.
Diaz said he is honored to be headlining the first event of the new endeavor.
"It's gonna be huge and take me to a whole different level," Diaz said. "It's gonna give me that exposure to make a superstar that I feel like I deserve to be. Oscar and Golden Boy Promotions, they have faith in me and they trust in me, they trust in my capabilities. And that's why they're giving me this opportunity to showcase my talents on such a huge platform.
"I feel like fighting on Facebook is a whole different animal because everybody has Facebook and not only am I going to attract boxing fans but I'm gonna attract a whole different type of audience."
Diaz faces a formidable opponent in Rojas (26-1-2, 19 KOs), 31, of Puerto Rico, who won the interim title by impressive seventh-round knockout of Claudio Marrero in September and then being elevated to the "regular" titleholder.
Rojas, however, is one of three fighters with a claim to a WBA featherweight world title. Leo Santa Cruz is the so-called "super" titleholder. Rojas holds the "regular" belt and Jhack Tepora has the interim title.
Diaz said he knows all about the criticism lobbed at the WBA, but he views this opportunity as an honor and a way to boost his career.
"It will open a lot of doors for me to fight Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Oscar Valdez," Diaz said. "It's gonna open a lot of doors for me to fight elite fighters at the top in the division, and that's what is the main goal. My main goal is to go out there and perform at my best and to go out there and perform with the best. It all starts Saturday night when I fight one of the toughest guys in the division.
"Jesus Rojas is a tough, tough fighter, and I know he brings it all to the table. I know he's very rugged in there. I know he throws a lot of shots. He's very aggressive. He applies that pressure and he tries to take you to the point where you've never been [in terms of] fatigue, and you're not moving around anymore and just standing there, and that's when he lands his power shots.
"I'm going to go out there and give it my all and throw a lot of combinations, be very ferocious in there and make sure that I make a statement," Diaz said. "I want to excite all the fans. I'm not going to let this one get past me. I'm really going to go out there and do my thing."
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