By Thomas Gerbasi
When most of the kids in Santo Domingo were turning double plays, hoping for a shot at the major leagues, Felix Diaz was turning over his punches in the gym, learning the craft that would lead him to an Olympic gold medal in 2008. It has also put him on the doorstep of a world title should he defeat WBC / WBO junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford this Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
For the 33-year-old southpaw, nothing much has changed from 2008 to now in terms of his approach to the sport.
“I’ve trained just like as if I’m going to win the gold medal,” Diaz said through manager / translator Jose Nunez. “I’ve been training real hard because this is something I’ve always wanted. The dream was to fight for a world championship and I prepared myself well. This is the most I’ve been prepared for a fight because I know that Terence Crawford is a terrific fighter and I have to come in at my best.”
Maybe it’s that mindset that has led him to wins in 19 of his 20 pro bouts, with the only blemish a controversial decision loss to Lamont Peterson in October 2015. Since the Peterson fight, he handed Sammy Vasquez his first pro defeat last July and stopped Levis Morales in a keep busy bout in December. And after calling for a fight with Nebraska’s finest, he finally got his wish, one that not too many folks at 140 pounds are making. But like Max Schmeling before his first fight with Joe Louis, it’s clear that Diaz sees something in the unbeaten Crawford that he can exploit in the biggest fight of his career.
“Obviously, he is the champion and he is the best, but I feel I have the experience to beat Terence Crawford,” Diaz said. “Terence hasn’t really fought anyone that would give him problems stylistically, so I feel that I can cause problems for him.”
He can, but he’ll need Crawford’s help to do it. If the champion decides to use his three-inch height advantage and box, he may not thrill the crowd, but he can pull off a safe win. But if “Bud” reverts to form and decides that once he gets hit he’s going to brawl and try to prove a point, then all of a sudden it has Fight of the Year potential and gives Diaz his best chance to win.
Either way, expect Diaz to come out swinging, not just to give himself the best chance to win, but to take the judges out of the equation in a fight where Crawford is the A-side.
“That’s always been something that I worry about, and I’ve been on the wrong side of a decision before,” he said. “But every time it happens, it’s a learning experience and I try to go in there and get the knockout instead of going for the decision.”
Yet who knows what may happen in the heart of New York City. This isn’t Omaha, so there could be a large Dominican contingent showing up for their man, and the crowd could sway the judges in Diaz’ favor. The challenger wouldn’t mind such a development, but he’s not counting on it.
“I don’t feel like it’s an advantage,” he said when asked if this is almost like a home game for him. “I think Crawford will bring the same amount of people as well, but it’s a great opportunity to be fighting in the “Mecca,” where all the greats have fought.”
Diaz could stamp his name in MSG lore with a win on Saturday, making him an Olympic gold medal winner and a professional world champion. That’s heady stuff for a kid who used to box barefoot because he couldn’t afford the proper shoes. But he’s not about to become someone different just because he gets an extra belt for his collection.
“If, God willing, I win, this will definitely change my whole life,” he said. “But I’ve always been humble, I’ve always stayed in the community where I was brought up, and this is a dream for me to become a world champion for my country. I won a gold medal and now I want to win a world championship as well. It won’t change me as a person, though. I will still be living in the same neighborhood, still wearing the same clothes. I’m a humble guy and I appreciate life as it is.”