By Ryan Maquiñana
The sign outside the city says, “Welcome to Friendly El Monte.” The slogan is sprawled across the Southern California municipality's buses and benches. In fact, the residents are so amiable they politely tip you off to stories.
“My neighbor Joseph Diaz Jr. won U.S. Nationals again at 123 pounds,” Ricardo Guevara sent via e-mail. “He’s always been a really good kid around here and you should check him out.”
While I was aware of the 18-year-old Diaz from his exploits at the big Desert Showdown amateur tournament, Ricardo’s message piqued my interest so I decided to find out for myself. I obtained Joseph’s contact information, picked up the phone, and gave the young southpaw a ring. True to form, he started our conversation warmly and politely.
“Call me JoJo!” Diaz exclaimed. “Ricky’s always congratulating me after every fight, and the support from the neighborhood has kept me motivated. It’s been an amazing couple years. I would love to make it to the Olympics and represent South El Monte.”
For Diaz, that journey to London begins on Sunday in Mobile, Ala., when the two-time reigning bantamweight national champion must emerge victorious from the eight-man, double-elimination U.S. Men’s Olympic Trials to accomplish the feat.
FIELD OF DREAMS REVISED
Diaz’s athletic journey began eight years ago with a bat and mitt. Initially, he thought he was going to be the next Dodger great.
“I played baseball for about eight years. I was a pitcher, catcher, and center fielder,” he remembered. “I watched a little bit of boxing, like a couple Oscar De La Hoya fights, but that’s about it.”
So how exactly does one end up going from the diamond to the ring?
“I actually took up boxing when I was eight, but I didn’t like it at first so I quit,” Diaz said. “Then, when I was 10, I went back to it and it grew on me. I’d have to say it got serious a couple years ago when I made it all the way to the National Silver Gloves with only about 16 fights.”
By then, his sport of choice was academic.
“I was on my high school team and I basically had to choose between baseball and boxing, so I had to quit baseball,” he said. “I love boxing now, even the training. I get up at six o’clock every day to run six miles, mostly around El Monte and Mt. Baldy. I do 200 push-ups a day and 300 sit-ups. I love doing all the shadowboxing and the bags and sparring and stuff. This is my life now.”
LEARNING ON THE JOB
A lot of youngsters have the luxury of fathers with boxing credentials to man the corner. In this case, however, Joseph Diaz Sr., had no prior experience as a trainer, and through the pair’s constant dedication to improve, the sport progressively evolved into more of a lifestyle than a hobby for the two of them.
“I checked out all the resources available,” Joseph Sr. said. “I went on YouTube, I asked a lot of questions, I talked to a lot of coaches and trainers. I gathered as much information as I could, especially from Ben Lira at our gym. I stayed humble because I had to have that attitude. If I see anything that can benefit my son, I’ll use it.”
“He’s put a lot of effort into becoming a better coach,” his son said. “He’s always watching instructional videos and looking on YouTube, anywhere he can find information. I think he’s doing a pretty good job.”
Remarkably, “Big Joe” and “JoJo” have fared extremely well in the amateur fight game. Honing their respective crafts at South El Monte Teamsters Youth Boxing Gym, Joseph Sr. has steered his son to a 94-4 record and wins over the likes of Ricky Rodriguez, Joet Gonzalez and Antonio Nieves. If you ask him, he attributes it to his ability to constantly adapt.
“I’m a good boxer with a really tight defense, but I’ve got power, too,” he said. “If the opponent’s bigger, then I can outbox him and outskill him. Lately though, I’ve been working on picking my shots and using my right hand to the body to wear people down.”
“I would like to see more combinations from him with this new point system,” his father added. “His footwork is his foundation, and he’s been getting better every day with that. He doesn’t get overanxious, but while I like how he picks his shots, I think more combinations will score points when needed.”
Such a repertoire can come in handy when making the transition to the pro game. Diaz received a taste of what that entails when he joined the Los Angeles Matadors of the World Series of Boxing. Without headgear and lighter gloves, he found himself learning a whole different language in the ring.
“It was a great experience,” he said after going 1-1 with the Matadors, a team which featured both flyweight Rau’shee Warren and middleweight Chris Pearson. “I only fought twice, but I got to fight a German and I got to see how different the styles are.”
Of course, seeing how he fared in last month’s nationals with his second title in two years, it’s safe to say that Diaz has had little trouble getting used to an Olympic-type atmosphere.
“It’s been a blessing for me to also travel to England and Italy with the national team,” he added. “They don’t fight the way we do over here. They try to get their angles and counter to rack up points. It’s helped me fight different styles.”
One thing he will miss about America in a return voyage to Europe is the food.
“The churches and buildings and people were amazing, but I was kind of disappointed with the pizza in Italy,” he said, laughing. “I was expecting something like pizza we have over here with a little more flavor and spices. In Britain, the food was O.K., but we ended up going to McDonald’s every day.”
TURNING THE PAGE
This weekend’s Trials bring plenty of potential pitfalls. Tramaine Williams of New Haven, Conn., has turned plenty of heads with his handspeed. National PAL champ O’Shanique Foster of Orange, Tex., has been a fixture on the national scene.
Diaz already holds wins over two entrants in the field in Nieves and Gonzalez, both of whom were vanquished in last month’s U.S. Nationals. However, the stakes are higher this time. Nobody’s an easy out, including Isaac Torres of Mission, Tex., who proved in the Last Chance Qualifier that he belonged with the big boys and might yet face the likely top-seeded Diaz in the opening bout.
“Everybody’s tough on the national level,” Diaz Jr. said. “Joet Gonzalez is someone I’ve fought five times for example. O’Shanique Foster’s a really great fighter, too, but me and my dad have a gameplan for the Trials.”
“We’ve kind of enjoyed sneaking under the radar the past couple years,” his father said. “You won’t find too many videos of him on YouTube. There are some really great fighters out there, and we’re going to have to be prepared if JoJo wants to win out there.”
For now, Diaz and his father have returned to El Monte to both sharpen the former’s tools for the biggest tournament of his career and spend some quality time at home with the family. But as stated above, boxing has taken a life of its own in the Diaz household, and the neighbors often can find father and son shadowboxing together in the driveway.
“I’ve got some big dreams,” Joseph Jr. added. “My mom and dad have been making all kinds of sacrifices for me, and keeping me out of trouble. I want to buy a new house for my family and take care of them.”
After being informed of his son’s comments, “Big Joe” smiled.
“When we’re at home, we have a father-son relationship, but at the same time, we’re friends,” he said. “We get along really well and we talk about everything. Hearing something like that makes me proud of the type of kid he’s turned out to be because he’s always looking out for the needs of others.”
The youngest of four children, “JoJo” is also the only boy of the bunch, something he has embraced for a certain reason.
“The thing I like about my sisters,” he said, “is that they help me out a lot, especially with the girls.”
But make no mistake. As friendly as an El Monte resident can be with the ladies, Joseph Diaz Jr. made it clear that they can wait, because at the moment, his focus is singular in nature.
“I’ve trained my butt off in the gym and I’ve been feeling unstoppable,” he said. Come August I’m going to be ready, and I’m going to be the next Olympian.”
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. E-mail him at email@example.com, contact him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rmaq28 or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.