By Thomas Gerbasi
At 32, Julio Diaz isn’t at the age where he can wistfully muse about how things were back in his day. But after winning two world championship belts over the course of a 13 year pro career, he’s earned his right to speak his peace about the state of the game circa 2012, and when he does, he’s someone who should be listened to.
“The problem with a lot of these young cats coming up is that they’re way too ahead of themselves already,” said Diaz. “Starting with the basics and just fighting for the sport is good. But now these guys go out there and they’re just swinging away without the art and the sport of boxing. Now they’re just trying to land one punch, regardless of how it lands. They’re skipping the process prior to landing that punch. For me, from the first round I’ll invest two or three rounds, saving something up and working on a plan for the final result, and by the fourth round, that’s when I plan to end it. But I start from the first round setting that up and that’s the way I like to go about my fights. And these kids, they start the first round just like the last, and they just fight every round the same. It’s just a whole different era now.”
Not necessarily a better one. Today, there are plenty of great athletes, but far too few fighters. You know, ones who step into the ring and are willing to take risks, or technicians who know their craft inside and out, with all the subtleties that go along with it. Those fighters are built in the gym and built by testing themselves against the best possible competition. Diaz, a pro since 1999 who is part of a fighting family that includes former longtime contender Antonio and renowned trainer Joel, knows all about that, considering that he basically grew up in the sport.
“I was blessed with the opportunity from when I was young, not just with my brothers, but we had a gym where a lot of fighters came in,” Diaz recalled. “For my pro debut, my main sparring was Floyd Mayweather. He was at our gym getting ready for a fight, and he did his camp here in the valley where I live, and my trainer, he goes ‘hey, try the kid. Maybe you’ll get some work.’ And he (Mayweather) liked the way we were working and he used me for the whole month. Then Cesar Bazan would come in and I would spar him, the late Diego Corrales, (Marco Antonio) Barrera, and all these great fighters that I looked up to, I had the pleasure of being in the ring with them and I would learn a little bit from all of them. I would go to Big Bear and stay in (Oscar) De La Hoya’s camp when Antonio used to spar him, and I would watch the way they’d run, what they would eat, the way they would train, the way they would spar, and I was just a little kid admiring everybody and looking. Even when I was a world champion and even now, I always left myself open for improvement and to learn. I’ll watch the fights and I’ll catch something from a new prospect who has three fights and I’ll learn off that.”
That’s a throwback fighter, and as the last active fighter among his siblings, Diaz is carrying the torch in the family business, still hoping to show what he can do in a fairly new weight class.
This Saturday at the Fantasy Springs Casino Resort in Indio, California, he faces 19-2 Hector Sanchez in the “Solo Boxeo” main event on Telefutura. It’s the second fight back for “The Kidd” since a third round TKO loss to Kendall Holt in May of 2011 prompted a layoff of over a year. Diaz said he never officially retired; he just needed time to regroup, rest, and plot a healthier return at 147 pounds.
“I never had plans to retire or anything like that,” he said. “I just had issues with myself and I needed to step off a little bit and reset for a year. I kept on taking these fights when I knew I shouldn’t, and the fight with Kendall Holt, I didn’t take it five times when it was offered at 140.”
Eventually though, Diaz listened to people around him and he accepted the fight. It wasn’t pretty, as a crushing left hook sent the two-time lightweight champion down hard to the canvas. Diaz gamely made it to his feet, but with his legs wobbly, the fight was waved off. The loss capped off a five fight stretch in which he only went 2-3, and many believed he had reached the end of the road. Diaz heard everything.
“It’s a tough sport and the critics are tough with us,” he said. “They’re very demanding, and I end up doing it myself sometimes. (Laughs) I’ll see this fighter who’s undefeated, and then he’ll lose and I’m like ‘oh man, he’s done. I wonder if he’ll come back.’ He only lost one fight. People tend to do that to us, but they don’t see why you lost, how you lost, or the circumstances around it. It’s a tough crowd, but I know what I’m capable of. I’m still fresh, I feel fresh, if you see my face I don’t even look like a boxer, and I’m still in good shape. I’m still confident in myself, and I want to give it one last run. Even now, I think I’m a lot better fighter than I was before because I’m more prepared physically and mentally, and I’m more mature and I have the experience now.”
He also doesn’t have the struggles to make 140, a seemingly impossible task for him in recent bout that sapped him of his strength and his desire to fight.
“I can’t fight at 140 no more,” said Diaz, who went 2-2 at junior welterweight from 2009 to 2011. “I was weak, I lost 30 pounds for that fight (against Holt), and these last few fights in my career have been my downfall. And it’s been a weight issue all the time. I was always weak, and even in sparring I couldn’t take a punch because my body was so weak. I was training with plastic suits, running with plastic suits, sparring with plastic suits, and it just got old and it took the fun out of the sport for me. So I needed a reset and said I’m gonna come back at 147 and I’m gonna do it for me. I’m giving it one last run because I know what I can do, I know how I feel, and I’m not there to be a stepping stone for nobody. As soon as I feel I’m in that position, I’ll be the first one to walk away from it. I managed to prepare myself for after boxing. I’ve always maintained myself working through my company, I’ve invested in my machinery, and I enjoy my work. But I also love my sport and I want to end on good terms. I don’t want to end the way Kendall Holt finished that fight with me. I want to end in good standing where I walk away, not being knocked out.”
In July, Diaz made his welterweight debut with a fifth round knockout of Henry Aurad. It was a good intro to the division for him, with Sanchez being another step up in terms of competition. If he wins this weekend, then he could be putting himself in line for a bigger bout that could propel him into the title picture as the supposed sacrificial lamb for a young champion. He’s fine with that, as long as he gets his shot.
“I’m trying to give it one last run and try to get a chance at one of these so-called champions,” said Diaz, who proudly recounted the recent exploits of fighters like Sergio Martinez, Daniel Ponce De Leon, and Orlando Salido as examples of old school fighters showing the world how it’s done. “I want to do it for myself and prove that old-school boxers can come back. I love when I see that.”
That’s not to say he knows it all though, and it’s this quest for more and more knowledge that keeps Diaz pushing every day in the gym, despite owning his own construction company and having a life outside of boxing waiting for him when he decides to hang up the gloves.
“I’m a big believer that you never stop learning,” he said. “Never. Even now, boxing has evolved so much and changed so much. Even the conditioning they do is way different from when I started. The vitamins and the exercises are different. So you just have to keep up, but then I always go back to my old school style and I always keep that same basic training, that old Rocky style of training.”
Well, there’s no snow in southern California. Does he at least have the Rocky IV beard?
“I can’t grow a beard,” he laughs.
Guess that’s why they still call him “The Kidd.”