By Ryan Maquiñana
In a gritty yet intelligent display befitting his fighting style, Joseph Diaz Jr. of South El Monte, Calif., became the first member of Team USA to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, edging out 2009 silver medalist Oscar Valdez of Mexico 22-21 in the bantamweight round of 16 at the AIBA World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, earlier this
“The fight was a battle,” the 18-year-old Diaz told BoxingScene.com from his hotel room. “I couldn’t show Oscar any respect. I had to do what I needed to do.”
Needing to finish 10th or higher to punch his ticket to London, Diaz met his lifelong goal by advancing to the 123-pound quarterfinals with the triumph over Valdez, a bronze medalist at featherweight two years ago at worlds.
The fight was a close one throughout, with Diaz nursing leads of 6-4 and 15-13 after each of the first two frames. He made sure to stick with the gameplan that head coach Joe Zanders reiterated between rounds.
“I had seen footage of Oscar, but his style of fighting during the match was different from the video,” Diaz said. “He was trying to box a little more than usual and clinched after his combinations, unlike the video where he would block and counter.
“The gameplan was to stay tight and counter his shots. Right when he would jump in to grab, I’d get a few effective uppercuts and hooks in.”
A little inspiration from across the Pacific Ocean helped to fuel Diaz as well before he entered the final three minutes of the bout.
“I was just thinking about my family and how I have to make them proud,” he said. “Also, I thought about how God brought me to his point for a reason, and that was to qualify for the [Olympic] Games! So I just kept my composure and ended up victorious.”
As the final seconds ticked away, Diaz had a inkling he had won, but after controversial scorecards resulted in losses for teammates Jose Ramirez and Jesse Hart, he wasn’t absolute in his belief that the referee would raise his arm just yet.
“I had a feeling I won the fight, but it's hard to decide because you never know what the judges had seen, but I knew for a fact that I landed the better shots,” Diaz said. “I was worried, but I knew I did what I needed to do, and thank God, it worked.”
Of course, while “JoJo” can breathe easy now that London is now a reality, only three more wins separate him from standing atop the podium at the World Championships.
In the quarterfinals, he faces Cuba’s Lazaro Alvarez, and Diaz is well aware that beating a fighter from the island nation will bring him even greater acclaim on the world stage.
“My work isn’t done yet. I’m here to take gold,” Diaz said. “I know that [Alvarez] is long and likes to fight from the inside, so I’m going to tear his body down.”
Still, Diaz would be lying if he weren’t relishing the fact that he will now join an illustrious list of American Olympians that includes Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, and recently, Andre Ward.
“It feels like a dream come true,” he said. “All the hard work I put in over the years paid off. I had a good training camp with the team, and before that, I was training well with my father. I knew that all that work would pay off.”
South El Monte is buzzing with the momentous news about their native son, and a hero’s welcome from the San Gabriel Valley city of 20,116 surely awaits when he returns from Baku.
“All this support back home from everyone has motivated me, and it makes me feel out of this world,” Diaz said. “When I get home, I’m going to take a week off and celebrate with my family and friends, and then head back to the gym so I can get ready for the Olympics. God is great!”
NOTE: BoxingScene.com’s Ryan Maquiñana was the first to bring you Joseph’s story back in July. You can check it out here: https://www.boxingscene.com/joseph-diaz-jr-top-amateur-focuses-on-london--42111
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’s a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and Ring Magazine’s Ratings Advisory Panel. E-mail him at [email protected], check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.