By Thomas Gerbasi
The squeaky wheel is the one that gets oiled. Joseph Diaz Jr. is no squeaky wheel. And it may be why that the best featherweight matchup this side of next month’s Leo Santa Cruz vs. Abner Mares rematch is flying under the radar.
But if anyone isn’t going to get upset by such a reality, it’s the man challenging for Gary Russell Jr.’s WBC crown in Maryland on Saturday, and it’s why it’s impossible not to root for someone who knew this was going to be the case as far back as 2014, when he was just 11-0 and four years removed from his first title shot. As he prepared to face veteran Raul Hidalgo, I asked if he was too nice for boxing.
“I don’t think I’m too nice for boxing,” Diaz laughed. “Boxing is a very tough sport and I know that once I’m in the ring I’m a whole different person. I’m nice outside the ring, I give the fans a great smile and stuff like that, but once I step into the ring, it’s all business and I’m a whole different person in there. I’m mean and I just want to get that win.”
As a pro, all he’s done is win, going 26-0 with 14 KOs, and at 25, he’s right on time to make a run at gold. Of course, he’s doing so against one of the best in the game in Russell, and that’s the type of challenge Diaz wants.
"I want to fight the best at 126 pounds and I want to show all the fans that I'm the real deal,” he said during a recent media workout in Los Angeles. “By fighting and bringing on the toughest 126-pounders like Gary Russell Jr., and defeating him, that's going to showcase to the whole boxing world that I am the real deal and I will be the king at 126 pounds.”
Like Russell, Diaz will have to get that king’s crown by fighting and not talking, not staying on social media 12 hours a day, or being front page news on boxing websites. The difference between the current champion and challenger, though, is that Diaz has reached fight week as an active competitor, putting in three wins over Manuel Avila, Rafael Rivera and Victor Terrazas from May of last year to now. Conversely, Russell defended his title on May 20 of last year against Oscar Escandon, and that was it for 2017. In 2016, he also fought once against the overmatched Patrick Hyland and in 2015, you guessed it, one fight against Jhonny Gonzalez.
Before the Escandon fight, Russell spoke of a rematch with the only man to beat him, Vasyl Lomachenko, but that’s two divisions ago for “Loma,” who took Jorge Linares’ lightweight title last weekend, so that ship has likely sailed. As for other goals, the 29-year-old champion scoffed at talk of his inactivity and stated that the end may be near for him.
"The inactivity doesn't mean anything,” Russell said. “It's no issue. I've had hand issues in the past but I'm able to preserve my body and stay sharp, stay focused. I'm a fighter that's always in shape. I never take a day off. You can ask my wife. On anniversaries, we're in the gym. On birthdays, we're in the gym.
"Regardless of what the situation is, you want a sense of financial stability for yourself and your family,” he continued. “I'm at the point of my career where I have maybe six more fights in me. We want to maximize everything. We want to maximize our revenue and it's been irritating because a lot of the champions don't want to get in the ring with me. I appreciate JoJo for giving me the opportunity to sharpen my teeth a little bit more. At least he'll have the opportunity to say he got in the ring with Mr. Gary Russell Jr.”
You’ve heard the old saying that when a fighter starts talking about the end, it may be coming sooner than they think. And as good as Russell has been, it’s hard to think that he can keep it up without staying sharp in a live fighting situation. Saturday night is one of those situations, and Diaz is a live underdog that knows exactly what he’s going to deal with.
"He (Russell) has been inactive and used to fighting just once a year now,” Diaz said. “But what makes him so dangerous is he's very, very speedy and has great hand speed. And not only that, but he knows how to use his hand speed and counter when guys are opening up. My father and I know what we are bringing to the table, and I'm fast as well. I have a very high boxing IQ and I'm very powerful in there. I know how to land sneaky body shots and I'm a big 126-pound fighter, and that will be the key to victory. He will try and land his power shots, but they're not going to be effective because I'm the bigger fighter.”
He may be the hungrier one too.
Russell’s goals are clear at this point. Sure, he would love to unify the featherweight crown with any of the other 126-pound titleholders or go up to 130 pounds for a SuperFight, but financial security for his family is the main goal. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But as the young gun who wants to be where Russell is, there’s that extra something that often shows in the late rounds of a dogfight, and Diaz wants this. You heard the man. When he’s in the ring, he’s mean.
"It's a dream come true to be fighting on this stage,” said the South El Monte southpaw. “Ever since I roomed with Errol Spence at the Olympics, we always promised each other that once we became pro we were going to fight all the elite athletes and the best champions. Gary Russell Jr. is the best at 126 pounds. I'm not scared to fight him and that's what Errol Spence did, too. He beat Kell Brook in his hometown.
"Gary Russell Jr. is by far the best featherweight in the world. Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Lee Selby, none of these guys want to fight Russell. They're afraid of the speed and the counter shots. But I know what I'm capable of doing and I'll showcase it May 19.
"A win would mean everything for me. It would be a dream come true realizing all of the hard work I've put in since I was 13 years old. It would mean that I'm the champion and I'd be the shot caller.”
Maybe even more importantly, with a win, the nice guy will finish first. So while he’s not a crossover icon like Canelo Alvarez or the rising star with a legion of Instagram and Twitter followers like Ryan Garcia, Diaz may emerge as the best of the modern Golden Boy Promotions squad.
Then everyone will know his name.