By Cliff Rold
In the ring, he wasn’t the most impressive member of the 2012 US Olympic boxing team. He still isn’t. That honor, then and now, has belonged to welterweight Errol Spence.
That’s no knock on featherweight Joseph Diaz Jr. Spence just looked, looks, that good. Given the weight he fights at (welter) and the frame to move up, Spence may ultimately be the biggest star developed from a team that failed to medal.
There’s always room for more than one star, and for different kinds of stars.
What stood out about Joseph Diaz Jr., aside from his clear fighting ability, was how he came across on TV. He looked younger than nineteen then. He could pass for younger than his current 23 now. His public demeanor is almost a throw back ‘aw shucks’ approach with a media ready smile to go with it.
Put another way, Diaz is telegenic.
That can go a long way.
Boxing always has room for a new matinee idol.
This Saturday, underneath HBO’s Andre Ward-Sullivan Barrera main event (9:45 PM EST/6:45 PM PST), Diaz (19-0, 11 KO)can take a big step towards possibly being the next to fill those shoes. This is a big one for Diaz. Already exposed on national basic cable outlets, Diaz’s premium debut will go a long way towards developing what fan base he carries in the future.
He’s well matched for the occasion.
That doesn’t mean Diaz is matched soft. He’s not. Jayson Velez (23-1-1, 16 KO) is older and more experienced at this point. His lone loss came to a solid professional in Ronny Rios and he was competitive (if overcompensated on the cards) in a draw against then featherweight titlist Evgeny Gradovich. Velez can win this fight. It’s what makes it appealing for any fight fan.
Velez can win but, if Diaz is the goods, he should win. It’s the sort of smart development test that not enough rising lights risk anymore. It shows that Diaz’s team isn’t just building him for a title shot. They’re building him to win and keep titles down the road.
If he can get there, his handlers might have more than a fighter on their hands.
Not all matinee idols are the same. Some of them can become the biggest thing in the sport. Sugar Ray Leonard, the kid with his girlfriend’s picture taped to his sock, and Oscar De La Hoya, the kid who won a medal for his late mother, became the richest examples of the tag. With big smiles and big ability, they captured the public’s fascination like few of their peers.
Diaz doesn’t have their gold medal pedigree. There’s still plenty of room in the matinee idol tent.
A fighter doesn’t have to stay unbeaten forever to attain the status. Ray Mancini was a matinee idol enhanced by his first defeat. The story of the Ohio kid trying to fulfill his father’s lost career was gangbusters. When the great Alexis Arguello defeated Mancini it only furthered the public affection for him.
Arturo Gatti’s blood and guts warfare also fit the bill, reminding fans of a time when they literally watched action warriors in the matinee hours. Kelly Pavlik looked like he might get there a few years ago.
Diaz looks like a good candidate in the now. His style is fan friendly and evolving. He can punch a little, box a little, and isn’t afraid to exchange. Combine that with a charisma that isn’t teachable and there could be something here.
How much something is always hard to say. Diaz fights at featherweight. Even in an era where featherweight can be worth more than it usually was in past times, sometimes lots more, it’s still not regularly as rich as the classes higher on the scale.
Diaz has the potential to move the needle north.
The 2012 team is starting to come into their own. Rau’shee Warren came up just shy of a title last year. Jamal Herring looks like he’s becoming a serious contender. Marcus Browne is already cracking some top ten lists at light heavyweight. Spence could easily have a belt by this time next year.
This weekend, the spotlight is on Diaz. He might be able to hold a piece of it for awhile.
Lucas Browne might have had some help defeating Ruslan Chagaev huh? The WBA mess at heavyweight gets messier…Saul Alvarez says he’s not using Amir Khan to get ready for Gennady Golovkin? Some punch lines just write themselves…Joseph Parker-Carlos Takam will tell us something about whether Parker is as good as he looks. And he looks really good…Batman v. Superman week is here. Early reviews are mixed. Like reviews really count here…Daredevil Season Two is off to a fantastic start. The Punisher is well cast…Juan Francisco Estrada-Donnie Nietes? Why not? That’s a hell of a fight.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]