By Jake Donovan
Diego Magdaleno knows he has the rest of his career for the chance to hear the roar of an adoring local crowd. The Las Vegas-bred southpaw has been properly developed by Top Rank in his hometown as well as markets where his personality and ethnicity could resonate with the public.
For this weekend, it’s the road trip of a lifetime, as he attempts his second shot at a major title. The top contender travels to jolly old England, where awaiting him is unbeaten newly-minted lightweight champion Terry Flanagan, who makes his first defense in his hometown of Manchester.
The bout is Flanagan’s second straight local appearance, having won the crown in his backyard as well. The title-winning effort was far too brief to reveal just how good is the 26-year old southpaw, who prevailed after visiting Jose Zepeda was forced to quit due to a dislocated shoulder suffered in round two.
What little came of the night hardly impressed the current mandatory challenger.
“It was a short fight. There wasn't too much to be said there. He has a lot to prove to his hometown crowd. That title was just basically given to him,” insists Magdaleno (28-1, 12KOs), whose lone loss came via decision to Roman Martinez in their April ’13 super featherweight title fight in Macau, China.
Five straight wins have followed for the American boxer, who turns 29 later this month. Perhaps the biggest victory he has earned to date has come outside of the ring, in the form of the knowledge he’s obtained since joining forces with top trainer Joel Diaz.
The two have worked together since 2014. Magdaleno has either stopped or at least dropped all four opponents since the union. He has managed three knockout wins over the four-fight stretch after having stopped just nine of his first 25 opponents.
“I don’t want to say he’s a new and improved fighter, but Diego is certainly a better fighter these days," observes Top Rank Vice President of Operations Carl Moretti. "He got a lot stronger moving up to the lightweight division. Moving to trainer Joel Diaz has been the difference. They are a great combination going into a world title fight like this one.”
When it appears the world is against you – as can be the case for visiting fighters stepping to a rabid crowd just about anywhere in the United Kingdom – it helps to place full trust in the small few on your side. That level of confidence, coupled with all that he’s learned in the past couple of years under his new training team, has Magdaleno convinced the title is coming back with him to the United States.
“My secret weapon has been my move to Joel Diaz," Magdaleno (28-1, 12KOs) insists. "Moving up to lightweight has left me feeling strong. I know I have a lot to prove also. In my only loss in China, I've learned a lot from that. I didn't have the right people behind me.”
That is no longer the case, as Diaz has long ago developed a reputation as a fighter’s trainer. By that, it’s meant that the boxers tend to get the sense of an insider's mindset when working with the 42-year old, a former lightweight contender who hails from a fighting family that included brothers Antonio and former lightweight champ Julio Diaz.
Like Magdaleno today, Diaz was once in position to challenge for the lightweight title. His lone crack at championship glory resulted in a points loss to then-top lightweight Phillip Holiday in 1996. A second title shot was in his future, but he was forced to retire in 1997 due to a detached retina.
The Mexico-born, California based chief second has since emerged as one of the sport’s top trainers. Of course, it takes great students to absorb the lessons learned and produce the type of results that make a top cornerman who he is in the sport.
“When a trainer gets a hold of a fighter, he wants to see that the fighter is ready to commit all the way,” Diaz says of any given client. "That's never been an issue with Diego and I saw it from the first day. He's shown the determination.
“I told him when we first started, 'I promise you that I am going to make you a world champion.' Since he got to the gym, he's improved every day. He's ready to win this WBO world title and bring it home to the United States.”
A win on Saturday would be right on time for fighter and trainer, perhaps especially for Diaz after losing his top client, current two-time welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley Jr. The two experienced what has become a messy divorce, though with the ultimate story of what led to the split proving to be a matter of hearsay.
Diaz’ other clients – which presently includes unbeaten former lightweight champ Omar Figueroa, unbeaten rising welterweight contender Felix Diaz and former welterweight titlist Victor Ortiz – won’t hesitate to brag on what their trainer brings to the table. You can count Magdaleno among that bunch, having felt the improvements as early as their first session.
“It’s such a huge difference with Joe, since he's been in the ring as a fighter,” Magdaleno points out. “He has a history behind him. He's a guy that can make a quick adjustment in the ring. Most coaches don't have that.”
Barring an early knockout win (or loss), Magdaleno will turn to Diaz at the end of each round for sound advice on how to leave England with the title around his waist.
On the surface, the visiting challenger doesn’t seem to be too concerned over pulling off the feat.
“He's a solid fighter. He's a standup guy. He can fight, he can punch. But I honestly don't believe it's enough for me,” Magdaleno says of the defending champ, though of the knowledge that fights are won and lost in the ring and not on paper. “Nothing has been given to me. I have to go out there and earn it and prove myself and know that's what it will take to win (in England).”
From the opening bell, the one lesson Diaz figures to instill into his fighter’s head – just concentrate on what’s in front of him rather than what’s around him.
“That night, we won't have the fans on our side,” Diaz notes in a ‘who-needs-‘em’ manner. “They can cheer but they can’t help (Flanagan) win.”
As far as Magdaleno is concerned, it only takes one fan – Diaz – to help him win this weekend.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com.
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