by Cliff Rold
Three or so years ago, it would still have been a main event. It might even have been at the very Chumash Casino it will be taking place in this Friday night. If not, then maybe the Home Depot Center, Pechanga, or Seminole Hard Rock. For sure, the venue could have been the same.
The broadcast outlet?
That might have been a little different.
In 2007, now 31-year old Julio Diaz was still in the midst of his second run as IBF Lightweight titlist. Still just 29 today, former WBO Jr. Welterweight titlist Kendall Holt (26-4, 14 KO) came up just short that same year in his first crack at that belt, controversially stopped by big punching Ricardo Torres on the road. Holt would seize the belt in a 2008 corker, coming off the floor twice to score a brutal knockout, all in just one minute plus a second.
In 2007 or 2008, it’s easy to imagine a Diaz-Holt showdown headlining, or at least chief supporting, on Showtime or HBO. Friday night, Holt and Diaz will lock horns in the main event on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights.
It’s no knock on ESPN2. They’ve managed a ream of good fights over the last couple years with less budget than HBO or Showtime have. However, those quality matches often signal one of two things: fighters potentially on the rise or fighters resisting the slide. In recent years, fans have seen the progress arc of the sensational Yuriorkis Gamboa on one hand, and a career saving win for former Jr. Middleweight titlist Roman Karmazin, just to cite a couple memorable moments.
This Friday, we have a couple Karmazin’s on our hands. It’s a fine matchmaking choice for the premium cable outlet and, better for the fans, an opportunity likely fused with a hint of desperation for both men.
Time has moved on since the best of days for Holt and Diaz. Neither ever quite achieved the level of superstardom their talents initially indicated possible. Neither has any reason to hang their head despite it. They have achieved much in their tenures, been honest pros at the elite level of the game, and clearly aren’t yet at the finish line.
This is the best kind of veteran non-title match-up, a chance to see two men just enough past it to ensure landing leather, and still good enough to show off the all the tricks, all the savvy, their combined 20-plus years as paid pugilists have imparted.
Those who buy a ticket, and those tuning in on T.V., will do so remembering the highs and lows of both men, carrying the memories of what has been into their expectations of what lies ahead.
That there are strong parallels between the two combatants careers makes the match even more compelling.
Holt was an easy to notice talent on the way up. Then partly handled by the great Lou Duva, Holt was given the compliment of comparison to other Duva gems like Meldrick Taylor because of the exceptional hand speed he possessed. Turned pro in 2001, Holt rattled off 15 wins before suffering a shock first round loss in 2004 to Thomas Davis.
Diaz was an even more lauded talent coming up, beginning at his debut in 1999. The younger brother of then prominent Jr. Welterweight contender Antonio Diaz, Julio looked like the next big Mexican-American superstar, a combination of speed, power, and just enough vulnerability to keep the fans on the edge of their seats. His first loss would also come in between his third and fourth years as a pro, if in less devastating. Diaz suffered a close, debated, decision loss at the hands of veteran Angel Manfredy in 2001.
He’d have to wait two fights for devastating to kick in. Lingering on the ropes a second too long, Diaz would be clipped by journeyman Juan Valenzuela, saved while out on his feet in the opening frame. So injured was his reputation, HBO wouldn’t accept Diaz as an opponent for Floyd Mayweather in 2003.
Diaz had already started winning again, and kept right on with it. Holt, after Davis, did the same thing.
Diaz would run off six wins in a row, winning the IBF 135 belt from Javier Jauregui in May 2004. Bravely, he vacated the belt for a crack at the best Lightweight in the world at the time, Jose Luis Castillo, in March 2005. He came up short, stopped in ten, but earned the respect of every fan who has ever asked for fighters to put the right fights first.
Holt’s road to a belt was longer, in part because his first title shot would come on the road in an insane Colombian environment that included flying beer cups and fans close enough to the ring to reach in and touch Holt. The seven straight wins that led to that first Torres fight included taking the ‘0’s’ of former Olympian and future Lightweight titlist David Diaz and future Welterweight titlist Issac Hlatshawyo.
Diaz bounced back from Castillo with three more wins before besting veteran Jesus Chavez to return the IBF strap to his waist in February 2007. Eight months later, he’d lose the belt again, this time in the ring in a unification bout with a rising Juan Diaz.
Holt would find his lone title reign distinct from Diaz’s two in one sense: he successfully defended his belt a single time before parting ways with the diadem. Like Diaz, the call of a unification contest was heard but the challenge could not be met, Timothy Bradley proving too much for Holt despite Holt scoring two knockdowns on the night.
Holt ended that night wondering if he’d let one get away. There was no such question one fight later, Holt forced to retire after six against Kaizer Mabuza. Diaz suffered consecutive setbacks in 2009, first a fifth-round stoppage to Rolando Reyes and then a decision versus Victor Cayo.
As they have throughout their careers, Holt and Diaz have dusted themselves off and returned to scratch. Diaz enters the ring Friday with a modest two-fight winning streak. Holt scored a first round stop earlier this year, his lone appearance since the Mabuza loss. Still young relative to anything but boxing, the winner will be able to dream about one more title shot, one more nice payday, somewhere down the road.
After all, those who watch them might do so out of memory for what was, but these two men are punching because they still have goals, still have meals to put on the table. That projects well beyond this Friday night. Holt is still rated in the top ten at Jr. Welterweight by the WBC (#8), WBA (#10), and WBO (#10). Diaz enters rated #9 by the IBF in the same division.
More objective ratings might not regard either man as a top ten contender right now, but sanctioning body ratings are what matters in getting fights made most often below the megastar level.
WBC/WBO unified titlist Timothy Bradley is potentially on the way to Welterweight. If not, a proposed unification contest with WBA beltholder Amir Khan appears lost for now in messy negotiations. Bradley and Khan may be in the market for a name, but perceived safe, opponent in the near future.
The same goes for resurgent IBF champ, and former undisputed Welterweight king Zab Judah.
Diaz and Holt have every reason to believe they are still right in the thick of things in boxing. If they both bring it Friday night, they can leave the ring with many heads nodding in agreement. The winner will be a big step closer to testing any safety perceptions in the ring.
Look for a report card for Saturday’s Super Six action on Friday.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]