From 'fat kid' to champ, Diaz on verge of stardom

Juan Diaz made an immediate impression on Willie Savannah when he walked into the Savannah Boxing Club gym in 1991.

It was not a tireless work ethic that piqued Savannah's interest.

Nor was it the 8-year-old's ring wisdom, a considerable storehouse of fistic generalship far outstripping his level of experience.

No, Juan Diaz first caught Willie Savannah's eye because he was fat.

The Houston gym, then as it does now, attracted a large number of kids who could just as easily be wiling away the hours building their skills as juvenile delinquents, rather than embarking on a slow slog to being proficient in the sweet science.

Parents would frequently stop by the gym with cake and ice cream, and gather their kid's pals around for a birthday treat.

Inevitably, when it came time for the treats to be served, there was not-so-little Juan Diaz, first in line with plate in hand.

For a roly-poly 8-year-old at the high end of the pediatrician's suggested weight baseline, Juan Diaz moved pretty quick when it came time for cake and ice cream.

"I was pretty fat," the boxer admits. "As a kid growing up I was real energetic but with eating I was unleashed. I loved food: hamburgers and pizza."

But that image of the "little fat kid," as his manager Savannah refers to the now 22-year-old WBA lightweight champion with a 29-0 record who gloves up in a title defense against Randy Suico (24-2) on the Shane Mosley-Fernando Vargas II undercard on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is a distant memory.

The fat melted away quickly, leaving a sturdy shell of a teen with Olympic-caliber talent. The chubby cake-devouring gym rat who just missed the 2000 Olympics because he was three months shy of qualifying age has morphed. He's now one of a handful of young fighters with a chance to step up into the vacuum that has emerged as the marquee battlers of the '90s fade, or are forced, into gentler vocations that are more forgiving to the cruel inevitability of aging.

Two of those marquee names, Mosley (age 34) and Vargas (28), are still hanging on, trying to wring out what is left of their (understandably) diminishing skills.

At this stage of the game, both battlers cannot hope to match the type of output Diaz threw at Jose Miguel Cotto on April 8, when The Baby Bull very nearly stole the show from Floyd Mayweather and Zab Judah in their Las Vegas scrap that deteriorated into an embarrassing melee in the 10th round of Mayweather's victory.

In fashioning an impressive unanimous 12-round victory over the unbeaten Cotto, the older brother of the more heralded junior welterweight Miguel Cotto, Diaz tossed 918 punches, and only got stronger as the rounds progressed.

The saying goes that fatigue makes a coward of any man, but Diaz rarely betrays any hint of flagging energy.

Against Cotto, Diaz had been off for nine months, so ring rust could have been an issue. Savannah and trainer Ronnie Shields expected his stamina to wane as he traded barbs with the very game Cotto, but Diaz never let his burning and leaden legs convince his hands to stop throwing.

"Me and Ronnie knew he had a little rust on him but the public really couldn't tell," Savannah said. "In the ninth and 10th rounds, we were waiting for him to get tired but he fought harder. He went into another gear in the last round. I've never seen a kid with the kind of fire he's got."

The win was the third defense of a belt he wrested from Mongolian Lakva Sim on July 17, 2004, a feat that made Diaz the youngest active champion in the sport.

Now, if there is a knock on Diaz -- and the scouting report can't be A's across the board if Diaz hasn't made that leap from potential next generation superstar to current headlining stud -- then his lack of one-punch KO pop has to be addressed.

Of Diaz's 29 wins, 14 come by way of knockout.

If one mulls the makeup of recent era's top tier, men like Ali, Leonard, Tyson, Lewis and De La Hoya all have a higher percentage of their wins coming via the knockout route.

Fight fans are awed by a pugilist who can go into mercenary mode when he sees a speck of blood, and vote with their wallets on this matter. The men who push pay-per-view buys, by and large, are sharks in short pants who thrash savagely when they sense an opponent is at a tipping point toward unconsciousness. Oscar De La Hoya's stock soared as if Warren Buffett touted him when the Golden Boy did his "pitbull on a postman" routine on Ricardo Mayorga on May 6.

Is Diaz lacking that element in his arsenal, a finisher's instinct, or the capability to cap the show with a violent flourish?

"If I hurt a guy, I'm not going to let him loose," insists Diaz. "I'm going to finish him off."

Going into the Saturday showdown with Suico, Diaz said he feels confident in his power, and his growth as a slugger.

"Now I feel real confident in my KO power but it's been a factor of worry and I've wished I had more power," he said. "But I've done strength training and I'm trying to get stronger. If I wear guys out and the KO doesn't come, I have the stamina and I'm big enough so against anyone so I'm going to be OK. But I'm still working on it."

Certainly the young man's persona isn't holding him back from more widespread acclaim. Now 50 credits short of a political science degree (which he expects to receive in the winter of 2007) from the University of Houston, Diaz's cred certainly won't be affected by mentions in the police blotter.

The fact that he still lives at home, with his parents Fidencio and Olivia (both 42) in a four-bedroom house on the south side of Houston, virtually insures that Diaz keeps his eyes firmly trained on the twin tasks at hand, his boxing career and his studies.

In fact, come fight time, Olivia imposes an 11 p.m. curfew for her boy.

Three weeks ago, Mom actually put her foot down on the issue.

Juan, his brother and a cousin went to the movies and then went to shoot some pool. At 10:45 p.m., in the pool hall, Juan's cell phone rang.

It was Mom.

"Do you know what time it is?" she asked.

"No, Mom, but I kind of figured it out with this phone call," Juan

End of conversation.

He dropped the pool cue, and hoofed it home.

Off training, for the record, Olivia doesn't monitor her son's post-sundown activities, and he basically does as he pleases, in a respectful fashion.

Diaz isn't afraid to out himself as a momma's boy. "When I was 14 or 15, my mom gave me the birds-and-the-bees talk, because my dad is a little shy," he said. "I consider myself a momma's boy. She takes care of everything in the house, the laundry and stuff. We're real close."

Any gal-pal is made aware, up front and early, that boxing and schoolwork are Diaz's first two priorities. "Whoever I'm dating just has to deal with that," he said.

Diaz's convictions and hoped-for path are laid out on the table for the world to see. He will apply for and enter law school right after he gets his bachelor's degree, he said.

The more distant future pops up occasionally when Savannah and Diaz shoot the breeze as training winds down and the handwraps come off.

They fantasize about the changes that will come when, after the ring battles have ceased, Juan enters the political fray. Maybe a run for mayor of Houston.

Then, maybe governor? Why not?

The two chuckle conspiratorially when they envision a "Trading Places" scenario, daydreaming of a time when the top 1 percent of earners switch situations with the folks who are struggling to make ends meet, the people who try to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table while earning minimum wage. Diaz and Savannah giggle when they picture the "haves" making their way in unfamiliar territory, economizing so the needs of the landlord, and their kids' rumbling stomachs are both met, while the "have-nots" get a chance to lay their weary heads down on 10,000-thread-count sheets and not worry about cutting coupons and nonexistent health insurance policies.

But that's down the line.

Future vocational paths and his studies are secondary now as he gets in tip-top shape to rumble with Suico, a 26-year-old Filipino who hasn't fought an opponent in Diaz's league. The two times he has stepped up against a foe that even a slim segment of U.S. fight fans might know, Javier Jauregui (2005) and Mzonke Fana (2004), he has lost. One marker for Diaz to shoot for: Suico has not been stopped in either loss.

In a typical performance, Diaz, who describes himself as a "boxer-brawler," will show his audience a busy right jab, which he realizes sets up a left hook that he tries to place just so on his opponent's rib cage.

Even a stellar outing against Randy Suico won't be enough to propel Diaz to that next level, when his name gets tossed into the mix when fantasy fight fans craft wish-list cards on the Internet message boards. His manager, Shelly Finkel, thinks Diaz needs a proper foil to make the leap out of the "Young Gun" category, into the next level.

"Juan is on the cusp of stardom but he needs a fight against a major name now for people to see how good he is," Finkel, the former manager for Mike Tyson, told ESPN.com.

Diego Corrales, the WBC lightweight champion, or WBO champ Acelino "Popo" Freitas both have the name recognition and resume chops that Diaz needs to elevate his game and name.

First, though, Suico needs to be dealt with, and then, quite likely, the drums will begin to beat for the image-defining matchup.

With whom does Diaz picture himself fighting for the breakthrough bout?

He doesn't hem or haw, and toss out the typical line of whomever his team puts in front of him.

"I'd like the best in the division, Diego Corrales," he said. "I feel I'm ready for him but I'm not going to know until it comes off. If I don't win, then I know I've tried my hardest."

Pretty solid for a former fat kid.

Once, he was first in line when it came time to hand out the cake. Today, Juan Diaz is at the front of the line as boxing continues auditions to find the next generation of stars.

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for GQ and the New York Observer.