David Diaz: Never Say Die

BY Robert Mladinich ON August 26, 2006
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There have been more downs than ups for David Diaz over the past ten years, but the immense faith he always had in himself finally reaped dividends when he won the interim WBC lightweight crown on August 12.

Diaz sensationally stopped Jose Armando Santa Cruz in the tenth round on the HBO Pay-Per-View-televised undercard of the heavyweight title fight between Hasim Rahman and Oleg Maskaev in Las Vegas.

The 30-year-old Diaz raised his record to 32-1-1 (17 KOS), while Santa Cruz, a 25-year-old Mexican who resides in California, saw his still impressive record dip to 23-2 (13 KOS).

By beating Santa Cruz, Diaz, who grew up and still lives in Chicago, showed the same mettle and skills that he displayed more than ten years ago while competing in the Olympic Trials and Box-Offs in Oakland, California, and Augusta, Georgia.

Back then he shocked the boxing establishment by beating the heavily favored Zab Judah for a spot on the 1996 Olympic team that competed in Atlanta.

“I was surprised by Judah because I expected him to come out with guns blazing,” said Diaz. “He didn’t, so I took advantage of that. I guess I had his number. I beat him two out of three times. I thought I beat him all three times, but the judges didn’t see it that way.”

Shortly before heading off to Atlanta, Diaz’s late brother Francisco, who was 14 years older than him, told him that he had had always wanted to go to the Olympics as a spectator, but never could have imagined that his brother would be competing in them.

Even though Diaz lost his second bout and came home without a medal, Francisco said he was incredibly proud of him. That always meant a lot to Diaz, but took on mythical proportions when Francisco died of AIDS a year or two later.  

“He was the real pride and joy of the family,” said Diaz. “He was the first to graduate from college and he taught regional folklore dancing in Mexico, which is where my family is [originally] from.”

Diaz turned pro with little fanfare in Albuquerque in November 1996. Over the next decade he fought regularly at different intervals, but couldn’t seem to get his career out of second gear.  

He insists that it didn’t bother him a bit when Olympic teammates David Reid, the lone gold medalist, and Antonio Tarver, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Fernando Vargas and Eric Morel won, lost, and even relinquished titles.  

“I was very happy for them, but never compared their careers to mine,” said Diaz. “Everything happens for a reason. Their time came before mine. Now it is my time.”

Thankfully, Top Rank Inc., which has promoted Diaz on and off for most of his career, never lost faith in him. And Diaz always knew that he was destined to win a championship.

Being older, he says, will only enable him to enjoy and value the title more than if he won it many years ago.

“I know to keep my feet on the ground and always remember what’s most important,” he said. “This is just another learning experience for me. Having the title makes me a better person. I like all the attention I’m getting, but the most important thing is that I know it will give me the fuel to stay focused and in shape.”

Going into the Santa Cruz fight, Diaz had experienced no shortage of travails over the years. Besides losing his brother there were numerous injuries, periods in which he toiled by day as a construction worker, and the arduous, emotionally draining wait for his mother Basilisa to get a much-needed kidney transplant.

She finally received the transplant, but suffered a heart attack shortly afterwards. Showing the same type of determination that Diaz has showed, Basilisa survived and is now well enough to be one of his biggest supporters.

Upon being told that story, it is easy to see where Diaz got his never-say-die mentality that has served him so well.

His own gritty determination was apparent the first day he stepped into a boxing gym at eight years old. It was obvious from day one that Diaz was a natural.

After a year at the Wells Park Gym, where 1992 Olympian Dannell Nicholson also trained, Diaz really began to hone his craft at the Hamlin Park Gym, where he worked with Bill Heglin and Danny Nieves, the two men he says are most responsible for making him into an Olympian.

Diaz also heaps much praise on his current trainers Jim Strickland and Mike Garcia of the JABB boxing gym, as well as Sam Colonna of the Windy City Gym. All of them, he says, have been instrumental in making him a top-flight professional.

During his circuitous pro career, Diaz beat such useful opponents as Juaquin Gallardo, who was 14-1-1, Emanuel Augustus, whose 27-22-5 record at the time of their meeting belied his abilities, and Ener Julio, who was 25-6-1.

His only loss was in a fight he was winning against Kendall Holt, who was then 17-1. Diaz was dropped in the first round, but came back to knock down Holt in the seventh before being stopped a round later.

“That fight told me that I better pay more attention to my corner,” said Diaz. “If anything, what I learned in that fight only helped me in my title fight.”

Throughout all of his obstacles, Diaz says that he never thought that he wouldn’t be world champion.

“It was just a matter of when,” said the incredibly low-key and down-to-earth Diaz, who besides being the married father of an infant son named David Anselmo, is the youngest of eight children.

“Obviously this is the time for me to be a champion. Everything happens for a reason. With all that I’ve experienced, this is the ideal time for me.”

Diaz is not the least bit concerned with the title swelling his head. On the day we spoke he was kicking back and watching the Little League World Series with his nephew Eric.

“I’ve been attending a lot of events and doing a lot of interviews,” said Diaz. “But being with my family is more important than anything. I’ve been up and down a lot over the years. The one thing that was always constant was my family.

“When all is said and done, money and fame, and people wanting to be with you means nothing without family,” he continued. “They are the people that are always there for you. Having lost a brother, I cherish my family more than I ever did.”

That was never more evident than in what transpired in the hours after he beat Santa Cruz. Diaz caught the first flight home, and arrived on the doorstep of his mother’s house at about one o’clock in the morning.

(Diaz’s father Anselmo is divorced from his mother. He traveled to and from the fight with his son. Even though he doesn’t work his son’s corner for fights, Diaz says, “We are very close and he has been in my corner throughout my life.”)

There to meet her youngest child was his Basilisa, as well as Diaz’s wife Tanya, his son, and scores of other family members including nieces and nephews.  

“They waited up for me until I got home,” said Diaz. “It felt really good. I made them proud.”

Now that he’s a belt holder, Diaz would love to clean up the mess in his division. He wants it on record that he is willing to fight any and all champions and contenders, and specifically names Juan Diaz, Julio Diaz, Acelino Freitas, and Diego Corrales.

“Every one of those fights would be a tremendous fight,” said the newly crowned champion. “I hope they are willing to step up – because I am. Those fights would all be great for the fans. And I will never forget that that’s who we fight for – the fans.”

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