Juan Diaz holds the WBA lightweight title but don’t tell anybody.

In over a year the likeable Houston native has been unable to defend his title but now faces a stern test against Puerto Rico’s Jose Miguel Cotto (27-0) at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday.

It should be early fireworks.

No other division can claim more talent than the lightweights with a list of more than 20 fighters holding credible credentials to vie for a world title. The two other titleholders are scary enough.

Who is ready for Diego Corrales, Jesus Chavez or the winner between Acelino Freitas and Zahir Raheem?

“Those are fights I would love to have,” says Diaz (28-0, 14 KOs) who probably couldn’t tell a lie if you paid him. “and right now, you know, my main concern is Jose Cotto.”

Because of cancellations Diaz has been stuck in limbo and last fought in July and it was more than a year ago that he defended his WBA title against Billy Irwin in January 2005.

“It’s been a tough couple of months for me…I haven’t fought,” Diaz, 22, said during a telephone press conference. “Everyone knows I used to fight every three to four months.”

The lapse in boxing matches also affected his college studies. He currently attends the University of Houston.

“I could have taken some more classes.”

When Diaz first made his pro appearance after the 2000 Olympics, many wrote him off as a kid with a lot of heart but little else.

The critical moment came May 10, 2003, against Eleazar Contreras at the Pechanga Resort and Casino where Diaz rose from a knockdown to rally to a close decision victory over the tough Bakersfield fighter. The bout was televised.

His next crucial battle took place at the same casino when he knocked out fellow prospect Martin O’Malley in two rounds. Once again it was televised and a new star was born.

Feeling it was time, Diaz’s promoter Main Events, matched him with WBA lightweight titleholder Lavka Sim July 17, 2004 in Houston.

It was a massacre.

Diaz proved his guts, speed and youth were too much for the heavy-handed Sim to gauge. It was a decisive wipe out by unanimous decision.

Cotto, the challenger, has only had one close call in 10 years of pro boxing. That came against a much smaller Bobby Boy Velardez in August 2000. The Puerto Rican gained a majority decision but many felt San Bernardino’s Velardez won that televised fight.

“Bobby Boy almost knocked him out but didn’t get any break,” said Armando Velardez the father and trainer of Bobby Boy. “We got cheated that day.”

Cotto stated in a press release that’s he’s anxious to win the world title and join his younger brother Miguel Cotto as world champions.

Diaz, ever the humble warrior, expects a big challenge.

“Well, I’ve seen him fight and I know he’s a strong puncher,” Diaz said. “He comes forward, I come forward it should be a great action fight.”

Jorge Arce vs. Rosendo Alvarez

Mexico’s Jorge Arce (43-3-1) faces a stiff challenge in Nicaragua’s Rosendo Alvarez (32-2-2). Already it’s a blood feud with both sides firing verbal assaults.

Arce hasn’t lost a fight since 1999 when he lost the mini-flyweight title to Michael Carbajal in a fight he was winning until he ran into a desperation right hand from Little Hands of Stone.

But get this. He’s been fighting professionally since age 16. He captured the WBO light flyweight title when he was just 19.

Known as El Travieso, the mischievous one, a couple of years back he took part on a Mexican reality television show where he cracked people up with his clowning. The program was kind of like our own Surreal Life reality show. Overnight his fame in Mexico and throughout Latin America exploded. Though he was already a world champion, more people know Travieso as the guy from the television show. It was his television fame that thrust him back from flyweight oblivion.

But the guy could always fight.

After relinquishing the WBC light flyweight title more than two years ago, he fought Juan Centeno in a WBC flyweight title elimination bout and was handed a so-called interim title. He’s had that moniker since. Six consecutive opponents have suffered at the hands of the almost maniacal Arce.

The Los Mochis native had a bloodbath against Hussein Hussein where most of the blood was his. And he laughed about it. Poor Hussein was bludgeoned after 10 rounds in their first encounter and blown out in their second.

Arce is for real. Now he faces the legendary tough man Alvarez.

“He’s been talking a lot of trash but he’s too old to be fighting someone like me,” Arce said. “He’s days are gone and I’m going to permanently close his career.”

Alvarez hasn’t physically lost to an opponent since being out-scored by the great Ricardo “Finito” Lopez who retired undefeated. It was Alvarez who came closest to blemishing Lopez record when he fought the Mexican to a draw. Now he promises to end Arce’s win streak. The Nicaraguan lost by disqualification in 2000 but that’s all. He hasn’t fought below 112 pounds since 2004.

In fact, Beibis Mendoza, who was given the win because of a referee’s decision to disqualify Alvarez for alleged low blows, fought the Nicaraguan three more times. He was defeated in each subsequent battle.

Alvarez comes to fight.

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Back Again

The son of the great Julio Cesar Chavez returns to the ring after a solid performance that didn’t quite appeal to some boxing fans. He beat Carlos Molina by majority decision and many fans felt he was given a gift. Their first bout ended in a draw. Chavez Jr. has sound technical tools that he employs throughout the fight, but in spite of a height advantage, he fights small. He can’t do that against Tijuana’s Rodrigo Juarez, a hard-hitting junior welterweight. Oddly, Juarez is managed by Chavez’s manager Rodolfo Chavez. Is this a coincidence or a set-up?

Chavez has lost some of the luster he had just a year ago. The fans are tired of set-ups and of his inability to knock guys out. But it had to happen sooner or later. The opponents are just getting better.

Maybe Chavez needs to return to Riverside, California where he began his boxing career.

Southern Cal fights coming up

Great Britain’s Audley Harrison leads a group of promising young heavyweights at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage on Friday April 14.

Harrison (19-1) attempts to get back to winning ways against skillful Dominick Guinn (25-3-1) in a 10-round bout. Guinn’s last bout came in a losing effort to James Toney, no shame in that. Guinn also lost to new WBO champion Sergei Liakhovich. Harrison lost to fellow Brit Danny Williams, the guy who stopped Mike Tyson.

Also on the card will be Riverside’s Chris Arreola in an eight-round bout and Nigeria’s Teke Oruh in a four rounder. For tickets or information call (888) 999-1995.

Fights on television

Fri. ESPN2, 6 p.m., Nate Campbell (28-4-1) vs. Isaac Hlatshwayo (23-0)
Fri. Telefutura, 9 p.m., Juan Lopez (10-0) vs. Alberto Chuc (18-5-2)
Sat. HBO pay-per-view, 6 p.m., Floyd Mayweather Jr. (35-0) vs. Zab Judah (34-3); Juan Diaz (28-0) vs. Jose Cotto (27-0); Jorge Arce (43-3-1) vs. Rosendo Alvarez (32-2-2).