WBA lightweight champion Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz doesn’t possess the most lethal punches but no one has been able to crack the young collegiate Texan’s formula for success.
Diaz, a student at the University of Houston, puts his victory formula to the test against Bahia’s two-division champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas (38-1, 32 KOs) on Saturday April 28 at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. The Brazilian fighter is known for his dynamic power and raw fighting style. The world title contest will be televised by HBO.
Knockouts aren’t everything if you’re a quick-fisted, well-taught defensive boxer like Diaz who’s satisfied to take a decision and move on.
From spurning the Olympics when fellow Americans protested against his inclusion in 2000, to rallying from a knockdown in Temecula in a fight that proved the closest the fleshy fighter has come to a loss, Diaz has persevered to become one of the most recognized action fighters in the world.
“When I first met Juan and when he first turned pro, he was a guy who always put pressure on you and always dug deep,” said Ronnie Shields, who’s trained Diaz his entire pro career. “Juan is a hard worker.”
It’s that persistent hammer and anvil kind of work mentality that enables Diaz (31-0, 15 KOs) to beat stronger, faster and more experienced foes despite the lack of a knockout punch though he works on it every day.
“Now, he’s getting a lot stronger and he’s a lot stronger than he was even a year ago,” offers Shields. “I can feel more power when I’m doing the pads with him.”
But punching power can’t really be taught. A fighter either has kayo power or not. Working on a heavy bag for hours can add a little more clout, but you can’t develop into a true KO artist.
Freitas has true knockout power.
Until 2002, a staggering 29 consecutive opponents were stopped by the Brazilian’s bludgeoning fists at the junior lightweight level. Then Freitas needed to go 10 rounds to beat Alfred Kotey by decision and 12 more to manage a win over the Cuban Joel Casamayor.
But power remains in Popo’s fists.
During a junior lightweight bout against Argentina’s rugged Jorge Barrios in August 2003, Freitas pulled out a devastating 12th round come-from-behind knockout to capture a win and remain undefeated.
In the streets of Sao Paolo, where Freitas spent some time, you can literally witness street fights erupt at any time. It’s a combustible atmosphere one can see in Mexico City, East Los Angeles or even in New York. It prepares a fighter like Freitas to use any means necessary to win. Whether it’s a first round knockout or a foul-infested world championship fight, the Brazilian has been honed to fight in various styles.
“I trained for the Freitas who is undefeated. The guy you saw knock out all those guys early in his career,” says Diaz, 23. “That’s who I trained for.”
Freitas last win came in a wild punching tit for tat kind of fight against the speedy Zahir Raheem a year ago. It was a rather boring affair that featured both fighters intent on being the counter puncher. Nobody wanted to lead in that dance.
“I focus on doing what I have to do not on knocking people out,” said Freitas, 31, who is one of Brazil’s national heroes. “This is more about the mind, not about power. Power is natural you know.”
Anyone who’s followed Diaz’s career knows he lacks Popo’s kind of power, but his relentless supply of punches usually overwhelms opponents who are bigger or more powerful. Plus, he’s simply difficult to hit flush.
“He’s not just a bully like people picture him to be, but a very good quality boxer,” said Oscar Suarez, who trains Freitas and formerly trained Steve Quinonez of Palm Springs. “But obviously the Mexican in him (Diaz) is going to come out and then you guys are going to see what happens.”
Fashioned as an action fighter who prefers to fight in close quarters, Diaz usually out-speeds and out-thinks opponents. One more thing, his ability to sustain an attack for 12 rounds compares to an elite marathon runner. His stamina seems limitless.
Because most of Diaz’s fights go to a decision, the young Texan prepares for long arduous contests that tests opponent’s energy reserves and plain old willingness keep firing when the legs are burning.
“Juan works hard,” says Shields.
When Diaz faced the bigger and harder-hitting Randy Suico last July 2006, some wondered how the Houston boxer would be able to fend off the Filpino’s attacks. He never showed enough power to hurt the little lightweights let alone hurt the big 135-pounders.
That night Diaz proved to be this whirling Tasmanian devil who fired unlimited punches and seemed to be everywhere at once. Suico never could find the Texan with one of his big blows.
Three months earlier the undefeated Jose Miguell Cotto, known for his one-punch knockout power, met a similar fate as Diaz seemed like a spinning top whizzing along at 100 miles an hour while Cotto was stuck at 50 mph. It was close to a mismatch.
After the fight Cotto seemed to shake his head in amazement at the WBA champion whose body looks like a soft Mexican torta.
Freitas has studied Diaz carefully and because of his vast fighting experience in the streets and in the ring, he knows a buzzsaw will be waiting to cut him down.
“Juan is one of the best fighters in the division,” says Freitas. “He’s a better fighter than Joel Casamayor so that’s why I decided to take this fight. Right after me he’s the best fighter in the world…he’s the man to beat.”
Diaz, who now fights for Don King Promotions, speaks slightly above a whisper. But confidence is evident.
“Every fighter who steps in that ring that has two gloves is dangerous,” Diaz said. “Even the guy who is 0 and 30. Acelino Freitas is a champion.”