He was something of a runt. It's OK to say that now, he's a pro boxer, 10-0 (7 Kos), with a high ceiling. But Joseph "JoJo" Diaz was undersized, and overwhelmed as a wee lad, because the kids, some of those who smelled indecision, and looked to exploit it, to build themselves up, bullied him.
They pushed him, twist his arm, generally take advantage of his lack of size and sweet demeanor, and make his life hell.
Joseph Diaz Sr. finally had a enough. So no, he didn't march to the school and lay into the nasty boys. Instead, he grabbed JoJo and headed to the local boxing gym. Oh, but the story doesn't veer into super happy nice nice territory yet. Guess who was at the gym? The lead bully. JoJo's heart dropped, after it began beating twice as hard.
The lead bully saw JoJo, sidled up to him, sneering, a pure punk.
"Oh, you think you're so tough now," bully said to JoJo. "We'll see how tough you are when you spar me."
JoJo had no clue what he was talking about. The term meant nothing to him. Spar? Joe Sr. stepped in, took his son aside, and explained these particular facts of life. Agree to the sparring session, dad told him. Sparring means boxing, fighting, in a structured situation, with no wins or losses up for grabs. It's fighting to learn how to fight better, he said.
"I was scared," JoJo told me during a Monday phone interview, as he counted down the hours to his Wednesday evening fight, against Ramiro Robles. "I didn't know what to do."
Give us a week, said his dad, who is his head trainer today, as he was back then. And we will be back, the father promised, no doubt tamping down a tiny bit of worry, of uncertainty, of his ability to teach his kid a skill he didn't possess.
Dad hustled home, and hoped on the computer, hunted YouTube for instructional videos, and looked around for "How to Fight" books. Basic knowledge gained, he went about teaching JoJo the basics.
JoJo, who was born in South El Monte and now lives in Downey, CA, was a quick student. One-twos were snapping by day three, and they even drilled on body work.
"I sparred that bully," JoJo recalled. "And I made him bleed and cry. And I fell in love with the sport. I was happy, because now I was able to defend myself."
Oh, and that lead bully? They became buddies, both fighting in amateur tourneys.
Diaz' skill set took him further, to 126 amateur bouts, to a 2011 US National championship, to the 2012 Olympics, where he fought for the US, as a bantamweight.
"The Olympics was a learning experience, and I took it to the pros," he said. The hitter, just 21, and still living in a home with mom, dad, and his older sister, said that he feels acclimatized to the pro style. "I am more relaxed," he said. "I throw nicer shots, I'm sitting down on my shots. I can take my time, keep my composure. In the amateurs, you threw a lot of shots, just to try and rack up points."
Coach Ben Lira is also present to offer points, and that could come in handy on Wednesday, on a Fox Sports 1/Golden Boy show, because he thinks opponent Robles, a 21-year-old with a 12-1-1 record, will be there with his nasty face on. Joseph Sr. has been drilling JoJo to be able to handle pressure from a swarmer or predator or a banger, while also being able to be the hunter if need be. Father and son, JoJo reports, get into the occasional minor spat., but that quickly blows over. Like not long ago in the gym, dad told the boy to take it easy in sparring, so JoJo did, just working on blocking, on picking off shots…and then got asked by dad why he was lollygagging. The barked at each other, and JoJo went out the next round and hurt his sparring partner with a body shot. Dad, who was a truck driver who got hurt on the job, and now trains full-time, and the son got past it, and are tight. "My dad is my best pal," JoJo said. "Whatever he says, I do. I know he's doing it for a reason, because he loves me."
If JoJo, who tells me he's single, married to boxing, is out gallivanting with pals at the mall, or bowling alley, or wherever, dad might tell him to get back on point. "We have bumps here and there, but we never let it get to the point we're arguing at house."
Diaz wants to get a crown at 122, do some defending, and then hit 126, for the record.
He knows it is the wiser choice to try some rafting in the rapids, against rugged Robles types, than to snag a bunch of quickie KOs. "I want to make sure when it is time, I am ready. I don't want to feel like I missed anything," he said. I brought up Gary Russell Jr., and Diaz, while not speaking directly of Russell, agreed that if a fighter is babied, he will pay for that lack of seasoning at some point.
At the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, Diaz, who by the way is still fine with the nickname "JoJo," and isn't putting out the call for a "manlier" nom de guerre, expects Robles to fight hungry, to keep coming forward, to try and break Diaz down. He expects to move, but also stay in the pocket, fight in tight, bang to the body from in close. We can expect him to be elusive, he said. And look to get the sweetest angle, hurl one-twos, and get that KO if the timing is right.
My take: This Diaz is a humble, respectful sort who is more the rule in boxing than the exception. Obviously, his parents did something right with the lad, who seems sweet and sincere. Ah, but he can and will look to take your head off in the ring. Not sure if he can do that to rugged Robles, a stubborn and not untalented scrapper. I see Diaz going to 11-0, via decision.
Who's the best Mexican boxer today?