Sports

With distractions pushed aside, does JoJo Diaz finally have it all together?

When Ryan Garcia withdrew from his July 9 bout with Javier Fortuna to address his mental health, Joseph Diaz Jr. raised his hand.

Diaz (31-1-1, 15 KOs) immediately offered to fight Fortuna, even though the bout would be contested one division above his natural fighting weight of 130 pounds. After days and days of pleading for the fight, the matchup was his and on Friday in Los Angeles he’ll meet Fortuna for the vacant WBC interim lightweight title. The fight will be broadcast on DAZN.

Diaz says he’s ready for “the biggest fight of my career by far,” but he’s been in tough before. Diaz defeated Tevin Farmer to win a 130-pound belt, but he believes the stakes are higher this time. Turn back Fortuna (36-2-1, 25 KOs) and Diaz would become the mandatory challenger for Devin Haney, the WBC lightweight champion — even though Teofimo Lopez is widely recognized as a four-belt champion.

“I’m going to be looking for the knockout, I’m going in with bad intentions,” Diaz told ESPN. “I feel f—ing energized, strong, quick [at this weight], not weak and depleted. I feel really good. I feel like this might be my weight.

“All my sparring partners, I’ve been stopping, I’ve been hurting. I know my power will be there come fight night. I look good and I feel good. I’m not going to be throwing one shot and pitter-patters. I’ll be putting some force behind it.”

Oscar De La Hoya, Diaz’s promoter, believes this is the right fight at the right weight. And with his penchant for trash talking blended with a come-forward attack, De La Hoya insists there’s only one thing between Diaz and “household name” status: a marquee victory.

“135 will be his weight class where he really shines,” De La Hoya said. “He was killing himself to make 130 … I think he was just too thick, too big, too heavy for 130.”

Diaz represented the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics and had his first shot at a world title when he fought Gary Russell Jr. at 126 pounds. He came up short in that 2018 bout, but Diaz proved he could compete at the top level. He left no doubt in his second title shot against Farmer last year, but never made a successful title defense.

Diaz blew up in weight during the pandemic and entered camp for his February title defense against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov heavy. He weighed in at 133.5 pounds and was stripped of his title. The fight was highly entertaining and resulted in a majority draw, with one judge scoring the fight in favor of Diaz, 115-113.

The 28-year-old also encountered tumult outside the ring in a battle with longtime managers Ralph and Moses Heredia. When Diaz linked up with MTK Global on an advisory deal, the relationship soured and parties ended up in arbitration. As part of the process, Diaz’s car — whose title was held by the Heredias — was repossessed

Andy Foster, director of the California State Athletic Commission, ruled in a hearing last month that Diaz was released from his managerial contract with the Heredias. Eric Montalvo of the Federal Practice Group, which represents the Heredias, provided a statement to ESPN disputing the idea that contract was no longer valid.

“The arbitrator ‘released’ Mr. Diaz from the contract because of the deterioration to the relationship driven by MTK and what we now know was misinformation being provided to him,” the statement reads. “A release would be not needed if the contract was invalid. During the proceedings the commission indicated that its view was that the contract was valid however we are still awaiting the final decision. The Heredia’s were directed not to represent Mr. Diaz any further by counsel shortly after the public breakup on social media posted by Diaz.”

Diaz believes that with this drama put behind him, he can finally move on and focus on his fighting.

“It really relieved a lot of weight off my back,” Diaz said. “[The ruling is] motivation, joy, happiness. I’m very, very motivated now. Now I know I’m not being cheated. I have people behind [me], people I know are not taking money that is supposed to be mine.

“The pain that I have been experiencing, [Fortuna’s] going to feel that pain.”

The Southern Californian will now test himself at lightweight — one of boxing’s most talent-laden divisions — against ESPN’s No. 8-ranked boxer at 135 pounds. More so, Fortuna, 32, is regarded as a dangerous puncher. The Dominican hasn’t lost since a controversial decision setback to then-champion Robert Easter Jr. In 2018.

Diaz isn’t trying to look past the dangerous Fortuna, but has his eyes on Haney.

“Devin Haney, enjoy this ass whooping and hopefully we can make something happen after this fight,” Diaz said. “And you’re welcome for dealing with the boogeyman…. It’s my prime now and the most critical time of my career.”

“Zurdo” set for Golden Boy debut

Diaz-Fortuna is the more compelling fight on Friday’s card at Banc of California Stadium, but it’s actually Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez who is featured in the main event.

After a long run with Top Rank, Ramirez, 30, will make his debut with Golden Boy when he meets former title challenger Sullivan Barrera. Ramirez’s last bout was a December TKO of Alfonso Lopez that was broadcast on an independent pay-per-view.

Friday’s return to the ring is Ramirez’s first real exposure since he stopped journeyman Tommy Karpency in April 2019 on ESPN+. After that 168-pound title defense, the Mexican was in talks to return on the Tyson Fury-Otto Wallin undercard in September 2019, but a disagreement over money ensued with Ramirez surprisingly rejecting a seven-figure offer to put his title on the line against Felix Valera.

The stalemate continued for months and it became clear the dispute couldn’t be reconciled. Finally, Ramirez (41-0, 27 KOs) bought out his contract from Top Rank in July 2020.

Once again aligned with an American promoter — and now campaigning at 175 pounds — Ramirez is hoping for a title tilt with Dmitry Bivol later this year. He’s currently ranked No. 5 by ESPN.

“The fact that [Bivol is] with Eddie Hearn, I believe that’s another fight that can easily be made,” De La Hoya told ESPN. “I think Zurdo has been under the radar before … We have big plans for him, I think he can be a force at 175. My goal for his career is to have an all-Mexican shootout with Canelo Alvarez.”

First, he needs to take care of Barrera, a battle-tested veteran who has lost two of his last three bouts, the other coming to Andre Ward in 2016. The 39-year-old Cuban scored a decision win over current champion Joe Smith Jr., in 2017 before a 12th-round TKO loss to Bivol in a title fight followed by a decision defeat to Jesse Hart in June 2019. Barrera (22-3, 14 KOs) hasn’t competed since.


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