Only two American men in the last seven Olympiads have managed to come home with a gold medal in boxing, and none since Andre Ward did it in Athens in 2004.
Despite the lack of success members of USA Boxing have had in the Olympic Games for the last three decades, there is still a cache that members of Team USA have when they enter the professional ranks.
And the result is that they often take the easy path in their younger years, fed a series of no-hopers in an effort to help them build up their record.
Joseph Diaz Jr. was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team, but when he turned pro, it wasn’t all that easy.
On his way up, he faced far more difficult than average competition, and met future champions like Rene Alvarado and Andrew Cancio and title challenger Jayson Velez, among others.
His 30-1 record was not acquired by kicking tomato cans down the road, but rather by beating serious competition time in and time out.
Now, as he prepares to defend the IBF super featherweight title he won from Tevin Farmer last year, all those difficult bouts on the way up have steeled him for the difficult task he’ll face as champion.
He fights the Freddie Roach-trained Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, DAZN) at the Fantasy Springs Resort in Indio, California, in what is expected to be a difficult match. Diaz is a -250 favorite at BetMGM, while Rakhimov is +190.
“My career has been a very, very tough career,” Diaz said. “I feel I don’t get the credit that I deserve as far as the recognition. I always let my work do the talking and it finally paid off in 2020 when I fought Tevin Farmer. I always wanted to become champion by fighting the best in the division. I challenged myself when I fought Gary Russell Jr. at 126 pounds. I ended up falling short, due to many reasons. That’s in the past, but that experience made me learn a lot from the outside looking in.
“Physically and mentally, it’s prepared me for where I’m at now. Luckily, I’ve been able to get another challenge against Tevin Farmer, who was the best in the division at that time, I felt. I ended up dethroning him and it’s been a great transition. My whole professional career, even my amateur background, made me the fighter I am today.”
[Watch Diaz-Rakhimov: Get DAZN and stream the fight live]
Diaz turned pro with a perhaps undeserved reputation as a soft puncher.
But when he fought Russell, who has arguably the fastest hands in boxing, he felt he was the harder hitter. Russell won by scores of 117-111 twice and 115-113 and largely neutralized Diaz’s offense.
Diaz didn’t let the loss go to waste. He adjusted as a result of that.
“I learned a lot from that fight, just knowing I’ve got to take risks in there,” Diaz said. “I’ve got to go out there during that opportunity at that given time and risk it all. In boxing, you only have a limited amount of opportunities and you have to take advantage of everything. … At that time, I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t opening up as much as I should have.”
Opening up against Rakhimov will not come without risks. Unlike Russell, who is a master boxer but not much of a puncher, Rakhimov can hit. He’s 15-0 with 12 knockouts and has finished eight of his fights in four rounds or less.
Diaz has a less than 50 percent knockout ratio, with 15 knockouts in 31 fights, and 30 wins, but it’s deceptive because he didn’t get a big run of soft touches early.
And so the intrigue in the fight with Rakhimov is that while Diaz must respect his ability to punch, it’s not like Rakhimov can go in there reckless and disregard Diaz’s power.
“I feel my record doesn’t show how strong I physically am,” Diaz said. “I feel like I’m a very, very strong fighter. I’m a strong fighter to the body, and to the head. My record wasn’t padded. I fought very, very tough fighters. I fought undefeated fighters. I fought future world champions, ex-world champions, and these guys were experienced as well. They have chins and you’re not going to be able to knock everyone out. I feel my power is very, very underrated but it’s beneficial to me.”
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