London’s a Long Way From South El Monte for Joseph “Jo-Jo” Diaz
by Charles Jay
Joseph Diaz Jr. carries the torch for the opening day of boxing action for the United States as he takes on Pavlo Ishchenko of Russia.
In fact, it is the first match of the Olympics overall.
Diaz, America’s bantamweight representative, hails from South El Monte, CA, and has won the national amateur title in the bantamweight division for the past two years. Of course, winning national titles or even the Olympic Trials isn’t necessarily enough to get a boxer to the Olympics, as only 32 competitors are allowed. But Diaz did not have much trouble qualifying, as he got to the quarterfinals, scoring wins over Worapoj Petchkoom, who won Olympic silver in 2004, and Oscar Valdez of Mexico.
Diaz is precocious; at age 19 he is the youngest member of the U.S. team. He’s not necessarily from a prosperous area – in fact, 19% of South El Monte’s residents live below the poverty line – so he’s had to fight his way up the ranks. His dad coaches him, and that’s not a full-time job for him. Or rather, it has become one, since he has been largely unemployed for most of the recession.
Amazingly, he kind of started from scratch, after losing a job with a moving company. He simply began to read book son in order to help facilitate his son’s training. And that’s how the whole thing progressed. It’s another of the remarkable stories that pervade throughout the Olympic Games.
Diaz is a very little guy, and that lack of size has kept him out of most other sports. He showed a little promise as a high school baseball player, but the odds were clearly better for him in the ring, and so that is where he concentrated most of his efforts. Diaz says he got hooked on boxing when he found he had enough skills to beat down a neighborhood bully who had shown the poor judgment to challenge him to a sparring match. Diaz had gone into the gym in the first place to defend himself against bullies who had picked on him because he was so small. After just a week of preparation, he was able to send this particular away in tears.
It goes without saying that he has dispensed of tougher guys since. he was the 2007 national Silver Gloves champion
By now he has compiled a record that includes over a hundred amateur bouts, and almost all wins, he is ready to take the final step that he hopes will end up with a good pro offer. What some people don’t realize is that the amateur boxing federations don’t pay expenses for family to attend any Olympics, so Joseph Sr. has had to undertake raising about $10,000 to go see his son.
The kid they call “Jo-Jo” participated in a little fund-raiser where they sold T-Shirts adorned by the slogan “Team Diaz Going For the Gold.”
No one should be thinking ahead. Diaz can’t afford to look past his first-round matchup.
The 20-year-old Ishchenko qualified by reaching the finals of the AIBA European Olympic Qualifying Event before losing to Megomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan. Like Diaz, his father Oleg is a boxing coach.
Eventually the guy who will stand in Diaz’s way is Lazaro Alvarez Estrada, the 21-year-old from Cuba who beat him in last year’s World Championships, eventually going on to win the gold and then the Pan Am Games. We will not underestimate the little 19-year-old mighty mite, however.