A brutal look at the making, and breaking, of a champion
An unvarnished, all-access look at Saturday's main event at the Emerald Queen Casino between Joel Diaz Jr., a promising junior lightweight and a down-and-out boxing mercenary.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Joel Diaz Jr. fileWeight class: Junior lightweight
Hometown: Palmdale, Calif.
Trains: Big Bear Lake, Calif.
Record: 10-0, with 9 knockouts
FIFE — The dim hallway is bordered by cramped dressing rooms that are nothing more than curtained partitions with a few folding chairs. There are no showers and there is almost no privacy.
Yellow arrows are taped to the carpet, pointing the way to the ring.
Joel Diaz Jr., a promising junior lightweight, is fighting in his first main event, headlining the card at the Emerald Queen Casino's 87th Battle at the Boat. But the only concession made to his exalted status is that he gets two of these small makeshift rooms. The undercard fighters have only half his space.
Diaz arrives four hours before his fight with veteran Emmanuel "The Butcher" Lucero. He leans back on one plastic chair, props his feet up on another, pulls on his headphones and disappears into the music.
This is only his 10th professional fight. He's about to fight a guy named The Butcher, but the 20-year-old with a champions' potential, looks as comfortable here as a first-class passenger on a transcontinental flight.
As the hours slip past excruciatingly slowly, I feel as if I'm getting more nervous than Diaz.
"This is my office," he shrugs. "This is my job. This is where I belong."
Saturday night was one of those small, necessary steps for Diaz on the grueling road to becoming a champion. Lucero, his opponent, was a battle-tested brawler, with fierce, angry eyes and a familiarity with these arenas and these events. The two fighters are the good and bad of their brutal sport.
At one point in his career, Lucero was like Joel Diaz Jr., a young, hungry fighter with big plans. But Lucero got impatient.
On July 26, 2003, at 24 and undefeated in 22 fights, he fought Manny Pacquiao for the IBF super-bantamweight title and took a terrible beating. He has since lost 11 of his 16 fights.
Lucero is the cautionary tale that Diaz should heed. He went after too much, too soon. Lucero should have been a contender. Diaz is one.
Now Lucero, 33, is an "opponent." He is a mercenary, a steppingstone to the big fights, the HBO shows, the Pay-Per-View nights, the big multi-million-dollar bouts.
"I'm a good test," Lucero said.
There was no television for this Battle at the Boat. No postfight news conferences. There were about 1,500 people in the showroom in back of the casino. The purse for the main event was $8,000.
Throughout the country, these small, but important dramas in the lives of athletes are played out in front of enthusiastic crowds, but away from all the glitter. It is in showrooms like the Emerald Queen Casino that boxers climb through the ropes and redefine the meaning of courage.
"I love these shows," Diaz's trainer Abel Sanchez said. "These are the shows that make these fighters. If we make it to the big shows with this young man it will be because of this."
On Saturday night, Diaz methodically peppered Lucero with left jabs and right-hand leads.
"He's going places," said longtime matchmaker Rick Glazier said. "Very calm. Very collected."
In the third round, he knocked down Lucero with a short left hand. In the fifth, Diaz rocked him with a right hook and knocked him down with a flurry. Finally 1:34 into the fifth, Diaz hit him with another right. Lucero dropped, turned toward his corner and ran his glove across his throat, signaling that he was done.
After he had been treated by the ringside physician, I asked Lucero if he had any advice for Diaz. He smiled and said, "Don't fight Manny Pacquiao when you're (24).
"They used to tell me just wait two more years before you fight Pacquiao," Lucero said. "But we were in a hurry. At that time, I didn't even know who Pacquiao was. He looked so small. I was undefeated, but he gave me a big surprise.
"I was deceiving myself. I thought I was going to win that fight. After that I went down the hill. I started doing crazy things. Drugs. Hanging out and making mistakes. And now I'm an old guy who went down the hill."
Diaz connected on a couple of hard rights early in the fight. Then he went away from that punch.
"I learned tonight that I have to listen to my cornerman," he said. "My coaches knew I had him. They told me to throw the right. I should have listened. It would have been an earlier night."
After the fight, Lucero looked at his young opponent, shook his head and asked him in Spanish, "How old are you?"
"I felt bad. He looked like my son," said Lucero, cuts on his nose and forehead and a welt under his left eye. "But he fought like he was much older. He's a very tough prospect, very strong, and in time he will be champion of the world."
Diaz is the good news from boxing. He's a smart, impressive kid. His face is unmarked and, even in the hours before his fight, his laugh comes easily.
His team — his father Joel Sr., a highway striper from Palmdale, Calif., and Sanchez, who has been training fighters for 35 years — understand the talent he has. Diaz is strong and quick and savvy beyond his years, but his team isn't in a hurry to get noticed.
"We're building something for the future," said Sanchez, who has worked with Diaz for five months. "It wasn't about this fight. It was about learning from this fight."
Diaz left the casino more than five hours after he arrived. There is little time to celebrate these victories. Much more work needs to be done.
Soon he will be back to his camp and the thin air at Big Bear Lake, Calif., 7,000 feet above sea level. He will spar many more rounds against much more experienced fighters. He will make more sacrifices, win more fights and wait for HBO to call and reward him for all of those sacrifices.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com.
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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