Joseph Diaz Jr. not fazed by fighting on Gary Russell Jr.’s home turf
OXON HILL, Md. — Featherweight contender Joseph Diaz Jr. has had virtually all of his 26 professional fights in his home state of California with a few elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, Texas and Mexico.
But Diaz, with the same broad smile he usually has on his face, said Tuesday that he has no concerns about challenging for a world title for the first time on his opponent’s home turf.
In fact, Diaz seemed downright excited about invading the home region of titleholder Gary Russell Jr. for their mandatory fight, which will take place May 19 at the MGM National Harbor, which is about a 15-minute ride from Russell’s home in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Capitol Heights, Maryland. Diaz, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, appearing with fellow southpaw Russell, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, at the MGM National Harbor for the kickoff news conference, exuded the same confidence he showed last week when he asked on social media for “everyone that lives in Maryland please let me know the best spots to eat so I can have a scrumptious meal after my victory.”
“It doesn’t affect me at all fighting in his hometown,” Diaz said at the news conference. “I’m happy to fight in his backyard. He’s the champion and that’s what champions get to do. I know what he’s capable of doing. He says I don’t have the boxing IQ or the power and speed that he has, but he’s going to be in for a rude awakening come fight night. He’s going to see that I have all the tools.”
The bout will open a split-site doubleheader on Showtime (10 p.m. ET/PT) that will also include the fight between light heavyweight world champion Adonis Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs) making his ninth title defense against former two-division titleholder Badou Jack (21-1-3, 13 KOs) at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs), 25, of South El Monte, California, became Russell’s mandatory challenger by virtue of his one-sided decision victory against Rafael Rivera in their title eliminator in September. Fighting for a world title is something Diaz has dreamed of since he was a kid and now the fight is on deck. He said part of the reason he embraced facing Russell (28-1, 17 KOs), 29, in his backyard is because of what happened when Errol Spence Jr., Diaz’s pal and Olympic teammate, went on the road for his shot at a world title. Spence traveled to Kell Brook’s hometown of Sheffield, England as the underdog last May and put on a tremendous performance. He knocked Brook down twice and stopped him in the 11th round to score the upset and win the title.
“Ever since I roomed with Errol Spence at the Olympics, we always promised each other that once we became pro we were going to fight all the elite athletes and the best champions,” Diaz said. “Gary Russell Jr. is the best at 126 pounds. I’m not scared to fight him and that’s what Errol Spence did, too. He beat Kell Brook in his hometown.
“Gary Russell Jr. is by far the best featherweight in the world. Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Lee Selby, none of these guys want to fight Russell. They’re afraid of the speed and the counter shots. But I know what I’m capable of doing and I’ll showcase it May 19. A win would mean everything for me. It would be a dream come true realizing all of the hard work I’ve put in since I was 13 years old. It would mean that I’m the champion and I’d be the shot caller.”
Said Russell: “I appreciate ‘JoJo’ for being honest and saying that he feels I’m the best featherweight in the world. That speaks volumes.” As much as Diaz said he’s excited pumped to fight in a hostile environment, Russell is equally pleased to fight at home.
“It’s amazing to be fighting at home,” Russell said. “It’s cool to know that the people I see around all the time will be able to get in the car and drive 15 minutes to come watch this massacre. I can’t wait.”
The speedy and skilled Russell will only be making his third title defense since winning the belt in 2015, and Diaz is clearly the best opponent of his three challengers that also include Patrick Hyland and Oscar Escandon, whom he blasted out in the seventh round of his last fight last May, also at the MGM National Harbor. Russell said his inactivity is not a concern.
“We stay focused in the gym. The inactivity doesn’t mean anything. It’s no issue,” he said. “I’ve had hand issues in the past but I’m able to preserve my body and stay sharp, stay focused. I’m a fighter that’s always in shape. I never take a day off. You can ask my wife. On anniversaries, we’re in the gym. On birthdays, we’re in the gym.”
Diaz has been much more active and last fought in February, but said that is not necessarily an advantage.
“I don’t think the fact that I’ve been more active will give me any advantage,” Diaz said. “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing and getting the experience I need inside the ring before facing an elite fighter like Gary Russell Jr. My preparation has been good. I’ve fought tremendous opponents and I have all the experience to come out victorious May 19.
“I think his speed is an obstacle; he’s very fast. But that’s the thing about me — I’m good at adapting to any style that I fight. Come fight night I know that his speed is going to be fast, but it’s nothing that I won’t be able to take or nothing that will shock me. I’m going to be able to adapt to that speed and make sure I’m able to land my shots when he’s opening up. I’m very confident; 100 percent confident I’ll beat him. I know that this is an opportunity that is presented to me and I’ll be victorious.”