As we know boxing is a cruel sport. The hopes and dreams of most fighters are broken somewhere along the way, leaving only a tiny percentage of boxers who make it to the very top. What must be even more disheartening is when an injury prevents a fighter from fulfilling their potential.
This was the case for my latest interviewee, Joel Diaz. Having already challenged for a world title, Diaz was in the picture for another shot at a top prize when he had to retire due to a serious eye injury. What followed was a harrowing time in his life before he returned to boxing as a trainer.
Depending on your age, or how long you have been paying attention to the sport, Diaz is perhaps most known for his achievements as a trainer – some of which are discussed in this piece.
We begin with Joel’s enforced retirement and the ups and downs that followed, before looking at his experiences as a trainer, taking us up to his current bunch of fighters. If you enjoy honest and heartfelt talk about life and boxing then read on, you won’t be disappointed.
Joel is on Twitter @JoelDiazBoxing and Instagram @coachjoeldiaz.
CM: Hi Joel. I’d like to begin with your career in the ring. Your six year run as a pro was cut short by an eye injury when you were only 24-years-old. Can you discuss your feelings regarding your achievements in the ring and your frustrations with how it ended?
JD: It was an ending that really threw me off. It was something that really hurt me. Coming from a family of five brothers and two sisters while living in a two bedroom apartment – my parents always working in the fields – all I wanted to do was to make something out of myself in order to provide for my family.
I always enjoyed fighting growing up and never tried to play any team sports. Once I saw people being successful and making money boxing I immediately told myself this is what I want to do in order to help my family.
It was tough in the beginning as my parents did not want me to go to the gym. I had to sneak out the back many times to go to the local gym and train. Once I turned pro and started making money I bought my mother her first car and helped with buying my parents a house. I won the eliminator for the world title but I was having issues with my eye. The doctor told me I had a detached retina and I could never fight again.
I was depressed and started to question why this had happened to me. I started going down the wrong path while working for people who were involved in illegal activities. It was my mother who gave me the reality check one day and told me I needed to do something else because I was either headed to jail or the cemetery. She told me I needed to go help my brothers as they were boxing and that ended up being my introduction as a boxing coach.
CM: Perfect link into my next question – you ended up as the head corner man for your younger brothers Antonio and Julio. What was the dynamic like being in that position for family?
JD: It was tough because they are my brothers but one thing they knew and understood was that I was dedicated to my job as a coach and would not let the thought of family interfere with the business of boxing. I knew I had to remain strong and maintain control as a coach.
CM: And from those days you have continued training boxers and you are now very well known in that capacity. Can you tell the readers a bit about your gym setup in Indio, California?
JD: I train my fighters at the Boys and Girls Club in Indio. This is a city facility where we train kids from the age of eight and up, Monday to Saturday, and it’s open to everyone. The gym has two rings which allows more opportunities for sparring. I really enjoy the location of the gym as it is in the desert which is great for workouts. The hills and the desert heat help my fighters get into peak condition.
CM: I’m always interested in the fight day routine of professional trainers. Do you have a set procedure you go through from the morning to arriving at the venue to having your fighter called to the ring or does it vary from boxer to boxer?
JD: I take my job as a coach very seriously. I am not one of these coaches that forgets about their fighters due to being preoccupied with other things. As a coach I have to make sure my fighter is 100% focused on the task at hand.
The morning of the fight I give my fighter space to rest and monitor their carb intake during breakfast. I ensure we arrive at the venue on time and I immediately take away any distractions that could possibly come up in the dressing room – including cell phones. It is important to me that my fighter remains concentrated on the fight and not worrying about other issues such as someone getting tickets.
CM: You worked with Timothy Bradley for a long time. Can you speak about the highs and lows experienced during this time? How crazy did things get after the win over Pacquiao and then towards the end of your time working together for instance?
JD: The highs – working with Timothy Bradley, he trained at a really high level. There was no such thing as a limit for him and he trained harder than anyone I knew. He completely believed in himself and his ability to perform at a high level in the ring. Timothy Bradley was also a great listener and communicated well with me.
The lows – he tried to do more than what he needed to which led to him being more fatigued at different points in camp. There were moments when he would over train which did not help during camps.
The night before the first Pacquiao fight the magnitude of the event became real for me. It was a tall order being asked of Timothy because he was going to be fighting arguably one of the best fighters of this era. Bradley wasn’t supposed to win that night and he finished the fight after hurting his ankle midway through the fight.
Once the decision was given to Bradley everything was great. I was extremely happy but unfortunately that only lasted 10 minutes as we were being labelled as thieves during the post fight press conference. This led to some of the worst moments of my life as I received phone threats, people approaching me in the streets while I was with my family to share their disagreement about the decision with me etc.
There was a time after the Pacquiao fight where Bradley’s wife became his manager and his brother-in-law also became involved with his career. Once this occurred I started to be questioned by them about things that involved Bradley’s training camp along with other things that they didn’t need to be involved with.
After the Ruslan Provodnikov fight, Bradley was still suffering from concussion symptoms and he did not look right in preparation for the Marquez fight which included him being knocked down during a sparring session with a much lighter opponent. I was really tempted to pull the plug on that fight but it eventually was decided that he needed to move forward with the fight.
The fight with Jessie Vargas was the one that ended things between us. Me and his brother-in-law got into it after I was trying to take Bradley’s gloves off after the fight and his brother-in-law was too busy trying to pull him away for some camera time. A month later Bradley asked me if I had trained him to help him or if it was strictly for the money. That really bothered me and it was something that stood out in my mind.
After that he called me and left a voicemail thanking me and telling me he was moving forward with another coach.
CM: So from those experiences and others would you rather take a known fighter halfway through his/her career and help them achieve their goals or work with a youngster from day one and guide them to the top?
JD: I would rather help a youngster because he/she would appreciate it more. I can teach them the basics while guiding them through the amateurs, the pros and eventually making them a contender with the hopes of being a world champion some day.
CM: Finally, give us an overview of who you are currently training – who should we be keeping an eye on?
JD: April 12 I have Francisco “El Bandido” Vargas fighting on the ESPN card. After that I will be preparing Lucas Matthysse for his fight against Pacquiao in July.
As far as guys to watch for I have the following – Oscar Duarte (13-0-1), Diego De La Hoya (20-0), Radzhab Butaev (8-0) who is one of the best welterweights coming up, Vergil Ortiz (9-0), Joseph Aguirre (19-0), Javier Padilla (5-0-1) and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shakhram Giyasov (1-0).