Joseph Diaz Jr. could become Los Angeles’ fourth reigning featherweight world champion Saturday night when he fights Gary Russell Jr. for the World Boxing Council belt.
“It’s going to bring me the opportunities to fight Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Oscar Valdez — major showdowns at Staples Center or StubHub Center,” Diaz said. “And it’s motivation knowing I’ve got those guys supporting me, building to those mega-fights down the line.”
South El Monte’s Diaz (26-0, 14 knockouts) will meet Washington’s Russell (28-1, 17 KOs) near the champion’s hometown at MGM National Harbor in Maryland on a Showtime-televised card that begins at 7:05 p.m. PDT.
The Diaz-Russell bout will be followed on Showtime by WBC light-heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson’s title defense in Toronto against former 168-pound champion Badou Jack.
With Santa Cruz and Mares preparing for their June 9 World Boxing Assn. rematch at Staples Center on Showtime, and Valdez two months removed from a successful World Boxing Organization title defense against England’s Scott Quigg, this featherweight renaissance inspires memories of a previous era.
In the 1960s and ’70s, featherweight champions including Raul Rojas, Sugar Ramos, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Ruben Olivares and Bobby Chacon reigned as either hometown world champions or champions who fought frequently at venues including the Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles Sports Arena and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Diaz is connected with the other champions through social media and said the rivalry is “polite” at this point as momentum builds toward future clashes.
“There’s a lot of Mexican Americans in the Los Angeles area, and we’re kind of small guys,” Diaz said. “We get a lot of good training, preparation and sparring here, and the good sparring makes us all wiser and more talented in that ring. I truly believe that’s why you see so many champions based here in L.A., because of all the action.”
A 2012 U.S. Olympian, Diaz, 25, knocked out Victor Terrazas in the third round of their fight in February at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio.
His promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, called with news that he’d secured the title shot against Russell, whose only loss is to three-division world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko.
“It was a dream come true, a blessing to know all the hard work paid off and I’m finally getting the shot and the opportunity I’ve been wishing for my entire life,” Diaz said. “When Oscar gave me that call, I went to my knees, prayed to God and thanked him for this opportunity because I’ve been dreaming about this chance since I was a little kid and to realize it’s [this close], I’m very excited.”
While many boxing observers are picking Russell over Diaz because of his hand speed and skill, it is worth noting that the champion has only fought three times since March 2015.
“I know a lot of people see Gary Russell as the favorite, but I feel like it’s a great matchup,” Diaz said. “Russell’s older now. He’ll be fighting ring rust. And I think he’s going to want to show well in his hometown.
“He won’t want to step back and box as much as he wants to please the crowd. So in an action-packed fight, I’ll have the advantage because I’ll be the stronger, bigger man in there and I’ll be landing some good combinations.
“They don’t think I have the power to knock people out or hurt people, but when I know I’m stronger and bigger, I’m the aggressor and I go for the kill. With Russell, I’ll be the one dictating the pace and he’s the one who’ll be feeling my shots. It should be a spectacular show.”