Undercard Overview: JoJo Diaz Faces Last-Minute Sub Rafael Rivera in Clash of Unbeaten Featherweights

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Photo: Ed Mulholland

By Nat Gottlieb

Unbeaten Jose “JoJo” Diaz Jr. is a supremely-gifted boxer blessed with good looks and a charismatic personality. He has all the tools to become a superstar. If you doubt it, just ask him. “I’m going to be the next big thing in boxing,” the 24-year-old Diaz says without hesitation.

Diaz was supposed fight another unbeaten featherweight contender, Jorge Lara, but Lara was forced to pull out of the fight on Tuesday, reportedly because of a back injury he suffered in a Las Vegas gym. Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes both Canelo and Diaz, hustled to come up with a replacement and chose undefeated Mexican fighter Rafael “Big Bang” Rivera (25-0-2, 16 KOs), a fringe contender who was in training for a Sept. 22 bout.

"I don't care who is in front of me," Diaz said. "I'm leaving with a win on (Saturday). After I have my hand raised in victory, I will be one fight away from realizing my dream of winning a world championship."

The only name brand fighter the 23-year-old Rivera has faced so far was former super bantamweight champion, Wilfredo Vasquez Jr., whom he beat by split decision in December 2015. But Vasquez was already on the down slope of his career and lost five of his last seven bouts before retiring last year.

According to Golden Boy Promotions, “Rivera was originally supposed to fight Diaz on Saturday's card, but was forced to step aside for Lara, due to Lara being higher-ranked” by the sanctioning alphabet body.

"I was hoping to get a shot at JoJo Diaz," Rivera said. "When that didn't pan out, I took another fight for next week. I have therefore been training and am in the best shape of my life. I am grateful that I have this last-minute chance, and there is no way I am letting this opportunity pass me by."

A 2012 Olympian, Diaz has generated buzz since he turned pro. Rivera, other than his defeat of Vasquez, hasn’t gotten a lot of ink. This step up to fight Diaz on the undercard of what is the biggest fight in boxing this year is a huge leap for the Tijuana boxer.

Diaz has boxed circles around virtually every opponent he’s faced, but he’s never been in a war. He has shown a willingness to engage, but prefers to fight at a distance. Rivera, on the other hand, is a classic, aggressive Mexican fighter who prefers to get up close and personal. Rivera will almost certainly be the aggressor in this bout. He has very fast hands, throws a lot of combos, and digs hard to the body.

The most likely scenario is that Diaz, who doesn’t have an abundance of power, will try to win by out-boxing Rivera, who will aim to slow him down with thudding body shots. Of Diaz’s 24 wins, only 13 came by way of knockout. In his last nine bouts, all 10-round fights, Diaz has gone the distance 6 times. In contrast, Rivera has had to go the distance just once, and has only fought 92 total rounds in his 25-fight career, an average of 3.6 per bout. Stamina could be a factor for Rivera.  

As for the much-heralded Diaz, how far he can rise in boxing may be limited by his lack of power.

HBO commentator Max Kellerman alluded to this when Diaz fought Horacio Garcia last year on Boxing After Dark.

“If there’s something in JoJo Diaz’s game that says he’s less than a top pound-for-pound fighter eventually, it’s because he’s not a devastating puncher,” Kellerman said on air. “That doesn’t mean he can’t achieve the highest highs in boxing. He’s not a bad puncher, just not a devastating one”

Kellerman likened Diaz in some ways to Vasyl Lomachenko, a high compliment, but with a difference. “Lomachenko isn’t a devastating puncher, either, but he’s a definitive puncher because he throws so many shots you don’t see coming. Likewise, JoJo has the capacity to set up shots you don’t see coming, but when Lomachenko throws his I think they land harder than Diaz’s.”

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Also on the undercard is a clash of unbeaten super bantamweights, Randy Caballero and Diego De La Hoya. Both have strong amateur backgrounds and are superb boxers. What each seems to be lacking is a lot of power. Still, it is always a treat to watch two well-schooled boxers in a match which should propel the winner toward a title fight.

De La Hoya (19-0, 9 KOs), who is Oscar De La Hoya’s cousin, has grown tired of being compared to his Hall of Fame relative. He also bristles when people hint he has only gotten this far because of his last name. “The last name’s always going to be there, you can’t get away from that,” Diego says. “But this fight is going to prove to everyone what Diego De La Hoya’s about.”

Caballero (24-0, 14 KOs), who like De La Hoya is promoted by Oscar’s Golden Boy Promotions, is also sick of having to answer questions about his opponent’s cousin. He’s especially put off by questions about how he feels facing the boss’s relative.

“I’m not going to let that get to me,” says Caballero, a former bantamweight champion who lost his title on the scales. “They’re two different people. I’m going to make sure the judges don’t score by his last name. My fans know, my family knows, my friends know that I’m going to win this fight clear. It’s because of my skills. Once you’re inside the ring, all that stuff (about Oscar) is out the window. It’s just two fighters head to head, and the one that looks the best is going to win the fight. Not because of your last name, not because you’re a former world champion.”

Although neither of the two boxers has faced a top-tier super bantamweight yet, they share a common opponent in journeyman Jesus Ruiz. De La beat Ruiz by a wide margin in a unanimous decision two years ago, while Caballero only managed to eke out a tight decision against him this past March, by scores of 96-94 twice, and 97-93. But when Caballero fought Ruiz he likely had some rust after being out of the ring for 13 months.

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In a third televised bout, Ryan Martin (19-0, 11 KOs) a promising young lightweight, will be tested by Francisco Rojo (20-2, 13 KOs). The 24-year-old Martin is an exceptional tall lightweight at 5’11, with a 70 inch reach, and has the broad shoulders and overall physique of a fighter who can eventually move up a class or two without much problem.

"I realize there are a lot of big fights that can be made right now in the lightweight division," Martin says. "There are lot of projections and talks for me to be a part of some of those bigger fights. But right now, I have to get past Rojo.”

At 5’7”, the 26-year-old Rojo, who comes into this bout riding an eight-fight winning streak, will be giving up four inches in height and the same amount in reach. Rojo is a plodding fighter who comes forward and will stand right in front you. Martin fights out of a tight, high-glove stance and has fast hands and some good pop on his long-armed jab. In order to win, Rojo will have to get inside that jab and work Martin’s slender body. Given their difference in size, if Martin can keep the fight at a distance, he’s likely to win it and take another step up the ladder.