The 2012 United States Olympic Boxing team failed to win a single medal, making it a historic disappointment for American fans of the Sweet Science. Nevertheless, there were obvious professional prospects on the roster. Welterweight Errol Spence Jr. is currently one of the hottest rising stars in the sport. Light heavyweight Marcus Browne is on the bubble to emerge as a top-10 contender.
Undefeated featherweight Joseph Diaz Jr. is another member of that squad who has developed nicely. After recording a one-sided victory over former world-title challenger Jayson Velez on the Andre Ward undercard Saturday night, he deserves to be viewed as a true contender.
At the time of the 2012 games, I expected to see Diaz reach this point. He was just a teenager when he went to London but already showed technical polish. Beyond that, he was already a very good pressure fighter. He lost by decision to the top seed in the world, Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba, in a fight that was widely criticized as a robery.
In his HBO debut against Velez on Saturday night, Joseph Diaz Jr. showed himself to be a very skilled offensive fighter. He demonstrated excellent hand speed and dizzying punch selection, scoring good shots with both hands from a wide array of angles. One judge scored the fight a clean sweep for Diaz, 10 rounds to nothing. The other two judges scored it 9-1 and 8-2. Only Velez’s chin and heart kept him in the fight to the end.
A win like that over a fighter like Velez is significant. When Velez challenged Evgeny Gradovich for the IBF belt he came away with a draw. His only loss was to Ronny Rios, in a close fight.
As exciting as Joseph Diaz was on Saturday night, he certainly showed some signs of vulnerability. He made a bad habit of backing straight up after landing with his own shots, leaving him open to straight right clients. Leo Santa Cruz, who would make a nice opponent for Diaz down the line, has the reach and technical skill to make Diaz pay a heavy price for that tendency. If Diaz fought Vasyl Lomachenko at this point, he’d get broken down.
Still, he’s just 23, with more time to develop and polish his skills. For now, he’s an exciting addition to the scene at 126 pounds.