On Wednesday, HBO announced that 2012 Olympic team member and undefeated featherweight contender Joseph Diaz Jr. (19-0, 11 KOs) would face Jayson Velez (23-1-1, 16 KOs) on the undercard for Andre Ward’s March 26 meeting with Sullivan Barrera. Diaz and Velez are both on the bubble for the top 10 at 126 pounds and whichever man wins will be taking a big step closer to a world title fight.
Diaz was still just 19 when he represented his country in the Olympics. While he didn’t medal in London (nobody from the United States did), I felt at the time that he was one of the best professional prospects on the team. He won his first three bouts before losing to Cuba’s Lazaro Alvarec, a far more experienced, amateur world champion. In an Olympic tournament marked by terrible juding decisions, Alvarec’s 19-10 victory over Diaz was among the worst.
Diaz has developed at a consistent pace in the professional ranks. Last December he claimed the vacant NABF featherweight belt with a TKO of Hugo Partida. Errol Spence Jr. has been the breakout star of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, but Diaz is right alongside Marcus Browne on Spence’s heels in the race to become the first world champion from the team.
Velez does represent a big step up in competition for Diaz, though. This is the fight that will determine whether or not Diaz is a true, world-title level contender. At 5’8.5″ and with a 70″ reach, Velez has outstanding length for a featherweight. He challenged for the IBF title against Evgeny Gradovich in November 2014. While that fight ended in a split-decision draw, I personally felt Gradovich definitely deserved the victory. Nevertheless, Velez put in close, hard-fought rounds against a world champion that night.
Velez is coming into this fight fresh off from the first loss of his career, a 10-round UD to Ronny Rios last November.
It’s a career-defining moment for both men. Joseph Diaz is going to need to hustle and pressure to get the fight into range against the much longer Velez. Velez is going to have to navigate against a well-schooled fighter applying determined pressure. This fight has a strong chance of stealing the night.