- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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It was December 2000, and lightweight Julio Diaz had just knocked out journeyman Eduardo Perez in the sixth round in a small downtown Las Vegas ballroom. Minutes later, smiling but still dripping with sweat, Diaz talked to a reporter and explained his goals.
Diaz said his desire was to fight champion Jose Luis Castillo more than anyone. The sooner the better, too. It took awhile, but a little more than four years later, Diaz is just days away from the match he dreamed about.
Diaz (30-2, 22 KOs), who gave up the IBF title belt in order to make the match, will face Castillo (51-6-1, 45 KOs) on Saturday night (10:30 ET) at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in the main event of a Showtime card being held during the premium cable network's free preview weekend.
"Jose Luis Castillo is the man in the division," Diaz says. "By beating him, people will start believing in me, and that is important."
Super middleweight champ Jeff Lacy (18-0, 14 KOs) makes his second title defense in the co-feature against Rubin Williams (26-1, 15 KOs).
The path to Castillo-Diaz was a bumpy one. Castillo lost his title to Floyd Mayweather and then lost to him again in a rematch. But when Mayweather moved up in weight, Castillo regained the vacant WBC belt and has since stamped himself as the world's best 135-pounder.
Diaz, too, has had his ups and downs. Although hailed as a future star in 2000, Diaz lost twice in a seven-month span: a disputed split decision to Angel Manfredy and a humiliating first-round knockout loss to Juan Valenzuela on a nationally-televised ESPN2 card.
But like Castillo did, Diaz picked himself up after the defeats, eventually rebounding to claim a vacant lightweight belt last May when he outboxed rugged titlist Javier Jauregui.
But Diaz didn't hold his belt for long. When Diego Corrales, saddled with promotional problems, fell out of Saturday night's fight in January, Diaz jumped at the chance to take his place. There was a catch, however. He'd have to give up his title because the IBF insisted he face mandatory challenger Levander Johnson.
Diaz had been preparing for that small-time fight, one for which he would have made about $100,000. Then came the offer of a marquee match with Castillo for four times the money and the prospect of stardom with a victory. The winner of Saturday's fight is supposed to face Corrales in an even bigger fight on May 7.
Diaz, the younger brother of welterweight Antonio Diaz, says giving up his title was not something he wanted to do but he knew it was necessary.
"It was difficult in the beginning, but after I analyzed everything I just started to look ahead," Diaz says of his decision to relinquish his title. "I wanted to go for something bigger and better and it just seems that these days titles do not really do much. This is something that I wanted, and I did it and everybody supported me."
Diaz says giving up the belt has served to motivate him during training.
"I think it is a great motivation just because I already gave up my title, which I worked very hard for, just to get this fight," he says. "I have got to make it be worth something, and I have got to come through. That is pretty much what is getting me going, and it is going to be very hard for Castillo to bring me down because I had to invest a lot. He will not step over me so easily. I will put up a fight. This is going to be a very great fight because I am always a good show and I am up for a good fight."
Castillo was supposed to fight Corrales in December, but it fell through and he fought Joel Casamayor instead. Then Diaz replaced Corrales in Saturday's fight. All the while, Castillo says he has remained focused.
"I know how important these fights are for what I want to do in the future," Castillo says. "I know that before I can think about Corrales, before I can think about Kostya Tszyu, before I can think about anything, I have to beat Diaz and that is all I am thinking about right now. The most important thing for me is to fight the big fights. This fight is just as big as Corrales. I know Corrales is a little bigger than this fight, but to me, these are big fights and important fights."
Prospect watch: Two of boxing's brightest prospects --- lightweight "Kid Diamond" Almazbek Raiymkulov and middleweight Kelly Pavlik -- take center stage against fellow up-and-comers Friday night in Choctaw, Miss., on "ShoBox: The Next Generation" (Showtime, 11 ET/PT).
Raiymkulov (19-0, 11 KOs) faces Koba Gogoladze (17-0, 7 KOs) in a matchup of former Olympians. Raiymkulov was in the 2000 Games for Kyrgyztan, and Gogoladze was in the 1996 Olympics for Georgia. Pavlik (23-0, 20 KOs), one of the most devastating rising punchers, faces Dorian Beaupierre (12-2-2, 6 KOs).
But Raiymkulov is the one to pay the most attention to. Now based in Las Vegas, Raiymkulov speaks five languages and has a law degree. He also has excellent power, which he used to become the first fighter to knock out veteran Lamar Murphy in November.
Overseas Ouma? Junior middleweight titlist Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, who was so impressive in a unanimous decision win against Kofi Jantuah in January in his first defense, might go to Australia for an April 30 defense against Shannan Taylor, according to promoter Russell Peltz. Although premium networks HBO and Showtime have previously showcased the nonstop-punching Ouma, dates are scarce, which might lead him to down under. "We're talking with HBO, but nothing is definite and I have not heard from Showtime since I offered them Ouma-(Daniel) Santos a couple of weeks ago," Peltz said.
Brits are coming: Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions is teaming with British promoter Hennessy Sports to co-promote two of Britain's brightest young fighters, junior welterweight Junior Witter (31-1-2, 19 KOs) and super middleweight Carl Froch (14-0, 11 KOs), when they appear in the U.S.
The companies worked well together on last month's Bernard Hopkins-Howard Eastman undisputed middleweight title fight -- the card included Witter's decision win against Lovemore N'Dou --- and decided to keep the relationship going.
"At Golden Boy Promotions we pride ourselves on providing boxing fans with the top talent the sport has to offer, whether they're from the U.S., Mexico, the United Kingdom, or anywhere around the world," De La Hoya said. "Junior Witter and Carl Froch are two future stars in the sport of boxing, and we want to make sure that fans in the United States get to see them in action as they fight their way to world championships."
Although Froch is considered one of Europe's top prospects, Witter is far more advanced. His only loss came on points in a 2000 junior welterweight title bout vs. Zab Judah, who is now the undisputed welterweight champ. But Witter is 16-0 with 15 KOs since that loss, and his victory against N'Dou was an eliminator to earn a shot at Arturo Gatti's title.
Tszyu hid injury: As impressive as junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu's third-round destruction of Sharmba Mitchell was in their Nov. 6 rematch, consider that Tszyu entered the fight hurt. Tszyu, who had been idle for 22 months after twice postponing the fight because of injuries, told Australian media that he had badly injured a rib three weeks before the fight. "The doctors said to me I was not going to do any more damage to it, that I just had to deal with it," Tszyu said. "It was so painful." Tszyu is slated for his next defense on June 4 in England (Showtime) against British brawler Ricky Hatton.
New promoter for Phillips: Former junior middleweight titlist Verno Phillips, 35, has signed with Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions.
"He's shown time and time again that he's one of the best junior middleweights in the world, and I think there are some big fights in his future," Pelullo said.
Phillips (38-10-1, 20 KOs), who previously boxed for Sugar Ray Leonard's now-defunct company, won a vacant 154-belt in June 2004 when he stopped Carlos Bojorquez in the sixth round, but Phillips lost it in his first defense when Ouma outpointed him four months later.
Quick hits: While featherweight contender Rocky Juarez (22-0, 15 KOs) awaits a title shot against Injin Chi later this year, he is staying busy Friday night (ESPN2, 9 ET) against veteran Juan Carlos "Ranchero" Ramirez (34-7, 14 KOs) at the Pechanga Resort in Temecula, Calif. Also on the card: a bantamweight eliminator between Jorge Lacierva (26-5-5, 18 KOs) and former titlist Cruz Carbajal (24-12-1, 20 KOs) with the winner earning a shot at champ Rafael Marquez. ... Although former featherweight titlist Derrick "Smoke" Gainer has not fought since barely throwing a punch in a technical decision loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in November 2003, he is getting another shot at a belt. But to get it, Gainer -- now being trained by Buddy McGirt -- has to go to Indonesia, where he will face belt holder Chris John on April 22.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Julio Diaz has been hoping for a chance to fight Jose Luis Castillo. Now he's got it.