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Volume 69, Issue 154, Thursday, July 15, 2004


Support for local boxer comes from diverse group 
of fans, friends

By Tom Carpenter
The Daily Cougar

The Mongolian steppes melt into the Gobi Desert half a world away -- a harsh, desolate land where the average life expectancy at birth is 42.46 years. 

On July 17, Lakva Sim, the first Mongolian world champion since Ghengis Khan, will break camp in the Hindu Kush to march on Reliant Arena where he will defend his two-time World Boxing Association World Lightweight Championship (130-135 pounds) against undefeated and No. 4-ranked Juan Diaz (24-0, 12 KOs).

Unlike Sim (19-3-1), who must travel halfway around the world to defend his title, Diaz will be fighting in his backyard, and plenty of "El Torito" fans and supporters will be at ringside cheering for him to wrest the lightweight title from Sim.

Pin Lim/The Daily Cougar

The Diaz parents have raised two boxers, Juan (second from right), who will be fighting for the WBA Lightweight Championship, and Jose (far left), a newcomer to professional boxing with a record of 3-0.

"He's made a friend of a lot of people here," said Dr. Jerry Wilkenfield, a pathologist at Spring Branch Hospital, as he cooled down from his morning workout at the Jewish Community Center on South Braeswood Boulevard, where Diaz exercises. "I'm a big fan of Juan's. Everybody up here likes him. He's just a nice kid. He's very, very bright, too."

Mark Hordge, manager of the health club, said some members were surprised to see Diaz at the center when Juan plunked down his $1,500 membership fee three years ago.

"They thought maybe he was with an after-school program. It kind of shocked everyone," Hordge said with a grin. "A lot of people were very supportive of him, and still are, after they found out that Juan was going to school and trying to become a professional boxer. As he would gradually go up the ranks, people began to jump on his bandwagon. Typical Houston sports fans."

Wilkenfield said he's been a Diaz fan since he met the young fighter more than three years ago.

"I've gone to every one of his fights here. My wife and my daughter and I will go," Wilkenfield, 72, said as he wiped sweat from his brow. "Experience-wise, this is a big step up for Juan."

Being a young Hispanic in a predominantly Jewish club is unusual, but the multicultural interaction built relationships that will last long after the glory and fanfare of boxing fades into the past, Wilkenfield said.

"I don't see a Hispanic kid at all. I just see a nice kid from a nice family," Wilkenfield said. "It's good for the center. We're the lucky ones. Juan could work out any place he wants."

Hordge, an African-American, said people sometimes stereotype minorities but that Diaz quickly dispels any stereotypical label.

"He's going to the University of Houston (Downtown) and maintaining a pretty good grade-point average, plus he's boxing," Hordge said in his office. "That's a lot to have on your plate all at one time. Everybody was pretty impressed, especially about the school. It separates him from the rest of the fighters."

Wilkenfield said a select group of the old-timers at the center have adopted Diaz as one of their own because of his workout schedule.

"A long time ago when the center first started a group of us would show up early, 5-5:30 in the morning, and the athletic director at the time, Marvin Blumenthal, gave us the nickname the ‘Early Birds,'" Wilkenfield said. "We call Juan an Early Bird. He's one of us."

Three of Diaz's biggest fans have ringside seats for the fight: his parents, Olivia and Fiodencia Diaz, and his younger brother Jose, 18.

"I'm nervous and happy at the same time," said Olivia Diaz. "It's Juan's dream."

Their son's quest to become a world champion has brought the Diaz family closer together, Fiodencia Diaz said.

"When he was growing up we always hoped Juan would be somebody. You have to work hard to achieve your goals and Juan has worked very hard," Fidencia Diaz said, standing in a room where the walls were covered by shelves filled with Juan's and Jose's boxing trophies. "We are closer to him because we support him in all things."

In spite of her son's success in the ring, Olivia Diaz said her happiest moment with her oldest son occurred a few weeks ago when Juan told her he decided to go to law school after college.

"When he was younger he told me that boxing and going to school was too much work," Olivia Diaz said. "We have taught Juan to respect others, to be humble and kind. Money doesn't make a difference; being humble is most important. He's a perfect son. Whatever we tell him to do he does, whether it's schoolwork or boxing."

While his biggest fans hope Diaz wins the title fight, none would predict the outcome.

"We go to church and pray to God for his safety. Our entire family goes to pray for Juan," Olivia Diaz said. "Everybody gathers here (to watch on the big screen television that dominates one wall) and we cry when he wins because we're all happy for Juan. We're worried for him, but God only knows what will happen."

Jose Diaz followed his older brother and turned pro last year. He stands 3-0 in the featherweight division and said his older brother inspires him.

"His dream has come true," Jose Diaz said. "It's wonderful. We're all very proud of him."

Win, lose or draw, Olivia Diaz said the family won't celebrate Juan's fight in their home like they usually do, even if Juan wins the world title.

"Juan's uncle is getting married," Olivia Diaz said with a smile. "So we're going to a wedding."

It's all a matter of priorities for the Diaz family.

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