South El Monte Roots for Their Hero!
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The banners and flags were hung. The red, white and blue balloons floated above the stage. And the Mayor of South El Monte joined the crowd for a special Viewing Party for hometown hero and Olympic boxer Joseph Diaz Jr.
The 19-year-old bantamweight was fighting in his second bout in the 2012 London Olympics on Wednesday. After winning his first match (and ushering in the very first fight of the entire boxing competition) versus Ukraine’s Pavlo Ishchenko, “Jo-Jo” was set to square off against Cuban champ Lazaro Alvarez in a battle between the two southpaws.
I joined the fiesta and captured the mood in the room as they celebrated this San Gabriel Valley kid making it all the way to the Summer Games. Here’s an exclusive report from the South El Monte Community Center, where Diaz trains with his father Joseph Diaz Sr. and Coach Ben Lira.
With a large screen set up between the boxing gym and the basketball court, the audience was ready to cheer for their local boy fighting across the pond. In attendance were Mayor Louie Aguinaga, the center’s Omar Hernandez, George Munoz, Louie Valenzuela, Johnny Carbajal and more. The group had also played Diaz’s first bout on Saturday morning. On Wednesday the Community Center had scheduled three chances (live at 5:30 AM, replays at 12 Noon and 6 PM) for fans to catch Jo-Jo in action.
“Boxing is the most used program in the city,” Carbajal told me, while setting up the projection. “It’s very popular here. And Jo-Jo is a good kid with a great work ethic. He’s a role model for many.” The boxing club has amassed a cache of championship trophies through the years, all displayed in glass cases and on shelves overlooking the gym. The boxing gym is a safe haven for many of the at-risk youth looking for a way out–and a way to rise up from their meager surroundings. If Diaz could achieve success through hard work, they can do it too.
In an area that’s been hit hard by the recession, many of the viewers walked over from the nearby mobile homes to watch the teenager who has given them hope in this struggling economy. Several wore Team Diaz T-shirts, clutched miniature gloves autographed by the slugger, and a few even showed me cell phone pics of them posing with the young Olympian. While the attendees waited for the match to begin, they also sampled fresh-baked cookies from Daphne’s California Greek, who are having an Olympic tie-in with their “Summer Games Triple Pita Points” offer.
Inside the venue, I watched the proceedings through the eyes of two of the youngest fans there, JV Nicole Rubalcava, 6, and Edwin Cojulun, 8. The youngsters were also chosen to receive World Boxing Council’s “Big Champions Supporting Little Champions” certificates and patches. The kids were excited to see Jo-Jo enter the ring in the blue corner. “Oh, he’s on TV,” little JV squealed. “Go Blue!”
Diaz’s smallest fan had been looking forward to seeing her hero shine on the big screen. “My mom said he’s far, far away from us right now,” the 6-year-old said, trying to process the time distance to Great Britain. “So when we’re asleep, he’s awake?” the youngster laughs.
Also gathering in the community center were the fighter’s stablemates from the gym, friends from South El Monte High School and Charles T. Kranz Intermediate School, along with neighborhood supporters. Also coming out to lend support were All Star Promotions’ matchmaker Pete Hironaka (whose shows are held in nearby Montebello) and trainer/sculptor Steve Harpst. Both are longtime friends with Diaz’s trainer Ben Lira.
And while everyone was hoping this viewing party would turn into a “Victory Party,” all were proud of Jo-Jo’s performance, which ended in a 21-15 victory for the Cuban boxer. The South El Monte fans balked at the score, seeing it much closer than that.
Had this been a pro fight, his skills would’ve earned him the win everybody said. But with the AIBA rules of Olympic boxing, the Cuban was declared the winner, thus advancing to the next round. Many voiced their opinion that Diaz was “robbed” by the increasingly controversial officiating in this London competition.
“The Cuban fighter kept holding him,” fumed his supporters. “Jo-Jo landed more power shots, the cleaner harder shots. HE WON!”
And it’s not only the fans that chimed in. Former fighter and current AIBA and USA Boxing official Krysti Rosario was not afraid to voice her own opinion. “I’m speechless…Joseph lost to the Cuban 21-15. As a referee/judge I know he won,” she relayed right after seeing Diaz’s bout. “I’m so sad to see the terrible refereeing and judging in this bout. Jo-Jo boxed a beautiful bout while the Cuban held the whole time. I LOVE boxing but I get so sad when I see this happen. Congratulations Jo-Jo!”
He won in their eyes–even though he didn’t get the official nod of the international judges.
So Day 5 of the XXX Olympiad put an end to Diaz’s gold medal dreams. And while his Olympic journey may have ended, the amateur has a bright future ahead of him. The sturdy southpaw should do well in professional fights; the consensus is his style will suit him well when he goes pro.
South El Monte’s Antonio Guzman, proudly wearing his Team Diaz T-shirt, says that when Jo-Jo does turn pro he will already have loads of fan support behind him.
And he is also due to receive a huge hero’s welcome from the city that has watched him punch his way to the top, every step of the way.
“We’re so proud of him!” the center’s Omar Hernandez tells me of the teen athlete who has inspired them all. “When Jo-Jo comes home, we are planning to have a couple more events for him. We have a concert event coming up where he’ll be a special guest; we will have more celebrations ahead!”
Joseph Diaz Jr.’s Olympic stint may have been cut short.
But now, upon his return, his hometown will show him he is still a WINNER and a CHAMP.
Photos by Michele Chong
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