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London Olympics: El Monte's Joseph Diaz Jr. wins boxing opener

Bantamweight Joseph Diaz Jr. easily defeats Pavlo Ishchenko of Ukraine, 19-9, in Games' first boxing match. His next opponent will be top-seeded Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba.

July 29, 2012|By Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph Diaz Jr. in action with Pavlo Ishchenko of Ukraine during Day One of the London Olympics.
Joseph Diaz Jr. in action with Pavlo Ishchenko of Ukraine during Day One… (Scott Heavey / Getty Images )

LONDON — Olympic boxing looks different through the eyes of a parent.

"Knowing that's your son, your blood in there," Joseph Diaz said, pausing to pull off his glasses to dab at his eyes. "It's just something, man."

That emotion, Diaz confessed, was inspired by equal parts joy and pride after his boy, Joseph Diaz Jr., pounded his way to a 19-9 bantamweight victory over Pavlo Ishchenko of Ukraine in the opening bout of the London Games on Saturday.

PHOTOS: London Olympics | Day 1

With that fight, father and son added another step to a long, tumultuous journey that began in a South El Monte gym and could end on the top step of the Olympic medal stand. Diaz fights again Wednesday against top-seeded Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba, who beat the American at the world championships last year.

But, his dad promised, Diaz will go home a winner regardless of how the match ends.

"I would be just as proud of him, just that he made it this far," he said. "He is an Olympian. And we're proud of Joseph no matter how far he goes here."

The son says the same thing about his dad, who coaxed him into joining a community center boxing program when he was in grade school. He was hoping to keep his son from running with the bad crowds he'd hung out with as a youngster.

The sport became more than a distraction four years ago, though, after the elder Diaz lost his job driving a moving van. In an effort to spend more time with his only son, Diaz became his coach and learned everything he could about boxing through long conversations with trainers and hours spent in front of a computer screen, studying YouTube videos.

With his dad in his corner — literally and figuratively — Diaz Jr. thrived, winning 108 of 114 amateur bouts to become, at 19, the youngest member of the men's Olympic boxing team. His parents sold T-shirts and held car washes to raise the money needed to follow their son to London. They watched not far from ringside as he landed the first punch of the Olympic tournament then never looked back, rolling to a one-sided win.

Not that it was easy to watch.

"That's our baby in there. For me, it's scary," his mother, Valerie Diaz, said. "You only see what the other [fighter] is doing. I don't see what my son is doing. I only see what they're landing on him. "

As it turned out, there was little to worry about since the biggest challenge her son faced Saturday was getting to the ExCel Centre. The driver of bus he took got lost on the way to the arena.

"It really means a lot to have my family here," Diaz Jr. said. "They're out there in the crowd cheering me on and I feel that momentum. My family means everything and I hope I can bring back a medal for them."

The only other fight involving a U.S. boxer ended in controversy Saturday when middleweight Terrell Gausha of Cleveland knockedArmenia's Andranik Hakobyan down twice in the final seconds of the third round, leading referee Mik Basi to stop the fight just before the final bell. It goes down as a TKO win for Gausha.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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