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Indio’s Diaz Brothers Have Built an Elite Fight Club on the Coachella Desert

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Coachella

INDIO, Calif.-Deep in the Coachella desert tiny scorpions come out at night so it’s best not to walk in sandals. Even the fancy gas stations get their share of the dangerous little creatures.

In the summer the heat hits like a smack in the face yet it doesn’t stop the various gyms from filling up with eager wanna-be fighters.

One of the more crowded gyms, Indio Boys and Girls Club, has blossomed into a powerhouse. Led by the Diaz brothers Joel (in the white shorts) and Antonio, the roster of professional boxers can match any other gym in the world in terms of talent.

It’s slowly made the transition from training strictly local boxers to international mega stars in this past decade.

So how did this happen?

Located about 128 miles east of Los Angeles and 95 miles north of the Mexican border, the Indio Boys and Girls club gym is roughly in the middle of nowhere unless you like golf. The area has some of the most prestigious golf courses in the world.

The Coachella Valley has long been an area where the center inflatable garden slide of activity is Palm Springs. Celebrities such as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and William Powell had homes here. Located about 24 miles southwest of Indio, Palm Springs is still home to many celebrities.

Migrant workers come each year to the desert region to pick crops: primarily dates, grapes, peppers, and citrus fruits in the area. Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio has grapefruit trees on its compound alongside the plush hotel swimming pool.

Speaking of casinos, it was the arrival of casinos that opened the door for professional boxing cards in the Coachella desert area. In 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that neither the state of California nor Riverside County could dictate authority over the various American Indian tribes, it changed the landscape for good and brought professional boxing to the forefront.

Now seven casinos have opened their doors in the desert region and most of them have held boxing cards at one time or another. Fantasy Springs Casino has a continuous schedule of boxing cards.

Many of the fighters showcased at Fantasy Springs Casino and other surrounding casinos come from Joel and Antonio Diaz’s group and include prizefighters from all over the country and internationally.

Stars like Argentina’s Lucas Matthysse to UFC’s Cub Swanson have walked through the doors of the gym that is run like the United States Marine Corps recruiting depot. Joel Diaz regularly shouts booming instructions to fighters across the lengthy gym.

Joel Diaz sounds like a drill sergeant and constantly harangues the various boxers to continue the intensity of their drills.

“Step it up Vergil,” he shouts to one of the fighters Vergil Ortiz Jr., a welterweight from Dallas, Texas. “Raise your punches a little higher.”

Nothing escapes Joel Diaz who occasionally glances around the gym and notices Diego De La Hoya, the younger cousin of boxing great Oscar De La Hoya. He shouts some instructions in Spanish to the youthful father of an infant just recently born who is being held by the mother.

The gym is clattering with noise from the various boxers working in the different stations. Heavy bags, speed bags, weights, chin-up bars and two boxing rings are all used simultaneously by the different boxers. There’s no wasting time. Every second is used by the prizefighters.

Antonio Diaz works with Vergil Ortiz Jr. inside one of the boxing rings on movement and punching accuracy. When he was active as a fighter Antonio captured the IBA world welterweight title and fought many of the best fighters in the world including Sugar Shane Mosley for the WBC welterweight world title in November 2000. It was Mosley’s first defense after taking the title from Oscar De La Hoya and was held in New York City. Ironically both Mosley and Diaz were from the Inland Empire and ended up training in the same Big Bear training camp. Even more ironic was that two Inland Empire fighters were forced to fight 2,000 miles away instead of in California. But that’s boxing.

Antonio Diaz, the younger brother of Joel, works well with the fighters and their combined knowledge gives them insight not often found in many gyms. Joel Diaz fought for the IBF world title against South Africa’s Phillip Holiday in 1996 and lost by decision. He would fight one more time before retiring as a fighter and continuing as a trainer.

Joel Diaz worked for a while with Lee Espinoza at the Coachella Boxing Club before opening up his own gym.

Desert Storm

When Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley arrived as a pro in 2004 he had been passed over by various promotion companies who felt he was too small to fight at the super welterweight class he had participated in as an amateur. As a pro Diaz brought him down to lightweight.

But most promotion companies were not interested.

Luckily, a new smaller promotion company had just started in the Inland Empire called Thompson Boxing Promotions. They were looking for new talent and Diaz brought forth some of his boxers, including Bradley.

It was a perfect match.

Bradley was groomed by the Diaz brothers into a professional style that was pleasing to boxing fans in the Southern California area. Though Bradley had speed and agility and could easily fight 10 rounds without getting touched, he was being sculpted into a fan friendly action packed fighter.

The rest is history. Bradley  won world titles as a super lightweight and welterweight and ultimately became one of the best pound-for-pound prizefighters in the world. The Diaz coaching staff suddenly became world famous too and their gym began filling up with more boxers from not just the Coachella Valley region but from other parts of the country as well.

Elite boxers began showing up such as Terence Crawford, Omar Figueroa, Lucas Matthysse and others. Word was spreading that there was something going on in that desert gym in Indio that was making champions.

Three years ago Diego De La Hoya, Jamie Kavanagh, Manuel Mendez and brothers Jessie and Diego Magdaleno arrived. More have arrived recently including the first female prizefighter to step in the gym full time in middleweight contender Maricela Cornejo.

“We don’t treat her any differently than we do the men,” said Joel Diaz. “She has to do the same work as the guys. We don’t have any women for her to spar so she spars with the men.”

Remote

Because of the two dozen elite fighters working in the Indio gym, it always seems to be prepping for an upcoming fight card.

“We always have a lot of things going on,” said Joel Diaz. “Right now we have Maricela Cornejo and Vergil Ortiz getting ready to fight in Cancun, Mexico on Nov. 16.”

Recently former WBC super featherweight champion Francisco “El Bandido” Vargas has become part of the team and is preparing for a showdown against England’s Stephen Smith at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 9.

“His manager asked me what I thought of his last fight and we agreed,” said Diaz of Vargas. “We’re working on some changes and we’ll see on December 9.”

Other fighters like Argentina’s Matthysse have arrived too and will be living and training in the remote desert gym. Not all prizefighters can adapt to the remoteness and solitude and end up moving on to urban locations like Jessie Magdaleno did recently. But those that remain like the focus on boxing and the solitude.

Vergil Ortiz Sr., the father of welterweight prospect Vergil Ortiz Jr., said he urged his son to choose Indio because of the desert location.

“There’s nothing to do but focus on boxing,” said Ortiz Sr. whose family is based in Dallas, Texas. “Back at home in Dallas there are too many distractions. Way too many distractions. But here my son can just focus on boxing and only boxing and sharpen his skills.”

Over the past few years the benefits of desert training are evident in the overwhelming success of those sweating and grinding in the sweltering desert gym in Indio.

It’s evident in their victories.

Recently Diego De La Hoya has emerged as a budding young star who is just about ready to enter the big time.

“He’s almost there,” said Joel Diaz. “He’s just waiting for his time.”

Waiting for his time just like a scorpion in the desert heat.

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The BWAA Shames Veteran Referee Laurence Cole and Two Nebraska Judges

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In an unprecedented development, the Boxing Writers Association of America has started a “watch list” to lift the curtain on ring officials who have “screwed up.” Veteran Texas referee Laurence Cole and Nebraska judges Mike Contreras and Jeff Sinnett have the unwelcome distinction of being the first “honorees.”

“Boxing is a sport where judges and referees are rarely held accountable for poor performances that unfairly change the course of a fighter’s career and, in some instances, endanger lives,” says the BWAA in a preamble to the new feature. Hence the watch list, which is designed to “call attention to ‘egregious’ errors in scoring by judges and unacceptable conduct by referees.”

Contreras and Sinnett, residents of Omaha, were singled out for their scorecards in the match between lightweights Thomas Mattice and Zhora Hamazaryan, an eight round contest staged at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa on July 20. They both scored the fight 76-75 for Mattice, enabling the Ohio fighter to keep his undefeated record intact via a split decision.

Although Mattice vs. Hamazaryan was a supporting bout, it aired live on ShoBox. Analyst Steve Farhood, who was been with ShoBox since the inception of the series in 2001, called it one of the worst decisions he had ever seen. Lead announcer Barry Tompkins went further, calling it the worst decision he has seen in his 40 years of covering the sport.

Laurence Cole (pictured alongside his father) was singled out for his behavior as the third man in the ring for the fight between Regis Prograis and Juan Jose Velasco at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans on July 14. The bout was televised live on ESPN.

In his rationale for calling out Cole, BWAA prexy Joseph Santoliquito leaned heavily on Thomas Hauser’s critique of Cole’s performance in The Sweet Science. “Velasco fought courageously and as well as he could,” noted Hauser. “But at the end of round seven he was a thoroughly beaten fighter.”

His chief second bullied him into coming out for another round. Forty-five seconds into round eight, after being knocked down for a third time, Velasco spit out his mouthpiece and indicated to Cole that he was finished. But Cole insisted that the match continue and then, after another knockdown that he ruled a slip, let it continue for another 35 seconds before Velasco’s corner mercifully threw in the towel.

Controversy has dogged Laurence Cole for well over a decade.

Cole was the third man in the ring for the Nov. 25, 2006 bout in Hildalgo, Texas, between Juan Manuel Marquez and Jimrex Jaca. In the fifth round, Marquez sustained a cut on his forehead from an accidental head butt. In round eight, another accidental head butt widened and deepened the gash. As Marquez was being examined by the ring doctor, Cole informed Marquez that he was ahead on the scorecards, volunteering this information while holding his hand over his HBO wireless mike. The inference was that Marquez was free to quit right then without tarnishing his record. (Marquez elected to continue and stopped Jaca in the next round.)

This was improper. For this indiscretion, Cole was prohibited from working a significant fight in Texas for the next six months.

More recently, Cole worked the 2014 fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Orlando Salido at the San Antonio Alamodome. During the fight, Salido made a mockery of the Queensberry rules for which he received no point deductions and only one warning. Cole’s performance, said Matt McGrain, was “astonishingly bad,” an opinion echoed by many other boxing writers. And one could site numerous other incidents where Cole’s performance came under scrutiny.

Laurence Cole is the son of Richard “Dickie” Cole. The elder Cole, now 87 years old, served 21 years as head of the Texas Department of Combat Sports Regulation before stepping down on April 30, 2014. At various times during his tenure, Dickie Cole held high executive posts with the World Boxing Council and North American Boxing Federation. He was the first and only inductee into the inaugural class of the Texas Boxing Hall of Fame, an organization founded by El Paso promoter Lester Bedford in 2015.

From an administrative standpoint, boxing in Texas during the reign of Dickie Cole was frequently described in terms befitting a banana republic. Whenever there was a big fight in the Lone Star State, his son was the favorite to draw the coveted refereeing assignment.

Boxing is a sideline for Laurence Cole who runs an independent insurance agency in Dallas. By law in Texas (and in most other states), a boxing promoter must purchase insurance to cover medical costs in the event that one or more of the fighters on his show is seriously injured. Cole’s agency is purportedly in the top two nationally in writing these policies. Make of that what you will.

Complaints of ineptitude, says the WBAA, will be evaluated by a “rotating committee of select BWAA members and respected boxing experts.” In subsequent years, says the press release, the watch list will be published quarterly in the months of April, August, and December (must be the new math).

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Popo vs. “La Hiena”: Blast From the Past – Episode Two

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Freitas

When WBA/WBO super featherweight champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas met Jorge Rodrigo “Il Hiena” Barrios in Miami on August 8, 2003, there was more on the line than just the titles. This was a roughhousing 39-1-1 Argentinian fighting an equally tough 33-0 Brazilian. The crowd was divided between Brazilian fans and those from Argentina. To them this was a Mega-Fight; this was BIG.

When Acelino Freitas turned professional in 1995, he streaked from the gate with 29 straight KOs, one of the longest knockout win streaks in boxing history. He was fan-friendly and idolized in Brazil. Barrios turned professional in 1996 and went 14-0 before a DQ loss after which he went 25-0-1 with 1 no decision.

The Fight

The wild swinging “Hyena” literally turned into one as he attacked from the beginning and did not let up until the last second of the eleventh round. Barrios wanted to turn the fight into a street fight and was reasonably successful with that strategy. It became a case of brawler vs. boxer/puncher and when the brawler caught the more athletic Popo—who could slip and duck skillfully—and decked him with a straight left in the eighth, the title suddenly was up for grabs.

The Brazilian fans urged their hero on but to no avail as Barrios rendered a pure beat down on Popo during virtually the entirety of the 11th round—one of the most exciting in boxing history. Freitas went down early from a straight right. He was hurt, and at this point it looked like it might be over. Barrios was like a madman pounding Popo with a variety of wild shots, but with exactly one half of one second to go before the bell ending the round, Freitas caught La Hiena with a monster right hand that caused the Hyena to do the South American version of the chicken dance before he went down with his face horribly bloodied. When he got up, he had no idea where he was but his corner worked furiously to get him ready for the final round. All he had to do was hang in there and the title would change hands on points.

The anonymous architect of “In Boxing We Trust,” a web site that went dormant in 2010, wrote this description:

“Near the end of round 11, about a milli-second before the bell rang, Freitas landed a ROCK HARD right hand shot flush on Barrios’ chin. Barrios stood dazed for a moment, frozen in time, and then down he went, WOW WOW WOW!!!! Barrios got up at the count of 4, he didn’t know where he was as he looked around towards the crowd like a kid separated from his family at a theme park, but Barrios turned to the ref at the count of 8 and signaled that he was okay, SAVED BY THE BELL. It was panic time in the Barrios corner, as the blood continued to flow like lava, and he was bleeding from his ear (due to a ruptured ear drum). In the beginning of round 12, Freitas was able to score an early knockdown, and as Barrios stood up on wobbly legs and Freitas went straight at him and with a couple more shots, Barrios was clearly in bad shape and badly discombobulated and the fight was stopped. Freitas had won a TKO victory in round 12, amazing!!!!”

Later, Freitas tarnished his image with a “No Mas” against Diego Corrales, but he had gone down three times and knew there was no way out. He went on to claim the WBO world lightweight title with a split decision over Zahir Raheem, but that fight was a snoozefest and he lost the title in his first defense against Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz.

Freitas looked out of shape coming in to the Diaz fight and that proved to be the case as he was so gassed at the end of the eighth round that he quit on his stool. This was yet another shocker, but others (including Kostya Tszyu, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and even Ali) had done so and the criticism this time seemed disproportionate.

Popo had grown old. It happens. Yet, against Barrios, he had proven without a doubt that he possessed the heart of a warrior.

The Brazilian boxing hero retired in 2007, but came back in 2012 and schooled and KOd the cocky Michael “The Brazilian Rocky” Oliveira. He won another fight in 2015 and though by now he was visibly paunchy, he still managed to go 10 rounds to beat Gabriel Martinez in 2017 with occasional flashes of his old explosive volleys. These later wins, though against lower level opposition, somewhat softened the memories of the Corrales and Diaz fights, both of which this writer attended at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut. They would be his only defeats in 43 pro bouts.

Like Manny Pacquiao, Freitas had a difficult childhood but was determined to make a better life for himself and his family. And, like Manny, he did and he also pursued a career in politics. Whether he makes it into the Hall will depend on how much a ‘No Mas’ can count against one, but he warrants serious consideration when he becomes eligible.

As for the Hyena, on April 8, 2005, he won the WBO junior lightweight title with a fourth round stoppage of undefeated but overweight Mike Anchondo. In January 2010 he was involved in a hit and run accident in which a 20-year-old pregnant woman was killed. On April 4, 2012 Barrios was declared guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to four years in prison. He served 27 months and never fought again, retiring with a record of 50-4-1.

Ted Sares is one of the oldest active full power lifters in the world. A member of Ring 10, and Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he was recently cited by Hannibal Boxing as one of three “Must-Read” boxing writers.

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The Avila Perspective Chapter 6: Munguia, Cruiserweights and Pacman

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Adjoining states

Adjoining states in the west host a number of boxing cards including a world title contest that features a newcomer who, before knocking out a world champion, was erroneously categorized by a Nevada official as unworthy of a title challenge.

Welcome to the world of Mexico’s Jaime Munguia (29-0, 25 KOs) the WBO super welterweight world titlist who meets England’s Liam Smith (26-1-1, 14 KOs) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 21. HBO will televise

Back in April when middleweight titan Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was seeking an opponent to replace Saul “Canelo” Alvarez who was facing suspension for performance enhancement drug use, it was the 21-year-old from Tijuana who volunteered his services for a May 5th date in Las Vegas.

Bob Bennett, the Executive Director for Nevada State Athletic Commission, denied allowing Munguia an opportunity to fight Golovkin for the middleweight titles. Bennett claimed that the slender Mexican fighter had not proven worthy of contesting for the championship though the tall Mexican wielded an undefeated record of 28 wins with 24 coming by knockout.

To be fair, Bennett has seen many fighters in the past with undefeated records who were not up to challenges, especially against the likes of Golovkin. But on the other hand, how can an official involved in prizefighting deny any fighter the right to make a million dollar payday if both parties are willing?

That is the bigger question.

Munguia stopped by Los Angeles to meet with the media last week and spoke about Bennett and his upcoming first world title defense. He admitted to being in the middle of a whirlwind that is spinning beyond his expectations. But he likes it.

“I’ve never won any kind of award before in my life,” said Munguia at the Westside Boxing Club in the western portion of Los Angeles. “I’ve always wanted to be a world champion since I was old enough to fight.”

When asked how he felt about Nevada’s denying him an attempt to fight Golovkin, a wide grin appeared on the Mexican youngster.

“I would like to thank him,” said Munguia about Bennett’s refusal to allow him to fight Golovkin. “Everything happens for a reason.”

That reason is clear now.

Two months ago Munguia put on a frightening display of raw power in knocking down then WBO super welterweight titlist Sadam Ali numerous times in front of New York fans. It reminded me of George Foreman’s obliteration of Joe Frazier back in the 1970s. World champions are not supposed get battered like that but when someone packs that kind of power those can be the terrifying results.

Still beaming over his newfound recognition, Munguia has grand plans for his future including challenging all of the other champions in his weight category and the next weight division.

“I want to be a great champion,” said Munguia. “I want to make history.”

The first step toward history begins on Saturday when he faces former world champion Smith who was dethroned by another Mexican named Canelo.

Cruiserweight championship

It’s not getting a large amount of attention in my neighborhood but this unification clash between WBA and IBF cruiserweight titlist Murat Gassiev (26-0, 19 KOs) and WBC and WBO cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) has historic ramifications tagged all over it.

The first time I ever saw Russia’s 24-year-old Gassiev was three years ago when he made his American debut at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello. It’s a small venue near East L.A. and the fight was attended by numerous boxing celebrities such as James “Lights Out” Toney, Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. One entire section was filled by Russian supporters and Gassiev did not disappoint in winning by stoppage that night. His opponent hung on for dear life.

Ukraine’s Usyk, 31, made his American debut in late 2016 on a Golden Boy Promotions card that staged boxing great Bernard Hopkins’ final prizefight. That night the cruiserweight southpaw Usyk bored audiences with his slap happy style until lowering the boom on South Africa’s Thabiso Mchunu in round nine at the Inglewood Forum. The sudden result stunned the audience.

Now it’s Gassiev versus Usyk and four world titles are at stake. The unification fight takes place in Moscow, Russia and will be streamed via Klowd TV at 12 p.m. PT/ 3 p.m. ET.

Seldom are cruiserweight matchups as enticing to watch as this one.

Another Look

A couple of significant fights took place last weekend, but Manny Pacquiao’s knockout win over Lucas Matthysse for the WBO welterweight world title heads the list.

Neither fighter looked good in their fight in Malaysia but when Pacquiao floored Matthysse several times during the fight, it raised some red flags.

The last time Pacquiao knocked out a welterweight was in 2009 against Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas. Since then he had not stopped an opponent. What changed?

In this age of PEDs there was no mention of testing for the Pacquiao/Matthysse fight. For the curiosity of the media and the fans, someone should come forward with proof of testing. Otherwise any future fights for the Philippine great will not be forthcoming.

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