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LAS VEGAS – Juan Diaz would lie in bed at night, his eyes staring at the ceiling, his head filled with dreams of the future. He was a professional boxer at 16 and was a world champion at 20, but for as long as Diaz could remember, the Houstonian's dreams included not only visions of his boxing successes but also of his ability to help create a more just society.
He dreamed of becoming the mayor of his beloved hometown, leading a charge to improve the education system, to make the health-care system more accessible. He wanted to right injustice and reward hard work, to make Houston an example of what a city can become when it's run by citizens who care and are willing to fight for what they believe.
Diaz now stands at a crossroads in his professional career, facing a defining moment on Saturday, when he'll meet Juan Manuel Marquez for the World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization lightweight titles in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View broadcast from the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Diaz has lost three of his past five, including a ninth-round defeat to Marquez in Houston last year, a bout he had firmly within his grasp but then let slip through his fingers. He's gone 1-1 since, scoring a highly controversial decision over Paulie Malignaggi and then losing in the December rematch.
If Diaz loses to Marquez on Saturday, his days as a top-of-the-marquee boxer are probably over, just six weeks before he turns 27.
As significant as the bout is to him – "I've put my heart and soul into this because I want to do this so badly," he says softly – it's only a small part of his life and this part won't consume the rest. The son of Mexican immigrants, Diaz is deeply committed to leaving the world a better place than he found it.
"My parents always stressed to me the importance of giving back and to share my good fortune, to never get a big head and to always live within my means," he said.
He's long been a remarkably self-aware young man, aspiring to become mayor of Houston not because he wanted to consolidate power but because he saw the office as a means to improving others' lot in life. Even as he prepares for the fight of his life on Saturday, he does so deeply concerned about the pending immigration law in Arizona.
He's wise enough to know that he doesn't have the answers to solve such a vexing and controversial issue, but he's also aware enough to be fearful of the law's implications. Diaz worries that the law will increase suffering among people already suffering greatly.
"This is not about immigration itself, and it's not a black-and-white thing," Diaz said. "We're beyond that and past that. In the century we're in, we have to be concerned about how we treat people. It's a human-rights issue is what it is. There are people in this country illegally who are desperately ill, but they're scared to get treatment, to go to a doctor, because they think they'll be deported if they do.
"There is a lot of human suffering going on. When someone is sick and they can't get the proper medicine and the kind of [medical] attention they need, that creates human suffering. In this country, as advanced as we are and with all that we know, how are we going to let someone suffer to the point of death because they're afraid of a law?"
On July 2, the Houston Chronicle published a Diaz letter to the editor in which he voiced his concern about the Arizona law but also about his pride in being an American and what Independence Day means to him.
"I want to contribute to our democracy and pay my good fortune forward to those who are seeking the opportunities that our Founding Fathers had in mind," Diaz wrote. "I want to help people see that the American dream is not a thing of the past, but a thing of the present, and I hope that the Fourth of July is a reminder of how lucky we are to live in this country."
He no longer wants to be mayor. Having volunteered for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008, he saw firsthand how easily politics can trump policy. Diaz plans to attend law school and hopes to one day use his legal training as a means of providing assistance to the downtrodden.
"I was a lot younger and a lot more naïve when I was talking about becoming the mayor and getting involved in politics," Diaz said. "I don't want to close my doors now to that option, but I have worked on campaigns and I've seen how cutthroat it is. I don't want to have to cut someone's throat to try to get something done.
"Right now, if I become a lawyer, I realize that I could go to work for a nonprofit and do some good things – and that a lot of doors could be opened and so many possibilities would be created. I think I could help people more by being an outsider and working that way than I could by being the mayor and being at the forefront of the political process."
First, though, he needs to help himself in the ring. He's in desperate need of a win against an elite opponent who, coming off a loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr., also needs a victory. If Diaz feels a burden, he's clearly not showing it.
"I know most people think I'm going to lose," he said, chuckling. "That's OK. Juan Manuel is a truly great fighter, one of the best fighters ever to come out of Mexico. But I was right there with him until he made a few adjustments and he got me.
"I studied that fight and I prepared myself and I know what it is going to take. It's not going to be easy, but it's not right to expect something so important to be easy. I'm confident because I know I've prepared and I've done the work."
He hopes there will be many more big fights and nights matching himself against the best fighters in the world. But when the final bell tolls on Juan Diaz's boxing career, his biggest fight will just be beginning.
"I've had a lot of success and I've had a good life because of boxing," Diaz said. "When it's over, it's time to pay that back and share some of what I've gotten."
- Juan Diaz