Inside the ring, Juan Diaz is poised and polished. Just 21, he owns the WBA lightweight title, boxing's youngest reigning world champion. But at his parent's tidy brick home in Houston, Diaz remains a university student with a 10 p.m. curfew on school nights. "He's a big baby,'' teases younger brother Jose. "Mom still has to take care of him like a child.'' At 1.68 meters and 61 kilograms (5-foot-6 and 135 pounds), Diaz looks a bit like a schoolboy. He has a short haircut, peach fuzz that someday may form a full goatee, and no tattoos or jewelry. His smooth, unmarked face and mild manner yield no hint of the violence he is capable of with his fists, a dichotomy that long ago earned him the nickname "Baby Bull.'' Diaz is a junior at the University of Houston, majoring in political science and hoping to attend law school.
He is a promoter's dream: Exceedingly polite and thoughtful, but a fighter whose frenetic style fills seats and catches the attention of casual boxing fans. "He is not your typical boxing story,'' said Carl Moretti, vice president of Main Events, Diaz's promoter. "People like to talk about new names and fresh faces in boxing. Well, here's one right here. He's an exceptional young man.''
Diaz (26-0, 12 KOs) will make his first hometown title defense next Friday at the Reliant Center against Billy Irwin (42-5, 30 KOs) of Canada. Diaz, Houston's first world boxing champ since George Foreman regained the heavyweight crown in 1994, has had few problems learning how to balance being a local celebrity and an honor student.
"I'm so busy that I don't have time to think about what I'm not doing,'' Diaz said. "I enjoy what I'm doing. It comes naturally to me. I like keeping busy.''
Diaz's days vary little. He wakes up at about 5:30 a.m. and lifts weights in the morning. He works out in the gym early in the afternoon, takes classes in the evening and studies until bedtime. That's been his routine, more or less, since he turned pro at 16.
"Juan has been so protected - he only really knows the gym, school and studying,'' said Willie Savannah, his sixty-nine-year-old manager. "Somebody once made the comment that we had him on lockdown.''
He chuckled, then added, "We damn sure do.''
Diaz began boxing at age eight, when his father dropped him off at Savannah's Boxing Club in Houston to keep him away from trouble. He was pudgy, already 49.5 kilograms (110 pounds), but even then could throw a left hook to the body.
In the next few years, Diaz excelled as an amateur. He won 105 of 110 bouts, collecting national and international championships.
He made the Mexican Olympic team in 2000 - he has dual citizenship because his parents were born in Mexico - but the United States and Puerto Rico protested because Diaz was three months shy of the minimum age of 17. Denied a chance to fight at the Sydney Games, Diaz turned pro.
Four years and 24 wins later, Diaz was fighting for his first title against 32-year-old Lavka Sim of Mongolia.
"He's got no entourage, no record of beating up people in the streets, no hanging out in clubs - what kind of fighter can he be?'' HBO ringside analyst Larry Merchant said before the bout.
A pretty good fighter, it turned out. Diaz won a unanimous decision on July 17 at Reliant Center, beating his opponent to the punch, displaying skillful combinations and the grit to withstand an injured champ's desperate attack.
When the final bell sounded, there was little doubt Diaz had become a champion. He leaped into the arms of his parents and boxing family, soaking in the crowd's cheers of "Diaz! Diaz! Diaz!'' After the celebration died down, Diaz greeted elated fans, and then it was time to dutifully return home. His mother, however, did let him stay up past curfew.
Diaz lives with his father, Fidencio, who works at a factory making oil filters; his mother, Olivia, employedin the laundry room of a downtown hotel; and his eighteen-year-old brother, Jose.
The home is tucked inside a quiet, working-class neighborhood in the rural outskirts of Houston. The three-bedroom house is neatly furnished, festooned with pictures of the boys during bouts in their early childhood. Their mother even carved out a small room, a sort of shrine, to display the gloves, plaques and trophies won by Juan and Jose, an emerging featherweight (5-0) and university student at Houston.
Juan Diaz loves the peace and attentiveness at home, perfect for a fighter in training and an aspiring law student. He pays no bills, does a few chores and has most of his meals prepared by his mother. But when 10 p.m. arrives, especially on days close to a fight, Olivia Diaz will tell her son to turn off the TV and go to bed.
"A lot of people can criticize and say that we shouldn't be so strict,'' said his mother, who used Juan as her interpreter. "But while they're living with me, they should obey the house rules. When Juan is married, he can do whatever he wants.''
To make sure his family is always nearby, Diaz bought a plot of land a few blocks down the street for a home of his own someday. Lately, though, he's thought about selling that land and buying a few dozen acres in a small town outside Houston and moving his family there.
Diaz often talks about the future. He wants to be a lawyer, he wants to help people and he wants to make a lot of money.
"I see him being the next congressman or senator of Texas,'' said Taunya Malone, a family friend and one of his high school counselors. "I don't want him hurt. I don't see him (boxing) another fifteen years. He's got a future.''
With such expectations, comes the pressure to avoid temptations that have derailed even the strongest and most powerful men. Golden boys can eventually tarnish.
"Sooner or later, you're going to do something stupid. Didn't we all?'' said Savannah, taking a deep breath. "It's a hard thing to live up to being a sweet kid all the time. It may be that we put too much of a cocoon around Juan.''
Diaz leaves such worries to others. Besides, he said, he has a hard enough time living up to his own expectations.
"People are going to be waiting for me to slip up - inside the ring and out,'' he said. "I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. This is who I am - this is no role I'm playing.''