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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/14/2006 01:42:00 PM

My Sportsman: Juan Diaz

Juan Diaz
Only 23, lightweight champ Juan Diaz is an undefeated 31-0 with 15 KO's.

By Richard O'Brien

Sure, there are all the high-profile candidates at center court and midfield. But sometimes it's worth looking in a more out-of-the-way place for a Sportsman of the year. Like the indoor swimming pool at the Jewish Community Center on South Braeswood Boulevard in Houston.

Stop by on a normal weekday morning: A beginners' life-saving class is gathered, waist-deep, in the shallow end, a couple of ladies in flowered swim caps are paddling back and forth between the ropes, an older fellow sporting an "I Schvitz at the JCC" T-shirt is shuffling along the deck, and in Lane 1 the WBA lightweight champion of the world is methodically churning out laps.

It's not exactly the spot you'd expect to find one of boxing's hottest young stars, but Juan Diaz is hardly your typical prizefighter. At 23, he is an undefeated (31-0 with 15 KOs) world champion on the cusp of superstardom and million-dollar purses who still lives at home with his parents. He was a standout amateur who was ruled too young to box in the 2000 Olympics and so he turned pro at age 17. He's a boxer who ignores roadwork and many of his sport's other hidebound traditions to dive, literally, into more modern conditioning regimens (he spars and schvitzes).

Oh, and he is also a full-time college student -- a junior at the University of Houston-Downtown majoring in government and criminal justice -- who plans to go straight into law school when he graduates next January.

After that, Diaz (who does volunteer work with Homeboy Industries, a youth employment program, and with the California Rural Legal Assistance group) intends to become a practicing attorney for a few years (while unifying the lightweight title, of course), before perhaps moving into politics.

"I tell him he's going to be the first Mexican-American mayor of Houston," says manager Willie Savannah, who has guided Diaz's career since he started boxing at age 8. Says Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, referring to Diaz's image both in and out of the ring, "He’s a godsend for boxing." It is a sentiment echoed by just about everybody who encounters the kid.

The Baby Bull, as Diaz is known, had a pretty terrific year in 2006, making three successful defenses of his title -- each a virtuoso display of speed, intensity and the sort of well-schooled, old-school ring expertise that is largely a memory these days. But I'm nominating him for Sportsman because of what he has to say about the years still to come.

"I think I can become a hero like [Julio Cesar] Chavez," says Diaz, "but I don't want to stick around too long. By the time I'm 30, I want to be focused on being a lawyer and doing a different kind of fighting -- not with my hands.”

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