By Alejandra Alarcon,
Mecca, Calif. — Joel Diaz’s life has changed drastically since Timothy Bradley, the boxer he trains, became the WBO welterweight champion after beating Manny Pacquiao in a controversial split decision on June 9.
“We have every eye on us now. People always have something to say. People stop and ask me ‘Do you think you won the fight?’ Even kids tell me negative comments only because of what they hear people say,” Diaz said.
But he doesn’t have time for the naysers. He is too busy building future champions at the Boys & Girls Club.
“After a hard week and three months of training, (and being) stressed out, burned out, I’m back to work,” Diaz said. “I still have people that depend on me.”
Diaz, now 39, arrived in Coachella in 1985 at the age of 12. His parents had previously left their children with their grandparents in Michoacan, Mexico, while they worked in Coachella. Finally, the time had come for the children to join their parents in the United States.
“I didn’t want to come here because I didn’t know anything. I was afraid. To me, my grandparents were my parents,” said Diaz. “They had to trick us. We got in the car with my grandma, she said she was going to get something from the store, and she never came back. We cried the whole ride.”
Diaz and his siblings went from their grandparents’ ranch in Mexico to a cramped apartment on 52nd Avenue in Coachella. His parents were field workers struggling to support their two daughters and five sons.
“My parents were in a bad economic situation,” Diaz said. Being the oldest son, he felt it was his responsibility to help his parents.
He started working at the age of 16 to help his parents financially. Every morning, he delivered newspapers before school. He worked at the swap meet, and he joined his parents in the fields or worked construction jobs during summer breaks.
Diaz recalls stumbling up the boxing gym while walking the streets of Coachella.
“I was a 13-year-old boy that weighed 138 pounds,” he said. “People made fun of my weight. I kept getting beat up but I kept going back.”
His persistence and determination soon began to pay off.
“I started getting better and better with practice,” Diaz said.
Although his parents were not supportive of his decision to box, their financial struggles led Diaz to begin his professional boxing career at the age of 18.
“My mom didn’t want me to box, she was scared I was going to get hurt. My dad was never supportive either because he always wanted us to work. He believed it was a waste of time,” Diaz said.
Even without their initial support, he was determined to help his family by winning bout after bout.
“I was doing really good in my career, until here comes a world championship fight in Africa,” he said.
When Diaz returned from South Africa, he discovered that the impact from punches to his head and face had caused major damage to one of his eyes. He began to lose vision and his pro boxing career – once full of promise – came to an abrupt end.
“That was going to be the biggest fight of my life, and I couldn’t do it. My life at that time completely changed. I started hanging around with the wrong people. I didn’t care about life. I didn’t care about anything,” Diaz said.
His mother noticed her son’s different behavior. She became worried and confronted him.
“I told her I didn’t care about my life. I told her that everything I did in my whole life for boxing was for her and my family. Every time I stepped in the ring I asked God ‘Please if I win this fight, I’ll buy my mom a dining room set.’ or ‘I’ll buy my dad a truck.’”
His mother then said something that turned his life around.
“Maybe God has a different plan for you. Everything happens for a reason. Help your brothers and other kids,” she urged.
Inspired by his mother’s words, he began to train his younger brothers, Antonio Diaz and Julio Diaz.
Under his brother’s guidance, Julio Diaz twice became a world champion. Antonio Diaz also became a world champion and defended his title twelve times.
“He did great in his career, he fought a lot of great fighters,” Diaz said.
By the time he met Bradley, Diaz had become a well-known boxing trainer.
“He was looking for a trainer when his amateur career was over. We built up and he became an undefeated fighter,” said Diaz.
Diaz and Bradley took advantage of every world championship competition and took every title.
“After three world titles, here we are now,” Diaz said.
With all the success he has achieved, Diaz keeps working hard everyday.
“A lot of people quit. They can’t handle the pressure. This is hard work that you can’t enjoy because you can never get a break,” Diaz said, who lives in Coachella with his wife and children. “I haven’t enjoyed a Thanksgiving or Christmas in three years.”
The kids with the same dreams he once had are the reason he goes to work every day at the Boys & Girls Club in Mecca.
“The biggest motivation to keep me going is the talent that I have around me. I see kids that have a lot of talent and have great futures,” Diaz said. “Sometimes I want to walk away from this sport and quit, but then I walk out of my office and I see a kid that really wants to do it, kids that went through the same thing I went through.”
He has worked hard to become the best of the best, and now his passion is sharing that with the next generation of Coachella Valley boxers.
“It’s happened a couple of times where I thought I wanted to get a job where I can work in the morning and come home and enjoy the rest of my day,” Diaz said. “But then I walk outside and see a kid and they say ‘Coach, can you train me? I want to be a champion.’’
Coachella Unincorporated is a Youth Media Startup in the East Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of The California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose of the project is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. Coachella Unincorporated refers to the region youth journalists cover but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. http://coachellaunincorporated.org/