For young Puerto Rican boxers, there is a plethora of island greats to grow up idolizing.
The pantheon of legendary fighters from a place with a population of less than 4 million is striking: Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfred Benitez, Felix "Tito" Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, Hector Camacho Sr., Carlos Ortiz, Edwin "Chapo" Rosario, Ivan "Iron Boy" Calderon, Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. The list could go on.
When Christopher "Pitufo" Diaz began to box at age 8, he wasn't yet schooled in the lore of Puerto Rican boxing tradition. But he soon learned and now hopes to someday follow in the footsteps of those who came before him.
"It's important, like a big goal to be in the same league with Cotto, Ivan Calderon, Tito Trinidad, Chapo Rosario, Wilfred Benitez. I want to be in that top 10 best," Diaz said this week. "For me, the best one is Wilfredo Gomez. I saw his fights on YouTube -- [Salvador] Sanchez, Carlos Zarate, Lupe Pintor. He had a lot of fights with big, big champions. I like to watch him. He had a lot of angles, a lot of skills, a great, great heart. I want to be like him."
Diaz knows he has a very long way to go to come close to cracking that list of greats, but he hopes to begin the quest in earnest when he fights Masayuki Ito for a vacant junior lightweight world title in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN+ card on Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET) at the Kissimmee Civic Center in Kissimmee, Florida, the Orlando suburb with a large Puerto Rican community.
"I'm so proud because when I do my first fight as a pro, I never see myself at this point," Diaz said. "I just do this because I love boxing. Right now I'm at this point I've got Puerto Rico behind me, I've got a lot of fans, my family will be here. I've got like 100 people coming from my hometown [Barranquitas]. It's gonna be crazy. They're gonna give me extra motivation to win the title."
Diaz (23-0, 15 KOs), 23, and Ito (23-1-1, 12 KOs), 27, who will be boxing outside of his home country of Japan for the first time in a nine-year career, will be fighting for the 130-pound world title that pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko vacated after knocking out Jorge Linares in the 10th round to win the lightweight world title on May 12.
"I'm just so happy for the opportunity Top Rank gave me to be fighting for the world title," Diaz said. "I've got the most important fight of my life with Masayuki Ito, and the most important thing is win the title and after that a lot of things will come. So I got to stay focused, stay hungry and then I want to unify titles. That's the goal."
Diaz and Ito are not that well known beyond their home areas. Ito has not faced any recognizable opponents, but he has won seven fights in a row since a 10-round majority decision loss in February 2015. Diaz, who has knocked out four opponents in a row, has been a regular on Top Rank undercards, especially in New York, where he has a growing Puerto Rican fan base. That's the reason for the fight being in Kissimmee.
The most notable victory on Diaz's so-far slim résumé is probably Bryant "Pee Wee" Cruz, whom he impressively stopped in the third round in December on the Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux undercard at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Diaz was able to stop Cruz far easier than rising contender Ryan Martin did. Martin, who is going to compete in the World Boxing Super Series junior welterweight tournament this fall, took him out in eight rounds.
"That was my first fight with [trainer] Chino Rivas, so we were working on a little bit of being patient, not too wild, and see what happens," Diaz said. "I feel good, comfortable and learning something new every day, and this fight you will see a better 'Pitufo.'"
He is admittedly a work in progress.
"At 130 pounds, I got a lot of power. I just have to work on a few things like angles, keep pressuring the opponents and keep learning," Diaz said. "[Ito is] a tough fighter. Got a lot of skills. I got to stay focused, and Saturday night he has the first big challenge of his career. I come to fight. I like to give the fans a great show. My job is to make a great fight, make a war. This Saturday I'm gonna keep doing the same thing. That's what the fans want to see."
"It's time to show the world what I'm made of. Being able to fight for a world title is the dream of every boxer. I am prepared for my first chance to win a world title because I've been through many years of sacrifices, and I have waited all my life for this moment." Christopher Diaz
Besides giving the fans a good show Diaz is like most boxers. He is fighting to give himself and his family a better life, one severely impacted when he lost his home and most of his possessions after Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico last year.
"It's a lot of sacrifice. I got a poor family [to support]. I got Puerto Rico behind me, my family, my daughter," said Diaz, who also has twin daughters on the way.
"It's time to show the world what I'm made of. Being able to fight for a world title is the dream of every boxer. I am prepared for my first chance to win a world title because I've been through many years of sacrifices, and I have waited all my life for this moment. Now the moment is here. I'm hungry and focused."
Winning a world title could dramatically improve his life because it will significantly raise his earning power. He admitted, though, that when he began boxing he never thought he would make it even this far.
"No, never," he said. "I just put 100 percent into it in the gym. I always stayed focused. I gotta keep doing what I love, and when you do something with your heart and you do something because you love it, you're gonna make it."
In the co-feature, welterweight Artemio Reyes (25-2, 20 KOs), 31, of Colton, California, will face Gabriel Bracero (24-3-1, 5 KOs), 37, of Brooklyn, New York. Originally, up-and-comer Carlos Adames (14-0, 11 KOs), 24, of the Dominican Republic, was supposed to be showcased against Reyes, but he suffered a foot injury last week and withdrew from the fight.