Diego Chaves lands a right to Demetrius Andrade during their semifinal bout at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Chaves dropped a competitive decision to Andrade, who won a world amateur title that year and made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.
One of the few things that interim titles can be credited with is their ability to draw attention to fighters who would have gone unnoticed without those largely worthless straps wrapped around their waists. It can be argued that, for all the money being misspent in sanctioning fees today, the purchase of an interim title may be one of the wisest investments available for the up-and-coming but cash-strapped aspiring champs.
The case of Diego “La Joya” Chaves is as illustrative as any other. Virtually unknown outside his native Argentina, with only a few competitive fights on his resume, Chaves grabbed the WBA interim welterweight title with a sick, highlight reel KO of Ismael El Massoudi in July of 2012 to squeeze his way into the big picture of an elite division. And as a result of that, he will be fighting on his first major card in the U.S. in the co-featured bout of this Saturday’s Showtime card from San Antonio. The show is headlined by the Andre Berto-Jesus Soto Karass welterweight crossroads bout, and Chaves will face a fellow undefeated welterweight standout in Keith “One Time” Thurman.
During the last few years, the welterweight neighborhood has been abuzz with the explosiveness of rising Argentine stars such as Marcos Maidana, Lucas Mathysse, Carlos Abregú and many others, who have earned their right to enter the big payday sweepstakes with huge knockouts and terrific performances. But the talent explosion from this southernmost country in the world is still in progress. And there are at least a few voices who believe it’s Chaves’s time to shine.
“As an amateur, Diego Chaves was – and he still is, as a professional – the most promising fighter in the country, in my opinion,” says Gustavo Nigrelli, a boxing writer for the local Diario Popular. “He has it all: good boxing skills, speed, power. I have to guess he has the chin, too, since he never needed to test it,” adds Nigrelli, who identifies Chaves as an improved version of his uncles Ismael (a fringe contender who was once KO’d in 3 by Kostya Tszyu in 1997 and is now Diego’s head trainer), Carlos and Ariel.
His disadvantages, according to Nigrelli, are a notorious lack of gym discipline, a rebellious personality, and a tendency to underestimate his opponents, which he probably took after Ariel. But his natural talent is evident, and his DNA (completed by his grandfather Rudecindo, a tough club fighter in the golden era of Argentine boxing) definitely shows. As devastating as the Tszyu KO may have been for the family’s aspiration to have a world title in their trophy case, this was Ismael’s only stoppage loss in 53 fights, and Ariel (who was fighting as recently as 2005 when he retired after losing to Sebastian Lujan) was quite the tough hombre as well.
Still, Diego seems to be aware that this is a major concern for him in this particular challenge against a taller, rangier fighter with proven power.
“We did a lot of strength work because we know he can punch, and I want to be able to take his most powerful punches. Technically, I had to correct a few mistakes,” said Chaves in a recent TV interview, in which he said he had his mandatory fight against Paulie Malignaggi postponed twice until this new opportunity came along.
The fight against Thurman will be only his second fight overseas, and Chaves knows how this situation automatically raises the stakes.
“When I (came here) in 2010, I fought at six rounds, but now I am (coming) as a world champion,” says Chaves (whose nickname translates as “The Jewel” in Spanish), referring to his points victory against Edvan Barros at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, his only excursion away from his native shores. “Now I am going to be in everyone’s eyes.”
But the magnitude of this new challenge is not lost to the young champion, who will be making the second defense of his interim trinket after a shameful first defense at the storied Luna Park in Buenos Aires back in September of 2012, when he KO’d hugely undeserving Jose Miranda of Panama in two rounds in a terrible mismatch.
“My fight plan will be to take the center of the ring and don’t let him move forward. We know he can counterpunch when he is backing up. The idea is using the left hand a lot, keep him on the defensive, knowing that after the fourth or fifth round he losses steam and that’s when we’ll make him pay for his mistakes,” says Chaves, who sees Devon Alexander as the most accessible champion in a list that includes Timothy Bradley Jr. and none other than Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Getting into that mix is going to take a terrific performance, but Nigrelli believes the young Chaves is up to the challenge.
“In my opinion, Chaves could beat a guy like (Marcos) Maidana today,” says the veteran scribe. “Against Thurman, I think he is capable of scoring a KO. I would be surprised if he does, but not because I don’t trust him, but rather because he lacks international experience as a professional,” said Nigrelli, who followed Chaves’ amateur career very closely and has seen every one of his fights as a pro, most of them from ringside.
Chaves’ resume is not entirely devoid of big names. Two years ago, he squeaked past Omar Weis, his most experienced opponent at 40-10-4, and suffered a tough knock-down (only the second time he has been dropped) in the process, but he took the fight to the veteran contender and upset specialist with urge, showing no respect for his countryman’s credentials. And after that, he gained an extra measure of credibility by stopping super tough fringe contender Jorge Miranda with a devastating body blow, right before his title bout. And he expects to do the same with Thurman in what he envisions as a career-defining fight.
“I think I will see myself as champion only after winning on the 27th, because this is my first trial by fire to demonstrate why I made it this far, and why I am an elite fighter,” says the 27-year-old Chaves, who, like his compatriot Sergio Martinez, was a talented soccer player with a bright future until his chromosomes led him to lace on gloves instead of spiked leather shoes.
He had a long and accomplished amateur career, with a handful of medals at the continental level, and his experience in the unpaid ranks is much more valuable than his professional experience so far, because he had the chance to represent Argentina in several tournaments that required him to face international stars like Demetrius Andrade, Erislandy Lara and Istvan Szili, among others. But his style was made for the pros, and he quit the national team right before the last leg of the elimination tournament for the 2008 Olympics to bring his wide-swinging, powerful style into the majors.
Stylistically, he likes to take the initiative. He is a two-fisted banger with tons of power in both hands. He is quite short and stocky for his division, as well as quite static and defensively challenged. But the long leaping right hand that downed El Massoudi in the title fight, his sneaky right uppercut and his killer instinct make him a very dangerous opponent capable of scoring an upset against any of the top fighters in the division, and not just on luck or punching power alone. He is a polished boxer, constant and relentless when his opponent is hurt, and he does not rush to kill. If Chaves gets under Thurman’s lazy jab, the fight will become interesting in a hurry, and the ensuing duel of crunching straight right hands will be in full display as they both look to add their 19th stoppage to their respective resumes, in a fight with numerous question marks for both of them.
A victory against Thurman seems doable, but slightly out of reach in light of the tough odds stacked against him. But barring a career-crushing defeat, Chaves threatens to become one of the crowning jewels of the current crop of Argentine contenders, carrying on an illustrious tradition of tough, hungry fighters willing to go anywhere to take a challenge – a challenge that, in Chaves’ case, has been in the making for three generations.
Photos / Streeter Lecka-Getty Images, Omar Torres-AFP