Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004 | 9:58 a.m.
Dean Juipe's column appears Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. His boxing notebook appears Thursday. Reach him at [email protected] or (702) 259-4084.
It requires sneaking off the island, but Cuba -- even with its political isolation -- has produced a number of excellent athletes and professional fighters. Among the pro boxers who are active are junior lightweight star Joel Casamayor and junior middleweight contender Julio Garcia, who lives in Las Vegas.
Yanko Diaz would like to add his name to that list, even if it's a pseudonym.
Diaz, who was born Yamplier Azcuy but who changed his name upon leaving Cuba and briefly settling in Mexico, has found his way to Las Vegas and is seen as a heavyweight with some potential. Trained by Lazaro Perez -- a fellow Cuban who fought for 14 years -- and managed by Wes Wolfe, Diaz is 7-0 with six knockouts as he prepares for a Feb. 21 fight in Reno with Michael Simms.
Diaz vs. Simms, who is 12-0-1 with 10 KOs, is scheduled for six rounds and is part of an all-heavyweight card promoted by Cedric Kushner at the City Center Pavilion.
For Diaz, taking on Simms can't be any tougher than the work he gets almost daily at Johnny Tocco's gym, where he has been sparring with stellar heavyweights such as David Defiagbon and Ruslan Chagaev on a regular basis.
"I like sparring with the good, big people," Diaz said in a mix of broken English and a translator's assistance. "I feel good. But I know I need more regular training and preparation."
Wolfe latched onto Diaz in May after the fighter arrived in Las Vegas, and he has led him to two victories -- the most recent was at the initial card at the Fort Cheyenne casino in North Las Vegas -- since taking charge of the Cuban's career.
"Yanko's never going to be a household name like Lennox Lewis or Evander Holyfield, because he doesn't speak English that well," Wolfe said. "But he's capable of having a good career and becoming a superstar among the Cubans.
"There's a much bigger Cuban community in Las Vegas than I'd realized, and he could have a great following here.
"I can also picture him going back and fighting in Havana after (Fidel) Castro dies and filling a 30,000-seat stadium."
Diaz, 28, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and has an 82-inch reach, was 191-14 as an amateur in Cuba before defecting to Mexico. That 11-year amateur career led him to fights in such varied countries as Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Venezuela, Colombia, Spain and Argentina as a representative of the Cuban national team.
He was hopeful of becoming the next great Cuban heavyweight, following in the footsteps of Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, but he lost two fights to Savon and failed to make the Cuban Olympic team before deciding to leave the country.
"There was no more opportunity for me in Cuba," Diaz said. "They take all the money and you fight for free."
Diaz had a short-lived stay in Mexico that included two fights (and wins) against the same opponent. "There wasn't anyone else to fight," he said of the difficulty in finding competent heavyweights.
But he's getting plenty of work here and is slowly acclimating himself to the city. He arrived at Tocco's the other day wearing UNLV basketball warmups and saying he wanted to enroll at the Community College of Southern Nevada.
Aside from Defiagbon and Chagaev, Diaz has worked extensively with Hasim Rahman and Tye Fields.
"The first day with Rahman, he sparred five, 4-minute rounds with only 30 seconds rest between rounds and it was a heated exchange the whole time," Wolfe said. "He hung in there with Rahman, and guys like that try to knock out sparring partners whenever they can.
"I learned from that and from his work with Fields that Yanko has a concrete chin. He's the only guy I ever saw who could last with Fields, because all the others came up injured or just said they didn't want to do it anymore."
Wolfe seems to be taking a realistic view of Diaz and is constantly imploring him to correct his weaknesses.
"He's got what I call the 'Tommy Hearns syndrome' where he holds his left hand too low," Wolfe said. "He also doesn't use his jab enough, even though he has an awesome jab.
"He likes to lead with his right but he doesn't follow it with a left hook, and that leaves his left side exposed.
"But we're working on these things."
Diaz comes across as agreeable to the instruction.
"The (bad) habits I have are from coming out of the Cuban school (of boxing)," he said. "I can change."
That attitude has Wolfe feeling optimistic.
"This kid is no dummy," he said. "He's smart, he can fight and he's not lacking for confidence.
"He's got some bad habits that may be hard to break, but he also has an awkward style and he's hard to hit. I think he can beat a lot of guys who are headlining shows right now."
Mitchell is 52-3 and Ndou is 36-5. They're fighting after Mitchell's bout with undisputed 140-pound champion Kostya Tszyu was postponed for a second time by an injury.
"I'm getting the sense that he is scared of me," Mitchell said of Tszyu during a conference call this week.
Ndou would like to fight Tszyu, too, but he's going to have to win this fight to get the next one.
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me," Ndou said. "This is the fight where the doors have opened for me."
Ndou said he is doubly motivated for this fight after finding Mitchell's tardiness to the conference call offensive.
"For starters, Mitchell should be apologizing for being late," he said after the call finally got under way. "He just walked in here and acted like the spoiled brat that he is.
"He talks about himself about being the best, but I'm going to give him the whipping of his life."
Mitchell, of course, thinks otherwise.
"I am the best in the division," he said. "I have to go in there and show that I am."