07/30/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Joseph Diaz Jr.: An Olympian's Fight For A Better Life

JoJo Diaz grew up as part of a poor family in a rough part of El Monte, Calif. Kids in his neighborhood wanted him to join one of the local gangs, but Diaz liked school. He got good grades. For that reason, and because he was so small, he was bullied a lot.

One time he fought back.

The fight landed him in a special class for troubled students, and he swore to never fight on the street again. But the bullying didn’t stop.

He turned to his father for advice, and his dad took him to the local boxing gym to learn how to defend himself the right way. The very first day, Diaz ran into one of the bullies from school at the gym. The other boy had two years experience in the ring.

“You think you’re tough?” the bully said. “Let’s spar.”

Diaz agreed to spar in a week. During that time he practiced with his father. A week later, he put on his boxing gloves and walked into the ring for his first match. He gave the bully a bloody nose and made him cry. He found his passion in life.

“Ever since then, I just got hooked on boxing,” he said. “And I said, ‘Dad, we could do this for a living.’”

Joseph “JoJo” Diaz Jr. is now the youngest boxer on Team USA for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. USA Boxing gives him a monthly stipend, which supports Diaz, one of his sisters and his two unemployed parents.

“If it wasn’t for boxing, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be in a gang or what. But boxing really helps me out a lot, with everything: helping out my parents financially, helping me stay of trouble, everything overall.”

But the stipend was not enough for his parents to come to London and watch him in the Olympic Games. So he and his family washed cars, sold t-shirts and autographs, collected donations and held beer pong tournaments.

After what seemed like endless fundraising, they raised enough money to bring seven people to watch him: his mother and father, his two sisters and brother-in-laws and his boxing director. They met Diaz in London last week.

Another person in his corner is fellow Olympic boxer Marcus Browne. The two spend a lot time together outside of the ring.

“JoJo’s my boy,” Browne said. “He’s a great kid. If I would have a son, I want my son to be like him because he’s well mannered. He’s just a good-spirited person.”

Since arriving in London, Diaz said he’s ready to compete.

“I’m already here,” he said. “I’m already really well trained. I’m already focused. I’m in the best shape of my life. So I know that it’s going to be really hard to beat me.”

He and the rest of Team USA Boxing are preparing for the Games at the SCORE Training Center in London. At a typical practice, the team trains with four coaches.

Although the center doesn’t have air conditioning, Diaz wore a gray, long-sleeved Nike shirt and black athletic shorts Thursday. After stretching and conditioning, he put on his gloves and started hitting the punching bag. His punches got harder and faster as he progressed, with a “hut” sound each time he hit the bag. Eventually his nice, clean clothes became sweaty. Although several other athletes and coaches were buzzing around him, he looked as focused as if he were alone.

Al Mitchell, Team USA head boxing coach, said he’s confident in Diaz’s skills.

“He’s a very smart young man, and he wants to learn,” Mitchell said. “He’s just getting better and better each day. When he came here, he could box. And he’s working on strategy now.”

Although USA Boxing hasn’t done well in recent Olympic Games, Diaz said he believes that will change this year. In fact, he has his heart set on gold.

“If I bring back that gold medal, I’m going to change my whole family’s life,” he said. “I’m going to buy them a house. I’m going to buy them a car and just pay all their bills for them and everything. So that’s actually making me more focused and more determined.”

Source: BSU at the Games is a collaboration of 40 journalism students from Ball State University who have traveled to London to cover the Olympic Games and its athletes. Select photos are by Valerie Carnevale. Written piece is by Emily Thompson. Video is by Josh Blessing, Alex Kartman and Chris Taylor.

Joseph Diaz Jr.