What’s Your Excuse: FAU alum takes up boxing after serious accident
Colombian boxer overcame adversity to pursue dream.
March 25, 2016
Ducking and eluding punches, throwing a powerful right-left-right combo while bouncing around the ring, Andres Felipe Diaz Mateus appears to be your typical boxer. However, the 2013 Florida Atlantic graduate has one characteristic that most boxers don’t have.
Diaz Mateus, a 28-year-old Miami resident, is an amputee. When he bounces around the ring, it’s off of his left foot and a black and silver, Otto Bock Harmony-brand prosthetic leg, made with carbon fiber from the ashes of volcanoes. The name of his native country, “Colombia,” is written across the top.
One semester away from graduating in 2009 — two years before FAU’s football stadium opened — the Bogota, Colombia native ventured down to Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium to tailgate before an Owls football game on the afternoon of Oct. 3.
“I was living the good life,” said Diaz Mateus, who was rushing FAU’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at the time. After his friend left the tailgate, Diaz Mateus decided it was time to leave as well.
“It was one of my best friend’s birthdays,” Diaz Mateus said. “So his mom and me were going to organize the house to surprise him.”
The then-22-year-old never made it to the party.
“I was on my way there,” Diaz Mateus said. “I think it was Lyons Road, I don’t remember anything, man.”
Diaz Mateus was driving his lime-green Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R at 90 mph when he collided with the guardrail. His former youth group best friend — who Diaz Mateus hadn’t seen in six or seven years — found him on the side of the road.
“The impact from the guard rail and the brakes on the bike, it cut off my foot. It threw me 50 yards,” Diaz Mateus said. “But when the guy found me, I was still conscious. I went and put the password on my phone, you know your mind’s still working and I remembered it. And I said ‘Hey man call my cousin,’ meaning my best friend. ‘Call my cousin Salomon and tell him to come so we can look for my foot, so I can leave.’ That’s what the guy said I told him. He said I started hopping around on one foot and then I just collapsed and I was done.”
The removal of his respiration tube is Diaz Mateus’ first memory after the accident.
“It almost felt like a movie,” recalled Diaz Mateus. “I felt like I was on drugs, I didn’t know where I was … I didn’t even know what was going on, I thought people were trying to kidnap me, or drug me.”
“I’ll never forget that when I saw the doctor I kept asking for my mom, my sister, my family,” Mateus continued. “Then when my mom got there I kept telling her to call the priest, because I wanted to tell the priest my sins. Something inside of me [needed to talk to him]. I didn’t know, I felt like I was going to be gone or something.”
Diaz Mateus’ mom, Nahyla, remembers being with friends when she got a call from her daughter saying that her son had an accident and was taken to the hospital.
“She told me it was just a scratch, but in the deep of my heart, I just knew something was wrong,” she said. “That time I drove from my friends house to the hospital was an eternity for me. It was horrible.”
Diaz Mateus had six surgeries performed during his two weeks in the intensive care unit, including an insertion of screws to his crushed pelvis and the amputation of his right leg — directly below his right knee.
He remembers crying when he found out he would need an amputation. Worried about becoming a burden on his family, he remained in the hospital until Nov. 3 — exactly one month after his accident.
On the day of his release, Diaz Mateus was asked if he could use a wheelchair. Not sure if he physically could, Diaz Mateus was determined to find a way.
“I was like, ‘Shit, I don’t know. But I’m going to get in the damn wheelchair if that means I can leave,’” Diaz Mateus recalls. “I was rolling on the floor, I was like a lizard. I was just trying to get in that damn wheelchair.”
Diaz Mateus left the hospital to stay in a hospital bed placed in his own home to let his wounds heal. Though doctors told him it would take six months, Diaz Mateus healed up in two weeks.
“They told me, ‘Give it six months so you could get fit for a prosthetic, because you know you still have your scars,’” Diaz Mateus said. “I went in there with the wounds. I would just put gauze over the blood, and fuck it man, I would just walk. I didn’t care, I was up and walking not even a month after I got released.”
His sister Maria Alejandra Diaz Mateus noted that she knew it wouldn’t take long for him to recover.
“He was supposed to be in the hospital for a lot longer than he really was,” she said. “He took it upon himself to get out of bed, put on a prosthetic and start walking.”
Despite having to adjust to a new prosthetic, Diaz Mateus said everything came naturally for him. It was then he started trying new things out. That’s how he and boxing became formally introduced.
“I loved boxing my whole life,” Diaz Mateus said. “Every day [after the injury] you’re like, ‘I’m going to try this out.’ After my accident it was like turning on and turning off a light switch. I just started picking everything up after my accident and was like, ‘Man I just need to get everything done,’ because you never know when that light switch is going to turn off again.”
“I just wanted to do something for myself. I don’t have to depend on anyone, I can do this myself with my injury.”
He started training in 2014 and after a year, he met his current trainer, Carlos Albuerne. They train together every Monday through Friday for an hour and a half or two hours, in a blue warehouse in the middle of Miami, which they call “La Finca,” or “The Ranch.”
“He works hard,” Albuerne said. “He’s happy every day, he wants to work hard, he’s a super nice guy … I want the best for him.”
The respect is mutual.
“[Albuerne’s] an angel from heaven,” Diaz Mateus said. “This guy works with anyone you can think of. He’s worked with hall of famers, world champions.”
Former Olympic gold medalist, featherweight and lightweight champion Joel “El Cepillo” Casamayor and former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs are just two of the many accomplished boxers Albuerne has worked with.
However, it’s not necessarily Albuerne’s resume that attracted Diaz Mateus.
“He doesn’t care that I have one leg and I like that,” Diaz Mateus explained. “He doesn’t see me any different, he’s not going to take it any easier with me. If I’m dropping my hands and he’s going to hit me in the face, then I want him to hit me in the face. I like that about him, he doesn’t look at me any different.”
Diaz Mateus said that the American Boxing Association does not allow him, or any other amputee, to face able-bodied competitors.
With the help of Albuerne, Diaz Mateus fought his first official match in a National Amputee Boxing Association bout in San Antonio in October of last year. He won by unanimous decision.
According to Ahmed Elbiali, a 14-0 professional boxer signed with Al Haymon — who represents the likes of Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Amir Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. — Diaz Mateus was thrown into that fight without ample training time, yet was still so prepared he had the match won before it ever started.
“He left to fight someone he doesn’t know, who he never heard of, and he was into it,” Elbiali said. “Coach said, ‘Ahh I don’t know if you should do this, these people in boxing put you in bad situations.’ [Diaz Mateus] was like ‘Nah bro, I got this. I want this.’”
Albuerne admitted to being nervous for Diaz Mateus prior to the fight. Though he believed Diaz Mateus could compete, he’d never seen him in an official match before.
Diaz Mateus hopes to face a fighter with two legs someday, but like his injury, he refuses to complain about it.
“You just got to respect the rules, but I feel like I’m able to fight someone with two legs … hopefully in America eventually they let [amputees] fight someone with an able body.”
Elbiali agrees that Diaz Mateus has the skill set to fight anyone, emphasizing Diaz Mateus’ “serious power.” And not just for someone with one leg, but noting that Diaz Mateus has serious power for any boxer.
“He hits hard, I didn’t believe that when I first saw it,” Elbiali said while remembering a sparring match he watched Diaz Mateus fight in. “This one guy, he knocked him out cold and you could hear it from outside. People came in and were like ‘What was that?’”
The able-bodied boxer was wearing headgear when Diaz Mateus knocked him out.
Diaz Mateus feels that the reason he isn’t allowed to fight able-bodied competitors in an official match comes from issues of fairness.
NABA is the only organization licensed for amputee boxers, and Diaz Mateus thinks the boxing association doesn’t want to be sued from a fighter who may be fighting at a disadvantage.
Diaz Mateus says the boxing association isn’t the only group that’s told him what he can’t do.
“People I know, all the time they’ll be like ‘Man you already went through a motorcycle accident and you’re going to give your mom a heart attack,” Diaz Mateus explained. “‘You’re going to go in there with one leg and people are going to take advantage of you.’ People that know me know that I won’t take no for an answer. The way I feel is like your destiny is already written. I’m not going to stop doing what I want to do because I’m afraid that something’s going to happen. I’m going to stop doing it when I want to stop.”
His sister admits to being one of those people who tried to convince her brother away from boxing.
“I was like ‘What are you doing?’” Maria said. “I was concerned. I didn’t want anything happening to him … I tried convincing him not to.”
”It’s weird seeing him in a boxing ring. We didn’t think he was capable … but I’m at ease knowing he’s happy doing it.”
Diaz Mateus said he enjoys when others underestimate him.
“Once I go in [the ring], I feel like something comes inside of me,” Diaz Mateus said. “I feel like something takes over my body and if I get hit, I just feel I want to knock your head off. If I feel like you hit me or my leg is hurting me, I feel like that’s just adding more fuel to the fire. Like I’m just ready to knock your head off so my leg don’t hurt no more.”
That pride comes from his Colombian heritage, which means everything to him.
“I just want to go back in life and make my family and country proud,” he said. “Go back and they look at me and are like ‘you know, that guy’s Colombian, Colombian people got big hearts. They have that blood that doesn’t give up. We don’t let the bad times bring us down.’”
His sister Maria noted that life hasn’t been easy for her brother, “but he takes full responsibility and he keeps going. I never seen anyone have that same drive … He doesn’t let his accident define him.”
The biggest inspiration behind Diaz Mateus’ drive is his grandfather — who had to stop going to school in third grade to help take care of his family, according to Mateus.
The boxer said that when his grandfather was growing up in Colombia, if a liberal saw a conservative, or vice versa, a gun would be pulled out immediately. If someone from one party knew where someone of the other party lived, they may burn down their ranch, or house — even if the entire family was inside.
“Me losing my leg is nothing compared to what he’s been through,” Diaz Mateus said while rubbing his eyes. “Just thinking about him and all his stories growing up. His struggles, his times in Colombia, they were rough.”
Diaz Mateus hopes to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and turn his own negatives into a positive, by not shying away from his injury and instead trying to inspire others with it, like his grandfather did to him.
“I like it when I’m walking and people are whining about the little things in life. Like they break a nail,” Diaz Mateus said. “Then they see me in the gym working hard and they’re like ‘Why am I even whining that I just broke my nail on the treadmill? I mean that guys over there busting his ass on one leg.’”
Therefore the amputee boxer thrives off the motto, “What’s your excuse?”
His girlfriend Carly Grimes, an FAU senior history major, said that motto — which Diaz Mateus wears on his shirt and even uses as his email address — fuels her boyfriend and pushes him to get through the days where his leg may not be feeling the greatest, because when others see him pushing himself, it inspires them to keep pushing as well.
“That’s the mentality that I like. If I’m busting my ass, you should be able to do the same. [I] try not to belittle people but try to give them a little boost … if you’re not doing things right, you’re not cheating anybody, you’re just cheating yourself.”
Diaz Mateus said he does sometimes wonder if he’s been cheated, feeling like he could do a lot more if he had two legs.
“But me crying or thinking about it is not going to make my leg grow back,” Diaz Mateus said. “The only thing that bothers me and affects me is that I had to put my family through that. Even if I lost my other leg, that wouldn’t bother me, that would make me want to live even longer. I’m the type of person that if something happens to me and people doubt you, or you feel like the things are against you, that’s more fuel to me. So if I lose my leg and both my arms, it don’t matter. It’s going to fuel me to do more.”
Diaz Mateus’ next fight will be on March 26 in San Antonio. He will be fighting in the 150-pound weight class. Though boxing isn’t currently in the paralympics, Diaz Mateus hopes to impress as paralympic representatives will be in attendance for his fight.
“I think he’s ready,” Albuerne said. “He looks different, he looks better … he’s a much better fighter now than before.”