Both Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez far exceeded the expectations set upon them early in their careers, so it was hardly surprising when their first encounter on July 15 quickly evolved from a perceived “tune-up” bout for Wolak to a Fight of the Year candidate.
The bout ended in a majority draw, with two judges scoring it even and a third scoring the bout for Rodriguez. Now as they prepare to meet once again on Saturday on the HBO Pay Per View-televised undercard of the Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito rematch at Madison Square Garden, the expectations are different.
But the stakes are the same.
For Wolak, a win in the first fight would have meant a title opportunity. Now he’s fighting to maintain his spot as a top junior middleweight contender. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is fighting to breathe life into a stagnating career, one that seemed dead just a year ago following a stretch where he lost three out of four but now seems as promising as ever.
Their first fight was an instant classic, with Wolak overcoming a badly swollen right eye that seemed on the verge of stopping the bout in the later rounds and Rodriguez countering beautifully with combinations whenever he had the space to get off.
Both feel that they can do better in a rematch given the different circumstances they find themselves in.
Rodriguez (25-1-3, 14 knockouts), of Danbury, Conn., doesn’t have the hindrance of overcoming a year’s layoff as he did prior to the first bout. He says he didn’t get started until the fourth round of the first bout due to his inactivity, but adds that the rust has been shaken off.
“This time we’re prepared, we know he’s going to rush in,” said Rodriguez, 31. “I had a tough fight with him the first time, so it’s not like I’ve been out of the ring for a year like it was the first time. There are little tactics that we practiced that we got better at because we had more time than the first time.”
For Wolak (29-1-1, 19 KOs), of North Arlington, N.J., his first full training camp with Tommy Brooks in many fights has him feeling more confident about the fight. Brooks had previously been away in Los Angeles training Evander Holyfield, leaving an understudy Aroz “Terrific” Gist in charge of day to day tasks and arriving on fight night to disperse strategic information in the corner.
This time, Brooks and Wolak have worked together for ten weeks, not in the cushy confines of a health club as had been the case before, but in the gritty, rundown Ike & Randy’s Boxing Gym in one of Paterson, N.J.’s toughest neighborhoods.
“I’m in the hood now, and I love it,” said Wolak, 30. “I love showing up to that gym. The gym is ugly, it’s gutter but I love it. The ceiling is about to cave in on you, but it makes me train harder. There’s nothing pretty about that gym, but I love that gym.”
Brooks, who had worked with Mike Tyson during his post-prison comeback, says that he and Gist have worked on having the shorter Wolak close the gap from different angles and not lingering in front of Rodriguez as much as the first fight.
“We try to make some adjustments, but just like I was telling some of his people before, he’s been doing this for six years and we’ve been working on this for six weeks. So if he does it, he does it. If he doesn’t, hey, we’re gonna get the same fight we got last time,” said Brooks. “Hopefully, he’ll retain some of the stuff we’ve been working on and people are going to enjoy what they see.”
Rodriguez is skeptical whether Wolak can fight a different fight from the first time around.
“The only thing I can see him doing is trying to put more pressure this time,” said Rodriguez. “We’re not going to do it much differently than before.”
Rematches of exciting fights have much to live up to, and usually fall short. The combatants are sometimes remiss to walk through hell, and adapt a more safety-first approach.
Take for instance the classic first encounter between Kevin Kelley and Derrick Gainer in 1996. Both men touched the canvas, and just as Kelley seemed on the verge of being stopped, he pulled out a dramatic one-punch knockout in the eighth.
Fast forward two years and Gainer had learned his lesson not to trade blows. Gainer boxed from a distance, deflated Kelley’s aggression and boxed his way to a unanimous decision in a dull fight.
A more cautious second bout would prolong their careers and be a wiser tactic towards victory. However, fans can count on these two to once again give their all.
“He seems like a good guy, not like we’ve sat down and had a conversation or anything like that,” said Rodriguez. “The interviews that we’ve done together for the first fight and now, he’s a guy whose very humble and hungry like myself.
“But once we’re in the ring, we’re going to try and kill each other.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.