Ryan Songalia

Former delinquent Rodriguez finds unlikely mentor

The relationship between fighter and trainer is often one of great contrasts. Muhammad Ali, for instance, spewed plenty of lines in his youth supporting the separation of races, yet maintained Italian-American trainer Angelo Dundee from the beginning to end of his pro career. Likewise, Cus D’Amato was able to transcend cultural boundaries with Mike Tyson, shaping his mind for the success he would achieve later in life.

So too is the relationship between welterweight prospect Juan Rodriguez Jr. (9-0, 4 knockouts) and trainer Joe Botti, who looks to advance the fighter’s career this Friday when the former amateur standout faces journeyman Dontre King (6-11-2, 2 KOs), of Cambridge, Md., in a six-round bout at the Mount Airy Casino and Resort in Mount Pocono, Penn.

Rodriguez, a 25-year-old southpaw from Union City, N.J., had a checkered past as a teenager, spending time in juvenile detention centers for street fights and stealing cars. Rodriguez says people would pay him to beat up those who owed them money or had wronged them in some way. Sometimes, provocation wasn’t even necessary.

“If I felt like you looked at me wrong, I’d hit you,” said Rodriguez. “Or if you said something wrong, you got it bad. Or if I was bored, you got it.”

Rodriguez’s father first brought him to the gym at 12, hoping to harness his passion for fighting towards something positive, but at 14 he had his first child and drifted away from the sport. At 16, as Rodriguez walked down the street, Union City police officers picked him up on suspicion of committing a burglary. Rodriguez would spend six months in Hudson County Youth House for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit.

Enter Botti.

Botti, a sergeant in the Union City Police Department, had seen plenty of misguided young men walk into his boxing gym over the years. He knew that having something to strive for, such as the long-shot dream of boxing glory, could straighten out a wayward young man.

“I believe I have an advantage because I know where he was before,” said Botti, who describes his relationships as “father-son” with Rodriguez. “Anytime he gets frustrated with the politics of boxing I remind him of all the kids who didn’t make it as far as he did. I also remind him of how many people would like to see him fall.

“I see lots of things in the police field and I always sit and talk with Juan and the other boxers and remind them of the streets by telling them about the jobs I handle each night. It helps for Juan and the other boxers to know that cops are not their enemies. Sometimes it takes a while for them to trust me fully.”

Rodriguez acknowledges the unlikelihood of his partnership with Botti.

“Growing up I always was like, ‘F__k the cops, I’ll never be a friend to a cop,’ but look now,” said Rodriguez, who now has five children. “Joe is my second Pops, he does a lot for me in and out of the ring. When I look back, I was an ass and I wouldn’t want my kids to go through all that. The streets have nothing good in it, you just end up dead or in jail.”

When Rodriguez emerged from behind bars, boxing once again entered his life, and this time Rodriguez stuck with it. Rodriguez won the 2009 New Jersey Golden Gloves title in the 152-pound open class, highlighting a 56-6 amateur career. Rodriguez made it to the semi-finals of the National Golden Gloves that year. He turned pro shortly after.

Botti reached out to local promoter KEA Boxing to move Rodriguez, but at first glance they were reluctant to get involved.

“Obviously someone who has a troubled past may be difficult to work with,” said Alex Kut, president of KEA Boxing. “However it’s been the complete opposite with Juan. He even says it even himself, he’s humble outside the ring and he’s a beast inside of it.”

The aggressive lefty has shown flashes of power, as in his one-punch knockouts of Bobby Bynum in his pro debut and his most recent outing in April when he knocked out Daniel Crabtree. But he’s also had to learn to be patient, as emphasized by his struggles with the mobile Marqus Jackson in his fourth bout. Rodriguez won that fight by majority decision.

“When Juan first turned pro he still had that amateur mentality like most fighters do,” said Botti. “He did enough work in the gym to win and waited until the last minute to make weight. That affected his strength and endurance. In the last few fights he has transformed. He makes weight early and he is training like he is fighting for a world title, which is how it should be done.”

Kut says moving Rodriguez has been difficult. Rodriguez is fighting for just the third time this year after fighting just twice in 2011.

Kut claims that multiple opponents have pulled out on short notice, and such is the reason why Rodriguez is set to face the fighter he decisioned in his second pro bout. Kut says local opponents are demanding $5-7,000 for six-round bouts to face him, far above the standard $2,000 purse for that length of a bout.

“We had probably about four opponents that we were looking at, everything from a 7-0 guy to 7-5, none of them would fight him,” said Kut.

As if being a father of five isn’t enough motivation, Rodriguez has gained a boost from watching his gym mate Jason Escalera prepare for his HBOBoxing After Dark debut on Sept. 29, when he faces Edwin Rodriguez in the main event.

“He’s looking great and yes I do think he wins,” said Rodriguez of Escalera, with whom he’s sparred countless rounds. “I think this guy is over looking Jason and don’t know what he’s going to have in front of him that night.”

Seeing another fighter from the same streets as himself get his shot has made Rodriguez’s dream of making it to the big time seem realer than ever.

“I’m next up in line,” said Rodriguez.

 

 

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at ryan@ryansongalia.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.

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