The date of Sept. 29 is an important one in the life of Edwin Rodriguez. For most, that date correlates to the super middleweight contender’s next appearance on HBO, this Saturday, when he faces the hard-punching Jason Escalera in the main event of Boxing After Dark live from the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn.
Yet for Rodriguez, an unbeaten 27-year-old fighter from Worcester, Mass., the date has a special meaning. It’s the sixth birthday of his twins Edwin Jr. and Serena. Like their father, the twins too are fighters, but not by choice.
The two were born premature at just 23 weeks (just over five months), and were all but written off by doctors in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. Both weighed just 1.3 pounds at birth and continue to overcome obstacles, including being diagnosed with varying degrees of cerebral palsy. The son has autism, but like their father, they have never given up.
“A lot of my strength comes from knowing that my kids have been fighting for their lives since they were born,” said Rodriguez, who is rated no. 9 at super middleweight by THE RING.
Though the position he is in now, with this being his second consecutive HBO-televised match, is an enviable one, Rodriguez has had to work his way up the hard way.
Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic before immigrating at age 13, was an accomplished amateur who compiled an 84-9 record, highlighted by a gold medal at the 2005 USA Boxing National Championships and winning the 2006 U.S. National Golden Gloves. He might have been a strong contender for making the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad, but that fateful day in 2006 was also the day of the first Olympic qualifying tournament. The distractions were many, and a trip to Beijing wasn’t to be.
Making the U.S. Olympic squad, even if you don’t medal, brings with it a level of “hype” that garners big promotional contracts and sponsorship opportunities. Despite that, Rodriguez’s manager Larry Army Jr. says they aren’t any worse for wear at this point.
“When you compare the 2008 Olympic class and look where they are now, there’s nobody you can find that has made it further than Edwin,” said Army, a former National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) certified sports agent who has worked with 20 NBA players.
“Look at Demetrius Andrade, this is a great example. This kid was a world champion, an Olympian and he’s fought 18 times. He hasn’t been on HBO and he hasn’t been on Showtime. In fact he just fought last Thursday on a charity event with two professional fights on the card. Look at Shawn Estrada, he was the Olympian in Edwin’s weight class. He’s 14-0 and has had tremendous struggles making weight and hasn’t dedicated himself to the sport.
“Only one you can put in the same league as him right now is Gary Russell and we know why he’s been on HBO as many times as he has, and that’s because of his management.”
Without a promoter, Rodriguez turned professional in January of 2008 on a small four-fight card in Mansfield, Mass., knocking out Samuel Gomez in the first round.
“I paid for his first nine fights, both sides of the card, I flew people in to fight him; It costs a lot of money to do it that way,” said Army. “But that’s what got us in with Lou DiBella.”
DiBella, the well-known New York-based promoter who has guided Sergio Martinez, Paulie Malignaggi and Andre Berto to world titles, arranged three ESPN2 Friday Night Fights appearances for Rodriguez, as well as two on ShoBox: The New Generation before, testing the super middleweight against the likes of the previously unbeaten Will Roskinsky and tough gatekeepers Aaron Pryor Jr. and James McGirt Jr.
“When I saw the kid fight, he had ‘future world champion’ written all over him, and I still feel the same way about him,” said DiBella. “He’s sparred with some of the best champions in the world of boxing and he’s held his own against everybody. I’ve gotten glowing reviews of him from other world championship-level fighters and I think he and Thomas Oosthuizen are the class prospects of the 168-pound division.”
During his previous bout against Donovan George, his HBO debut, Rodriguez unveiled some of the defensive maneuvers that new coach Ronnie Shields had worked to cultivate in him.
“From the very first time I met him, I realized that we had a lot to work on, especially defense. That was probably the main concern that I’ve had,” said Shields, who has been with Rodriguez for four fights since taking over for Peter Manfredo Sr. “I think we’ve come a long way with him as far as his defensive skills are concerned. He was basically just an offensive fighter. He relied on his offense to be his defense, which is definitely not good.”
Rodriguez fought skillfully, utilizing his 6-foot frame and jab to keep George at bay while landing combinations of his own, diffusing “The Bomb” in a bout most thought would be a slugfest.
“In that fight with Donovan George I was able to show the world that I have a whole different way of fighting, said Rodriguez. “I was defensive, I think it was a bit too much.”
Defense will certainly come in handy against Escalera (13-0-1, 12 KOs), of Union City, N.J. Nothing about Escalera’s brief career jumps out at you, as he managed just a draw with unheralded Nick Brinson in his last bout at the middleweight limit. Though not thought to be as versatile or as experienced as Rodriguez, Escalera possesses the kind of power that can change the texture of a match with one shot.
“I see he’s definitely a puncher, he does have some kind of power,” said Rodriguez. “I’m looking to go in there and not really worry about what he can’t do, but what I can. I can do a lot more than he can. So I’m just gonna come in there with my game plan and let him worry about how to adapt.”
Escalera has made brash statements bout the fight, including the vow to knock Rodriguez out.
“That’s what they’re going to say because the only way he can beat me is if he gets lucky, so that’s not really saying much,” Rodriguez said. “That’s basically saying he’s not really confident in anything else but if they get lucky and hit me with a lucky shot. But I fought Donovan George who had power in both hands, more experienced. I feel like I’m on top of my game and I’m ready for anything he brings to the table.”
Shields, who challenged twice for world titles as a pro and has trained former champions Vernon Forrest, Mike Tyson and Juan Diaz, has emphasized the importance of sticking to a disciplined game plan with Escalera during their 12-week training camp in Houston, Tex.
“I tell Edwin everyday that this is how we have to fight him, don’t get into a slugging match with this guy because this guy cannot outbox you. That’s my theme song to him,” said Shields.
“Power is only going to take you so far. A guy with big power, he’s always going to be in the fight but the thing about it is to take that from them. It’s like if you have a crutch, if you take that crutch away from him. That’s what we did to Donovan George and that’s what we’ll do to this guy. We have to take his crutch away. We have to put other things on his mind.”
Should he get through this bout unscathed Army and DiBella say that it’s a possibility that Rodriguez could be back on HBO before the year is over. In a division that contains Andre Ward, Carl Froch and a slew of other high-profile fighters, 2013 could be the year where we find out everything there is to know about Rodriguez.
“In this fight I’m just trying to send a message to everyone in the world, every top 10 fighter that I’m ready to take on anyone,” said Rodriguez. “There are so many big names at 168 that it’s hard to call out any one in particularly. There is Kelly Pavlik, a former world champion and a huge name, Mikkel Kessler, all the guys from Super Six tournament. There are so many good fights to be made. Hopefully I’ll get to fight one of those big names.”
DiBella believes Rodriguez is ready for top-10 contenders and proven veterans.
“I would love to see him with a top-flight guy, like a Sakio Bika-type of guy,” he said. “Then I think he’s ready for a title shot. But it’s a matter of who and when. If we had an opportunity to get (IBF super middleweight titleholder) Carl Froch or Lucian Bute, we’d be very interested. Maybe one more fight; but that’s not to say we wouldn’t jump on a big fight.”
Photo / Emily Harney-Fightwireimages
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.
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