Boxer Jesse Rodriguez: ‘Being here is just amazing and it came so fast’ | Boxing

“Iit’s crazy to be here,” says Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez as his eyes widen and he looks around the fancy old town of Las Vegas where, on Saturday night, he promises to breathe new hope into a dark and tired business for the third time this year. Boxing is plagued by corruption and danger but, at times, offers a compelling story. Rodriguez is a little whirlwind who stands just five feet four inches tall and until recently weighed only 108 pounds before he changed his life forever. He is on track to be World Boxing’s Fighter of the Year.

“For me, it’s just amazing and it came so fast,” says Rodriguez, his 22-year-old face lit up by a surprised smile. “I always knew this day would come, but I just didn’t expect it to happen this way.”

Eight months ago he was scheduled to fight on the undercard in a thrilling fight for the vacant WBC super-flyweight world title between legendary Thai fighter Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and another experienced former world champion in Carlos Cuadras. Rodriguez had grown up watching both men and was excited to be fighting on the same bill. Six days before the match, however, Rungvisai withdrew with an injury and Rodriguez was asked if he would be willing to step in as a substitute. He had prepared for a fight at light fly, two divisions below the 115 lb division where Cuadras, a 44-fight veteran, awaited.

“When they told me, I was so excited because fighting for a world title was something I always dreamed of. I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I also felt like I was always born to be on this platform, so of course I went with confidence. I already knew how it would turn out. But, yeah, in the first round it was crazy, because I was thinking, “I’m actually in the ring with Carlos Cuadras. I watched all his fights on HBO, against Chocolatito [the great Román González] and all these other champions. So to actually be in the ring with him was mind-blowing and to perform like I did against him just made the win that much better.”

Jesse Rodriguez looks on after taking down Saúl Juárez at the MGM Grand in December 2020
Jesse Rodriguez is eyeing December 2020 after knocking out Saul Juarez at the MGM Grand. Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc/Top Rank/Getty Images

Rodriguez had just 14 previous professional fights, but he boxed like an old master as, using deft angles and footwork, he set Cuadras up for a blistering right uppercut that dropped the Mexican in the third round. Cuadras was shocked but stood and watched the fight, which Rodriguez dominated to win easily on points. In addition to becoming the youngest current world champion boxer, he made another little piece of history: Rodriguez is the first world champion born in the 21st century.

“Everything was so good that I honestly only slept 45 minutes that night. I was on a high after that win, so it was hard to sleep.”

Rodriguez made his first title defense four months later in June. In an act of impressive audacity he agreed to fight Rungvisai, the multiple former world champion who had won 50 of his 56 fights during a 13-year career. Rodriguez lived up to his ‘Bam’ nickname as a blur of punches ended the fight in the eighth round when Rungvisai had to be saved by the referee. “I saw a lot of talk on social media that it was too early for me, that he hit too hard and that he was going to knock me out,” Rodriguez says. “So stopping him shocked a lot of people and made the win that much sweeter.”

Surely he was nervous and cautious when he stepped into the ring with Rungvisai? “I was a bit cautious about the power, but other than that I was very confident. I knew I was going to stop him but it was just a matter of not touching him because he hit hard. I felt them all right, and he’s the hardest puncher I’ve ever faced, but he never really hit me clean. I just blocked his shots so it was only a matter of time before the stoppage came. I was sore for about a day after, but I have no problem fighting these big guys at 115.”

Jesse Rodriguez and Israel Gonzalez in a press conference before their fight
Jesse Rodriguez (left) and Israel Gonzalez (right) in a press conference before their fight. Photo: John Locher/AP

Rodriguez smiles, looking more shy than he sounds, and soon breaks away from such bold talk to explain his family’s struggle in San Antonio. His older brother, Joshua Franco, is also a world-class super flyweight nicknamed “The Professor” because he wears glasses and looks a bit chubby outside the ring where he has only lost one of 22 fights. But their parents struggled with debt for years. “My family is very proud of us and that means the world to me,” says Rodriguez, “because I know what we’ve been through as amateurs. We had a normal childhood with no problems, but when my brother and I started going to national tournaments in the United States, things started to get difficult. My parents were freaking out because they were paying all their money to support us. We were going to all these tournaments but the water was off at home. It was very difficult and we had to ask for loans. Now it’s all paid off and I’m very grateful for my parents’ sacrifice.”

Did he feel guilty about the ordeal they went through in helping him and his brother become boxers? “Yes, now, but as a child I did not understand. It never hit me until I got older and it gave me and Joshua even more motivation to train, play and give back. They had so much faith in us.”

On Saturday night, Rodriguez headlines the undercard of boxing’s biggest fight of the year between Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez and Gennady Golovkin in Las Vegas. “I only met Canelo once and it was in March at a fight. I was sitting in the front row and Canelo came and pushed everyone away to congratulate me on my win over Cuadras. He’s the face of boxing and it was so special for him to notice what I was doing and congratulate me.”

For the first time this year, Rodriguez will enter the ring as the favorite when he defends his world title against Israel Gonzalez. If he wins again in dominant style, many boxing insiders believe he could seal his spot as the 2022 Fighter of the Year.

“This is a huge fight for me,” Rodriguez says, “probably bigger than my last two fights because it’s on the biggest card in Vegas. So this is the perfect platform for me to get out there and show not only the die-hard boxing people but also the casual fans what I can do. I’m one of those fighters that you see very rarely, a once in a generation world champion, and the world will see that on Saturday night in Las Vegas. I’m going to go out there and be spectacular and show everyone that I really am the fighter of the year.”

Rodriguez looks up and takes my hand with one last dazzling smile. “It’s crazy,” he says, “but it’s beautiful.”

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