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Jack Rodriguez – the club fighter who became king

Jake Rodriguez
Holly Stein /Allsport
Jake Rodriguez didn’t know who Felix Trinidad was until ‘Tito’ hit him in the face nor was he expected to beat Charles Murray in 1994. Jack Hirsch tells the story of a forgotten underdog who competed with some of the best of his era

WHEN Jake Rodriguez defeated Charles “The Natural” Murray to win the IBF light-welterweight title in February 1994, it was undoubtedly the biggest upset boxing had seen since James Buster Douglas had knocked out Mike Tyson four years earlier.

However, it paled in comparison to what the new champion did next. Leaving Ballys Park Place Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, early in the morning, Rodriguez headed to his day job which was at a motorcycle shop in West Islip, Long Island. To the utter astonishment of his co-workers who watched the fight on television the night before, the new champion was reporting for work.

“You should have seen the look on their faces when I walked through the door,” he laughed recalling the moment. “My face was bruised, and they kept saying, what are you doing here? My boss told me to go home. I told him you are paying me to work so that is what I am going to do.”

Rodriguez’s job responsibilities were putting together new motorcycles that had arrived from the factory.

“I always enjoyed working,” says Rodriguez who is currently employed by, Weiss Choice an oil company on Long Island. “Even when I was a world champion I also held down a full time job. I would get up at three or four in the morning to do my roadwork, go home, take a shower and a nap, then go to work. At night I would go to the gym.”

Rodriguez’s unlikely championship journey started in Puerto Rico when he took up the sport at age 16. “I had 11 fights in Puerto Rico and went 10-1,” he says. “Then I had another 20 when I moved to New York before turning pro.”

After boxing to a four-round draw with Ronald Hammond in his debut in Atlantic City, in September 1988, Rodriguez proceeded to win his next nine fights against moderate opposition. However, his status as a club fighter appeared to be permanently cemented when he was stopped in four rounds in Atlantic City, by Mike Brown an opponent who had won only 12 of 32 matches to that point.

Rodriguez proved resilient, rebounding nicely from the loss by going 5-0-1 in his next six before being matched with Carl Griffith, an Ohio fighter with a 15-1-1 record. Rodriguez an underdog, won a split eight round decision in the February 1991 Atlantic City bout.

“He hurt me,” says Rodriguez. “It was the toughest fight of my career.”

Griffith would later challenge Oscar De La Hoya for the WBO lightweight title and get stopped in three rounds.  

Before the year was out Rodriguez would box in his native Puerto Rico for the only time in his pro career. Opposing him was an 18-year-old youngster who was undefeated in a dozen fights.

“I never even heard of him,” Rodriguez says of Felix “Tito” Trinidad. “To me he was just another fighter.”

At the time, losing on points over 10 rounds to a relatively inexperienced opponent was disappointing, but on reflection it was a noteworthy achievement considering that Trinidad would go on to stop 19 of his next 20 opponents while forging a Hall of Fame career in the process.

“It was a real good fight,” says Rodriguez. “I knew I lost, but thought it was close [the scorecards of 99-93, 99-92, and 99-91 don’t back up Jake’s claim]. I saw he had a lot of potential. He was a tall kid who hit hard. We talked after the fight and I told him he was going places.”

In the span of the next couple of years Rodriguez won seven in a row, but to say his career was on a serious upswing would be an exaggeration. Of the seven fights, all of which were fought in New York, three were against opponents who had not won a single contest. Nevertheless, Jake got the call to face Murray – in part because he was deemed safe for the champion. Not that Murray needed to be protected. He was a rising star having made a couple of title defences and beaten quality opposition in having won 31 of 32 contests, the lone loss being on a split decision to Terrence Alli a couple of years before. Because of subsequent events it is largely forgotten that Murray was regarded highly at the time, like someone like Devin Haney today.

Jake Rodriguez
Rodriguez is no match for the brilliant Whitaker Al Bello/Allsport

To the champion’s supporters Rodriguez was just along for the ride. It would be a showcase for Murray more than a competitive fight, or so they believed.  

“I knew what they were saying about me,” says Rodriguez. “The Murray camp told me I was a club fighter and would get destroyed, but it did not bother me. I told them you’ll see what kind of a club fighter I am when we are in the ring. He was a big favorite and I was being underestimated but was in terrific shape having been in training camp with Pernell Whitaker, Arturo Gatti, and Raul Marquez in Florida. I was getting ready for a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez, but he decided he did not want to box me and instead took a fight with Frankie Randall. I was doing really well in sparring. When I got the call to box Murray all of the fighters in the gym were telling me I was ready.”

The rest is, as they say, history. Taking it one round at a time, Rodriguez stayed true to his blue-collar style, outworking Murray to take a 12-round majority decision by scores of 116-112, 115-113, and 114-114.

“From the beginning I was so focused,” recalls Rodriguez. “I moved side to side and threw plenty of punches. It was not a hard fight physically. When the final bell ringed I would have gladly done three more rounds that’s how fresh I was.”

The light hitting southpaw, nicknamed “The Snake”, was now a world titlist, but he scarcely took off the time to celebrate. A mere two months later Rodriguez put the crown on the line against New England’s Ray Oliveira at Foxwoods in Connecticut. In his previous fight, Oliveira had been beaten on points by WBO 140lb champion Zack Padilla, but he and the champion had set a CompuBox record for the most punches thrown in a fight. On the strength of that Oliveira was given the opportunity to box for a title again without having any fights in the interim.

“Everyone was telling me Oliveira threw a lot of punches,” said Rodriguez “so I decided to press the fight and throw more than him. I fought a smart fight and did not get hit.” The 115-112, 116-111, and 119-108 scores are reflective of Rodriguez’s superiority that night.

It was undoubtedly the best period of Rodriguez’s career, as he went 3-0 in championship fights in 1994, the last of them in August against George Scott in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. Although Scott from Stockholm, was unbeaten in 23 fights he had not operated on as high a level as the champion. Rodriguez was too experienced and dominated the match before it was stopped in the ninth round. “Scott couldn’t hurt me. He did not have the power people told me he had,” reckons Rodriguez. “I was too quick for him. He was a decent fighter, but the fight itself was not a hard one for me.”

Scott would rebound splendidly and defeat former world lightweight titlist Rafael Ruelas a year later, proving that Rodriguez had beaten a quality contender.

Even as champion the big money was eluding Rodriguez, but he thought that would soon change.

“They were talking about me fighting Oscar De La Hoya. He was the biggest name in boxing and they were offering me a chance to fight him for my title. I really wanted the fight because that’s where the money was, but my manager wanted me to box Kostya Tszyu instead. We had a long discussion about it, but I eventually gave in. I did not want to box Tszyu, because I knew he was a talented kid with a big punch. Not that I thought I’d lose, but I never had a good feeling about that fight.”

The 25-year-old Russian born Australian had been groomed for this moment. A World amateur champion who had compiled a 269-3 record before turning pro, Tszyu was a heavy favorite to dethrone Rodriguez in their January 1995 bout at the MGM Arena in Las Vegas.

Tszyu entered the ring first and then waited patiently for Rodriguez who walked in to the Rocky theme. As Mike Tyson had previously said, everyone has a plan until they get hit. Any plan that Rodriguez might have had needed serious adjustments when, 30 seconds into the fight, he was heavily dropped and hurt by a right. Tszyu was simply overpowering him, but somehow Rodriguez survived the round. Although he fought back valiantly and would have success at various stages it always seemed a matter of time before Tszyu’s big punches would change the title landscape. It happened in the sixth when Rodriguez went down four times before referee Richard Steele stopped it.

“I got hit with a hard punch early in the fight and never recovered from that,” admits Rodriguez.

Afterwards Rodriguez showed exemplary sportsmanship when it was discovered that the IBF did not have a belt to present to the new champion. Rodriguez let Tszyu have his which the IBF later replaced with a replica.

“He was a nice guy,” Rodriguez says of Tszyu, “but I did not think he was close to being the best guy I ever boxed. Two years later I trained with him in Australia when I was getting ready to box Shannon Taylor. We would spar three to four rounds, then he would stop. I always wanted to do more. I think I was making him look bad.

“It hurt to lose the title. It’s harder to keep it than win it. I was never the same again after losing to Tszyu but came back and I became a two-time world champion later that year.” Well, only if you give credence to the WBU’s super-lightweight title that Rodriguez won by stopping Homer Gibbins in nine rounds.

The Gibbins victory would be Rodriguez’s last hurrah. Two months later he would challenge Pernell Whitaker for the world welterweight title in Atlantic City and offer little resistance before being stopped in six rounds.

Then he went into Murray’s hometown of Rochester for a rematch and was halted in seven. Three more losses followed, all were inside the distance. Rather than hang around as a steppingstone, Rodriguez retired at age 32 and never came back. His final ring record was 28-8-2 (8).

“I was having managerial problems and had lost my motivation,” he says. “I tried to manage myself and found out I couldn’t. I was taking whatever was offered to me.”

Rodriguez, now 54, has been obscure in retirement rarely seen at any events. He and his wife Evliss have been married for 26 years and have three sons. A couple of years ago Rodriguez was thrilled to learn he would be inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame. Ever so humble, he chuckles, “I thought they were calling the wrong guy when I picked up the phone.”

People love underdog stories and there are few that can compare to that of Jake Rodriguez’s, truly an inspiration to club fighters everywhere.

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