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Why Bam Rodriguez could be the next big thing in boxing

Updated September 17, 2022 - 8:28 pm


Robert Garcia could have contacted Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez the afternoon of January 30, but there wouldn’t have been much reason for a telephone call. He knew Rodriguez would accept the offer, the kinship between boxer and trainer solidified through several years of sweat inside the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy.

A conversation would have been pointless.

So, Garcia informed Matchroom Boxing’s representatives that Rodriguez would indeed fight former super flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras six days later for the WBC’s vacant 115-pound title, telling the 108-pound southpaw after the fact. Because “he’s the type of kid when the bell rings, he transforms into something that’s just going to be hard to stop,” said Garcia, Rodriguez’s trusted manager and one of boxing’s best trainers.

Rodriguez (17-0, 11 knockouts) transformed that Saturday from a promising prospect into boxing’s youngest active world champion — and, at 22, potentially its next true pound-for-pound great. He administered on six days’ notice a 12-round beatdown to Cuadras, completing his first title defense June 25 with a brutal eight-round stoppage of two-time champion Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.

Both opponents were more than 10 years Rodriguez’s senior and mainstays in his new division, boasting 45 and 57 professional fights, respectively.

The victories over former champions have revealed Rodriguez’s precocious poise, power and precision. All prerequisites for the greatness he aspires to achieve.

He completed the second defense of his title Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, earning a workmanlike 118-109, 117-110, 114-113 victory over former title challenger Israel Gonzalez (28-5-1, 11 KOs) before his largest audience as the co-feature on the Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin undercard.

“He’s one of the fastest risers I think to domination of divisions I’ve ever seen,” said Rodriguez’s co-promoter, Matchroom chairman Eddie Hearn.

Taking a chance

The dominance belies a youthful and humble demeanor when Rodriguez leaves the ring. He’s unassuming and unchanged by the championship belt he wears around his waist, residing inside a modest apartment in his beloved hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he still pays for tickets to watch the Spurs.

He’s stoic while he trains, occasionally breaking focus to sip water from a gallon jug before resuming his routine. When the workout concludes, he relaxes and unsheathes his sly smile.

Rodriguez goes by Bam because it’s short for Bambino, as in the Great Bambino — a nickname bestowed upon him as a baby by older brothers who loved baseball. He has three, including WBA super flyweight champion Joshua Franco, the oldest of Jesse Rodriguez’s and Maria Franco’s three children together.

Portraits of his siblings are tattooed along Rodriguez’s left shoulder and bicep atop one of himself. His father’s face sits inside his right calf and his mother’s name is inked in cursive and surrounded by flowers etched across his left forearm. His chihuahua, Penny, occupies the inside of his right forearm, ensuring his support system accompanies him wherever he goes.

“He’s loyal,” says his father, a lifelong boxing fan. “The people he cares about, he’s going to look out for 100 percent. He’s going to be all in.”

Rodriguez didn’t initially inherit his father’s passion for boxing. That belonged instead to Franco, who would watch fights with his father while his youngest brother would skateboard. Rodriguez also enjoyed school and played baseball like his namesake, trying football too in spite of his stature.

Kids in his peewee league were guaranteed to play between 10 and 15 snaps during games, but Rodriguez wouldn’t play until the fourth quarter — usually when the game was decided.

“Tried his hardest,” his father said. “He wanted to prove people wrong,” and thus he’d return to each ensuing practice without a thought of quitting.

During Rodriguez’s final season of football, the elder Rodriguez began to bring Franco to the San Fernando Boxing Club to train. The younger Rodriguez was 9 when he began tagging along, watching for two weeks while his 14-year-old brother learned to box.

“Being the little brother, of course you look up to your big brother, so I was like ‘I mean, I’m going to try it myself,’ ” Rodriguez recalled.

By 10, he was fighting as an amateur. By 12, envisioning his first world title and shadowboxing with four-weight world champion Nonito Donaire during a public promotional workout.

Garcia conducted the workout and remembered the bravado Rodriguez displayed. Donaire told Garcia to “keep an eye” on Rodriguez.

Rodriguez wrote “I’m gonna be a world champion some day” in a letter to his mother dated July 8, 2012. It still hangs on her bedroom wall inside his childhood home, his prophecy fulfilled with his victory over Cuadras.

Rodriguez was so steadfast in his commitment to his craft that he began home-schooling in seventh grade so he could spend more time at the school of the sweet science. Rodriguez and Franco would tour the country with their father, carpooling to amateur events with other local amateurs and their families.

Sometimes, Rodriguez’s parents would strategically stop paying certain bills so they could fund their sons’ burgeoning boxing careers.

Maybe they’d return from a tournament and their electricity wouldn’t work. Or their water wouldn’t run. The boys never expected birthday or Christmas presents because they knew that money was funding their fights.

“His mom and I were like ‘Whatever it takes,’ ” Rodriguez’s father said, revealing three of their vehicles were repossessed and that their house was twice foreclosed.

“Even her parents were like, ‘Ya’ll are crazy. First of all, you’re missing work for taking them to tournaments. Second, you’re not paying the bills. What if something never comes out of it?’

“I’d tell them, ‘Maybe something never comes out of it, but we’re not going to know unless we do it.’ ”

Chasing greatness

Rodriguez says he derives uncanny confidence from his parents, and he rewarded their sacrifice by blistering through the amateur circuit. He’d regularly knock out opponents despite the use of protective headgear, bigger gloves and shorter rounds.

His footwork, speed and power were simply overwhelming.

Rodriguez ventured in 2013 to a tournament in Oxnard, California, where Garcia’s gym used to be and where Rodriguez would dismantle another fighter from his stable.

“He would just beat guys up,” said Garcia’s son, Pita, Rodriguez’s assistant trainer. “He didn’t go into any amateur fights with any kind of ‘OK let me feel this guy out.’ It was just straight up ‘I’m going to go hurt you and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

Garcia remembered Rodriguez but was interested in courting fellow San Antonio native Hector Tanajara Jr., whom he also watched as an amateur. Tanajara referred Garcia to Franco — and thus Rodriguez, whom he began training in 2015.

Rodriguez would travel from San Antonio to Southern California, spending weeks on end in isolation and refining his style with Garcia.

He pirouettes around the ring, attacking from a variety of angles to throw punches opponents can’t see or stop. He pivots into his punches and away from those thrown in his general vicinity, a la three-weight world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko, whose style he studied while he developed.

“I like fighters with footwork,” Garcia said, “and that’s the main thing that attracted me. His footwork, his beautiful angles, his beautiful pivots. … Now he’s at a point where he does all that very perfectly. He’s not worried. He’s not afraid of anything.”

Rodriguez was so sophisticated by 15 that Garcia playfully suggested he turn professional, something he would do in 2016 after capturing a pair of national amateur championships. He signed a managerial deal with Garcia and a promotional pact with Teiken Promotions, debuting in 2017 and igniting his rapid rise.

All the invitation to fight Cuadras did was expedite the inevitable.

“Mentally, I’ve always thought that I can hang with the world champions at 115, 112 or whatever,” said Rodriguez, initially booked that night to fight on the undercard. “In the moment, I knew I was meant to be there. That’s what I worked for my whole life. I can’t fold under the bright lights.”

The lights are even brighter now that Matchroom co-promotes Rodriguez, who signed with the company following his victory in Phoenix over Cuadras. It staged his title defense against Sor Rungvisai in San Antonio — where Hearn plans to maximize Rodriguez’s profile — and ensured he fight Saturday on one of the year’s most consequential cards.

Fights against 115-pound legends Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada surely loom so long as Rodriguez continues to win.

“I would back Jesse Rodriguez to beat those guys now,” Hearn said. “All being well on Saturday, he’ll go again in December. And he’ll be Fighter of the Year. Unquestionably.”

Garcia suggested that Rodriguez could eventually campaign for titles in six divisions, a feat achieved only by Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. Garcia has guided more than a dozen fighters to world titles. Their framed portraits line the walls inside his gym.

Boxing’s youngest active world champion is flexing in his, a belt wrapped around his right shoulder and a fearless twinkle in his tired eyes.

“I want to be one of those fighters where they look back and say, ‘You guys remember Bam Rodriguez? Man that guy was a bad MF,’ ” Rodriguez said.

“This is the kick-start to my career. It’s only beginning.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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