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Julian Rodriguez, Facing Jose Pedraza on ESPN, Now Calling It As He Sees It

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During a fight week Zoom chat with Julian Rodriguez, my mind drifted back, as I was trying to recall when it was that “Hammer Hands” visited the Everlast headquarters and chatted with me for the “Talkbox” podcast.

I didn’t remember specifics–was it before or after he hit some speedbumps with managerial drama and injuries? Turns out it was before. He came to Everlast ahead of his Sept. 23, 2016 clash with Claudinei Lacerda, sporting a 13-0 record. Four and a half years ago, then….

Oh yes, plenty has happened since then. The junior welterweight right-hander Rodriguez, who has been boxing since he was a pup, accumulated seven more wins. And, indeed, he dealt with some of those not at all uncommon issues, like contractual issues. The fighter said that he’s pleased to be part of the James Prince fighting family, and injuries haven’t popped up lately to derail the momentum which reached a new plateau, modest but certainly noticeable, in October 2020 when he took out Jose Lopez on the Naoya Inoue-Jason Maloney undercard in Vegas.

Julian on Zoom had a gameface on, but, possibly, dialed it down a quarter notch because I’ve talked to him enough to have something of a rapport with him. That gameface makes total sense, being that Rodriguez is in a two-steps-up fight Saturday (June 12) when he meets Jose ‘Sniper’ Pedraza in Las Vegas. It’s the semifinal contest, in support of the Shakur Stevenson-Jeremiah Nakathila main event.

Is Pedraza too large a step up for Rodriguez? Or will the New Jersey junior welterweight prove to all that he’s more than ready for such a test?

And with most folks assuming that Shakur’s skill set will be way too hard to touch for the Namibian, plenty of people are treating the Hammer Hands v Sniper contest as the main event.

So, I was curious–does Julian Rodriguez, age 26, see this as a cross-roads match, with one guy perceived to be on the downside, Pedraza, in against a talent nearing his peak, but someone who has to prove his way up the ratings ladder?

“It is what it is, Mike, I call it how I see it, and Saturday as long as I go in there and I’m myself, this is going to be a great showcase fight for myself,” he told NY Fights.

Rodriguez said his handlers got real enthused off that last win, but he himself has felt for awhile that he’s ready for step-up foes.

Prior to that, he’d be a polite pest, and ask to go in against persons resembling the caliber of the Puerto Rican Pedraza, a former titlist at 130 and 135 pounds. Now, finally, he’s getting his wish. Based purely off the vibe I got from him on the Zoom, that he was dialed in, and fueling himself with a blend of belief in self as well as a desire to prove his full worth to doubters, I suspect that we won’t look back at this Pedraza fight as a case of “be careful what you wish for…”

The fighter, who was born and lives in New Jersey, said he’s hoping that Pedraza brings out the best in him, forces him to show the breadth of his skill set. The implication is that he is the type whose game rises when the situation demands.

He’s not irked at anyone who is liking Pedraza to get the nod, because the Puerto Rican is a cemented name. “Nobody knows who I am….The people who are really involved in the sport know the deal,” he stated.

The fighter has two kids, age 8 and almost 3. I noted that a three year old doesn’t really get it, the importance of winning this one Saturday. “She’ll know when she’s in Disneyworld after,” he replied. “Win in or lose, she’s going. We don’t even say the L word. But no matter what happens, we’re going.”

I then told him I sensed a high confidence level. “I’m calling it how I see it,” he said, sharing that his mood reflects how well he’s prepared, and the strength of the various elements of his game.

Julian Rodriguez talks to journalist Michael Woods before his June 12 fight against Jose Pedraza.

The Nirvana shirt kinda made the call for Woods.

Then I picked up on something–several times now, he’d said some version of “I’m calling it as I see it.” There was a theme there, but I wasn’t sure what it was. So I pushed a bit, and asked if he was obliquely referring to “the YouTubers” who are making the waves and the bloated checks.

This fucking social media shit, or people who feel like they’re entitled to say what they want to change a narrative of a certain situation, or certain media outlets, or companies even,” Rodriguez said.  “A lot of people have this certain entitlement. It is what it is and I see right through it.”

The guys who court the attention, invite the cameras in to cover them, and show off for the media, or fighters who bring galpals in to drool at them as they train, he’s not a fan. “There’s part of me I have no choice but to accept this is the day and age, unfortunately. A lot of people do shit like that and it gets them far and I laugh….When the time comes when the cameras do come around, I don’t need to put on a show, Mike. I just have to tell my story, because my story in itself is what’s gonna sell, and I don’t have to put on a fuckin’ act.”

Nope, it’s clear he’s not a fan of You Tubers thinking they are more than what they actually are, because they so carefully select their opposition. “There’s so much more to say, Mike, but….I kept my mouth shut for a very long time, because my handlers were feeding me these little goats. It felt weird for me to talk my shit or just be honest or vocal, because I felt uncomfortable with it, because I said I’m gonna wait til I have a step up or someone that’s actually worth me telling my story for, or being vocal about. I feel like that fight is this Saturday. When I fucking handle Pedraza then I’ll be able to talk!”

We talked more about this wave, and I told him how I feel there’s something of a parallel for the “lifers,” like him, who grind for decades–he started boxing at age 7– and then see line-cutters snatch up spots on a card and over-sized purses, because they have a high IG follower count.

Julian Rodriguez connects on a foe, one of the 21 opponents he's bested in the pros.

Quality of left hook still matters more than IG follower count, right?

He expounded more on how he feels at this juncture, still in full grind mode, little room for error or his progress could stall out. “I feel the wave coming, with the whole gimmick. I believe it comes down to gimmick and social media. Even with real fighters and how they’re taken care of, also. Some fighters, just because of who their manager is, or business transactions, or certain connections like that, they take care of the fighter and promote the fighter more. And I’m very much used to this shit, where I felt like the work I’m putting in, and I’m not the only one, so I’m not over here trying to play victim. But, for all the work that I do, I have not been compensated to the point (that properly reflects the time spent, the risk taken, etc.). I’ve had friends who are waiters who have enjoyed life more than me, and I’m on TV, with Top Rank, big company, all this. Listen, I’m here grinding, I have fucking kids now. I was a kid when I signed, now I have two children! I’ve been grinding, traveling my whole life!”

He talked about cutting weight when he was ten, and lamented that not enough people understand the sacrifices made by people like him. However, he knows it’s not at all wise to get too fixated on those YouTubers and the size of the checks they get. “When someone asks me about it, I talk about it,” but he’d rather accentuate positives, he said. Like, maybe the YouTubers will indeed bring about more opportunities for “real fighters,” he offered.

Rodriguez offered an example to prove his point. Take Regis Prograis, who has benefitted from this new trend. He signed on to fight under the Triller umbrella and in his first Triller bout, against Ivan Redkach on April 17, enjoyed the surge pricing employed by the new disruptors on the boxing block. Rodriguez has zero problem with the fighters who go with that flow, but overall, he does feel a certain way about how the rise of social media self-marketing has taken something from the sport, cheapened it. “Right now, they’re in their niche, in their lane, and finding ways to make money off of it.”

Swinging to the positive, he said that the Triller-fication trend is probably needed, because there has to be more of a concentration on making the events more entertaining. Better bells, louder whistles, some innovating, and more impetus toward making the whole package alluring. “Make it a show, it’s out-dated, boxing is outdated!”

He said he’s aiming to do that in his own way Saturday against Pedraza. “I’m gonna go in there to win, however it comes,” Rodriguez said. “If I see the opportunity I’m gonna take it right away. However I need to adapt, I’m going to adapt. No matter what game plan I go in there with, I feel like I’m going to execute that to the fullest extent.”

My Three Cents: One isn’t supposed to develop a rooting interest in a fighter, as a journalist, but it happens. As long as the army of robo-reporters hasn’t taken over, real people with real feelings and biases positive and negative will have their favorites. And, I confess, I appreciated Julian’s passion in laying out his thoughts on having done boxing for 20 years, but still feeling unappreciated and underwhelmed at how the sport–and let’s be very up front, society at large, needle-movers make bank, everyone else grinds to capture enough crumbs to subsist on–compensates those not in the “star” category.

Plus, he was wearing a Nirvana shirt, which earns him extra credit. He digs rock ‘n roll and likes the Nirvana catalogue, even though he was born on Oct. 28, 1994, and Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain removed himself from the equation of life on April 4, 1994. That to me signals Julian Rodriguez means what he says, he’s not going to latch on to trends because they’re hot. He’s going to like music that is way past peak popularity, and he’s going to work his ass off to close the gap between him, a throwback sort who couldn’t stand to win by taking a shortcut route, and people who are happy to play the game and use smoke and mirrors to snag extra goodies.

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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