A year ago Edwin Rodriguez and Jason Escalera would have made perfect dance partners. Both liked to brawl, neither ever backed down, and they didn't mind getting dinged up in the process. They were warriors in the "Thunderdome" mold: two men enter, one man leaves.
But a funny thing happened to alpha-warrior Rodriguez on the road to his showdown fight on September 29 with Escalera in a loaded HBO tripleheader. Rodriguez made a pit stop in Houston to get his engine and body worked on and his brain re-wired by trainer Ronnie Shields. What came out of the garage was not a souped up-Dodge Ram, but a sleek Corvette with a lot of muscle under the hood and graceful finesse.
"When I first got Edwin," Shields says, "he was throwing punches, wild and crazy punches. When he threw his combos, he was off balance. He had like zero defense. We retooled everything."
Escalera (13-0-1, 12 KOs), on the other hand, is still a classic brawler who strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. With only 25 amateur fights and 14 as a professional, Escalera knows he cannot outbox the new and improved Rodriguez (27-0, 14 KOs), so he will try to goad him into a war. Given Rodriguez's deeply-ingrained desire to mix it up, Shields knows he'll have his hands full keeping his fighter on point.
"If you hit Edwin, he wants to hit you right back," Shields says. "In the beginning I said to him, ‘That's fine, but hit him in the right way, not brawl.' I have to constantly keep him focused on boxing, not just in the corner, but every single day in the gym."
Escalera's trainer, Joe Botti, faces no such problem. He knows that from the time his boxer steps into the ring until the final bell sounds, Escalera is going to do his thing, which means unloading with enough power shots to knock down a wall. "Jason is exactly the type of fighter we want to have on our Star Boxing shows," says his promoter, Joe DeGuardia. "He's exciting, he always comes to fight, and he has concussive power in both hands."
The same could have been said of the 27-year-old Rodriguez up until his last fight, a much-anticipated showdown with another highly-regarded prospect, the heavy-hitting Donovan George in March. Most fans that came to Madison Square Garden that night expected to see Rodriguez go toe-to-toe with George, which was exactly what Shields intended everybody to think, including George's team. "Before that fight I put out there to the writers that this was going to be a brawl, and the writers ran with it because that's all they had seen of Edwin before," Shields says. "But I had a different game plan."
That plan was to box behind Rodriguez's crisp, piston-like jab, fire precision shots, move the body to avoid getting hit, and show strong defense. Rodriguez did everything his trainer asked. Those not familiar with Rodriguez's extensive amateur background might have thought that the smooth-fighting, highly-skilled fighter they were watching box circles around George was a ringer.
"His ability to change from a brawler to a boxer had a lot to do with his amateur background," Shields says of Rodriguez, who had an 84-9 amateur record and won the U.S. Nationals in 2005 and the Golden Gloves in 2006. "If he didn't have that background, the things we wanted to do he wouldn't have been able to do them so quickly."
Rodriguez appears to have signed on fully for Shields' extreme makeover. Brimming with excitement after the George victory, Rodriguez said, "I think I proved a point tonight, that I'm not just a wild man. I went in there and I boxed. I went back to what I was good at in the amateurs, which was being hard to hit and being first and being last to the punch."
This fight is a huge step up for Escalera, whose opponents in his last four fights had a combined mediocre record of 30-23-2. With only 39 rounds of professional boxing under his belt, some would say this is a reckless move by Escalera's handlers. But it can also speak of an ambitious team brimming with confidence that they have a fighter ready to seize the opportunity for a breakout performance.
What the 27-year-old Escalera has going for him in spades is thudding hands that have enabled him to rack up 12 knockouts in his 13 victories. Shields is well aware of the danger Escalera poses. "Edwin is going to fight almost the same kind of fight he had with Donovan George, but this time I want Edwin to knock him out," Shields says. "The reason is this guy is more of a swinger than a banger, so you have to be careful when you are backing up that he doesn't catch you with one of those swings and hurts you."
Before Rodriguez and Escalera square off, there will be two excellent co-featured events on this card, which includes six fighters with a combined 139-6-3 record. Five of those losses belong to 36-year-old Vic Darchinyan, the former flyweight and super flyweight champion who will be taking on rising young super bantamweight Louis Del Valle (16-0, 11 KOs). For the once-power punching Darchinyan (37-5-1, 27 KOs), who has faced the best-of-the-best in the lower weight divisions, this may be his final chance to get one more shot at a title.
Although Darchinyan has a vast edge in experience, the 25-year-old Del Valle should enjoy both a size advantage and having youth on his side. Where Darchinyan began his career as a 112-pound flyweight, Del Valle started out as a featherweight (126) and has gradually worked his way down to this 122-pound super bantamweight fight. Darchinyan, who has faced competition in his last five fights against boxers with a combined record of 104-3, no longer seems to have his trademark power, having last scored a knockout in 2009. For Del Valle, this will be a major test of whether he has the makings of an elite fighter as many feel he does.
The opening bout on the televised card pits Alex Perez (16-0, 9 KOs) of Newark, NJ, against Antonin Decarie (26-1, 7 KOs) of Quebec, Canada in a welterweight showdown.