There were times when his left shoulder wouldn’t heal properly that Julian Rodriguez wondered whether this moment would ever arrive.
The promising prospect watched, impatiently at times, as fighters his age, many of whom Rodriguez thrived alongside in the American amateur system, won world titles, made substantial purses and achieved their dreams in this brutal business. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, it’ll finally be Rodriguez’s turn to show the boxing world what he can do against a top opponent.
The 26-year-old Rodriguez (21-0, 14 KOs) will oppose Puerto Rico’s Jose Pedraza (28-3, 13 KOs) in a 10-round junior welterweight bout ESPN will televise from Virgin Hotels Las Vegas (10 p.m. EDT; 7 p.m. PDT). Another fighter from New Jersey, Shakur Stevenson (15-0, 8 KOs), will meet Namibia’s Jeremiah Nakathila (21-1, 17 KOs) in the 12-round main event for the WBO interim junior welterweight title.
The 32-year-old Pedraza represents a significant step up in competition for Rodriguez, who won a national Golden Gloves title at 141 pounds in 2013. Rodriguez has wanted this type of fight for quite some time, however, and he cannot wait to start realizing the potential promoter Bob Arum and his matchmakers saw in him when Arum’s Top Rank Inc. signed him nearly eight years ago.
“This fight will bring out certain skills of mine that I haven’t needed to show,” Rodriguez told BoxingScene.com. “A lot of the guys that have been in there with me have been flat-footed and they just walked forward, so I wouldn’t need to kick into a certain gear. But Pedraza is definitely gonna bring the best out of me and my performance, God willing, will speak for itself.”
Pedraza is a former IBF junior lightweight and WBO lightweight champion who has lost only to two elite-level opponents – Gervonta Davis and Vasiliy Lomachenko – and one of the sport’s top junior welterweights, Jose Zepeda. The William Hill sports book still lists Rodriguez as a 2-1 favorite to beat him.
“The kid’s been ready since he was 17, 18 years old,” Alex Devia, Rodriguez’s father and trainer, said. “He’s been sparring the best since he was 17, 18. Finally, the day is here, and it’s time to show it. The weight class is very hot right now, and let’s go. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Rodriguez, of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, would’ve taken this type of bout before now if a serious shoulder injury hadn’t stalled his career.
He didn’t heal properly from surgery in June 2015 to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which caused numerous setbacks before Rodriguez returned to the ring in July 2019 from nearly a two-year layoff. Rodriguez is 5-0, including four knockouts, since he resumed his career almost two years ago.
Rodriguez’s shoulder hasn’t bothered him at all the past two years, which has made him a stronger fighter physically and mentally.
“It’s definitely a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Rodriguez, who is managed by James Prince. “The real problem was training camp. [The injury] would really interfere with my training camp and I would have to take days off, or I would have to stop sparring. There was a lot of things to deal with and the mental game needs to be strong as well. When those things become factors, you start overthinking things a lot.”
Devia considers the shoulder ordeal a positive in the sense that it forced Rodriguez to focus on developing other parts of his game.
“Now, he’s punching hard again, thank God,” Devia said. “But there was a period where we had to work on head movement and jabs. And I honestly feel that really helped us because he had to fight a different way. Before, we would just walk people down and start bombing away. When the shoulder wasn’t a hundred percent, we had to move our feet, we had to use our jab, we had to start studying a lot of fighters that would use the ring.
“And I really feel that was a great thing because now, the shoulder is a hundred percent, he’s punching harder than he’s ever punched and he also has other tools in the toolbox. He can box, he can move his head and he can do whatever he wants in there.”
Pedraza is a lesser puncher than Rodriguez, but he is an experienced, intelligent boxer who has exhibited versatility in fights.
“Pedraza is a real fight, and as tough as you can pick,” Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s vice president of boxing operations, said. “I can tell you for a fact there were other 140-pounders who rejected Julian, guys who might be higher up in the rankings and might have gotten more exposure. People in the business and people out there who’ve seen Julian know that he’s a threat. We’ll see what happens. It’s just a real intriguing fight.”
Pedraza responded to a 10-round, unanimous-decision defeat to Zepeda in September 2019 by winning back-to-back bouts impressively in Top Rank’s “bubble” last year.
He dropped Mikkel LesPierre (22-2-1, 10 KOs) twice on his way to an easy points win in their 10-rounder last July 2 at MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. Pedraza recorded another decisive defeat September 19, when he out-pointed Javier Molina (22-4, 9 KOs) in their 10-rounder at MGM Grand Conference Center.
Rodriguez recognized a more active Pedraza during those two wins, yet he is certain he’ll prove himself by beating the ex-champion Saturday night.
“I know my potential as a fighter,” Rodriguez said. “When I beat Pedraza, it’s not gonna be that surprising to me. It’s not gonna be like, ‘Oh, my goals end here because I won this fight.’ It’s just another step closer to where I feel I need to be.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.