When Devlin Rodriguez faces George Tahdooahnippah in the main event of this week’s Friday Night Fights broadcast from his adopted home state of Connecticut, the 32-year-old veteran will be making his 15th appearance on ESPN’s boxing series.
While it’s an impressive number of TV appearances, it’s not a milestone that comes with a lot of fanfare. On the U.S. boxing scene, ESPN takes a back seat to HBO and Showtime in terms of prestige. “The Worldwide Leader In Sports” doesn’t have the large budget for boxing as the two subscription cable giants do, so it doesn’t often feature the boxing’s elite fighters.
However, what the basic cable network lacks in boxing funding it makes up with wider national exposure for the boxers it showcases and hardcore fan appreciation, which has been earned by capable, gutsy prize fighters like Rodriguez and Pawel Wolak, who engaged in the Boxing Writers Assoc. of America’s 2011 “Fight of the Year” on Friday Night Fights.
Rodriguez, who had lost three of his last four bouts – all close, questionable decisions – including an IBF welterweight title shot, going into the first Wolak fight, is grateful for the opportunity the weekly boxing show gave him to turn around his stagnating career.
Although the thrilling fight ended in a draw, it led to a rematch on the HBO Pay Per View-televised undercard of the Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito rematch – which he won handily – and a Showtime-televised title shot at undefeated WBA 154-pound beltholder Austin Trout, which he lost by decision.
Now Rodriguez (26-6-3, 14 knockouts) is looking for the Tahdooahnippah fight, a 157-pound catch-weight bout takes place at the Mohegan Sun Casino, to once again jumpstart his career with the help of ESPN.
“George is a strong, straight-forward guy, who’s confident because he’s undefeated and he’s beat lower level guys and knocked them out,” Rodriguez told RingTV.com. “He thinks he’s going to wear me down because I’m the smaller guy. I can’t get hit with stupid punches in this fight.
“But the fact that he’s a middleweight and I’m a junior middleweight doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m tall, I have the punch, and all my career I’ve sparred with big guys. I can’t lose my focus and I got to let this guy know right from the beginning that he can’t walk me down.”
Rodriguez, who serves as an analyst for ESPN Deportes’ boxing broadcasts and studio shows, believes the matchup with Tahdooahnippah (31-0-1, 23KOs) will be similar to the crowd-pleasing way his boxer-puncher style meshed with Wolak’s pressure-fighting tactics.
“I expected the Wolak fight to be a good one,” said Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in Danbury, Conn. “I’d seen him fight. I knew that he put pressure on and that he could take a punch. I prepared to throw a lot of punches and to fight on the inside.”
The result was a 10-round classic. The draw with Wolak is the highlight of Rodriguez’s run on ESPN but he says it isn’t his only memorable moment.
“The first time I fought on ESPN was very exciting for me,” said Rodriguez, who wound up unexpectedly on Friday Night Fights in his second pro bout, which was on the undercard of a show co-headlined by the late Vernon Forrest and Zab Judah in 1999. Forrest finished Steve Martinez in the opening round, as Judah did to Juan Torres. There was time to kill on the broadcast from Tunica, Miss., so enter the 1-0 kid from Danbury.
“I was just a swing bout, but just their telling me that it would be on TV, I can’t describe the adrenaline that went through my body at that moment,” said Rodriguez, who knocked out Jonet Hernandez, also 1-0, in the second round. “The next week, everyone at home and my family in the Dominican Republic told me they saw me on TV. It was a great feeling.”
Rodriguez won nine of his next 11 bouts, losing a close eight-round split decision to Andre Eason in 2002, going into his ESPN-televised fight with then-undefeated puncher Allen Conyers in ’04.
Rodriguez dropped the ballyhooed Bronx bomber en route to a satisfying six-round unanimous decision. It’s one of his sweetest Friday Night Fights highlights.
“Conyers was this built up guy who was not only supposed to beat me, but also beat me up,” Rodriguez said. “He was managed by (popular rapper) Fat Joe and he had a lot of people backing him up. Even the referee seemed like he was against me.
“The ref (Eddie Claudio) was giving me this gangster stare when he gave me my instructions in the dressing room. He tells me ‘You better be able to fight, ’cause this guy is coming to get you.’ But I fought my fight, and in the fifth round I knocked this kid out of the ring with a perfect hook.
“It was a very exciting moment for me because it was so dramatic.”
Rodriguez wants to rekindle the excitement and drama in the wake of his loss to Trout, which was anything but.
“That fight made me look boring,” he said. “It’s his style. He’s not an easy guy to fight because he’s all about defense and he’s always ready to make you pay. I was disappointed with that fight but Trout’s win over Miguel Cotto made me feel better because fans saw what a difficult style he has.”
There are junior middleweight titleholders with more aggressive styles than Trout, including popular WBC beltholder Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and Rodriguez wants to work his way to a shot at one of them.
“I want to fight three times this year, get back into the mix, and be in line for another world title by the end of this year,” he said.
Rodriguez’s plans start with Tahdooahnippah and his “home” network.
“I’m grateful that ESPN wants to put me on their shows,” he said. “It tells me I put on good shows.”
Photos / Al Bello-Getty Images