Rodela: Back from the dead
David Rodela (right) stopped Ramon Ayala in the fourth round in Cabazon, Calif., Rodela's 12th professional fight.
FIGHT NIGHT CLUB: THE FACTS
What: Fight Night Club, a monthly boxing series featuring rising prospects at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles
Who: The featured young fighters hail from Southern California and beyond and all of them have the potential to be successful.
When: The premiere show is this Thursday, June 11.
TV/Internet: The card will be televised on Versus and streamed live on RingTV.com and Yahoo! Sports. The first fight begins at 6 p.m. PT / 9 p.m. ET.
Future shows: July 30, Aug. 27 and Sept. 24 at Club Nokia, which is adjacent to Staples Center.
The headliner in the debut of the new boxing series “Fight Night Club” this Thursday in L.A. died on April 14, 2004.
David Rodela had fallen asleep at the wheel after exiting Highway 126 in Saticoy, Calif., at around 5 a.m. that day and crashed at 90 mph into a cement post, then ricocheting into a telephone pole. He was rushed to nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, where he hovered between life and death because of blood loss.
He was told he actually died but doctors were able to bring him back, although it appeared they would have to amputate his shattered leg for him to survive but end his promising boxing career.
Five years later, Rodela is a walking, talking, fighting miracle, a victim of terrible bad luck who somehow managed to not only survive but thrive. He could go winless the rest of his career and still be one of the most-astonishing success stories in boxing history.
“I believe in miracles,” Rodela said. “I’m a big believer in God. I think there’s a reason people are here on earth; they have a destiny. If I’m destined to become a world champion, OK. If I’m not, it’s OK too.
“It wouldn’t be the end of the world, not after what I’ve been through.”
Rodela, 21 at the time of the accident, had recently returned from Mexico after making that country’s Olympic boxing team and was out celebrating with friends. He said he was designated driver; thus, he had nothing to drink.
It was 5 in the morning, though. He and his passenger, a friend, were dead tired – almost literally. All he remembers about the crash is waking up seconds before impact and slamming on the breaks. He awakened at the scene but had difficulty understanding what had happened.
“I remember crawling, like it was a bad dream,” he said. “I thought, ‘I should stand up. Why am I crawling?’ I went to turn myself around. I rolled over ÔÇª but my leg stayed where it was. It was horrible. I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t good.’
“ÔÇª My right femur shattered, broke in 22 places. Like a bomb went off in there. The bone just ripped through the skin.”
Rodela, whose friend suffered only minor injuries, remembers arriving at St. John’s with the paramedics. He remembers seeing a sign that read: “Emergency.” And that was an understatement.
Rodela was given last rites by a priest, who had met with the young man’s parents and siblings in the waiting room and informed them that he might live. And doctors told him he had actually slipped away for a moment only to be revived by defibrillation.
When he regained consciousness, he was approached in a surgical room and asked to sign a form.
“A doctor comes over and says he needs me to sign a waiver,” Rodela said. “He wanted to amputate my leg. I said, ‘You’re not amputating nothing.’ He said, ‘You’re gonna die if we don’t.’ I said, ‘So be it. If I’m gonna leave, I’m gonna leave with all my parts intact.’
“I had a 2-year-old son at the time. How was I going to teach him how to ride a bike, to play tag, to do any activities with one leg? I said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen.'”
Then came a stroke of luck.
Rodela said a surgeon happened by and looked at his chart. The young man reiterated that amputation was out of the question. The surgeon responded: “I can fix this. I don’t know if you’ll walk again but I think I can save the leg.”
“I said, ‘That’s fine, as long as all the pieces are together. Go for it,'” Rodela said.
Rodela and his leg, now held together by two rods and a handful of screws, survived. Then reality set in.
The fighter who almost made the U.S. Olympic team – losing to Victor Ortiz in the boxoffs – and then did make the national team of his parents’ native land was suddenly faced with the end of his boxing career and a long recovery process.
To make matters worse, he had no medical insurance. He said Medi-Cal covered his initial surgery and his hospital stay but not subsequent therapy.
“I thought my career was over before it started,” Rodela said. “My main concern was what I was going to do the rest of my life with a bad leg. I probably couldn’t walk. How was I going to feed my son? Boxing was all I knew, my only way out of where I was.
“What was I going to do? Who would hire a gimpy guy? Dang.”
Rodela’s first order of business was recovering, which wasn’t easy. Some of his sponsors helped him some financially, which they didn’t have to do, and he relied heavily on his family.
His mother took time away from her job to nurse her bedridden son at the family home but soon had to return to work to help put food on the table. Then his youngest brother, Max, only 16 at the time, took over.
It was Max who answered the phone the morning of the crash and heard a voice tell him his brother had been in an accident and was in critical condition. And it was Max, more than anyone else, who stood by his brother’s side during the ordeal.
In effect, Max dropped out of school to help David. He had no other choice.
“It was tough,” said Max, who went back to school and on to college. “I had to drop out to help him. Both my parents worked. And he was in bed three, four months. I had to change the gauze, help him go the restroom, help him shower, which was difficult because he couldn’t get his wounds wet. I had to get him his medicine, food, water, help him in and out of his wheelchair. I was his right-hand man.
“And I didn’t hesitate for a second to do it. Me and my brother have a real close relationship. All of us are close but me and David have a different connection because we’re so alike. There was no question I would be there for him.”
Once he made it out of bed, Rodela had to begin some kind of therapy if he hoped to walk again. At the time, boxing seemed to be out of the question.
However, without insurance, he was on his own. Still, he somehow got it done. He spent a lot of time in the swimming pool at his gym, walking back and forth in the water sometimes for hours. And he held onto the edge the pool and kicked his legs, gently at first and then more and more vigorously
Then, as the leg grew stronger, he found he could walk after all. Now anything seemed possible.
“I dropped out of high school in my junior year because I believed in my heart that one day I’d make it in boxing,” he said. “I gave up everything in life to box. When this happened, I was depressed, down and out at first. Then I just decided to refocus. I started believing in myself again.”
Rodela wasn’t ready for what came next, at least not physically.
The leg was healed more or less but still gave him problems; he limped and still couldn’t run. Thus, his conditioning was inadequate for any athletic endeavor. His spirit and determination was as robust as ever, though. So he decided to do the unthinkable:
On Jan. 28, 2005, in a Performing Arts Center packed with family and friends in his hometown of Oxnard, Rodela made his professional boxing debut.
“I had signed with Top Rank and Cameron Duncan was my manager but I never got the chance to turn pro because of the accident,” Rodela said. “So I just did it; I fought at the Oxnard Auditorium with one bad leg. I did no running, no jump roping, no sparring at all. Really nothing.
“I just fought to make my dream come true. And I got a (four-round) draw. It didn’t matter, though. My dream came true.”
The story doesn’t end there.
Rodela realized that emotional night in Oxnard that he could fight again. With that in mind, he got down to some serious training with his then-coach Rocky Garza. Ultimately, he ran, he jumped rope and he sparred with vigor as his leg continued to heal.
That led him to the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., where he met trainer Freddie Roach.
“I went there and asked Freddie, ‘By any chance do you need a sparring partner at around 130 pounds?’ He said, ‘I have Pacquiao.’ I said, ‘Manny Pacquiao?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Am I good enough to spar with him?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’
“I was nervous, believe me, but I was able to hang with him for three rounds. Freddie said, ‘Man, you have a lot of heart. Take the day off, get in your run and come back.’ So I came back and this time he knocks me down. He says, ‘Oh, I apologize, I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Hey, it’s OK. I want to learn.’
“He said, ‘How many pro fights have you had?’ I said, ‘One.’ He said, ‘One? Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘You didn’t ask.’ He apologized again and I said the same thing, that I have to learn somehow.”
After that, Rodela made the one-hour drive every day from Oxnard to work with all the trainers and his new pal – Pacquiao – at Wild Card. And, evidently, he did learn.
The freakishly tall (5 feet, 11 inches) 126-pounder fought a second time four months later and then five weeks after that, scoring first-round knockouts in both fights against other inexperienced opponents.
He lost his third fight — and his promoter and manager as a result – at Staples Center but hasn’t lost since. He’s 12-1-2, with six knockouts. That includes a split-decision victory over former titleholder Kevin Kelley.
Now, promoted by Oscar De La Hoya, he’ll face Juan Garcia (14-2, 5 KOs) in the main event of Golden Boy Promotions’ first “Fight Night Club” show at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles.
Joseph “HOSS” Janik, his new trainer, said Rodela will sometimes avoid running when it’s too cold because the leg gets stiff. Max said his brother’s right leg is just a bit shorter than his left. Rodela says it’s just fine.
It took a good two years of hard work and patience but he can do anything he could do before the accident. Run, jump, fight, anything. Janik said his prot├®g├® has run five miles in 34 minutes.
So here he is, five years after a horrific accident that almost took his life. He’s doing what he always dreamed of doing, which also allows him to provide for his family. And most important: He’s alive and well.
“I never imagined in a million years after the accident that I’d fight in the main event at Club Nokia,” Rodela said. “I never would’ve imagined fighting a former world champion [Kelley]. Things are going great.
“It seems like the rain has stopped. A little bit of sun is shining on me.”
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]