After beating COVID-19, Julian Rodriguez says he is ready for prime time
Julian Rodriguez knew something was amiss when he tested his sense of smell out by spraying his cologne directly into his face. Something wasn’t registering between his nose and his brain, and he couldn’t smell a thing. His sense of taste had also taken a sabbatical, at which point Rodriguez began to worry about his July 7 date on ESPN.
“I noticed that I started to tire out after 3 or 4 rounds. Then it got to a point where it severely affected my breathing, I would always have shortness of breath,” said Rodriguez (19-0, 12 knockouts) of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. “There were times when I would try to go on walks just to get out of my house and I wasn’t even able to do that. I would have to take breaks when I walked.”
The illness, which began early in his training camp, coupled with the closure of gyms in his home state due to the pandemic, meant he’d have to cancel the fight. It was the latest in a long line of setbacks that include shoulder injuries, which were once so bad that he’d miss two weeks of training after throwing a hook, that kept him out of the ring for 22 months.
Now fully recovered, Rodriguez steps back into the ring this Saturday for what could be the breakout fight of his career, facing fellow unbeaten prospect Anthony Laureano (13-0, 4 KOs) in a ten round junior welterweight bout on the Eleider Alvarez vs. Joe Smith Jr. card. The eight fight card, which takes place from the MGM Grand “Bubble” in Las Vegas, will air live on ESPN+, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Laureano, also 25, of East Hartford, Conn., makes up for his lack of punching power with pressure and activity. He’s become an attraction in the New England area, but like Rodriguez, he has yet to ascend to contender status against a proven name.
“I think it’s all action, I think it’s a guy that isn’t intimidated,” said Top Rank Vice President Carl Moretti of the fight. “[Laureano] has less fights but he wouldn’t have taken the fight if he didn’t think he could win. That says something right there.
“[Star Boxing matchmaker Ron] Katz matched the guy a lot and he said it’s a solid fight.”
Rodriguez enters Saturday’s card with a message to send, that he’s ready for big opportunities. Rodriguez had established himself as one of the country’s top amateurs, winning the 2013 National Golden Gloves and falling just short of making the 2012 Olympic squad after losing a decision to current WBO junior lightweight titleholder Jamel Herring. He’s also become a significant draw in the New York/New Jersey area, selling up to $50,000 in tickets each time he fights at Madison Square Garden.
“I would love more exposure,” said Rodriguez, who bounced back with three victories in 2019, punctuated by a decision over Manuel Mendez in December.
“I’m willing to step up, the business has to be right or at least it needs to lead to something. There needs to be some type of game plan and I haven’t had those talks yet.
“Anything I could change about my career at this time, I’ve done it already. I’m just waiting on other things to happen.”
Moretti is aware of Rodriguez’s desire for the big stage, and will be watching his performance closely.
“Hopefully we get an impressive performance from him and then we can move on from there and step him up again,” said Moretti. “I know that’s what they want, and that’s what we want, too.
“There’s no question that he can be world champ in a very difficult division. If you start it from this date and give it a year, the development and the quality of opposition has to be stepped up, which they’re willing to do.”
For this camp, Rodriguez and his trainer/father Alex Devia have been in Las Vegas for the past six weeks, working out of Ismael Salas’ gym and sparring with welterweight contender Yordenis Ugas and a number of other fighters. The desert heat he says has been a significant benefit, helping him to make 140 pounds – where he’s fought since he was 16 – much easier than he has in recent fights.
“This fight, I could have made weight 3-4 weeks away,” said Rodriguez.
“That weight cut really takes everything out of you. It takes away your legs, it takes away your stamina, it takes away your energy level and it also takes away the way that you can take a punch. These are all things that have been an issue for me for the last two fights.”
Now healthy, and with weight not an issue, Rodriguez hopes to show he’s someone to take seriously at 140 pounds.
“I’ve seen tape [of Laureano], I’ve seen what he’s capable of and I know what I’m capable of,” said Rodriguez. “On fight night I’m just gonna show that there’s a difference in levels.”
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected]