Thursday, July 6, 2006
Jesus “Chuy” Rodriguez is quick, but he can’t escape the mirror. As he steps left with a dancer’s agility, hooking a tight right into the air, the mirror tracks him. As he continues to shadowbox in Elite Fitness’ sparkling new ring in Salinas, he studies his active reflection intensely from beneath the hood of his sweatshirt.
On the eve of a fight as crucial as any he’s undertaken—Saturday he faces former US Amateur Champion Sergio De La Torre in Monterey after a damaging loss interrupted his eight-fight win streak—Chuy likes what he sees looking back: a fighter fit from relentless training, confident from sparring with world-class boxers, and focused on what drives him most, redemption and family. But Chuy wasn’t always so enthused with his reflection.
Chuy’s childhood on Salinas’ Kilbreth Avenue, aka “Killer Street,” is a big part of his identity, and contributed to landing him in trouble with the law. And because boxing promoters know a fighter with a criminal back-story fills the seats, much has been made of Rodriguez’s criminal history, a time when the reflection wasn’t so kind. He was released from jail in May 2005 after serving 10 months on drug and gang activity-related charges. The 26-year-old Rodriguez says he still burns from the lost time.
“I wasn’t there for my daughter’s birth,” Rodriguez says. “And I had to leave my son,” who was 7 at the time. “Sometimes he throws it in my face, but he had it tough. He was used to being with me.”
For a fighter who says his greatest strength is making adjustments in the ring, Chuy’s made his biggest adjustment outside of it. “I take every day as it comes and don’t waste it,” he says, “I don’t do stupid things.”
“That’s behind him,” says Rodriguez’s trainer Max Garcia. “He has three beautiful kids and a nice wife. He wants to straighten out.”
Right before he was sent to jail, Rodriguez decided to recommit himself to boxing, and to the tutelage of family friend Garcia. But that was several long out-of-shape years after he had quit the sport because he didn’t feel himself “growing as a fighter.”
Garcia (who looks the part of trainer with his bald head, thin glasses, thick mustache, sleeveless shirt and cell phone that dings like a ringside bell when he gets a call) didn’t recognize the 225-pound Rodriguez at the time. But he recognized Chuy’s potential, and the fact that he needed support. He even went to visit him in jail—“I never did that for nobody, but Chuy didn’t belong in jail,” Garcia says. “He needed help.” He says he told Chuy to “do these exercises, try to eat this diet.”
When he got out, they launched into a much stricter, more comprehensive training regimen than Chuy was accustomed to. Fights were scheduled every three months. Big weight swings between fights—Chuy says he would balloon from near 130 pounds to around 200—were a thing of the past.
With the guidance of Garcia Boxing (which includes trainer Max, his wife Kathy as manager and Linda Rodriguez as nutritionist), Chuy won three fights in a row on two knockouts and a unanimous decision, pushing his win streak to eight overall. Confidence was high; Kathy Garcia told local media that, “I’m pretty sure we’re going to approve whoever the promoter comes up with as his next fight.”
Then Chuy got TKO’ed.
In May, Rodriguez fought a Russian named Vladmir Zyckoff who, while undefeated, looked very beatable to Chuy’s camp, who say Chuy had manhandled him in sparring sessions. But then, they say, things got funny. At the last minute, the Russian’s group announced it was a minor title fight and, as such, involved specific restrictions; then a new inspector challenged the way Max wrapped Rodriguez’s hands. In the ring, they say the Russian got away with a head-butt late that sent Chuy reeling, resulting in a stoppage in the final round. While the Garcia team’s version of events is open to debate, the result wasn’t. Instead of running his record 9-1—and 4-0 since his comeback, as Garcia likes to say—Chuy emerged 8-2 (and 3-1) and in danger of seeing another loss knock him into the journeyman boxer circuit.
Chuy liked this reflection even less. Now, as his chance at resurgence approaches, he has traveled to LA to spar, honing his technique against elite fighters like World Boxing Council 147-pound champion Carlos Baldomir. Garcia acknowledges this experience has steeled Rodriguez mightily, but that he has a lot left to prove.
“His biggest challenge is to prove to himself and his fans that the last fight was a fluke,” says Garcia, “that we are as tough as we say we are. We’re out for redemption. We’re out for vengeance…
“We’re going to knock him out—get rid of Sergio [De La Torre] and then go after the Russian. It’s on our minds. We’re gonna put a whoopin’ on him.”
De La Torre’s 10-8-2 record doesn’t inspire much rebuttal, but his résumé and aggressive style do. His last five fights have come against fighters 50-4-2. Then there’s that US Amateur belt. And, Chuy says, he’s as tough as they come.
“He’s in your face the whole fight,” says Chuy, “He don’t get knocked out.”
~ ~ ~
As Chuy dips, feints, and jabs at the mirror at Elite Fitness, there’s no sign that he notices the frequency with which members of the gym turn to watch him. But he gets the fact that he’s a reflection of them. And he knows that Salinas will be with him Saturday—“They’ll be right there,” he says. For Chuy, their presence will only add to the magnitude of the fight.
But Salinas is far from his main motivation.
“My family and I went through a lot of struggles,” says Chuy. “I don’t want my kids going through that. I want to make it good enough to help out my family.”
Chuy’s not talking about the $8,000 that Garcia estimates Chuy’ll take with a victory. He’s talking about restoring the momentum of his ascension through the welterweight ranks toward bigger paydays. He’s talking about getting revenge on the Russian on the way. He’s talking about looking in the mirror and seeing a champion looking back.
As Chuy looks in the mirror today, Garcia’s warnings and encouragement are both there, in his head: “A fighter who does what he wants is a victim of his errors.”; “Salinas is known for Steinbeck. Why not a world champ?”
But there will be no belts without a win Saturday night.
“We take it as a world title fight,” Garcia says. “We’re not gonna take it as anything different than that. That’s how we are.”
THE RIOT happens Saturday, July 8, at the Monterey Conference Center. Jesus “Chuy” Rodriguez vs. Sergio De La Torre tops a six-fight card. The box office opens at 5pm; doors open at 6:30pm; fights start at 7:30pm. $85/ringside; $65/preferred; $40/reserved. For tickets, call 688-1604.