The world is losing its mind. It took just five seconds of padwork for a 53-year-old Mike Tyson to dominate conversation across the boxing world. The obsession with the sport’s blue riband division remains, even among its old-stagers, but at a time when the lower weights are producing such exquisite technicians it can be maddening. One such emerging talent is American light-flyweight Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez.
From a makeshift gym he has cobbled together in the garage of his San Antonio home, Rodriguez grafts away relentlessly, unwavering in his pursuit of a dream.
“My goal isn’t just to be a world champion but to bring attention back to the smaller weight classes, because I feel like we deserve more,” Rodriguez told Boxing Social.
“Our fights are better than most of what they put on TV right now. I feel like me and the current champions, we’d put on some really great nights if given the chance.”
‘Bam’ (short for ‘Bambino’, his nickname since birth) is every inch a promoter’s dream. His marketability as a significant American player in the lower weights is clear. He’s intelligent, articulate and armed with a combative fighting style that instantly gets bums off seats.
“I’m an aggressive, smart boxer. I’ll walk you down, but in a smart way. I won’t be reckless. But I’m always one step ahead,” he said.
Unlike many fighters who seek out their local gym to learn the noble art, it was actually boxing that found Rodriguez; a happy accident as a result of his brother, super-flyweight contender Joshua Franco.
“My brother is actually the one who got me into it. He always wanted to box. Before this I was playing football and one of the coaches was a boxer as well as a football player,” recalled Rodriguez (11-0, 7 KOs). “One day he was talking with my dad and he was like, ‘I hear your son Joshua wants to box, you should bring him by the gym’. So my brother went by a couple of weeks later and I would go just to watch. I wasn’t training with him but then a little later I was like ‘man, this is something I wanna try!’ It was instant, I never used to watch boxing or talk about it before then.”
It’s a testament to Rodriguez’s resilience that he persevered after a rocky start. Having lost his first three fights, many youngsters would have quit. Not Rodriguez and his self-belief was soon rewarded with a spot at the Junior Olympics and a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Russia.
“What kept me going was the support of my family. They never doubted me, so I’ve always had the mindset to come back harder and try my best,” he said. “Because I knew what was in me. I knew I could win. And then I got my first win in the Junior Olympics and I just fell in love with it right there. I had never experienced that feeling of winning and, when I did, I was like ‘man, this is something I want to keep doing!’”
Rodriguez was soon garnering a reputation as one of US boxing’s most precocious young talents and it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of highly respected trainer Robert Garcia. Their meeting mapped out an ambitious career path with help from lower weight specialists, Teiken Promotions.
“I was competing in a tournament and Robert had a team of fighters there. I ended up fighting one of them, and I put a beating on him. The rest is history,” Rodriguez recalled fondly.
“At that point, I was just having fun with [boxing], honestly. But [afterwards] I was going down to his gym, just as an amateur to check it out and be around the pros. As I was leaving one day, Robert jokingly said that he turned pro at 15 and he was like, ‘Who cares? Just do it!’ He was joking but, I don’t know, something about that made me really want to do it. Plus I never really had the dream of being an Olympian or winning gold medals. One day I just decided, I really want to turn pro. Before that, I was just a young guy not really thinking too far ahead, but honestly it’s one of the best moves I’ve made in my entire life, there’s nothing I regret about it.”
Under Garcia’s direction, Rodriguez’s progress has been hugely impressive, cultivating a style that pushes his excellent footwork to the fore, thereby allowing him to add an unpredictable variety to his attacks. His last three opponents had a combined record of 49-8-1, but Rodriguez stopped all three of them.
“Robert gave me a lot more confidence than I had before I turned pro. I’m really into my angles and Robert really brought that out of me,” said the 20-year-old Rodriguez. “I would never really use that as an amateur, but I guess Robert saw something in me like, ‘this kid can fight like Lomachenko… almost!’” He laughs bashfully at the reference, but there’s clearly a steely, self-belief in his own ability, forged under Garcia’s tutelage and honed amongst a stable of elite level fighters.
“The spars are getting tougher and, as I’m getting older, I’m getting stronger. The sparring we have at Robert’s gym is really tough. California is the place to get the best sparring, I feel. And with Robert there’s nothing but good fighters there so you’re always gonna get better. They bring out the best in me,” he said.
Plans are now afoot to push Rodriguez to the next level. When the idea of a hypothetical World Boxing Super Series tournament at 108lbs is floated, his response is instantly impassioned.
“A tournament? Of course! I know those fights would bring some attention to the smaller weight classes!” he said. “In the next two fights, I should be a world champion. I feel like I already have what it takes. Right now I wanna take on Elwin Soto [WBO champion]. I want that fight!”
With a zeal in his voice that sounds more like a battle cry, his conviction is nothing but infectious. The US fight scene might just have a new star on its hands and in a weight class that’s long overdue some mainstream attention.