Following Elvis Rodriguez’s explosive comeback win at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at how one bad night doesn’t always signify the end of a fighter‘s career.

One disappointing performance doesn’t necessarily mean the death sentence to a fighter’s career. We were reminded of this last weekend when Elvis Rodriguez blasted Juan Pablo Romero into defeat in five rounds on the Canelo-Plant undercard in Las Vegas. 

Rodriguez, a hard-hitting southpaw 140-pounder from the Dominican Republic, was lacklustre when losing to Kenneth Sims Jr in a big upset in May. For a fighter who seemed to have it all — tall, fast, skilled and explosive — Rodriguez was almost unbelievably tentative when blowing a decision to Sims. All three judges had Sims sweeping the last three rounds of the eight-rounder.

Top Rank dropped Rodriguez from its fighter roster. The folks at Premier Boxing Champions picked him up. And Rodriguez justified PBC’s faith in him by chewing up Romero, a Mexican Olympic representative with an unbeaten record. Rodriguez looked really good. Yes, Romero turned out to be made to order — right in front of Rodriguez and available to be hit — but nevertheless this was an impressive performance.

Rodriguez just didn’t show up when he fought Sims. He intimated that he wasn’t himself that night and promised that the “real” Elvis Rodriguez would be in the ring against Romero. He was right; Rodriguez was back to his big-hitting ways.

Obviously, things didn’t go according to the script when Rodriguez lost to Sims. But we sometimes forget that fighters are human, not machines. Even the best of fighters can have that bad day at the office. There are factors of which the public might not be aware. Maybe a boxer had an injury that interfered with training. There might have been personal issues. 

Perhaps an unbeaten puncher such as Rodriguez simply feels victory is ordained and isn’t mentally “up” for a fight he’s expected to win easily. A fighter might be in with an opponent whose style is simply “wrong” for him. There are any number of reasons for a night when things simply don’t go right.

Even ring greats have had their off nights on the way up. For instance, Muhammad Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — left the ring with his reputation “badly tarnished” according to United Press International after winning an unpopular decision over a stubborn and determined Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden in 1963. Clay had predicted a fourth-round finish. The crowd erupted into a torrent of boos when the prediction misfired.

Joe Louis, rebuilding his career after the KO loss against Max Schmeling, was booed throughout his bout with Bob Pastor, in January 1937. How bad did Louis look? “Louis looked awful,” veteran reporter Jack Cuddy noted. “He looked even worse than the night when Max Schmeling knocked him out. He looked like a palooka. Louis floundered about the ring, sometimes tripping over his own feet.”

Yet Louis went on to become one of the all-time great heavyweights.

Mike Tyson, after 19 KO wins in a row, looked ordinary when winning a unanimous 10-round decision over James “Quick” Tillis in May 1986. “Suddenly he seems human,” Stephen Brunt reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail. “Tyson has looked like the second coming of Rocky Marciano against stiffs such as Sammy Scaff, but facing the boxer ranked only No. 29 by the World Boxing Council, he seemed far less devastating.”

However, Tyson was only 19 at the time of the Tillis bout. He had to go the full 10 rounds again in his next fight, against Mitch “Blood” Green, but went on to wreak havoc in the heavyweight division.

More examples? Tyson Fury was perhaps lucky to get the decision over John McDermott in the first of their two fights, in September 2009. No one watching that fight could have imagined that Fury would go on to become the world’s premier heavyweight. It was a struggling performance.

Referee and sole arbiter Terry O’Connor had Fury winning eight of the 10 rounds in a highly controversial verdict. “The boxing community has been outraged by the decision,” veteran reporter Kevin Mitchell wrote in The Guardian. It was definitely not a good night for Fury although reporter Mitchell got it right when observing: “Fury will not box as poorly again.” Nor did he.

I remember the night at Wembley years ago when John Conteh seemingly couldn’t pull the trigger against Philadelphia’s competent light-heavy Eddie Duncan. But Conteh came surging back to become one of Britain’s finest world champions. 

Back to Elvis Rodriguez. I’m not suggesting he will go on to achieve glory. But he did show in the Romero fight that he is a lot better than the Sims contest suggested.

Doubts will linger, though. How will Rodriguez get on when again faced with a slick, savvy boxer in the Kenneth Sims mould? 

For now, though, Elvis’ career is back on track and he left the building last weekend with career intact and reputation restored.

Main image: Ryan Hafey/Premier Boxing Champions.