After a 22-month layoff, Julian Rodriguez is ready to pick up where he left off

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The past two years have been quiet for Julian Rodriguez. There were the occasional tweets as proof he was still alive, but little else from him since he was last in the ring in September of 2017. If you weren’t around him at one of his gyms in Hackensack or Newark, N.J., it would have been hard to see him.

Rodriguez’s absence had been by design, purposely staying in the shadows so as not to draw attention to the nagging shoulder injury that had plagued his career in recent years.

“I’ve been keeping things under wraps for a while. Especially since it has to do with injury and we don’t want that type of thing to be out in the open,” said Rodriguez, of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.

After a series of underwhelming performances, Rodriguez (16-0, 10 knockouts) vowed not to return to the ring until he was 100%. That return is set for this Saturday, when he faces Hevinson Herrera (24-17-1, 18 KOs) in a junior welterweight fight set for six rounds on the Shakur Stevenson-Alberto Guevara undercard at the Prudential Center in Newark. The card will be televised in the U.S. by ESPN and ESPN+.

Rodriguez was accustomed to the aches and pains associated with the sport. But when he tore the labrum in his left shoulder in 2015, two years into his pro career, and required surgery, it was a new experience that him and his team didn’t know how to handle. Doctors suggested he rest and do physical therapy for 7-8 months. Instead, he was back in the ring against King Daluz four months later.

“Us not knowing about the shoulder, we were thinking, we’ll do extra pushups, we’ll get it strong,” said Alex Devia, Rodriguez’s father/trainer. “We just went in fighting like it never happened.”

“You know boxers, they don’t like to be down, especially when I’ve been doing this my whole life so I didn’t understand a rest period,” said Rodriguez. “As soon as I was able to lift my arm I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can throw a jab now,’ and I raced to the gym.”

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Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

As Rodriguez toughed it out through the pain, his performances began to suffer. Once a seek-and-destroy fighter, Rodriguez became a boxer first. He scored stoppages in nine of his first 10 bouts, but only one in five of his last six. In one of those fights, against Claudinei Lacerda in September of 2016, he was floored in the first round for the first time.

People only know what they know, so when his performances began to dip, and his fights became less frequent. Some speculated that he had been burned out. Rodriguez had been running hard since the age of 7, and won 35 national titles – including a National Golden Gloves championship in 2013 – in an amateur career that spanned 230 fights. He had been a sparring partner of future IBF flyweight titleholder Carlos Tamara by age 12, and people wondered aloud if all of that had caught up to him.

“I’ve definitely heard that,” admits Rodriguez. “But people didn’t know I had a lot of injuries going on. It changed my style so I wasn’t as aggressive anymore. We understood what it was, but we kept our mouths shut.”

Things were moving fast for Rodriguez. He was becoming a big undercard draw, and says he sold $50,000 in tickets at Madison Square Garden. He was calling for fellow Top Rank prospects Jose Ramirez, Alex Saucedo and Mike Reed, but his shoulder wasn’t healthy. After his 2016 fight against Jerry Belmontes, which he won by eight-round decision, he realized he wasn’t the fighter that he used to be. Ten months followed before his next assignment, a six-round decision over Dario Ferman in Philadelphia.

But things still weren’t right.

“During the two-week period that I would take a rest, I noticed that my arm was just not feeling right,” said Rodriguez. “Even at the peak of my camp, my timing was still off with the shoulder. I felt a huge decrease in power in my left shoulder.”

He took a step back and looked at his career. He turned professional at age 18 with Top Rank and was undefeated, and, still in the first half of his 20s, realized he was ahead of the game. He decided to take time off to get healthy. He went to physical therapy, a process he eschewed after surgery, to strengthen his shoulder. He kept his training team the same – his father, plus long-time assistants Edgar “Butch” Sanchez and Angel “Ping Ping” DeJesus – but switched managers to hip-hop impresario James Prince, who previously worked with Floyd Mayweather Jr., Andre Ward and now guides Stevenson.

He had to be patient with his shoulder. It wasn’t easy. There were times when he couldn’t even go for a run, because it caused his shoulder to move. He put on a few pounds and didn’t feel comfortable leaving the house, least of all to a boxing event, where reporters would ask questions he wasn’t ready to answer.

“This is the complete honest truth: I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. It was the first time in my head that I felt like I took a loss in my career,” said Rodriguez. “I really struggled with that to be honest with you … it kind of messed with me mentally.”

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Julian Rodriguez smashes Jerry Belmontes with a left. Photo by Alex Menendez/Top Rank

In time, the shoulder healed, and he worked himself back into shape sparring with Danny Garcia and Yordenis Ugas. Now 25, he has a more mature outlook on his purpose in the ring.

“When you’re a kid you sit here and get distracted by materialistic thing and attention from a certain crowd,” said Rodriguez. “Now I have two kids, I’m fighting for my family. I’m not gonna buy another Gucci belt until I have properties in my name.”

Devia believes after two fights Rodriguez will be ready to fight anyone at 140 pounds. Rodriguez agrees.

“Let me get two fights and you can put me with whomever you want,” said Rodriguez.

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at ryansongalia@gmail.com.

 

 

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