By Jake Donovan
Receiving a golden opportunity never means as much as what you actually do with the opportunity once you’re there.
Austin Trout and Delvin Rodriguez spent most of last year and quite a bit of 2012 angling for their respective shots at the big time. When nobody else was willing to step up and face them, they agreed to face each other.
Their 154 lb. title fight is part of a rare quadruple-header on Showtime, which airs live from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. (Saturday, 9PM ET/PT). Neither fighter represents the best known name on the card, but each are in prime position to change that perception by the end of the evening.
"It's going to be a great night of fights and I feel like me and Delvin are going to be the show stealers," insists Trout (24-0, 14KO) ahead of the third defense of his alphabet title. Given the night’s full lineup, his remarks aren’t at all a stretch.
Headlining the show is a crossroads bout between former light heavyweight king Antonio Tarver and unbeaten cruiserweight prospect Lateef Kayode. The chief supporting bout features rising undefeated middleweight Peter ‘Kid Chocolate’ Quillin as he takes on comebacking 40-year old Winky Wright.
Both bouts feature plenty of intrigue, but the entertainment value is hit or miss on paper. As such, many turn to the preliminary bouts to serve as show stealers. Along with Trout-Rodriguez is a bantamweight title clash between Leo Santa Cruz and former title challenger Vusi Malinga.
While the bantamweight bout should feature plenty of action, it’s the 154 lb. title fight that has the sport’s cult base eager to tune in on Saturday evening.
Trout’s name has made headlines for well over a year, but mostly in search of a big fight. The New Mexico native has never shied away from an opportunity, as evidenced by fighting beyond the U.S borders four times within six fights spanning a mere 27 months. Trout took to the road for the title he possesses to this day, defeating Rigoberto Alvarez in Mexico last February for a vacant 154 lb. belt.
Two defenses have followed, including a return trip south of the border as he outpointed the still dangerous David Lopez last June. Trout’s most recent appearance was a rare treat on several levels, as he was given a soft touch in his birth town of El Paso for a Shobox appearance last November. A 6th round stoppage of Frank LoPorto was every bit as easy as the mismatch it was said to be on paper.
To his credit, Trout took the win for what it was worth and wasted no time in calling out the division’s best fighters. No specific names were dropped, just a general challenge daring anyone in and around the weight class to knock him from his perch.
“If anyone feels I don’t deserve this belt, please come and try to take it,” Trout begged.
Radio silence followed. Anthony Mundine let a title fight go all the way to purse bids before abruptly and unprofessionally pulling out of the ordered showdown. The handlers for Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez offered Trout’s name as a possibility - as well as that of Rodriguez (26-5-3, 14KO) - for his May 5 fight, but instead settled on the ancient Shane Mosley.
With Trout and Rodriguez both in search of bigger opportunities than the pile of nothing sitting in front of them, along finally came the idea to match the two up against one another.
Ever the professionals, neither fighter hesitated to accept assignment though acknowledging the other as a tough out.
“I think this is the hardest fight to date that I've had in my career,” Trout says of Saturday’s opponent. “Delvin is a world class fighter. I've watched him on TV as a fan and I know the type of challenge that's coming forward. There's no way I can look past a fighter like Delvin. This is the toughest fight of my life."
Rodriguez proved his worth in a bounce back 2011 campaign. The transplanted Dominican has endured his share of ups and downs in recent years, watching his industry status dramatically shift from red-hot prospect to declining steppingstone. It was going to take for Rodriguez to catch a higher profile opponent off guard in order to reenter the mix.
That moment arrived last summer.
While it’s highly doubtful that Pawel Wolak took Rodriguez lightly, it stands to reason that his handlers viewed the ESPN2 matchup as a springboard to a title shot. Wolak had done a terrific job of punching his way back into contention. A win over Rodriguez would have been the final piece of the puzzle.
Both fighters left their mark in a sensational 10-round brawl that was named by several publications as 2011’s Fight of the Year. It was only fitting that the slugfest resulted in a draw, allowing both fighters to do it again, this time on a much bigger stage and earning career-high paydays in the process.
The rematch took place last December at Madison Square Garden as a supporting bout to Miguel Cotto’s own return go with Antonio Margarito. Rodriguez proved to be the much fresher fighter of the two following their summer war, winning in convincing fashion and convincing Wolak to call it a career in the process, as he has since set his sights on the world of mixed martial arts.
Rodriguez set his sights on the rest of the 154 lb. division. All that followed instead was an extended wait period before receiving the phone call to face Trout.
"I was very excited,” Rodriguez said of his reaction when learning he landed the fight. “I had to go back to the gym the same day. I think that people who follow my career know what I've been through - a lot of ups and downs. I've been waiting for this opportunity. When we finally got the news that we were fighting Trout it was one of the most exciting things that's happened to me in a long time."
Rodriguez had his shot at the title, but landed on the wrong end of a split decision against Isaac Hlatshwayo in 2009. The loss was part of a rough stretch where Rodriguez went 2-3-2, though his record could have just as easily read 6-1 over that span had a couple of lucky breaks went his way.
Instead, the 32–year old was forced to earn his keep in punching his way back into contention. Needless to say, Rodriguez is not at all taking this weekend’s opportunity for granted.
"I have respect for Austin. He's a fine champion,” Rodriguez humbly says of his opponent. “I've faced a lot of tough opponents, but I think with Austin it's going to be different because he has a lot of skills. He's not just going to go there and fight just for the heck of it. I know that I have to be very focused. I'm facing someone that I know I can't make any mistakes and I definitely cannot look past him."
Suffice to say, Trout is also locked in on June 2 and nothing beyond that – other than for the night to serve as a bridge from cult favorite to household name.
"I definitely hope so,” Trout says. “Going around the world and fighting off of TV has taught me a lot of different things, but I need that exposure and I feel like Delvin is the type of fighter to bring out the best in me. I want the world to see the best in me and I'm glad Delvin was able to accept the fight where we can bring out the best in each other and showcase good boxing for the world."
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments via e-mail.