By Thomas Gerbasi
It was just the jolt Rocky Juarez needed. After six consecutive losses from 2009 to 2012, he had heard all the talk about him hanging up the gloves and moving on to the next phase of his life, but he was as stubborn in his thinking as he was in the ring. So with a fight against hard-hitting Antonio Escalante – who was on a four-fight knockout streak - he was going to find out once and for all whether he had anything left in the tank.
He did, stopping Escalante in the eighth round of their October 2012 bout in San Antonio. Juarez took a week and a half off to celebrate his first win since 2008 and then headed back to the gym, expecting to get a call for an even bigger fight. It didn’t come.
“One month after another I didn’t receive a call and I was waiting,” said Juarez. “It got discouraging, and at one point I just said the hell with it and I stopped training. But I have to be in the gym and I have to be in combat, whether it’s sparring or hitting the bag.”
Eventually, the phone would ring, but not with anything Juarez wanted, not at this point in a pro career that began in 2001.
“I feel like with my experience and what I’ve gone through, and the fights that I’ve been through, I can’t take any fights that don’t make sense,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about the money; it just doesn’t make sense for my career. So if I’m fighting a guy with a 10-6 record, I don’t feel like that would benefit my career.”
A fight against Mexico’s Sergio “Yeyo” Thompson looked to be a done deal for last year but fell by the wayside, leaving Juarez to train and wait, train and wait. In some ways it wasn’t surprising. At 34, Juarez is not at the age where you start pushing him out to pasture, and the win over Escalante proved that he could still turn it on when he had to. Add in that his pressure style and solid chin aren’t things you really want to deal with for 10-12 rounds for little reward, and the risk seemingly wasn’t worth it. Juarez agrees.
“I think I’m one of those opponents where it’s not so much that I’m an Olympian, but just the fact that I have an amateur background as well as 40 professional fights, I’ve been in there with the best, I’ve never been stopped in my ten defeats, and I have 21 knockouts in 29 victories,” he said. “I know I’m a big risk for any opponent, whether it’s a champion or an up and coming guy.”
So did the Escalante win almost screw him in a way, as it probably would have been easier to get fights with that six-fight losing streak instead of six losses and an upset knockout win?
“I don’t want to say it screwed me, because a lot of people actually counted me out before that fight,” he said. “Escalante was the favorite in that fight and it kind of upset me, but it was a motivation. It was fuel to the fire where I knew I had more in me and I knew I had more to give in my boxing career, and I didn’t want to hang up the gloves knowing that I had more to give.”
And finally, Juarez has a fight, a Fox Sports 1 headlining gig on Monday in El Paso against rising Nicaraguan star Rene Alvarado. Despite being in his home state of Texas, where he is unbeaten (13-0-1), the Houstonian is the obvious underdog and the B-side, but that didn’t stop him from answering the call.
“When I got the phone call for this fight I was helping the local guys from Houston sparring, and I said ‘Oh hell yeah,’” recalled Juarez. “I’ve been looking pretty good, my weight is not too far off from the 126-pound weight class, and this was a great opportunity and good timing.”
Of course, as soon as the fight was announced, several fans and pundits took to their Twitter account and blogs wondering if Juarez should be fighting, let alone in a televised main event. It’s talk the 2000 US Olympic Silver medalist has heard for a while now, and while he wondered in the midst of his losing streak if it was time to go, he still feels that he’s not done with this journey yet.
“I had critics and people that didn’t know me saying that,” said Juarez when asked if he heard the retirement talk. “But as far as family members, my family always wishes me the best as far as my health goes. I did question myself whether it was that time to just hang ‘em up and consider it a good career and say I didn’t get what I wanted, but just be happy with that. But there’s no quit in me and I felt like I had more to give.”
But if it did end today, how would he assess a career in which he fought the best of the best, including Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Chris John, losing out on a world title in his controversial first fights with Barrera and John?
“I’d be happy,” he said. “I can’t look back and say what if and be negative. I’ve been blessed with where I’m at today. I’ve got a beautiful family, I can still speak proper, I’ve been in 40 fights with the best fighters in the world and I’ve never taken a beating. I’ve still got my wits and my health, and I’ve been very fortunate. If I was to hang them up today, I hope the fans that remember my name would say ‘he was a tough son of a gun.’”
He was, and still is. And that’s why he’s fighting Alvarado this Monday. Not for the payday, but for something more: the opportunity to keep a dream alive.
“Alvarado’s a young guy, he’s hungry, this is his first fight in the States, and he knows that beating me would put a name in his book where he would probably be fighting for a world title next,” said Juarez. “But it’s my job not to let that happen. I also have a goal and a dream which is to become world champion, and I’m going to have to stop his dream.”
If he does and then goes on to win a world title after all he’s been through, that would truly be a story worthy of the name “Rocky.”
“If I win the title, I’d be happy to hang up the gloves right there and then and say, you know what, I did what I wanted to do,” he said. “It ain’t about the money; it’s about the goal, which is to become world champion. And I’m gonna quit while I’m ahead.”