By Jake Donovan
More than three years has passed since Edwin Rodriguez fought on live television. The Dominican-born super middleweight, just two years into the pro ranks at the time, believed it was the first step of an aggressive pursuit towards the championship level.
Progress was slowed almost to a crawl, before Rodriguez was finally given a chance to roll the dice in Monte Carlo. The rising contender hit the jackpot, drilling Denis Grachev inside of a round Saturday evening to win the Million Dollar Super Four and pump some fresh blood into the super middleweight division.
Perhaps even more rewarding than the $600,000 prize that came with the win was the fact that fans were given an emphatic reminder of why he was once held in such high regard. The past few years have seen his career progress hit a wall, a shame considering the breakout campaign he enjoyed in 2010 and the number of televised showcases he’s received over the past three years.
Knockout wins over George Armenta, Kevin Engle and James McGirt Jr. all played in front of a live televised audience, coming within a seven-month stretch in 2010. The run was enough to earn high praise as one of the sport’s more promising prospects.
His name wasn’t quite carried in the same regard in the time that has since passed.
Somewhere between his points win over Aaron Pryor Jr. two years ago and an uneven performance against Ezequiel Maderna earlier this year, anticipation gave in to frustration in the hearts and minds of many boxing pundits. No longer was the question when we’d next see the unbeaten prospect, but why we were still seeing him so often.
Saturday night in Monte Carlo was a firm reminder of the talent that has always existed from within. Rodriguez just needed the right opponent to bring it out of him.
He had the opportunity to shine nearly two years ago against Will Rosinsky. He instead went life-and-death with the New Yorker, relying upon the assistance of the consistently awful New England officiating to give him a decision win scored far wider than should have been the case.
Five months later, a fight with Donovan George was sold as a Fight of the Year candidate, the perfect primer to Sergio Martinez’ middleweight title defense versus Matthew Macklin. The 10-round affair was instead a massive dud, with Martinez’ off-the-canvas knockout of Macklin saving the show.
Rodriguez didn’t require any such assistance on Saturday night, nor did he engage Grachev with any hint of a suggestion that winning took precedence over looking good.
In Grachev, Rodriguez was facing an opponent who took great pride in bumping off unbeaten fighters. The Russian export had done so four times in the span of his past six fights, and firmly had his sights set on teaching another opponent what it was like to lose for the first time.
Only, Rodriguez wasn’t having any of it.
Even as a betting favorite of greater than 2-1 odds, Rodriguez was deemed as the fighter with something to prove. He did that from the very first jab offered mere seconds into the contest, as every punch was thrown with knockout intentions. A right hand to the body was the first definitive power punch thrown by Rodriguez, setting the pace for the balance of the contest.
A vicious body attack ensued, one to which Grachev was unable to adapt or get his own offense untracked. With each crushing blow absorbed downstairs, memories of his upsetting Ismayl Sillakh or becoming the first to conquer former lineal light heavyweight champ Zsolt Erdei became a distant memory.
Those same landed punches had the opposite effect for Rodriguez. Each digging body shot sent a reminder as to why network brass fell in love with him in the first place. It wasn’t only about his back story (his oldest son overcoming death within the first four months of his life) or the aggressive push from promoter Lou DiBella. The performance against Grachev was a short but sweet reminder that he can flat out fight.
Grachev was forced to learn this lesson the hard way. He came in with a game plan and was going punch for punch with the Massachusetts-based contender. His shots severely lacked impact, however – in stark contrast to his recent performances, in which a well-timed bomb permanently changed the course of fights that led to opponents suffering their first loss.
What was forgotten about was that Rodriguez was equally well-versed in the art of snatching another fighter’s “0.” Three of his previous four opponents were unbeaten heading into fight night – Rosinsky, Maderna and wedged in between, an 8th round knockout of Jason Escalera in one of the weaker HBO main event matchups in recent memory.
The catchweight fight with Grachev – which came at a maximum weight of 171.5 lb, though both figthers came in under the limit - could have very well served as an HBO Boxing After Dark headliner. At the very least, Rodriguez’ performance warranted at least one more return to the network, providing the brass chooses to make room for him.
Just in case anyone at HBO was on the fence about bringing him back, Rodriguez decided to send all viewers an emphatic reminder of his full capabilities. The punches never stopped flying from the moment he recognized Grachev was hurt. Body shots continued to come non-stop from all angles, but it was an overhand right which produced the bout’s first knockdown barely 45 seconds into the night.
The ensuing volley forced Grachev to cling on for dear life, momentarily causing Rodriguez to change strategies. Rather than engage in yet another awkward affair like his previous trip to Monte Carlo when he beat Maderna to get to this point, Rodriguez instead wisely fought from the outside. The change in game plan resulted in a few more arm punches than he’d have liked, but ultimately served its purpose.
Grachev eventually worked his way back inside, but that only played into Rodriguez’ hands. A left hook upstairs roughly two minutes into the round proved to be the beginning of the end. An uppercut put Grachev on the defensive, with Rodriguez unloading before producing the bout’s second knockdown.
Surprisingly, referee Stanley Christoldoulou allowed the bout to continue, resulting in another 20-30 seconds more of punishment dished out before Grachev was finally rescued.
The knockout win netted Rodriguez top honors in the four-man tournament, which comes with a 60% take of the $1 million purse put up for the finals.
Rodriguez’ wish is for a title shot at newly crowned super middleweight titlist Sakio Bika, whom he called out immediately following the bout. The long term goal is an eventual showdown with divisional king Andre Ward.
His lofty rankings in various sanctioning bodies should translate to a title shot sooner rather than later. The performance delivered on Saturday evening in Monte Carlo was a refreshing reminder that he truly deserves to be there.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox