Bam Rodriguez and Sunny Edwards might not win Fight of the Year honors in a few weeks, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a fight in 2023 that demonstrated two-way high-level boxing ability in the manner they did on Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona.

It was widely understood coming into the fight that the bout would feature two best flyweights on the planet, regardless of what any set of rankings said. The skill level of both world champions was understood to be extremely high, but it was assumed based on what we’d seen of both men that their excellence materialized in very different ways. Edwards had obviously shown himself to be a brilliant defensive artist, a perpetual mover and negater of his opponent’s strengths. Rodriguez had demonstrated magnificent power boxing, ideally working off the back foot, but in a very different way than Edwards, using tight pivots to land hard counters. How the fight would play out seemed to have many different possible answers, none of which were “thrilling action fight,” given both fighter’s preference to counter. 

The most unexpected fight is the one we wound up getting, as both fighters fought in ways we hadn’t seen before, but continued to use their countering prowess and Ivy League level boxing IQ to produce high speed violent chess on a canvas board. Ultimately, Rodriguez scored a ninth round TKO after dropping Edwards hard at the end of the eighth round, and concern for Edwards’ eyesight forced him to bow out in the corner shortly thereafter. 

Rodriguez resoundingly won a jab battle with one of the sport’s peskiest fighters, and also thrived in pursuit of a fighter rather than working off his back foot, something which had been presumed to be a weakness of his. Edwards’ transformation was perhaps even more vital in the creation of what was a fantastic fight. Rather than circumnavigate the ring evasively, Edwards remained in the pocket and traded with Edwards, partially voluntarily, and partially out of necessity thanks to a fractured orbital bone likely suffered in the second round which demanded proximity for him to be at all effective. 

It speaks to Edwards’ bravery and frankly excellence that he is worthy of, and receiving praise in the wake of a fight in which he was stopped, hospitalized, and connected upon by 62% of his opponent’s power shots. Even as his face began to disintegrate and his vision in each eye either doubled or disappeared, he remained clever, spiteful and courageous in his own work, coming within 29 punches of Rodriguez’s overall output of 533 punches. 

In an exchange captured by IFL TV cameras following the bout, a visibly emotional promoter Eddie Hearn heaped praise upon Edwards for his unexpected performance.

“I’m proud of you because without you, we wouldn’t have gotten that fight tonight. You ended up having the fight that’s probably not the best fight for you, but it’s the fight that showed that you have plenty of an arsenal,” said Hearn. “You could see it in the pocket with you trading. Everyone is proud of you. Thank you for boxing for giving us that fight.”

For his part, Edwards was gracious in defeat, pointing to the even bigger revelation from this contest, that Rodriguez is a pound-for-pound list worthy talent. As Edwards acknowledged, it wasn’t just Bam’s brute force that undid him, and it wasn’t just a fluke circumstance of an eye injury that turned the fight (it was a clean, sharp jab that caused the damage, after all), but Rodriguez’s boxing acumen that was also too much for him on the night.

“From about the second round I couldn't see out of my left eye, it made it very hard to get away from his lead hand. Jesse's a hell of a fighter, I knew that before taking the fight, I knew that during the fight, and I sure as hell know after the fight,” Edwards told DAZN’s Chris Mannix during his post-fight interview. “I couldn't just keep moving and moving and moving, his feet were too good for that, his lead hand was too good for that.”

“Too good” is the perfect descriptor for Rodriguez on this night, as he produced a dazzling display of high-level skill, answering any minute concerns about whether his rise to fame was simply a product of picking off divisional legends in Carlos Cuadras and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai at exactly the right time. Prior to the bout, Rodriguez insisted that he was more relaxed heading into this bout than he’d been in some time, admitting that the pressure to live up to the Cuadras and Sor Rungvisai performances, in concert with fighting in his hometown of San Antonio last time out, led him to hunt for knockouts too eagerly and abandon his natural flow. This time around, the method of victory wasn’t the sole focus of the fight, but rather, the prize of unification. 

The flow state version of Rodriguez was frightening, landing 44.7% of his punches on one of the game’s best pure defensive artists. Rodriguez’s foot feints and pinpoint accurate jab eventually opened the door for an even more explicitly aggressive version of Bam, tucked behind a high guard and insisting on exchanges when even the unexpectedly brazen Edwards did not want them. 

“I feel like I was at the top of my game, and when that happens, no one can mess with me,” said Rodriguez at the post-fight press conference. “I feel like after the first round I was in my zone already, I was comfortable already. I had him where I wanted him and I was able to do whatever I wanted to do at that point.”

What Rodriguez wants to do next career-wise, it seems, is challenge 115-pound kingpin Juan Francisco Estrada, the longtime rival of his friend Chocolatito Gonzalez. A Rodriguez-Estrada clash would be another one of the highest skill level matchups that could possibly be made in boxing, a sure-fire blend of beauty and violence that the sport’s lighter weight classes can uniquely offer. But even within a realm of unique fighters at the upper reaches of 118 pounds and below, Rodriguez manages to stand out, and exceed even the loftiest of scouting reports.