By Peter Lim
For the last three weeks, all four corners of the Plex Gym boxing ring in Stafford, on the outskirts of Houston, were occupied by undefeated prizefighters. It was the final stretch of Edwin Rodriguez' training camp, with Ronnie Shields as ringmaster, in preparation for Rodriguez' world title challenge against Andre Ward later tonight.
Shields decided that two boxers and a banger was the right mix of sparring partners for Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs) to deal with Ward's frustrating, rhythm-killing mode of combat. Slick stylists Jonathan Nelson (18-0, 8 KOs) and Lamar Russ (14-0, 7 KOs) alongside power slugger Medzhid Bektemirov (13-0, 10 KOs) were recruited to trade punches with Rodriguez.
"We've got a game plan to make him work, just like he likes to make you work," Shields said. "We'll use that against him."
As always, Shields declined to reveal any specifics about that game plan.
While Ward, 29, has been inactive for 14 months due to a shoulder injury, Rodriguez, 28, has accumulated steady momentum against some very solid contenders over the last few years. He won a high-profile, four-man tournament in Monte Carlo earlier this year. But he will pay no heed to the ring rust factor and assume Ward will show up in tiptop condition.
"Forget Andre Ward. I've just got to be worried about what I'm going to do to win the fight," Rodriguez said. "I'm undefeated just like he's undefeated. He's got to figure me out as much as I've got to figure him out."
Having beaten elites the likes of Carl Froch, Chad Dawson, Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham, Ward is ranked among the top five best pound-for-pound fighters. But despite being the underdog, Rodriguez' trio of sparring partners seem to think he has a better chance of defeating Ward than the oddsmakers give him credit for.
"Edwin brings a lot of pressure to the table and does a lot of punching, so that's a good advantage for him," Nelson said.
"I think Edwin can win and I wish him all the best," said Bektemirov through a Russian translator.
"Andre Ward's got a lot of speed but I've got just as much speed as he does, and Edwin's adapted to it," Russ said. "It's going to be a very interesting fight."
The sparring sessions have been a symbiotic arrangement since all three partners had upcoming fights scheduled.
On Thursday, Bektemirov stopped William Johnson (10-33-3, 3 KOs) in the third round in Houston.
Nelson faces yet another undefeated, Brandon Gonzalez (17-0, 10 KOs) on the Ward-Rodriguez undercard.
And Russ, stepping in as a replacement for injured Willie Nelson, faces Mathew Macklin (29-5, 20 KOs) in Atlantic City on Dec. 7.