11.09 The Real Edwin Rodriguez

By Kimberly Dunbar

Edwin Rodriguez photographed by Howard Schatz, www.howardschatz.com

Larry Army, Jr. is wondering where his client, Edwin Rodriguez, has run off to. The manager and the 24-year-old professional middleweight boxer from Worcester are at a Muscular Dystrophy benefit at the Park Plaza hotel in Boston, but Rodriguez is nowhere to be found. When one of the event coordinators asks Army to follow her, his first thoughts are of a negative nature. But as soon as he lays eyes on the scene in front of him, the change in his thoughts is reflected in the tears that are welling up in his eyes.

There is Edwin Rodriguez, dressed in a fancy suit, playing hide and seek with three girls in electric wheelchairs. They are chasing him, their laughter attracting the attention of security guards who are ready to break up the revelry until they recognize Rodriguez’s face. There are no photographers. No reporters. No one there to witness this private playground game happening in the back alley of this posh Boston hotel.

This is the real Edwin Rodriguez ~ not someone who is defined by his undefeated professional record or his two amateur national championships, but rather someone who bought a house instead of a BMW with his first big payday and celebrates victories with his family at IHOP.

The real Edwin Rodriguez isn’t just out for the fame and fortune. “Outside the ring, he isn’t looking for the glory or the spotlight,” said Army. “He is a simple family man who is happy living in the house he recently bought in Worcester, because that is where he wants to be,” he added. Rodriguez is just an inner city kid who came out of nowhere, now on the fast track to fame and, God willing, a world boxing championship.

Edwin Rodriguez vs Patrick Thompson

Edwin Rodriguez vs Patrick Thompson

Since Pulse named him one of its People to Watch in 2007, a lot has changed for Edwin Rodriguez. At the time, the then amateur was a hopeful to make the 2008 Olympic team and his 84-9 record, complemented by a pair of national championships (2005 USA Boxing and 2006 Golden Gloves National), assured this Worcester resident a bright future.
However, life doesn’t always go accordingly to plan. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then,” said Rodriguez, who never made the 2008 Olympic team as hoped. “My children were born premature and I just wasn’t mentally there,” he explained. The now three-year-old twins, Edwin Jr. and Serena Lynn, were born at 23 weeks and have had a hard life filled with illnesses as a result: Edwin Jr. suffers from cerebral palsy and Serena was born with a paralyzed vocal cord for which she has had corrective surgeries.

“The first decision he had to make as a father was whether to keep his kids on life support or not,” said Army, who considers Rodriguez not only to be his client, but one of his best friends because of his incredible life values. Army, a Worcester lawyer, developer, financer, and realtor, is also a certified NBA player agent but decided to manage his friend Rodriguez when he turned pro because of his incredible potential. “People wondered why he fell off the face of the earth. Was it jail, was it drugs? Little did they know he was trying to take care of his children,” explained Army.

“Edwin was dealt a tough hand with the twins, and it takes a special person to do what he is doing,” said Army. “When his kids were born, he put his life and dreams on hold for them.”

One of those dreams Rodriguez missed included boxing as a member of Team USA in the Olympics, as his now professional status disqualifies him from future Games. “That was something I wanted to do, but life goes on,” he said. More important to Rodriguez is that Serena can speak, albeit a little differently, and that Edwin Jr. has taken his first steps despite the prognosis from doctors that he would never be able to walk.

Rodriguez moved on from his Olympic dream and turned pro in January 2008. He is now focused on the next goal: becoming the next world champion of boxing. “I felt I was ready, I was the best in the country as an amateur and I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a world champion,” he explained. He also felt he needed the salary increase in order to support his new family. “Amateurs get paid a stipend, but it isn’t much. I needed to earn more money for my kids,” he said.

While it’s been less than two years since he joined the professional ranks, Rodriguez said he is comfortable in the new environment. Despite a few differences ~ like smaller gloves and no headgear ~ Rodriguez has embraced the faster pace. “I am an explosive fighter. I have power and speed and know how to use it,” he said. “I am collected and calm, but when I step into the ring I become another person. When I am in the ring, it feels like I am a king and I belong there. I am in charge.”

Army thinks that Rodriguez dominates in the ring because he uses it as “an outlet to channel negative things in a positive way.” Rodriguez sees the ring as a safe haven. “When bad things happen, as soon as I step in the ring I forget them,” he said. “I am at ease and at peace in the ring. I know that sounds crazy because someone is trying to take my head off, but I feel safe even though there are punches coming at me.”

The fast-paced nature of and adrenaline rush inside the ring are things Rodriguez misses when he is in between bouts and in the slower pace of the real world. This past year Rodriguez has seen his career pick up immensely; he is featured in this month’s issue of the world’s most prestigious boxing magazine, The Ring, is currently “knocking out heartburn” in a Prilosec commercial airing on ESPN, and is the subject of an NESN documentary currently in the works. With two knockout victories to start the year (he has eight in his professional career), according to Army, the last thing his boxer wanted to do was to slow down. But in the spring, Rodriguez suffered an elbow injury that required three surgeries and a five month layoff to correct.

“He was absolutely miserable,” said the manager. But Team Rodriguez credits Dr. Bill Morgan, who once worked as the team physician for the Boston Red Sox, for getting their boxer back into form so quickly.

“He is the greatest doctor in the world,” said Rodriguez. “I thought and felt my career was over. He is a hell of a doctor to get me back to where I was.” The injury was especially hard for Rodriguez, who was not only out, but down because he was afraid his family wouldn’t be able to keep the house they had just bought. Rodriguez’s recovery included two months of physical therapy, and on August 13th he knocked out Angel David Gonzalez in Rochester, NY to improve to 11-0. Rodriguez continued his streak and enhanced his unbeaten record to 12-0 in October when he won a unanimous decision after eight rounds over veteran Darnell Boone at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island.

Rodriguez is back to where he was before the injury. His trainer, Peter Manfredo, Sr., owner of Manfredo’s Gym in Pawtucket, RI, where Rodriguez now trains as a pro, applauds Dr. Morgan but also credits Rodriguez for his incredible work ethic. “An injury like that is time consuming and can take you off track,” said Manfredo, who took Rodriguez on as a client in early spring 2008. “It is hard to get back into boxing, but Edwin has adjusted well and is back on track.”
The track Manfredo speaks of is one that everyone hopes will lead Rodriguez to his dream of becoming a world champion. No matter what happens, it is unlikely that Rodriguez will ever lose sight of this goal, as he gets daily reminders whenever he checks his email. A couple years ago, Rodriguez created an email address for himself, thenextchamp, “…because that is the goal,” he said. “It’s not cocky. You have to envision yourself working hard and having the confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will. I do,” he explained.

Believing in this mantra, and himself, has gotten Rodriguez through some tough times. “Edwin is special because he has faced so much adversity and has had every reason to quit or give up,” said Army. “But instead he has made the best of what he could.” Rodriguez would count the hardest times as his elbow injury and his children’s daily fight for life.
“My kids motivate me because they have been fighting for their lives since day one,” explained Rodriguez. “They are the champions in my life and the only thing I can do is be the world champion and give them the life they deserve.”

That life is different than the one Rodriguez had himself, growing up in Moca, Dominican Republic with his mother and five brothers, while his father was in living in the United States. When he was 13, Rodriguez moved with his family to Worcester. He didn’t discover boxing until the age of 16, but was able to catch on quickly and made a splash. The splash had a ripple effect, as Rodriguez began working with Carlos Garcia at the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester and started turning heads while compiling an exceptional amateur record. Two years after he first stepped into the ring, Rodriguez was crowned a national champion.

However, the road was bumpy for the immigrant Rodriguez. “There were times when I would get thrown out of tournaments because I wasn’t a US citizen, so it was hard,” he said. Rodriguez was awarded United States citizenship in 2004. “Until I got it, I felt out of place. But I stayed focused and never lost faith,” added Rodriguez, who said his first victory as a US citizen felt really great.

“Edwin is a great human being with a lot of natural talent and ability,” said Manfredo. “He works hard, he’s a puncher, he can move, he has power, skill, speed, and agility. He has everything going for him.”

Edwin surrounded by his wife and their twins

Edwin surrounded by his wife and their twins

Despite an abundance of natural talent, Rodriguez didn’t get where he is today ~ and wouldn’t be the person he is today ~ without the help of others. Rodriguez gives thanks to his amateur trainer Garcia, the Boys and Girls Club (where he also met his fiancée, Stephanie Rapa, and where his children attend day care), and the Worcester Police Department. “I was never a troubled kid, but having Carlos at that point in my life, he kept me away from it and helped me make the right choices,” said Rodriguez. While Garcia supported Rodriguez morally and physically, the WPD helped Rodriguez financially, raising the money that was needed to send Rodriguez to his fights. “I am very grateful to them,” he said.
As a professional, Rodriguez now looks to Manfredo for advice. With over 30 years in the business, he certainly has a lot of knowledge to share with Rodriguez. “I have worked with a lot of the top trainers in the world and I pass on the information and lessons I have learned throughout the years,” said Manfredo, who enjoyed a successful stint in the ring himself, amassing a winning record as a professional boxer and capturing a kickboxing world championship, but left fighting to pursue a career as a trainer and promoter.

Manfredo’s son, Peter Manfredo, Jr., who was a finalist on the 2005 NBC show The Contender and has since had a fruitful career as a professional boxer, also works out with Rodriguez. “Fighting with Peter makes me better,” said Rodriguez. “Manfredo’s Gym is a great sparring place. I have the opportunity to go 10 rounds with three different guys every time.”

Rodriguez has made it a habit to look to those who have gone before him to illuminate his path to success. He not only uses Manfredo and his son’s knowledge and experience, but also relies on Worcester’s other boxing legend, José Antonio Rivera. Rivera also studied under Garcia at the Boys and Girls Club and is a former two-time WBA champion. Rodriguez calls Rivera, who has since retired and continues to work and live in the city, “a good friend of mine.” The two Worcester boxers have sparred with each other and Rivera gives Rodriguez advice. “I ask him about what he went through so I can learn from his mistakes and so I don’t make the same ones. He is a great person and tells me what I need to know,” said Rodriguez.

These are the things that Rodriguez does know, his own tools to success: “I have good reflexes and two healthy hands that I’m not afraid to use. I have speed, power, and a brain to know that I am good, but not the best yet,” he said. What he also knows is that in order to be the best, he needs more experience. “I need to fight better fighters. Every day is a new experience and I will keep learning. And one day I will be the best.”

Rodriguez said his goal is to become a world champion by the end of 2010. He estimates that he needs another year to prepare in order to take on anyone in the world. Manfredo agrees. “He is a tremendous prospect with a good chance to become a World champion, but he needs experience,” said Manfredo. “As a pro it takes time and you can’t rush it. With Edwin, it’s been so far so good.”

Manfredo and Army both agree with what Rodriguez says makes him special. “I am a hard worker; if I want something I will work hard and go get it. I am a very determined person. I know what I have to do and will do what I have to do,” said the fighter. Rodriguez said that losing doesn’t scare him, but rather looks at a potential loss (which will taint his perfect professional record) as motivation to get the job done. “I am conscious of it, that if I don’t do what I need to do, I can lose. I have to work smarter, not just harder. I am afraid a little, but I have to make sure that I do the things I need to do so as not to get to that point,” he said.

Winning a world championship would not only fulfill a lifelong dream for Rodriguez, but it would also allow him to take care of his family and provide for his children, whom he thinks have already been through enough. “I won’t fail them. I don’t want to live knowing I didn’t do what I could to give them a good life,” he said.

But with or without a championship, the real Edwin Rodriguez says being a father is the most important thing to him. “Being a world champion would be a plus, but my children are a part of me. Boxing doesn’t make me who I am, my kids do. All of their struggles have made me who I am,” he said. Rodriguez loves being a father, so much so that he and Rapa took in a troubled teenage girl they met at the Boys and Girls Club last year. With Rodriguez and Rapa’s help, she has graduated high school and is now attending Clark University. “When I see my kids, and having them here, that is what I live for,” added Rodriguez.

The real Edwin Rodriguez doesn’t love boxing because it will lead him to fame and fortune. It’s not about the money. It’s about taking care of his kids, and knowing that he has accomplished something that he’s always dreamed about. He lives a humble life by the words of his manager Army, who told him to “Say what you mean, and mean what you say,” because he values honesty more than titles. He doesn’t even trash talk because it makes him feel uncomfortable.
The real Edwin Rodriguez is really just a self-proclaimed “big kid leading a grown up life.” He loves video games, and wants to be in one someday. Perhaps his combined love of children and games is what lead Rodriguez to play hide and seek that night in a Boston back alley. He didn’t do it for anyone else but himself and those three girls.
That’s who the real Edwin Rodriguez is. That, and very likely the next world champion of boxing.
To follow Edwin Rodriguez on his journey, please visit www.edwinrodriguezboxing.com