|Born: April 21, 1946
There has always been debate amongst Minnesota historians as to who is the best “this”, and the best “that” from past decades in state boxing history, but there is never any debate as to whom is the best Hispanic fighter in state history. For everyone knows that distinction belongs to the man they called, “The Rifle”, Rafael Rodriguez. Rodriguez possessed extremely fast hands, superb defense, and top-rate counter-punching abilities that made him an extremely hard man to fight. Add to this, his menacing demeanor and badger-like temperament, and this Minneapolis Chicano was one feared Welterweight.
Rodriguez was always known as a fast starter, but not necessarily a guy who took men out with a single punch. Instead, he wore you down with his stinging combinations and snappy array of punches. He broke the mold of traditional Mexican fighters, in that he won with his boxing skills and not brawling. He could mix, and did frequently, but it was done behind a stiff jab and smooth slipping and sliding; as opposed to trademark Hispanic fighters who often come straight ahead, willing to take punishment in order to give it. Rafael was different. He combined the meanness, the chin, and the heart of Mexican fighters, but with the boxing and defensive skills of a Marlon Starling.
After an astonishing amateur career which saw Rodriguez beat everyone in his path and collect a whopping 4 Upper Midwest Golden Gloves titles, Rodriguez turned pro and tallied a 9-1-1 record before facing an in-state rival in Mike Morgan. Morgan was the state Middleweight champion and had just recently beaten Rafael’s brother Rudy, not once, but twice, making the fight even more personal. This fight, however, would be for the state Jr. Middleweight title. In a blistering show offense, Rodriguez went straight after Morgan, cornered him, and KO’d his foe in the very opening round, becoming the state Jr. Middleweight champ in the process-a title he would hold for 9 years.
After the big win over Morgan, Rodriguez beat the fellow prospects Chuck Wilburn and Keith Averette before facing his biggest challenge of his young career, that being to former world champion, Denny Moyer. Rafael dropped Moyer in the first round with an explosive left hook that few expected Moyer to get up from. He would, but to his detriment, as Rodriguez dissected him painfully over the course of the next 9 rounds to take a unanimous decision victory. This victory pushed Rodriguez up the rankings and he then faced the man all other Welterweights were avoiding, Hedgemon Lewis. Lewis was 51-6 and Rafael just 14-1-1. It would prove to be a very close fight, with Rafael giving the crafty Lewis all he could handle, but losing the decision. Rodriguez was convinced however, that he could beat Lewis and shoot to the top of the rankings ladder in the process and signed for an immediate rematch. This time, it was even closer, with some believing Rodriguez has won the fight, but once again, the verdict was in Lewis’ favor. His excellent showing however, propelled him into a top 10 world ranking.
Rodriguez then went on a 3-fight winning streak, posting victories over Tommy Howard, Chucho Garcia, and Angel Robinson Garcia, before losing a close decision to Harold Weston, in Weston’s backyard in New York. He then posted three more wins before fighting power-punching Clyde Gray in yet another fighter’s backyard; this time in Canada. Almost 7,000 people came to see the fight, producing a gate of almost $90,000 (about $315,000 today). This loss was a controversial one. So much so, that Rodriguez was invited to participate in the well-publicized United States Television Tournament in New Jersey. Rodriguez was slated to fight one of the hottest prospects in years-Bruce Curry. Curry, the brother of 1980′s pound-for-pound star, Donald Curry, was tabbed to be one of the next great superstars of boxing. He would have been our 1976 Olympian if he had not run into a kid by the name of Ray Leonard in the semi-finals, and had reportedly sported an amateur record of 315-11. Entering the tournament, he was a perfect 8-0 and he and Rodriguez fought a war. Back and forth the two talented stars took turns winning rounds until it was all over with the scorecards reading to be a Draw. Since there had to be a winner in order to know who went onto the next round, they were ordered to fight a sudden-death 11th round to determine the winner. Rodriguez was exhausted and was outworked in that final round and the contest was awarded to Curry. A dejected Rodriguez was now 20-6-1 and still considered to be a very formidable contender, but lost his next fight to former world champion, Billy Backus.
After the Backus loss, Rodriguez contemplated retirement and began to lose his love for the sport. Though others convinced him to continue, Rafael’s heart was no longer into it. That was until a fight was arranged for him by manager Ron Peterson to face a man he had been calling out for years-Rochester’s Pat O’Connor. Rodriguez had wanted to face the Rochester golden boy for years, but O’Connor never granted him the match he so craved. It would prove to be one of Rafael’s finest hours, as he double-handedly pounded the former National Golden Gloves champion O’Connor from pillar to post, taking the decision in the process. O’Connor was convinced he had simply had a bad night and asked for a rematch with Rodriguez; something Rodriguez was all too happy to grant him. This time, the fight was even more lopsided than the first, with Rodriguez dazzling O’Connor with crisp counters, striking leads, and effective body work throughout. After the O’Connor fight, Rafael Rodriguez was once again a name back on top of the world talk and it wasn’t long before Sugar Ray Leonard’s handlers came calling for Rodriguez to fight their Olympian as test for young Ray. Rodriguez jumped at the fight, but lost the decision to the future Hall of Famer, despite putting on a competitive showing throughout and giving Sugar Ray his toughest challenge in his young career. After the Leonard fight, Rodriguez was 22-9-1, but still continued on his career another 5 years with mixed results, ending it with a grudge fight with fellow Minnesota Jr. Middleweight, Gary Holmgren in 1983, dropping the decision and calling it quits for good.