Comparing fighters from different eras ignites one of the most intensely contested debates among boxing fans and observers. Sooner or later, the discussion evolves into who would’ve beaten whom? Aside from heavyweights, who are much bigger now than they were 50 years ago, not much has changed from light heavyweights on down, other than starting in the 1980s when the elite fighters and title-holders began to fight less often. The trend of fighters becoming less active started in the late 1970s when boxers started to make more money.
July 8th marks the 22nd anniversary of the death of Luis Rodriguez who had 120 bouts in a career lasting from 1956 to 1972, going 107-13 (49). Rodriguez didn’t fight for a title until his 53rd bout at age 25 when he unseated welterweight champion Emile Griffith, an all-time great, losing it back to him three months later via a split decision. As he entered his thirties he fought as a middleweight but never scaled 160 until 1970.
It’s interesting to compare Rodriguez (pictured on the right; Griffith on the left) with more recent fighters who were also elite welterweight title-holders.
Thomas Hearns, who won his first title as a welterweight, went on to become one of the greatest and most accomplished boxers of the 80s – and yet he fought a total of 67 times……Oscar De La Hoya (39-6) had a total of 45 bouts and won his first title in his 12th fight in 1994 at age 21. He never looked close to special again post-2003 after his 39th bout….Felix Trinidad (42-3) fought 45 times. He won the welterweight title in his 20th bout in 1993 at age 20, and was considered finished as a fighter by 2005 at age 32 when he lost to Winky Wright….Shane Mosley (49-10-1) fought 60 times. He won his first title in 1997 at age 26 and a strong case can be made that he never looked outstanding again after his 41st bout in 2003 at age 32….And Manny Pacquiao (59-7-2), considered a throwback today by some insiders, hasn’t looked great since 2009 after his 55th bout at age 31.
Luis Manuel Rodriguez was born on March 17, 1937 in Camaguey, Cuba. He was often referred to as “El Feo,” a Spanish word meaning something or someone nasty or foul. But nothing was nasty about Rodriguez. His style was so smooth that the fighter then known as Cassius Clay admired him and tried to emulate him; both were trained by Angelo Dundee. Rodriguez was a boxer-puncher with speed and balance along with a 74-inch reach. Emile Griffith said, “he was more boxer than puncher but he had plenty of power.” His first instinct was to box but when pressured he could open up and be a slashing puncher. Rodriguez was only stopped three times in 120 fights and only knocked out once, that coming when he was 32 in his 104th bout.
Rodriguez made his professional debut in June of 1956 winning by third round KO over Lazaro Hernandez Kessell. His last fight in Cuba took place in May of 1959 when he knocked out Cecil Shorts in the ninth round. After Fidel Castro came to power and banned pro boxing, he was forced to move to Miami, Florida. He won his first fight there against an outstanding fighter in Virgil Akins via a 10-round unanimous decision.
Rodriguez started his career 35-0. His first setback was to future rival and nemesis Emile Griffith by split decision, with the only outstanding moment of the fight coming in the third round when Griffith buckled Rodriguez’s knees with a left hook. Rodriguez won his next four fights and then stumbled to another future undisputed welterweight champ in Curtis Cokes, dropping a split decision in Cokes’ hometown of Dallas, Texas. Four months later they fought on Rodriguez’s home turf in Miami and Luis won by posting a near shutout. After beating Cokes he won eight in a row, beating notables Luis Federico Thompson and middleweight Joey Giambra.
After beating Giambra he said “I want Emile Griffith now. He’s got to fight me, here, Las Vegas, anywhere. He can’t run from me anymore.” Instead of running, Griffith had no reservation and fought Rodriguez on March 21st, 1963, and in an upset Rodriguez won the welterweight title, scoring a 15-round unanimous decision. Griffith was outraged by the decision and they fought again on June 8th with Emile being a 6-5 favorite. Griffith won a controversial split decision to reclaim the title with most of the press seeing it for Rodriguez.
Luis bounced back by knocking out the scrappy Denny Moyer, once again exhibiting his power, along with beating Wilbert McClure twice and Holly Mims, thus earning a title bout rubber-match with Griffith on June 12th, 1964. And like the prior two title bouts between them it was close including Rodriguez having a point deducted in the third round (for hitting low and on the break) which proved to be the difference. Once again, the writers were divided but the judges saw it for Griffith by split decision.
Rodriguez then took on hard hitting middleweight Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in February of 1965 and boxed circles around him, winning a unanimous decision. They fought a rematch in August and although he was shook a few times during the fight Rodriguez won another unanimous decision. In 1966 he stopped defensive wizard George Benton on cuts and then went back down to welterweight and lost to Curtis Cokes in a title eliminator. Rodriguez dropped Cokes in the sixth round but the referee said the punch was low and deducted a point from Rodriguez. Cokes opened a cut beneath Rodriguez’s eye in the 10th. When blood began flowing from Luis’ mouth in the 15th, his trainer Angelo Dundee threw in the towel. Afterward Dundee stated “My boy likes to bang downstairs. The ref takes the round away and in doing so, took the fight from my guy. Cokes was wearing his trunks damn near his chin.” Rodriguez then went back up to middleweight and scored one of his signature victories in March of 1967 by out-boxing hard hitting Bennie Briscoe in front of Briscoe’s hometown fans in Philadelphia. They fought again in December and despite getting cut in the third round, Rodriguez ran away with the fight.
After starting 1968 3-0, Rodriguez lost a unanimous decision to future light heavyweight titlist Vincente Rondon in San Juan, Puerto Rico – but a month later beat him by UD in a rematch. In his third bout of 1969, Rodriguez stopped Rafael Gutierrez of Mexico in the sixth round in a middleweight title eliminator. Later that year, on November 22, Rodriguez went to Rome, Italy and met middleweight champ Nino Benvenuti.
Rodriguez was beating Benvenuti at every turn from rounds one through 10 but before the 11th he told Dundee he wanted to knock Nino out, something Angelo had warned against with Benvenuti being a known puncher. In the 11th Dundee looked like a prophet as Rodriguez was knocked out for the only time in his career by a picture perfect left hook. It would be the last time Rodriguez ever fought for a world title.
Rodriguez continued on and went 7-1 before beating Bobby Cassidy by decision and then in his next fight he KO’d Australia’s Tony Mundine at 52 seconds of the first round in Melbourne. (Mundine would go on to challenge Carlos Monzon for the world middleweight title.) After beating Mundine he went 2-4 in his last six bouts and then retired in 1972 at age 35. His last win came against Dave Hilton, the patriarch of a legendary Canadian fighting family.
In 2009, The Ring magazine ranked Rodriguez the third greatest Cuban boxer ever, behind Kid Gavilan and Kid Chocolate. Angelo Dundee called him the best technical boxer he ever trained. Rodriguez was inducted into the IBHOF in 1997.
Today Rodriguez doesn’t get his due and a lot of that is because of his losing record against Griffith. However, Rodriguez went stride for stride with Griffith in all four fights and his resume is every bit as deep. Jose Napoles is another welterweight great who overshadows Rodriguez, but if you compare their records regarding who they fought and actually defeated, it’s not even remotely close in favor of Rodriguez.
In the December 95 issue of The Ring Rodriguez was pitted against Jose Napoles in a Battle of the Legends. The three experts asked to evaluate them were Emile Griffith who fought both, Angelo Dundee, who trained Rodriguez, and Hank Kaplan who was considered by many to be boxing’s greatest historian. And all three picked Rodriguez to win handily with Kaplan opining that Rodriguez was probably the most underrated lighter weight fighter of the past half century!
I hate to bang on modern fighters because there are plenty of greats and near greats active today. But if De La Hoya was trending down after his 39th bout, Trinidad shortly after his 40th, Mosley his 41st and Pacquiao his 55th…….what would their won-loss records look like if they fought as often as Rodriguez versus the same caliber of opposition that he faced? Even Napoles who fought 88 times during nearly the same era had 32 fewer bouts than Rodriguez.
In looking back, it’s so much easier to envision Rodriguez excelling versus the fighters that De La Hoya, Trinidad and Mosley fought (and they’re known for fighting the best of their era), than it is picturing them being as successful as Rodriguez had they fought the fighters he did circa 1958-72
Luis Rodriguez was an all-time great welterweight and clearly among the top seven or eight to hold the 147-pound crown. And as is the case with Ezzard Charles as a light heavyweight, the more you examine Rodriguez’s record and length of time he remained a major factor between 147-160, the pristine records of Floyd Mayweather, Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez don’t look as glowing by comparison.
Luis Rodriguez died on July 8, 1996 at age 59 at the South Shore Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida. He was on kidney dialysis during the last two years of his life.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com
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