Like boxers around the world, Jonathan Rodriguez had dreamed about fighting in the legendary MGM Grand in Las Vegas. But not like this. Never like this.
Over the decades, the MGM Grand had hosted such iconic bouts as Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson II, Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather, De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez, and Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. It’s where George Foreman, at age 45, knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight title a little more than nine months after the arena opened in 1994.
Now, on a late summer evening during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, Rodriguez, an undefeated Bethlehem bantamweight and part-time Northampton Community College student, was fighting fellow undefeated boxer Manuel Flores of Coachella, Calif., at the storied arena in a six-round bout on a televised card presented by Top Rank Boxing and ESPN.
But this was nothing like those mega-fights that made the MGM Grand a mecca for young boxers everywhere. This was The Bubble. No fans in the stands. Mandatory throat-swab tests administered in a repurposed hotel suite the night before the event for all fighters, handlers, staff, and any visitors to the venue. Sequestered in a 12th floor hotel room until time for the fight, with signs in the hallway warning: “You may not leave the bubble!”
On TV, the weekly Tuesday and Thursday night fights from The Bubble at the MGM Grand Conference Center looked and sounded like sparring sessions — with the exception of the fierce intensity that comes with professional careers on the line.
Over four rounds on the night of September 12, 2020, Rodriguez and Flores engaged in a competitive, back-and-forth, and thoroughly entertaining bout for fans watching from the safety of their homes. But in the first minute of the fifth round, Flores landed a couple of combinations and tagged Rodriguez with a hard left to the head.
Immediately, referee Robert Hoyle stepped in and stopped the fight. Rodriguez, visibly upset and disappointed, yelled, “What? Are you serious?” As he attempted to plead his case to Hoyle, his trainer and father, Lemuel “Indio” Rodriguez, climbed through the ropes into the ring, spoke briefly to Hoyle as if to say, “I’ll take it from here,” and then calmly began talking to his son.
Asked later what his father said to him, Jonathan recalls, “He was telling me it was a premature stoppage, and for me to calm down. He was proud of my work. Overall, that he was just so proud of what I was doing in the ring and outside the ring, as a person and as a fighter. It was my first loss, so I took it hard. But he was just trying to cheer me up, keep my head up, telling me everything’s gonna be fine.”
A month after the fight, with the perspective of time and distance, Rodriguez realizes the wisdom in what his father, trainer, and mentor told him that night in the ring. The Bubble fight had opened a door for Rodriguez to join former IBF bantamweight challenger Jason Moloney and his twin brother Andrew as a sparring partner at their training camp in Las Vegas for a world title fight.
Everything was going to be fine, indeed.
“I don’t take it as a loss. I take it as a lesson,” he says philosophically of his only professional ring defeat. “I took more out of this fight than I did my past fights. Looking back at the fight, there’s a couple of things I need to tweak a little bit in order to get me where I’m supposed to be. That’s what we’re working on right now. But I did actually learn more from this fight than my wins.”
As the pandemic surged and retreated, and surged and retreated, it would be almost nine months before Jonathan Rodriguez stepped back into the ring for his long-delayed comeback fight. But he didn’t get discouraged.
Not after everything he’s had to overcome to get where he is today. Because Jonathan Rodriguez has won far tougher fights, against far more dangerous opponents, than any he will ever face in the ring.
A Young Life Unravels
Jonathan Rodriguez was born Jonathan Torres in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the age of 8, his mother brought him and his older brother to the United States. After a couple of months in Florida, they moved up to Connecticut for a year, before settling in New York.
That’s when the young boy’s life started to unravel. His mother had to leave the house they were living in, for reasons he’s never known, and the family wound up living on the streets until they found a homeless shelter to take them in. It was there that Jonathan finally met his biological father for the first time in his life.
Within a couple of months, his mother went back to Puerto Rico, leaving Jonathan and his brother with their dad, who lived in Bethlehem, Pa. At first, it seemed like a happy ending. But it soon took a much darker turn.
“He started drinking,” Jonathan recalls. “There were times when he’d get so drunk that he’d beat us out of nowhere, me and my brother. And then there were times when I had to go to my friends’ houses to eat or to sleep” because his father got drunk and locked him out of the house.
“I saw him do the stuff he was doing. And because he was doing it, and he never taught us right from wrong, I [thought] what he’s doing must be good, I guess,” he says. So when his dad got drunk and passed out, Jonathan would grab his unfinished drink and finish it.
“I didn’t see my real dad as my dad,” Jonathan says. The closest thing to fatherly advice he remembers getting from him was: “You can do whatever, as long as you don’t make me a grandfather right away.”
So when Jonathan was just 10 years old, he was drinking, smoking cigarettes, “hanging with the wrong crowd,” and running the streets. Sometimes, he’d even drive. “When my dad would get drunk, I used to take his car. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had so much freedom at a young age, I was doing stuff that grown adults were doing. I didn’t know how to drive. That’s how I learned. It was crazy.”
And there was one other thing young Jonathan did in the streets: fight. “Because I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, I was fighting every day outside of school. I was getting into trouble all the time, disrespecting the teachers, getting bad grades—I never went to class. I really just went to school to hang out.”
But fighting proved to be Jonathan’s path to a better life, leading him—just in the nick of time—to the man who would show him for the first time in his life what a father’s love really looks like, and the true meaning of family.
Doing the Right Thing
Jonathan remembers the first time he met the man who is now his father— Lehigh Valley Sports Hall of Fame boxing trainer Indio Rodriguez. His stepmom at the time had told him about Rodriguez, how a nephew had gone to his boxing gym in Bethlehem. But the gym had since closed.
While at a gas station one day, his stepmom pointed out Rodriguez, telling the boy that he was the trainer she had told him about. Jonathan, about 10 or 11 at the time, walked up to Rodriguez and asked, “You gonna open the gym?”
For months afterward, everywhere the boy saw Rodriguez—“And I mean, everywhere I saw him,” Jonathan recalls, laughing—he asked when he was going to reopen the gym. When Rodriguez finally did open a gym at the Bethlehem Boys Club in 2010, 11-year-old Jonathan was there waiting for him the first day.
“The way I saw it was why fight and get in trouble when you could come to the boxing gym and get into the sport and get rewarded for something I used to do all the time in the street?” he says.
Indio, who had a tough life growing up himself, dropping out of middle school, remembers his first impression of the boy who would become his son.
“I saw a kid with pain. I saw pain inside him and I want to know why he had the pain,” he recalls.
So now it was Indio’s turn to ask Jonathan the same question, day after day: “What’s wrong?”
For months, Jonathan would play the tough guy, and reply, “Nuthin’.” But eventually, he opened up about what was going on with his dad and his life.
“I saw something in him that I never saw in my dad,” Jonathan says. “That’s how we became close. He gave me the love my dad never gave me. The constant, him asking me what’s wrong, it made me realize this guy really cares about me.”
The other thing Indio noticed immediately about Jonathan is that he loved to fight.
“The first day he came to the gym, I knew that he was something special,” Indio says. “He was passing through a lot of anger. So I took advantage of that. I told him, ‘I’m going to teach you to let that anger go, but not if you’re fighting in the street or hitting nobody in the street. You’re going to use that anger to train and go to school and do good things in your life.’ That’s what I teach him.”
When he started training Jonathan, the boy kept telling him he wanted to spar, to lace up boxing gloves and fight somebody. Indio would patiently tell him he wasn’t ready yet. Finally, tired of Jonathan asking every day, Indio put him in the ring against a more experienced fighter.
“And the kid hit Jonathan with a good punch,” Indio says, emphasizing the point by pounding his fist into his hand. “When the round was over, Jonathan comes to the corner and says, ‘I love this game! I love this game!’”
Jonathan continued living at his father’s house for two years while training at Indio’s Boxing Gym, and as Indio came to understand the boy’s home situation, he grew increasingly concerned. Then, one day, Jonathan’s grandfather—who was terminally ill, with only a couple of months to live—stopped by the gym to tell Indio that there was nobody in the boy’s family capable or willing to continue caring for him as he spiraled deeper into trouble.
That same day, Indio brought Jonathan and his brother home to live with his family.
“He saw it as an emergency. And I feel like it was,” Jonathan says.
When Indio explained the situation to his wife, Carmen, she agreed that they should take the boys in. “He was a good kid. But he needed structure, he needed motherly love. And that’s exactly what I gave him,” she says.
Indio and Carmen set down the rules. Carmen taught him how to cook, clean, and do laundry. And Indio made sure he developed discipline and focus in the gym. They both kept on him to study and improve his grades at school. And Indio began taking Jonathan to church with him.
“I said, ‘You and me, we need to go to church together and God will bless you.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing. The number one thing is that he loves God.”
But this isn’t like the movies. Things didn’t change overnight.
“Once I moved in with (Indio and Carmen), it took me a while to get out of that lifestyle. Because the way I grew up, it was like, I always gotta watch my back. I couldn’t trust nobody because of what I’ve been through. We developed this relationship where I got comfortable enough to tell him everything that was going on.”
During his sophomore year at Liberty High School, Jonathan’s grades plunged. So Indio and Carmen took away his cell phone. And kept it through the rest of high school.
Jonathan got it back when he graduated with honors in 2017. He has since returned to the school to share his personal story, “trying to get them to do the right thing.”
‘Family’s Everything to Me Now’
After caring for Jonathan for a few years, Indio and Carmen legally adopted him. Although Indio is quick to correct you if you call Jonathan his adopted son. “No, he’s my son. I don’t like that word. In my heart, he’s not adopted.”
Jonathan is extremely grateful for all that Indio and Carmen have done for him.
“If it wasn’t for them, to be honest with you, I don’t even know if I’d be locked up or still doing bad stuff. Who knows? What I was into wasn’t any good. They turned my life around and now I’m attending college.”
Jonathan enrolled at Northampton Community College in 2017. He turned pro after winning the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves 123-pound amateur title in 2018, and his main focus now is on training as hard as he can and learning all that he can to ultimately become a world champion. But he understands, thanks to long talks with Indio and Carmen, that no matter how successful he is in boxing, a time will come when he will need to do something else.
“They didn’t force me to, but they kept talking to me about it, and my mom opened my eyes because who knows with boxing? You can only go so far with it. You’re eventually going to have to retire. But my mom has really been a major part of why I’m still in school and why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Before the pandemic brought an abrupt end to in-person instruction, Jonathan was taking courses in General Studies while he figures out what he wants to do once his boxing career is over. That required maintaining a grueling schedule.
“I wake up in the morning and go to school,” he said just weeks before the pandemic struck. “Right after school, I go to my first training session. I get out of there, do some homework if I have any, and then come back to the gym until like 7 o’clock and then go back home, do homework, and then do the same thing the next day.”
Throughout the past year and a half, he has continued training in the gym with his father, staying ready for whatever comes next. Now he’s returned to NCC since in-person classes resumed.
It’s clearly a good thing that, when asked what boxing has taught him, the first thing Jonathan says is “self-discipline. That’s the main thing. It taught me how to stay away from trouble, just be focused at all times. It taught me so much.”
While much of the credit for that obviously goes to his father and trainer, there is something even more important that Jonathan learned from Indio and Carmen. In early 2020, before the pandemic arrived, Jonathan legally changed his last name from Torres to Rodriguez to honor and recognize all that they have done for him.
“It’s been a miracle,” he says. “To have something that I’ve always thought that I couldn’t have, and then I finally meet the person who gave me that—family’s everything to me now. I wouldn’t do anything if it wasn’t for my family now.”
‘It’s How You Finish’
Through months of frustration, as fights were scheduled, and then canceled, “We stayed in the gym, staying ready,” Jonathan says. “Me and my dad were still working.”
Finally, on June 5, 2021, Rodriguez got his opportunity to step back into a ring with a shot at redemption. It was shown live on streaming service BXNG.TV, but there was no Bubble this time. Just a loud and enthusiastic contingent of Jonathan’s fans from Bethlehem who made the journey down to the 2300 Arena in South Philly to cheer him on.
And they erupted when Jonathan appeared for his ring walk resplendent in a gray, sleeveless warmup hoodie with a neon green BETHLEHEM scrawled across his chest.
His opponent for the four-round bout was a 35-year-old journeyman, Sebastian Baltazar, sporting a 3-17 record from Tacoma, Washington. Baltazar was what you’d expect from an opponent who traveled a long way to take on a young, up-and-coming local fighter: experienced and very tough.
After the long layoff, and coming off his first loss, Rodriguez looked sharp and confident from the opening bell, gliding around the ring, sticking his jab in Baltazar’s face and throwing combinations of punches to the body and working up to the head. Within the first round, Baltazar had a welt forming near his right eye, and over the next two rounds, Rodriguez targeted it until it opened up as a nasty cut.
He controlled the fight from the opening bell to the end of the fourth round, winning a unanimous decision to raise his record to 9-1.
“It felt great to be back in the ring,” he says a week after the fight. “We’re back on track.”
As Rodriguez reflects on his future in the ring, he could just as well be describing his life.
“A loss don’t determine nobody’s career. You take it and you learn from it and come back even stronger,” he says.
“It’s like that saying. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”