Saturday, March 10, 2007

Rodriguez looks to be crowned king of cage

By Jay Paris

CARLSBAD ---- The dyed red hair was my clue when I searched a coastal North County coffee house for Manny Rodriguez. "It's called championship red,'' Rodriguez said.


Here's the heads-up on Rodriguez: He has more vigor than a Venti espresso.

Rodriguez aims to prove he's no regular Joe tonight in Laughlin, Nev. After that casino town's senior citizens consume their blue-plate specials, the redhead from Carlsbad enters the ring.

On Rodriguez's plate is becoming the King of the Cage's heavyweight world champion in its mixed-martial arts title fight.

Rodriguez is considered a fresh face on the caged chaos circuit with a 2-1 record. But he's hit the expressway of this accelerating sport, which features wrestling, boxing, kickboxing and martial arts.

"A win here really, really, really fast-forwards my career,'' said Rodriguez, who turns 27 today. "With a championship belt in a major organization, I can broker it to get a lot more money in fights. More endorsements, more sponsors ---- everyone likes to back a winner.''

Especially one with a tale like Rodriguez's.

"It sounds like a movie script,'' an eavesdropping coffee patron said.

Rodriguez's role at San Marcos High wasn't star quality. He didn't play sports, instead sporting a passion to play.

"I liked to cause trouble,'' he admitted. "Go out and have fun.''

But his biggest thrill came via a cassette. During downtime as a teacher's aide in Jose Fernandez's science class, Rodriguez slipped in an Ultimate Fighting Championship video.

"I'll never forget that guy,'' Rodriguez said of Fernandez. "He changed the direction of the way my life was going. I plopped in the tape and it was just amazing to watch.''

My watching habits, I admit, don't include competitions where rivals kick, wrestle, box, and otherwise distribute mayhem to a rival.

But in Rodriguez's world, mixed-martial arts allows the former Sherwin-Williams corporate executive to paint his athletic portrait.

Or so he thought.

After his first fight in 2004, Rodriguez was presented the fight of his life.

"He said he had a pain in his groin, and it turned out to be testicle cancer,'' said Jeff Clark, his striking coach. "It happened so fast that we weren't worried about him fighting again, we wanted him to live."

Rodriguez said the news shook his sturdy, 235-pound foundation.

"Anyone that has heard the words, 'You have cancer,' has had to do some serious thinking about their life and their mortality,'' Rodriguez said. "I didn't know about fighting again.''

Rodriguez's operation freed his body from the disease. The emotional roller-coaster also produced a fighter with a knockout attitude: Do what your heart desires.

"I enjoyed fighting; it's fun for me,'' he said. "I don't think there is anything else I would rather do.''

So he started climbing the mixed-martial arts ladder again last year, knocking out Adrian Perez in the first round. That produced December's match with King of the Cage's top contender, Brian Sesma.

Rodriguez was supposed to be Sesma's tomato can. Instead, Rodriguez was the fighter to catch up with after an opening-round TKO. The win elevated Rodriguez into today's tape-delayed, pay-per-view title bout against 250-pound Jerry Davis.

The card also includes Carlsbad High's Nick Trejo in the featherweight division.

Once again, Rodriguez is the long shot. Once again, it matters little.

"I'm always going to be the underdog,'' Rodriguez said. "I'm always smaller than everyone else; everyone has bigger biceps and I haven't had as many fights. But I've been training for a really long time.''

Rodriguez's punches pack more than velocity. A dose of perspective accompanies them.

"During my cancer, I was really bitter like most people,'' he said. "It was, 'Why now? I'm 24 years old and I just had my first fight.' It got to me pretty good. But after cancer, it was OK. I thought, 'My God, I can do whatever I want to do.' ''

So it's just Manny being Manny come tonight. Go Big Red!


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