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HAMMER TIME – North Bergen native Julian Rodriguez (right) is shown here defeating Claudinel Lacerda in Kissimee, Florida in 2016. Rodriguez will fight Jose Pedraza as the main event on Top Rank Boxing’s televised card on ESPN Saturday night June 12. Photo courtesy of Top Rank Boxing.
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HAMMER TIME – North Bergen native Julian Rodriguez (right) is shown here defeating Claudinel Lacerda in Kissimee, Florida in 2016. Rodriguez will fight Jose Pedraza as the main event on Top Rank Boxing’s televised card on ESPN Saturday night June 12. Photo courtesy of Top Rank Boxing.

When we were first introduced to Julian Rodriguez, he was an 8-year-old boxing wunderkind, a Diamond Gloves champion who had aspirations of one day becoming a world boxing champion.

We met in the living room of his then-North Bergen home, with his father and trainer by his side. Julian was years away from his first boxing nickname and his first tattoo, but he certainly had the hopes and dreams of wearing a gold belt one day.

Young Julian was a confident and determined boxer, who was unknown as a boxing champ by his then-classmates at nearby Horace Mann School.

Once his story and pictured appeared on the front pages of the North Bergen Reporter, his teachers and classmates all realized that Julian Rodriguez was not going to stop until he was a world champion.  He had an impressive amateur career with an unbelievable record of 221-9. That’s right. Julian fought 230 bouts as an amateur before turning pro in 2013.

Turn the clock ahead now 18 years from that first meeting. Julian Rodriguez is now the father of two – a 2-year-old daughter and a son that is the same age that Julian was when he was first interviewed for his first newspaper article.

Julian Rodriguez now has a flashy nickname of “Hammer Hands” and his body is covered with colorful, bright tattoos.

But one thing has definitely not changed in all those years. He still has the determination, the work ethic, the drive of a boxing champion.

Next Saturday night, June 12, Rodriguez will climb into the ring at the Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, poised to partake in the biggest fight of his professional boxing career.

Rodriguez, now an undefeated contender fighting for Top Rank Promotions, will take his 21-0 record and take on fellow contender Jose Pedraza (28-3) in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing card televised nationally on ESPN. The super lightweight bout between Rodriguez and Pedraza will commence somewhere around 10:15 p.m. Saturday.

It’s been a tough road to stardom for Rodriguez, who was well on his way to becoming a championship contender, when he decided to walk away from the sport in 2016, after suffering two nagging shoulder injuries. Rodriguez was the national Golden Gloves champion in 2013 and decided to turn pro soon after.

“I knew I needed some time to recover,” Rodriguez said from his Las Vegas hotel room, where he has been training with Hoboken native Butch Sanchez.

Veteran trainer Pat Lynch of Secaucus, who managed the late champion Arturo Gatti of Jersey City during Gatti’s illustrious Hall of Fame career, had been with Rodriguez every step of the way of his pro career before the pandemic hit.

“I was always looking for the step-up in competition,” Rodriguez said. “I think I’ve learned a lot more about my body. I think I needed a fight like this one to see where I’m at.”

Rodriguez made a triumphant return to the ring in December of 2019, when he defeated Marcel Mendez at Madison Square Garden. But then the pandemic hit, putting all of professional sports, not just boxing, on hold.

Last October, while boxing in “The Bubble” at the MGM Grand, Rodriguez stopped Jose Eduardo Lopez Rodriguez via technical knockout in the third round in a junior welterweight bout that was scheduled to go 10 rounds.

The fight before that, also in The Bubble, organized and arranged to promote a safe boxing environment through the COVID-19 pandemic, “Hammer Hands” defeated previously undefeated Anthony Laureano of Connecticut via a first-round TKO.

“I think I fought pretty well in ‘The Bubble,” Rodriguez said. “My goal has always been to take the next step up to fight what I deserve to have.”

So in February, it was agreed upon that Rodriguez would face Pedraza, who is 31 years old and a lot more experienced and polished than anyone else “Hammer Hands” has met inside the ring.

Pedraza, a native of Puerto Rico, is coming off two impressive wins over Mikkel LesPierre (22-2-1) and Javier Molina (22-3).

Pedraza was the International Boxing Federation junior lightweight champion and the World Boxing Organization’s lightweight champion. His only losses in the ring have been to champion Gervonta Davis and three-time world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko, as well as top contender Jose Zepeda.

Rodriguez feels like he’s ready for the step-up in class, taking on a former champion like Pedraza.

“I feel good,” Rodriguez said. “I’m healthy. Everything seems to be working just right. I feel like I have worked hard for this chance and I deserve this chance. I’m excited for this opportunity. I’m excited to see how it goes. I’ve been training great and I feel great and strong.”

Rodriguez is thankful to have an organization like Top Rank, operated by the legendary promoter Bob Arum, in his corner.

“Top Rank has given me the opportunity to get a fight like this,” Rodriguez said. “I kept asking for a step-up. I did what I had to do and did what I wanted to do. Now, I’m ready.”

In the meantime, Rodriguez spends as much time as possible with his children, especially his young son, who is the same age as “Hammer Hands” was when he was first interviewed here.

“My son comes to all of my fights,” said Rodriguez, who spent some time recently trying to dabble as a recording artist. “I remember all those times being interviewed. I never forget.”

Nor do we.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely former St. Anthony, Seton Hall and NBA guard Terry Dehere of Jersey City.

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