Delvin Rodriguez finally reaches boxing's big stage with fight against Miguel Cotto

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Delvin Rodriguez was born in the Dominican Republic and didn't speak a word of English when his family immigrated to the United States while he was still a young boy.

He might now be a shortstop preparing to begin the Major League Baseball playoffs had his family remained in his baseball-mad native country. Instead, he was groomed for his current occupation from his earliest days in the U.S.

His parents both worked the night shift. When school ended for him, his parents headed off to work, and needed someone to take care of their son. The kid was having trouble in school, because he didn't speak English and his classmates razzed him unmercifully about it.

His parents took him each night to a nearby gym, where they felt he would be safe, while also learning to defend himself from the school's bullies.

And it was there, in that tiny Connecticut gym, where Delvin Rodriguez discovered boxing, found a way to end the harassment and settled on his future.

Rodriguez (28-6-3, 16 KOs) will graduate to the top of his profession on Saturday, when he meets future Hall of Famer Miguel Cotto in the main event of a Top Rank card on HBO at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

It is the pinnacle of a mostly below-the-radar career. Avid fight fans know Rodriguez, 33, well, as he has appeared regularly on ESPN's "Friday Night Fights." But ESPN spends next to nothing on making the matches or promoting them, and they usually pair lower-level guys battling for low pay in front of a small audience.

"I'm happy for all the experiences I have had, but I've had a lot go on in my career," Rodriguez said. "But I know that I've earned this fight. It wasn't given to me. Nothing in boxing has ever been given to me. You see some guys and they have a promoter who right from the beginning looks out for them and spends a lot of time getting the right matches and they get the big-money fights and you think, 'Why couldn't that be me?'

"I've had 20 years of hard, tough work. It's been overcoming manager problems, promoter problems, all sorts of things. I've earned it and I've never been in a better place mentally going into a fight than I am for this one."

Rodriguez has fought twice for the world title before, but there is little doubt the match with the legendary Cotto is the most significant he has faced.

Rodriguez became a staple on "Friday Night Fights" because he was one of those guys who was willing to fight anyone and regularly put on epic matches.

It was a gritty, jaw-dropping performance against Pawel Wolak on July 15, 2011, at New York's Roseland Ballroom, though, which finally served as the catalyst for Rodriguez to begin to get mainstream recognition after all those years of rough battles.

The fight with Wolak was like something out of the 1940s, a brutal slugfest that left Wolak with a massive egg-shaped contusion on the right side of his face.

Rodriguez had lost a split decision for the IBF welterweight title to Isaac Hlatshwayo on Aug. 1, 2009, in Uncasville, Conn., but it wasn't until the incredible Fight of the Year-type majority draw with Wolak that doors began to open for him.

"Sometimes in boxing, you get tagged a certain way and it doesn't matter what you do," Rodriguez said. "I wanted those big fights and it was hard to get them a lot of the time. It was discouraging, but when you love what you do and you feel like you have an ability to do it, you just keep going for it."

Top Rank, one of the sport's most prominent promoters, noticed and booked Rodriguez-Wolak II for Dec. 3, 2011, on the undercard of one of the year's biggest events, Cotto-Antonio Margarito II at Madison Square Garden.

Cotto-Margarito was a serious grudge match and attracted fans and media from around the world.

That helped shine a spotlight on Rodriguez, who was brilliant while routing Wolak in the rematch. That win led to a super welterweight title fight against Austin Trout on Showtime on June 2, 2012.

Though it was one of Rodriguez's rare lackluster performances, it showed that things were headed in the right direction.

After blowing out George "Comanche Boy" Tahdooahnippah and Freddy Hernandez in stay-busy fights, Rodriguez finally got the call for the Cotto fight on HBO.

Some see it as a showcase for Cotto to rebound from losses to Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Trout, but Rodriguez said even Cotto doesn't believe that.

"I know he knows I'm going to be a tough fight for him," Rodriguez said. "People can say what they want, but Cotto knows this isn't an easy night."

Cotto, though, is the house fighter and the vastly bigger name. And with the way judging has been recently, Rodriguez could outbox Cotto and still not earn the decision.

But Rodriguez has a plan to combat that.

"I know that to win this decision, I really have to beat him up and win this fight convincingly," Rodriguez said. "I really don't want the judges to have any confusion about the decision."

If Rodriguez performs the way he says he will, he'll earn a big measure of respect and recognition regardless of what the judges say.

The young boy who once took up boxing in part to learn how to fend off taunting bullies at school finally has his dream fight.

Nearly a quarter-century of preparation has gone into this one.

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