Obituary: Luis Rodriguez

Bob Mee
Sunday 14 July 1996 23:02

Luis Rodriguez was one of a celebrated quintet of established Cuban professional boxers who emigrated in the wake of Fidel Castro's rise to power and who went on to become world champions. The others were Uliminio "Sugar" Ramos, Benny Parat, Jose Legra and Jose Napoles.

Ramos and Napoles eventually settled in Mexico, Legra in Spain, and both the ill-fated Parat, who died following a world title contest in 1962, and Rodriguez made their homes in the United States.

Born in Camaguey, in the centre of the island, Rodriguez was the Cuban welterweight champion by the time he was 21, but when the Batista Government fell to Castro in January 1959, professional sport rapidly fell out of favour. Within four months the machinery of the socialist economy was in place, and although there continued to be professional boxing promotions for some time, the ideological strain of Castro's revolution was effectively sealed by his landmark statement: "I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be until I die".

A cheerful, flat-nosed extrovert, Rodriguez settled quickly in America, after arriving in Miami in mid-1959. He soon earned a world rating, and went on to win the world welterweight title in the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in March 1963 with a 15-round points decision over the defending champion, the Virgin Islander Emile Griffith.

Although he was trained by Angelo Dundee, whose name was made by his long association with Muhammad Ali, Rodriguez did not last long as champion himself. Griffith had been smart enough to insist on a return clause in the contract and only three months later at the rematch in Madison Square Garden, New York, a split decision by the judges went in favour of Griffith. Rodriguez was furious. "I thought I won easily," he complained. In a third and "deciding" world title fight in Las Vegas in June 1964, Griffith won but again it was desperately close, one judge scoring for Rodriguez and two for the champion.

In 1964 Rodriguez twice beat Rubin Carter, who was eventually jailed for a murder he did not commit and became the subject of Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane".

At the end of 1966 Rodriguez moved up to middleweight and twice beat the alarmingly tough Philadelphian Bennie Briscoe, but when he eventually challenged the richly talented reigning champion Nino Benvenuti for the world 11st 6lb championship in Rome in November 1969, his early points lead was wiped out when he was knocked out by a single left hook in the 11th round.

Luis Rodriguez carried on boxing until he became just a stepping stone for rising hopefuls. In May 1971 he boxed in London and lost a 10-round decision to the British champion Bunny Sterling and finally retired after losing on points to Donato Paduano of Canada in Montreal in April 1972. He had 121 professional fights over 16 years, won 107 and lost 13, with one No Contest. In retirement he continued to live in Miami.

Bob Mee

Luis Manuel Rodriguez, boxer: born Camaguey, Cuba 17 June 1937; married; died Miami, Florida 11 July 1996.

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