ON HIS FIRST TRIP to Philadelphia, Francisco Rodriguez did what a lot of tourists do: He headed to the Art Museum for a photo at the Rocky statue. What else would you expect of a professional boxer who, a few days later, would be fighting for a minor title at the Blue Horizon?
"He was happy. He said, 'When I get back to Chicago, I'm going to tell everybody, 'I saw the Rocky statue!' " recalled Benny Baez, a Philly resident and former fighter who had been hired as a temporary addition to Rodriguez' corner team.
The 25-year-old Rodriguez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, known as "Paco" to friends and family, will never get to share that experience. Rodriguez was removed from life support at around 8:30 last night, according to his older brother and manager, Alex.
Rodriguez was injured during a 10th-round knockout loss to North Philly's Teon Kennedy on Friday night in a matchup for the vacant USBA super bantamweight championship.
A minute or so after Rodriguez (14-3-1, 8 KOs) was helped onto his stool following the stoppage in the scheduled 12-round bout, his body went limp and his breathing became labored. Ring physicians and EMS personnel frantically administered to him before he was removed from the ring on a stretcher and transported to Hahnemann University Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure for a brain bleed.
Despite the prompt actions of all concerned, however, Rodriguez was waging a battle that for all intents and purposes was already lost. His condition was listed as "extremely critical" following the operation, and it soon became apparent that his injuries were such that he would never recover. Family members who were initially reluctant to accept that grim prognosis eventually agreed that he should be unplugged from the machine that had helped him to breathe, and shortly thereafter he was gone.
Rodriguez leaves behind his wife, Sonia, and 5-month-old daughter, Ginette, as well as his parents and two brothers. A number of relatives came from Chicago and were at his side to somberly bid him farewell.
His father, Evaristo Rodriguez Sr. and brother Evaristo "Tito" Rodriguez Jr. had been in Francisco's corner at the Blue along with trainer George Hernandez.
His father was a boxer in Mexico and in Chicago, and trained all three of his sons. Tito won a national Golden Gloves championship as a 17-year-old and then retired from the ring.
Francisco was the best of the three. He had a 76-6 record as an amateur, won the 2001 national Golden Gloves title and was a five-time Chicago Golden Gloves champion.
It was the first fatality directly attributed to boxing injuries in Philadelphia in more than 31 years. The most recent had been when Trenton middleweight Jody White died following a fourth-round technical knockout to Curtis Parker on March 21, 1978, at the Blue.
The most recent boxing death in the United States came in April, when Benjamin Flores died five days after his eighth-round technical-knockout loss to Al Seeger in a super bantamweight bout in Dallas.
J Russell Peltz promoted the Parker-White fight, as he did Kennedy-Rodriguez, and he said that there is nothing that hammers home the risks involved in the sport as much as when a fighter pays the ultimate price for chasing his dream inside a roped-off swatch of canvas.
"Parker really turned it on in the third round, but White was allowed to come out for the fourth," Peltz said. "I remember thinking, 'Why isn't the corner stopping the fight? Or the referee?' The fight did get stopped, [White] went to his dressing room and his body just shut down. He was dead on arrival at St. Joseph's Hospital."
In a slugfest that featured scintillating two-way action, Rodriguez - who was on the verge of not making it through the first round after twice being wobbled - appeared to be the beneficiary of a standing eight-count given by referee Benjy Esteves Jr., even though standing-eights are no longer allowed under the unified rules of professional boxing. Esteves said after the fight that he had determined that Rodriguez avoided a knockdown because he had been held up by the ropes. The ruling was premature, because Rodriguez had not yet reached the ropes.
"That was [Esteves'] call," said Pennsylvania boxing commissioner Rudy Battle, a former referee who understands the nature of the instant decisions those in the profession are sometimes obliged to make.
Given that temporary respite and the 1-minute interval between rounds, Rodriguez, demonstrating tremendous recuperative powers, came out for the second round with a furious body attack that for a time enabled him to seize the momentum. But Kennedy (14-0-1, 6 KOs) didn't back off, and the two men frequently squared off for toe-to-toe exchanges, to the appreciation of a near-sellout crowd.
But Kennedy, who was leading on all three official scorecards at the time Esteves jumped in after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 52 seconds in the 10th round, followed up his big ninth round with another onslaught in the 10th. For the gallant Rodriguez, there would be no more escapes from the brink.
"It would be easy for me to question why he was allowed to come out for the 10th round," Peltz said of Rodriguez. "His arms were limp by his sides. He had nothing left; he was spent. But then his arms were hanging by his sides after every round."
Ring physician Jonathan Levyn checked in on Rodriguez several times to monitor his condition and said that he saw no evidence that the fighter was in particular distress.
"I've replayed it over and over in my mind - the fight itself, the time between rounds," Levyn said. "He was coherent. He answered all my questions - simple questions like, 'Where are you? What's your name?' And his eyes were reactive. It seemed like he was OK.
"A few minutes later, I was being called back into the ring [to attend to Rodriguez]."
Peltz said that Rodriguez, who had been inactive since an eight-round unanimous decision over Torrence Daniels last Dec. 12 in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., looked to be in peak physical condition. His prefight medicals had raised no warning flags.
Boxing deaths are becoming increasingly rare, but they do happen. The incidence of fatalities and severe injuries have been reduced since the Association of Boxing Commissions adopted more stringent safety rules that require prefight physical examinations and ambulances to be on-site for every fight card. Peltz said that there was no ambulance at the Parker-White fight in 1978 because none was required.
"Dr. Ferdie Pacheco was the guy who lobbied for the mandatory assignment of ambulances," Peltz said of the man best known as Muhammad Ali's longtime personal physician. "He fought for that and he made it happen. He helped make boxing safer."
Pacheco, contacted at his Miami home, said that he not only successfully lobbied for ambulances, but for the addition of a fourth ring rope. But he insisted that he did not want to hear another sad tale of a dead or dying fighter. He had been down that road too many times.
"I don't have anything to do with boxing anymore," Pacheco said. "I'm 82 years old. I'm painting pictures now. I gave boxing 50 years of my life. That's enough."
Even fighters who win in bouts in which their opponent dies have been known to be haunted by guilt, to the point where their own professional effectiveness is compromised. Emile Griffith and Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini are former world champions who forever bore the brunt of their fatal encounters with Benny "Kid" Paret and Duk Koo Kim, respectively.
"We stopped off for a cheesesteak after the fight and I told Teon, 'It might not be looking too good for the other guy, T,' " Kennedy's co-manager, Doc Nowicki, said. "What we all need to do now is pray for his recovery. But sometimes prayers aren't enough.
"We all feel bad, but everybody in this business understands that something like this can happen any time you enter the ring. That's just how it goes."