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The Fights

Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez Is A Little Guy With Big Aspirations

esse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez (R) of the United States and Juan Francisco Estrada (L) of Mexico fight during their WBC world and Ring Magazine super flyweight title bout
Kelsey Grant/Getty Images

Boxing doesn’t respect the little guys. Fans prefer to see mountain-men topple each other with bone-cracking punches over two smaller fighters eating each other’s best shots all night long. But heavyweights are just one dimension of boxing. Small fighters might not be able to knock down walls, but their superior defense, speed, and stamina make for a more layered athletic spectacle. The boxing world’s refusal to appreciate their skill manifests in things like a demand for Naoya Inoue, the undisputed champion at 122 pounds, to fight Gervonta “Tank” Davis at 135. This fight isn’t realistic by any stretch; it’s just that Davis is the most recognizable name among small boxers, and he’s “only” three weight classes above Inoue. Inoue started out at 108 pounds and has already climbed further than anyone had any right to expect. Let the short kings forge their own path!

Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez, a 24-year-old Texan boxer, is even smaller than Inoue but comes from the same daring mold. He’s 20-0 with 13 knockouts, a record more special for the fighters beaten to get it than the numbers themselves. The previous generation of great little guys featured a four-way rivalry between Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Juan Francisco “El Gallo” Estrada, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, and Carlos Cuadras. Since the start of 2022, Bam has beaten up Cuadras, become the first man to knock out Sor Rungvisai since 2009, and on Saturday, needed just seven rounds to hand Estrada his first KO loss. This is a man with a considerable lack of respect for his elders.

When Rodriguez and Estrada met, the magic of an elite fight at the lower weight classes became impossible to ignore. Each man twitched and feinted constantly, mosaics of movement reacting to a fight five steps ahead of anything the public registered. But Bam’s menace was immediately clear. Not only did he fight with a more elastic bounce in his step, he also seemed to put his entire body into each concussive thud of a punch, and any one of them looked capable of knocking Estrada out. Even when "El Gallo" ("The Rooster") blocked Bam’s biggest shots, they sent slight reverberations through his body. I thought of Captain America blocking Thanos’s sword strikes until his shield had been bashed to bits.

Estrada was competitive in the first two rounds, but Bam then rocked him badly in the third and dropped him hard in the fourth with an uppercut-hook combination from the left hand. The fifth was an utter beatdown; Bam had Estrada’s unprotected head on a swivel for a few sickening seconds that made me immediately want the fight to end. I gasped when Bam unleashed a body shot that landed on Estrada’s side with an especially pronounced thump, a sound as unnatural and entrancing as a lean slice of prosciutto sizzling on the hood of a Cybertruck. The young guy was demolishing the older guy, and it was sad. 

But in round six, Estrada fired a sudden right hand on an overconfident Bam’s chin, and the 24-year-old fell backwards to the canvas for the first time in his career. A fighter hitting the deck for the first time is always stunning. Inoue, a top-three fighter in the world, suffered the first knockdown of his career in May, which previously held the mantle for biggest single holy-shit boxing moment in 2024. Estrada flooring Bam might top that—Inoue went down in the first round of a fight he proceeded to dominate, but this knockdown coming so clearly against the run of war amplified the shock factor. Estrada was suddenly back in the fight.

But Bam had a rueful smile on his face as he rose. Most fighters stay down until the count of seven or eight after a knockdown, using all the available seconds to recuperate before testing their legs. Bam spun back to his feet within a second. This was the expert instantly recognizing his mistake and affirming that he would not show weakness again. Estrada saw it too and didn’t even try to rush Bam to press his advantage when the fight resumed. 

Bam sent Estrada to the void with a body shot the very next round. Body shots are a dark and mysterious alchemy; unless a punch to the midriff breaks a rib, power isn’t necessarily indicative of what can bring on the sudden, spasming paralysis that keeps a fighter down. It’s about timing—sticking the glove on the fighter’s liver just as they reach a precise point in their inhale, leaving themselves vulnerable to that excruciating pain. With seconds left in the seventh round, Bam dug a left hand into Gallo’s exposed side as the older man tried to throw a right. Gallo might as well have been stabbed with a rusty dagger. He never had a chance to get up.

At 34, Estrada is not at his peak, but he was not washed. Until that last body shot, he never broke, constantly looking for openings and landing his share of big shots. It was just that none of them hurt Bam besides the knockdown punch. Estrada was lucid by his post-fight interview, casually observing his errors in the fight and insisting that he would pursue a rematch, which he has a contractual right to. I don’t think anyone watching thinks that will end well for him.

Bam, meanwhile, will surely breach pound-for-pound top-10 lists after this performance. The knockdown was his only moment of weakness, and within two seconds of the fight resuming you’d have never known it had happened in the first place. In his in-ring interview with Chris Mannix of DAZN, Bam noted that he’d never been down before—but that he had always wanted to know what it felt like. A few questions later, Mannix asked Bam about fighting Inoue one day, the disdain for smaller fighters rearing its head once more. Bam correctly pointed out the gap in weight—Inoue is at 122 and may move to 126; Bam just fought at 115 for the first time—and said he had priorities in his weight class first.

Projecting Bam's legacy feels silly given how young he is, but his resume at 24 far exceeds what most fighters achieve in their entire careers. There's no reason to think he'll stop challenging himself anytime soon, and he certainly could be hurtling toward an Inoue megafight in a few years. But even though the money is in adding more weight, everyone who tuned in on Saturday knows that Bam doesn't need to change anything to be great.

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