Super middleweight contender Edwin Rodriguez just needed to get over the hump to get a world title shot, and he did it -- in great style.
The Worcester, Mass., resident had long been considered one of boxing's top prospects and had steadily made his way up the ranks, defeating opponents such as James McGirt Jr., Aaron Pryor Jr. and Will Rosinsky. Those victories were good enough to get Rodriguez a look by HBO, where, in his two 2012 bouts, he outpointed tough Donovan George and stopped Jason Escalera in the eighth round. Solid wins to be sure, but neither was all that scintillating.
Unable to get back on the network in his next fight and with no other real possibilities for notable fights in the United States, Rodriguez and promoter Lou DiBella took a bit of a gamble as Rodriguez hit the road for Monte Carlo as one of the participants in the four-man Million Dollar Super Four tournament.
It was the decision that indeed got Rodriguez over the hump, one that will pay off with his first shot at a world title when he challenges super middleweight world champion Andre Ward on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/PT) at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.
In the opener of the Monte Carlo tournament in March, Rodriguez scored a knockdown and won a 10-round unanimous decision against previously undefeated Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna, a 2008 Olympian from Argentina.
In the July final, Rodriguez scored the most impressive win of his career, a sensational first-round destruction of solid light heavyweight contender Denis Grachev, who had upset red-hot contender Ismayl Sillakh and given former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute all he could handle last year before handing former light heavyweight titlist Zsolt Erdei his first defeat by upset split decision in the other Super Four semifinal.
The explosive knockout of Grachev earned Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs), 28, the $600,000 winner's share of the $1 million purse for the final but, more important, gave him instant credibility as a legitimate title challenger.
So when Ward (26-0, 14 KOs), out since September 2012 because of shoulder surgery, was looking for an opponent for his return, Rodriguez was the obvious candidate – and the one HBO really wanted -- and although the deal was not easy to make, it ultimately got done.
It's a fight that Rodriguez is sky-high for.
"I'm fighting the No. 1 guy in the world. I'm really excited. I really feel like this is my time," Rodriguez said. "In this fight, you are going to be seeing Andre Ward trying to be great again and me becoming great. I'm excited 100 percent. I'm ready to go. We have a great game plan for this fight and we're ready to go."
The two-fight detour to Europe was huge for Rodriguez, and he knows it.
"Going to Monte Carlo was a great opportunity that my team put together at the time," he said. "I couldn't get the opportunity I was looking for [in the United States], and Monte Carlo came in, and it was a great opportunity, good money. It was a good experience to go overseas and fight good fighters -- not as good as Andre Ward, but fight good fighters to help me get prepared for this fight."
As Rodriguez said, Maderna and Grachev are good fighters, but certainly not on the level of Ward, who many view as the best fighter in the world not named Floyd Mayweather Jr.
"Mentally, I'm prepared and I'm ready. I understand that Andre Ward is at a whole different level, but I have proof that I'm also at a different level," Rodriguez said. "I do understand that Andre Ward is undefeated, but so am I. He has to figure me out just as much as I got to figure him out. I'm not worried about all the hype. I'm ready. It's on.
"I feel like I've been ready for a while now. I've been asking for this fight for a while now. This is my time. I'm ready."
Ward, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist, claims that he has been following the progress in Rodriguez's career for about two years, figuring they might eventually meet.
Ward is coming off the most impressive win of his career, a 10th-round knockout of then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, who had moved down in weight to face Ward. Despite the layoff, Ward said his shoulder is healthy and he is ready to defend his title for the sixth time.
"He's not some guy that should be taken lightly," Ward, 29, of Oakland, Calif., said of Rodriguez. "We've never taken him lightly. I said this in the press conference, that we followed Edwin for probably the last year and a half, two years, when both of our names started coming up and his name started coming up as a potential opponent.
"I'm a student of the game. I've watched Edwin. I know his strengths. I know his weaknesses. I'm just excited to show up and put on a show. I know he's going to come and bring his best. He's got a great team behind him. I've got a tremendous team behind me. We're going to see who prevails. I'm prepared to win this fight and dominate this fight."
Rodriguez has other ideas.
"I'm trying to take something from him. I feel like he's trying to do the same," Rodriguez said. "I'm undefeated. He's trying to take that away from me. I'm really motivated to face the best super middle weight in the planet. That's enough motivation right there. I'm fighting the best guy out of my weight class in the world and I'm trying to change that. It would be a big accomplishment for me in my career.
"It's a fight that I'm looking to make a statement and become world champion against a great fighter. I'm ready for this. I can't wait for [Saturday] so I can show the world, everyone that don't believe that I could get it done, I'll get it done."