By David McIntosh
Neither man yielded during an engrossing bantamweight encounter in Orlando on Saturday night as Emmanuel Rodriguez just about held off a spirited Jason Maloney to retain his IBF world title and progress to a blockbuster fight with Japanese superstar Naoya Inoue. Rodriguez did enough to edge a split decision 115-113, 115-113, 113-115 and in truth, despite throwing everything at the champion, including during a frenzied last three rounds, Maloney failed to make any decisive breakthrough to wrestle the IBF title from Rodriguez’s possession. Maloney’s disappointment however should be tempered as his all-action, gutsy performance has certainly justified his place in the World Boxing Super Series and firmly established him in the top 10 bantamweights in the world. Future world title opportunities will surely follow for the likeable Australian. For Rodriguez, the big prize has been secured – a showdown with the feared Inoue.
Rodriguez entered the ring on Saturday with the IBF strap and a growing reputation following his dazzling one-sided destruction of Paul Butler in May. He was a strong favourite to outgun Maloney and began the fight with a champion’s authority. Round 1 saw Rodriguez sharp, compact, slick, firing out fast combinations and backing up Maloney. Rodriguez really is technically excellent. A sharp right hand the pick of the bunch in terms of scoring shots, a shot that would prove fruitful throughout the fight.
Round 1 foretold a fairly easy night for Rodriguez but that plotline was all but ended during Round 2. Maloney picked up the pace immediately, showing more aggression, particularly to the body and a contentment to trade. Rodriguez continued to come out on top following each exchange, a handy habit that champions tend to acquire, but Maloney’s athleticism, eagerness and drive were evident.
Round 3 was tight with Maloney again moving to the body and Rodriguez using his skill and timing to keep the Australian at bay with scoring shots, counters and good footwork to make Maloney miss. Maloney was definitely here to fight and definitely here to win, his vocal, excitable and very obviously Australian corner proving highly entertaining in their own right, yelling instructions, encouragement and the odd profanity.
By Round 4 a pattern had established. Maloney busy, game, relishing the opportunity to trade and attack. Rodriguez more accurate, cleaner work, more eye-catching shots. For all Rodriguez’s accuracy, Maloney, fully warmed to his task, showed no signs of buckling or cracking.
Round 5 and 6 followed suit, Maloney coming forward where possible, concentrating on the body with Rodriguez flashing combinations and generally trying to keep the game Australian off him. For all Rodriguez’s accurate hard punching Maloney showed little signs of wear and tear. If anything it seemed to spur Maloney on.
Rounds 7, 8 and 9 continued to see the cleaner, more accurate, more eye-catching work emanate from the champion. Maloney continued to focus on the body, a relentlessness drive powering his attacks and drawing roars of approval from his corner. It’s important to also stress that Maloney is by no means a one-dimensional phone-booth slugger. Throughout the fight, he showed a real variety to his punching, good footwork and adaptability in front of a world-class fighter. Above all his desire for that all-important world title was hugely impressive.
Throughout the middle rounds, Maloney’s corner continued to repeat that Rodriguez was tiring. It was a decent opinion given the pace of the fight with both boxers throwing continuously. By round 10 the Australian corner appeared to be correct with Rodriguez’s output declining and his punch power certainly beginning to wane. Maloney, sensing a chink in the armour, ploughed on, focussing on the body and attempting to further slow the champion. To Rodriguez’s credit, he continued to shut the door, continued to fend off the advancing Maloney and refused to crack.
Round 11 and 12 showed the tide had turned in Maloney’s favour with his relentless output wearing down the champion although Maloney himself now looked equally exhausted. Neither man yielded, neither man even hinted at cracking. Tellingly neither man had the power to severely dent the other which looks a little ominous for Rodriguez given his next challenge. A highly enjoyable bout concluded with the right outcome in my view – a split decision victory for Rodriguez to retain his world title.
Rodriguez’s immediate honour after retaining his belt was a face off in the ring with “the Monster” himself – Naoya Inoue. Dressed in a sharp navy blazer and black t-shirt, the boyish Inoue looks anything but a monster outside of fight night. A marketer’s dream, no wonder he’s a superstar in Japan and potentially about to become one across the planet. Inoue wanted Rodriguez next, Rodriguez wanted Inoue. A huge fight awaits in early 2019. The World Boxing Super Series looks set to deliver yet again.