An exclusive, in-depth interview with undefeated Texas heavyweight boxer, anti-bully advocate, and author David “Nino” Rodriguez
Houston restaurant Enoteca Rossa (4566 Bissonnet St. in Bellaire) will host an appearance by retired Texas heavyweight boxer David “Nino” Rodriguez, who will sign copies of his book “When the Lights Go Out: From Survivor to Champion,” on May 17, 6:30-8:30 pm. A great read for both parents and older children, “When The Lights Go Out” recants Rodriguez’s journey as a bullied child in El Paso and the experiences that pushed him to the pinnacle of his sport as an undefeated 36-0 heavyweight boxing contender and multi-belt champion. The book also delves into the other side of his life – a path of destructive behavior, addiction and thoughts of suicide – and ultimately to redemption as an advocate for bullied kids. The book is available for purchase on amazon.com. Houston Family Magazine is giving away signed copies of David’s book, “When the Lights Go Out.” For details, visit https://www.
By Sara G. Stephens
David “Nino” Rodriguez has written a book. It’s a book about beginnings–how boxing entered his life. It’s also a book about dying–or almost dying–following a throat-slashing attempt on his life. It’s a book about setbacks, wins, glory days, more setbacks, and epiphanies.
But at the end of the day, it’s a coming-of-age story, with the author coming to grips with the adrenaline ride that is his life with every word he taps onto the page. David typed every one of those words onto his phone, with no intent of publishing a book, but strictly with the aim of downloading and eliminating all the heartache and frustration he felt upon realizing his boxing career was over. It was a therapy of sorts.
As the story unfolded before David’s eyes, however, it took on a life of its own. This life had a deeper purpose–because David’s story is ultimately one of overcoming. In a world headlined with increasing accounts of bullying, school violence, and teen suicides, his story is an enlightening and accessible snapshot for parents and older kids who tread the waters of today’s tumultuous teen years, wondering if their own stories will have happy endings.
I started reading the “sneak preview” chapters of David’s book on Amazon, just so I could get an idea of its tone and audience. I was instantly hooked. The preview ended, and I couldn’t get to the Kindle order option fast enough. When the phone rang–it was David calling for our scheduled phone interview–I found myself a little annoyed at having been interrupted from my reading. I was deeply immersed in the chapters about David’s troubled school years. It was a good place to start the interview.
SGS: You experienced your first bullying incident at the age of 5, after which your dad took you to the boxing gym so you could learn to defend yourself. What impact did getting this boxing training have on you at the time?
DNR: It didn’t affect me the way you would think. I didn’t want to go. I was scared, and I thought I was being punished for being a coward. It was the ultimate sin, coming from a very machismo family and a machismo city like El Paso. Being weak, being a coward….it’s unacceptable. So I didn’t feel like I was going there to learn self-defense. I went to regain my father’s love for me, and to regain my own dignity and self respect.
SGS: Looking back, do you now see your father’s intentions differently? Tough love?
DNR: Yes, it was tough love.
SGS: Do parents show enough tough love today?
DNR: No way. Today it’s all about participation trophies. It’s giving kids the wrong outlook… telling them, “You’re all winners.” There are no values. Parents don’t get that you have to know what it feels like to lose. It builds character. Losing is the biggest teacher. Without it, you don’t learn how to progress and move forward. Losing is what makes that happen. And it makes you harder.
SGS: In junior high, your family moved to another part of El Paso, and you went to a new school, only to find yourself the target of bullying starting on the very first day of school. You soon starting ditching school on a daily basis, smoking weed, and getting into trouble late at night…
DNR: Yeah. I was eating lunch in a bathroom stall for the longest time. I hated feeling like I was a coward. I had resorted to being a scared kid again. That’s why I started getting into so much trouble. I didn’t want to go to school.
SGS: If you could travel back and change something about that time, what would it be?
DNR: I would’ve punched those kids in the nose and ended it right there. I didn’t learn until high school how to end it. That’s how you end it. I’m not advocating for violence, but everyone needs to know to stick up for themselves. You can talk to principals and counselors, but the quickest way from point A to point B is to stick up for yourself.
And to parents, I would say, you always need to talk openly with your kids and look for the signs they’re being bullied. Are they more introverted? Are they hanging out with a different crowd of kids? Are they isolated? Changing their behavior? Not wanting to be around the family? Shameful? Being bullied leads to self-esteem issues, and pretty soon, by the teen years, drugs come into play. Kids are dealing with so many hormonal changes that are already making life hard. Being bullied makes it all that much worse. And today kids have to deal with cyberbullying on top of everything. That’s a whole different animal.
SGS: What makes cyberbullying so different?
DNR: There’s no real bully to attach to the behavior. Everyone just chimes in and makes fun of of you on the internet. There’s no clear monster. Your perception is that everyone is against you, you are a victim, and you have no worth. But it’s all an illusion. It’s just a mean kid who started it on the internet. There’s no one to fight on the internet. In my day, I knew the kids who were picking on me. Today, with cyberbullying, there’s no clear bully….you just start developing a reputation.
SGS: So what can kids do in the face of cyber bullying?
DNR: You need confidence. You need positive reinforcement from your parents. Parents need to instill confidence to teach kids they do have worth. Victims have to see a professional counselor. With me, I’ve always been very spiritual. I always had God. I really don’t know how people get through life without God.
SGS: So back to your school experience, you were finding yourself in trouble with the law quite a bit during school. There was a police officer who was often around for your arrests who one day saw you boxing at the gym your father took you to in junior high. He offered to help you if you would stay out of trouble.
DNR: He saved me. He made me fall in love with boxing again. He told me, “You’re too good to be out on the streets, being a derelict, and getting into trouble.” If not for him, I would never have boxed again. He picked me up from school every day and took me to the gym in a cop car. I fell in love with sport of boxing then. Not everyone has a mentor like that. I would have been in jail if it weren’t for him. Many kids aren’t that fortunate. They go home and see Dad beating up Mom, so they go to school and bully other kids. It’s a vicious chain of events. I had good parents and mentors who pulled me out of that life of hell.
SGS: Where does your best friend fit into this range of influences? On the one hand, he stood up for you when you were being bullied in junior high. On the other hand, he’s the one who suggested you ditch school and became your partner in crime.
DNR: He’s still my best friend. We talk every day. He went to every one of my fights. He walked me out with my team. I don’t blame those years on him. We both hated school, we hated authority, and we fed off each other’s energy. We created a bond that still exists today. Now he’s a loan officer, and he’s doing great. We both grew up, and I think we both turned out okay.
SGS: By the time you were 21, you had developed phenomenal power and speed in the ring and were winning fight after fight, after fight. How did fame and glory affect you as an individual?
DNR: That’s a tough one because I never really felt–even though I was living it and in the eye of the storm–I didn’t feel I deserved it. I always had this weird feeling I was doing something wrong. My trainer and my manager were always onto me for what i was doing wrong, not what i was doing right. Every time I won a fight, my trainer would sit me down and tell me what I was doing wrong. It sucked the glory right out of it. Lots of tough love. Just like when I was a kid.
When I was partying with the women, and dealing with alcoholism, I only did that because I never felt deserving of what I had. I always thought I could do better. I didn’t feel qualified. That’s also why I fought. I fought to not feel so inferior. I didn’t like that feeling I had inside of me.
SGS: And now? Is that feeling still there?
DNR: Now it’s gone. I look back on boxing now as a thing of the past. I’m retired. I started a media company, Borderland Alternative Media, that’s taking off. I wrote a book. I found a new passion, a new love. I don’t need boxing. It served its purpose in my life. A lot of boxers I know have serious issues. They become very self-destructive. They can’t deal with retirement. They get into alcohol and drugs to replace the stimulation from fighting. They’re not creative or educated enough to find another drive or another passion.
SGS: Who helped you realize you had other abilities, and could explore other passions–or was that something you did yourself?
DNR: I can’t say it was me. I give it to God. I went to church every day and prayed for a new direction. I almost lost my life, and I had a lot of epiphanies. I realized we’re here for a little, brief spec in time. We’re here today, and can be gone at any moment. The way I look at things now, you might as well be happy and do what you want. God made clear to me it wasn’t boxing. I could have stuck with boxing and ended up with no motor skills and not articulate enough to write a book. Where would I be today?
SGS: Let’s talk about that day–the day that basically ended your boxing career. In 2011, you were attacked outside a bar by a group of guys, one of whom cut your throat open. How did you feel in that moment, and thereafter? Besides fear, and the instinct for survival, do you recall being surprised by your vulnerability?
DNR: It was like lightning struck. And then the realization I was dying–comprehending I was dying at that moment. All the blood coming out of my neck. The adrenaline hit me, and I knew I was dead. Then I blacked out, and I and woke up in an ambulance and felt very calm, and I had this feeling I was going to be okay, regardless of whether I lived or died that night.
SGS: You had not quite fully healed from the attack when, 8 months and 369 stitches later, you were back in the boxing ring. What did it take for you to throw yourself back in the ring so soon after this attack? Was it bravado or was it courage?
DNR: Bravado…I was so close to the heavyweight championship fight. I couldn’t stand having it taken away from me. The only thing I knew was how to be a fighter.
SGS: You lost that fight. Your trainer commented that you had “lost your focus and your mission.” Do you agree?
DNR: Yes, I was too aggressive. I was in no place to fight. I hadn’t seen a sports therapist or psychologist after I was almost killed. I handled all that on my own. I should’ve seen somebody. I fought too emotionally. I never used to get emotional, and you should never fight when you’re emotional.
SGS: Losing that fight sent you into a downward. emotional spiral. Did you ever consider suicide?
DNR: Many times. I was up and down all the time.
SGS: What stopped you?
DNR: My belief in God stopped me. I couldn’t slap God in the face after he saved me from dying. He spared me for whatever reasons. Who am I to go against him and take my life?
SGS: As you struggled with this “emotional nightmare,” as you called it, you were approached by Lucid Love, and asked to present a speech for the organization. Tell me about Lucid Love, and why it spoke to you as an important effort.
DNR: A friend of mine, Sal Montelongo, approached me at a weightlifting gym at my darkest time. I knew I was done with boxing, and had just had back surgery. “We really want you to talk to the kids,” he said. “You may be done with boxing, but you’re still a man of the people, the champ of El Paso.”
It so happened that, at that exact time, my sister was writing down notes–she wanted to know my thoughts and stories about boxing. For no real reason. She just said, “You probably just need to get this out.”
So, Sal finally twisted my arm, and I caved and met with him. That’s when I met Veronica Cabada, who two years prior had just lost her son to suicide after being bullied. It tugged on my heart strings immediately. Her son went thought the exact same things I did. I knew I had to do something. God was calling me to do something. It was a call to action. So I put on a suit and tie, took the outline my sister had made and used it to make a PowerPoint presentation, gave a speech to a thousand kids, and got a standing ovation.
Life had come full circle. I was up there talking to a thousand kids telling them my story, and suddenly I realized, Holy cow! I was that kid apologizing for misbehaving. I promised myself I would never return to school. I never wanted to smell the school hallways and bathrooms–they all have that same, familiar smell–but here I was, back in school, this time I was the one giving the lecture. God has a funny sense of humor.
SGS: At what point should a bullied child be encouraged to fight back physically?
DNR: It’s a last resort, always. As soon as the bullying gets physical, as soon as the bully starts imposing on your physical space and threatening you, that’s when it’s time to stick up for yourself. Once kids see one kid do it to you they lose respect for you. Then other kids pick on you. It’s a chain effect and a pecking order, and you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom of it.
SGS: What about girls? Is it different for them?
DNR: A lot of girls don’t like to hear this. My niece was getting bullied. I took her into the garage and taught her to throw some punches. The next day she used it, and no one messed with her again. They left her alone. She became the most popular kid in school. Even the girls who were bullying her would go around saying, “Man, that girl can punch!”
SGS: So there’s no double standard for the fairer sex?
DNR: Anyone can be an athlete. The human spirit is what prevails to make us what we are in life, regardless of sex. You can achieve what you want in life. If I ever have a daughter I’m going to teach her to fight and defend herself. And if my son wants to be a musician or go into theater, I’ll encourage him to do that. You have to let your kids be who they are. You gotta do what you love in life.
SGS: Kids who get bullied spend a good deal of time fantasizing about revenge on their bullies. Which quote best speaks to your philosophy on revenge: “Turn the other cheek;” “Revenge is dish best served cold;” or “The best revenge is a life well lived?”
DNR: A life well lived. Success is always the best revenge. When you’re successful, you don’t even have to pay attention to those people anymore. My principal, who always told me I’d amount to nothing, and that I was wasting my time with boxing, he was in the front row at my fights, wanting to get a picture with me. Same thing with the guys who bullied me. That was enough revenge for me.
SGS: What’s your advice to a kid being bullied?
DNR: Speak to someone about it. Speak to your parents or to someone you find trustworthy. Do not be afraid to open up.
SGS: Do you have a message for any of the bullies out there?
DNR: They have problems just like anybody else. I’d tell them, “You’re just showing your insecurities, and later in life it will always come back around. Find a more responsible way to handle your insecurities.”
SGS: What advice do you have for parents of bullies and parents of bully victims?
DNR: Parents of bully victims, your kids need to be talked to and counseled, and taught self-defense. Parents of bullies, you need to be strict, sit your kid down, and talk to him about why he’s lashing out and hurting other kids. Both are major problems, and [the bullies and their victims] both need each other. But it starts with the bully.
SGS: What do you think is the greatest crisis facing our kids today? What are they in most urgent need of?
DNR: Spirituality is first. You have to be right with God and everything falls into place. You can be in top shape physically and still be the biggest jerk. I’d rather hang out with the homeless guy who’s right spiritually than with a rich man who’s not.
Houston restaurant Enoteca Rossa (4566 Bissonnet St. in Bellaire) will host an appearance by retired Texas heavyweight boxer David “Nino” Rodriguez, who will sign copies of his book “When the Lights Go Out: From Survivor to Champion” on May 17, 6:30-8:30 pm. A great read for both parents and older children, “When The Lights Go Out” recants Rodriguez’s journey as a bullied child in El Paso and the experiences that pushed him to the pinnacle of his sport as an undefeated 36-0 heavyweight boxing contender and multi-belt champion. The book also delves into the other side of his life – a path of destructive behavior, addiction and thoughts of suicide – and ultimately to redemption as an advocate for bullied kids. The book is available for purchase on amazon.com. Houston Family Magazine is giving away signed copies of David’s book, “When the Lights Go Out.” For details, visit https://www.
Learn more about David “Nino” Rodriguez at his website, http://www.davidninorodriguez.com/.