El Paso, Texas, native David “Nino” Rodriguez survived years of bullying before finding solace in sport and becoming a heavyweight boxing champion. Today, through his advocacy campaign, he talks about bullying and how to keep going through the toughest of times to kids.
“I didn’t take to boxing until I was about 13 or 14 years old,” David told The Epoch Times, “but I got into boxing when I was about six years old. I was bullied a lot as a kid.”
The first kid that hurt David happened to be a girl, he explained, “and she beat me up pretty badly.” David’s father witnessed the beating, and his message at that time was clear: “No son of mine is going to be embarrassed like that.”
After that incident, he was taken to a boxing gym and would spend time there every day after school. In high school, David’s rage in the ring saw him become a bully himself.
The First Big Win
David’s first big boxing win was not a professional fight. He was only 14 and was pitched against the Junior Olympic champion who had previously fought 140–150 times. “I was scared,” he admitted, as he recalled the most memorable fight of his life. “I mean, they practically had to push me into the ring.”
David lost the first round but held his head up high walking into the second. It paid off. “I knocked it out with a devastating left hook,” he said. “And when that happened, I knew that boxing was meant for me.”
After his first big win, he counted Mike Tyson, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran among his greatest boxing role models and claims he “took a little bit from each fighter” to inform his own style of fighting.
As he bolstered his confidence with a knockout win, David, who stands at over 6 feet 4 inches tall, joined the world of professional boxing at the age of 21.
“The way I made a name for myself was, I was knocking everybody out,” he recalled. “My current boxing record is 37 [wins; 35 knockouts] to 2 [losses].” David even beat Mike Tyson’s record for knockouts during the first round, according to his website.
In 2009, David earned the North American Boxing Association (NABA) heavyweight title, and two years later he was named WBC Heavyweight Champion of Mexico. However, after the dizzying heights of success came a devastating low.
“I was really toward the middle of my career when I started losing the dedication and feeling like it was becoming a job and I started losing the love for the sport,” David explained. He slowly grew depressed and turned to alcohol. “I was burning the candle at both ends,” he told The Epoch Times. “I thought I was Superman.”
After winning a fight in his hometown of El Paso in February 2011, David flew to Dallas for a party. The night ended in a near-death experience; after a hedonistic cocktail of alcohol and drugs, David went into cardiac arrest.
David’s friends rallied round and got him to a hospital, where medics were able to revive him. The boxer woke up in the hospital the next day with no recollection of his ordeal.
“I remember looking at [the doctors] and I said, ‘Why don’t you just let me die?’” David recalled. “At that point they brought in a nurse to read the Bible non-stop to me that night. I kept telling her to shut up […] I really thank her for that now. That was the beginning of the year, and I survived.”
David recovered after eight days in the ICU and went on to win two more championships. However, after one fight, in December that year, he went out partying and had alcohol and did drugs. That night as he was walking out of the club, he heard a few footsteps behind him, and he had his throat slit from his ear to his chin by adversaries in an alleyway and ended up back in the hospital with 369 stitches in his face.
“I just felt really ashamed that I would do something like this to my family,” David explained. “I put myself in those situations and I take full responsibility for what happened in my life.”
After that, David had reconstructive surgery done to his face. However, he was determined that he didn’t want to lose his Top-10 ranking. Even though he was on medical leave in WBC in the Top 13 and the WBC Top 10 and other belts, he went right back into fighting. “I think I went in prematurely and I got knocked out,” he said. “And when that happened, my whole world blew up. My whole world just exploded in front of my eyes.”
“I went from hero to zero and fell into a deep dark depression,” he added.
The Advocacy Project
The pro boxer had to make a decision: to box or not to box. He endured a state of depression that lasted almost four years. “I didn’t know it, but during those dark dark times, God was actually working in my life,” said David. “He was breaking me down to make a new man.”
Feeling motivated to put his experiences to good use, David started visiting detention centers and school districts with the nonprofit organization Lucid Love to tell his story from bullied boy to bully, and beyond.
Next came an advocacy project of his own.
KO Bullying started when a friend of David’s from El Paso, Sal Montelongo, told the pro boxer that the kids at his basketball camp would love to hear his story. At first, David was reticent, but he summoned his strength and headed for camp.
After that, it seemed like a new page had turned in his life, and he started to speak to schools and to kids. “And that was therapy for me […] I can see which kids have been affected [by bullying], you know [… ]and when I start to see them smile by my embarrassing stories, that is the most fulfilling part of the whole journey right there,” he shared.
Reflecting on his journey, he said: “I was bullied. I was eating my lunch in the bathroom stall and hiding from kids at recess because I was so scared. And I turned out to be a champion fighter […] anybody can do it.”
“Not Everybody Wants to Be a Fighter”
David immortalized his personal philosophy in the 2016 book “When the Lights Go Out: From Survivor to Champion.” He also sells merchandise on Instagram, the proceeds of which go toward funding KO Bullying talks and tours.
The Epoch Times asked David whether he would recommend boxing as a remedy for troubled kids. “Actually no, that was just my remedy,” he responded. “Not everybody wants to be a fighter.
“It could be music, it could be dancing, it could be acting,” he considered, “it could be anything they love and they just pour their passion into […] direct your energy in a positive way. Pick an outlet.”
As for his personal philosophy that has kept him strong and motivated to keep going, David said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
He concluded by saying: “I always tell people you haven’t hit rock bottom until you find out it has a basement […] I’m so happy that God worked in my life because if he can change me, he can change anybody.”
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