For such a tiny man, Roman Gonzalez has a surprisingly easy time lugging around a legacy large enough to exert its own gravitational force.
The phrase “first-ballot Hall of Famer” was practically an official honorific in the lead-up to Saturday’s junior bantamweight unification fight between Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada — a nod to Gonzalez’s rampage through three divisions and 45-0 start to his career. But few people seem less impressed by Gonzalez’s bona fides than Chocolatito himself. In the days before his ring return, Gonzalez was a picture of contentedness, sanguine about his prospects against Estrada in a junior bantamweight unification fight — but seemingly just as appreciative of the $1 million payday, the screen time for the lower-weight divisions (in a DAZN main event) and perhaps the opportunity to marinate in a few more moments of a big fight week.
That last possibility shouldn’t be overlooked. Gonzalez has a far greater number of fights behind him than he has ahead. Now 33 (all but fossilized by the standards of 115-pound fighters), Gonzalez was fighting on Saturday a former opponent in Estrada who had grown in every sense since their first meeting. Although Gonzalez won a unanimous decision in that 2012 encounter, contested at 108 pounds, the rematch would see the scales balanced, so to speak, by time — Estrada is now the fighter in his prime — and a more comfortable fighting weight for the naturally larger Mexican. The sportsbooks’ had even declared Gonzalez an underdog, and the subtext for the little Nicaraguan was clear: this could all end at any moment. But if he bore any weight of expectation walking to the ring at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Gonzalez carried it with all the angst and pathos of a man wearing a beer helmet and a Faster Pussycat T-shirt to a funeral. Chocolatito was chill.
The indisputable proof, however, was the easy smile on Gonzalez’s face after the results were announced following 12 brilliant, grueling, back-and-forth rounds: a split decision in favor of Estrada. The near-masterpiece, marred only by a ludicrous 117-111 scorecard, was a gift to the deliberately sparse, socially distanced crowd in Dallas, one of boxing’s first post-pandemic live audiences. Gonzalez could have been speaking for all of us in his translated post-fight interview: “I would have been happy either way with the result,” he said.
That’s a helluva statement coming from a man who had just let his loosening grip on greatness slip a bit further. It’s even richer if you think he might question whether scoring for the fight was on the level, as the WBA did when, on Sunday, the sanctioning organization temporarily suspended Carlos Sucre, the judge responsible for the outlier scorecard. (When your fight scoring is a bit too extra for both Texas and the WBA, you know you’ve committed a truly special brand of boxing tomfuckery.)
Was scoring made difficult by two quick-fisted, high-volume punchers who aren’t afraid to mix it up inside? Probably. But if anything, the blend of styles, subtle and frequent momentum shifts, and razor-thin punch-stat margins should have made for tighter, rather than wider scores. (For what it’s worth, official Jesse Reyes had it 115-113 for Gonzalez, while David Sutherland flipped that score for Estrada.) After a calculated, methodical first round from Gonzalez, both men opened up in an exhibition of timing, accuracy, counterpunching, levels-changing, and distance control. Over the course of the fight, Gonzalez (50-3) landed several gorgeous, flush right hands upstairs — one of which, in the fourth, that seemed to wilt Estrada (42-3) just slightly. But the Mexican never came close to folding. And a series of textbook combinations from Estrada caught Gonzalez in moments of lapse or fatigue, keeping the action on mostly level terms.
According to CompuBox, seven of the 12 rounds ended with the fighters having landed within five punches of one another. Gonzalez appeared to be the aggressor more often on the night, and his head movement and deft deflections from his guard made it difficult for Estrada to land as many clean punches. But the Mexican’s ability to weather Gonzalez’s biggest shots in close quarters and his effectiveness off the back foot likely combined to create a harmony that (mostly) won over the judges.
If the outcome wasn’t quite a raw deal for Gonzalez, it was undeniably bittersweet. Only seconds after the final bell, both fighters had embraced the concept of a trilogy fight. And if it doesn’t pan out, there are other excellent super fly fights within reach for both fighters — Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Jerwin Ancajas, and Kazuto Ioka are all excellent potential opponents. But we only get so many bites at the apple in our professional lives, no more than a few big swats at the pinata. If it wasn’t a sign of Gonzalez taking his last poke, it was certainly a missed opportunity at a stage when Chocolatito can’t count on many more.
Yet how Gonzalez handled the moment should only burnish his legacy. In the aftermath, when a thousand other fighters would have stewed, blamed, raged, Gonzalez offered consideration. When asked whether he thought he won the fight, he admired his craft: “I did my work,” he said. Gonzalez blessed the crowd. He thanked god. He wept, crying tears not of sadness or regret, but of joy. It was thanks — appreciation for his health, for his opponent, for the fight. And it was something close to grace.
(Photo by Ed Mulholland for Matchroom Boxing USA)