Greatness shouldn’t be easy. It isn’t supposed to be swinging a dead cat and hitting the broad side of a barn while falling out of bed. Excellence is meant to be forged on an anvil of sacrifice, hammered into being by blood-sweat-and-tears brute force. It should be the painstaking process of transforming bone into steel and folding hesitation and doubt in on itself 1,000 times to create a weapon of mastery that is, at the same time, a transcendent work of art.
But goddamn it all if Roman Gonzalez doesn’t make greatness look easy.
The little man from Managua, who quietly summited Mount Olympus while at the peak of his athletic powers, followed a recent fall from grace — the hallmark of any great hero — by returning to boxing’s pinnacle at an age when most fighters his weight are packing it in. On Saturday, the 34-year-old Gonzalez (50-3, 41 KO) winked at the gods once more, taking apart a prime super flyweight threat in Julio Cesar Martinez (18-2, 14 KO) for a wide unanimous decision win in San Diego.
Ever since his back-to-back losses to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017, including a knockout finish that could have just as easily punctuated a Hall of Fame career, Gonzalez has been defying the odds — and making it look, well, easy. Nicaragua’s greatest boxing export (yes, even Alexis Arguello would agree) deserves every ounce of well-earned glory, especially after operating in near-obscurity for so long. Ultimately, though, Gonzalez may never be fully appreciated for his art simply because his level of craft is impossible to fully quantify.
Years ago, the national news briefly made a stink out of a painter who would drag his materials onto an airport tarmac, then throw buckets of color in the air to be blown across a canvas by a whirring plane propeller. It was hard to know whether he was the Van Gogh of our modern times or just crazier than a shithouse rat. Gonzalez may work in a far less subjective medium, but even as he splatters blood and guts across a different canvas, his brilliance tends to be overlooked by all but the cognoscenti.
It seemed to be more of the same against Martinez, who many believed had more than just a fighting chance against Gonzalez on Saturday. Although Martinez, 27, was moving up in weight and had taken the fight on six weeks’ notice as a replacement for Juan Francisco Estrada (whose COVID diagnosis forced him out), he was the younger and heavier man against Gonzalez. He showed heavy one-punch power, a cobalt chin and truckloads of courage — and they even earned him four rounds on one of the judges’ scorecards.
Whether it was out of pity for the Mexican, a lack of respect for the Nicaraguan’s work or in keeping with boxing’s grand tradition of rank stupidity, the 116-112 card in no way reflected the level of dominance Gonzalez exhibited against Martinez. Although scores of 118-110 and 117-111 were at least within the realm of possibility, most observers of sound body and mind within the walls of San Diego’s Pechanga Arena or watching on the DAZN feed could find only one round for Martinez — the 1st, which Gonzalez seemed to treat as a mulligan while he found his stroke.
By round 2, the old (young?) Chocolatito had entered the building. He landed a clean left hook around Martinez’s guard, seeing-eye uppercuts that split the Mexican’s gloves and sent the majority of return fire whizzing by or glancing harmlessly off his elbows and shoulders. Gonzalez chopping wood in round 3, landing from all angles around and through his opponent’s loose guard. Martinez, after one nice sequence, mustered some noticeable swagger. He just needed more time to learn the sort of trouble he was in.
Whenever Martinez would preen or pause, or even dare experience a moment of success, Gonzalez would simply smother him with genius. Chocolatito is perhaps the world’s greatest active in-fighter, and his knack for hitting without being hit from close range isn’t just uncanny — it can be utterly demoralizing for an opponent. Credit to Martinez that, although visibly frustrated, he never gave up. He just gave out.
By round 6, Gonzalez was landing combinations almost at will, changing pace and angles while unloading heaps upon heaps of punches. Martinez, who saw his wide punches grow wider and his lack of interest in a counterattack dulled even further as the fight wore on, absorbed a huge right hook from Gonzalez before returning to his stool after the round. After his corner asked how he felt, the Mexican didn’t hesitate to answer: “I’m tired.”
Gonzalez continued to press, cut off the ring and stalk Martinez with superior footwork. Martinez kept winging away, and even changed stances several times, but to little effect. His last gasp was letting loose a solid combination in the first minute of round 11, which he then paid for dearly with his face on a clean right hook from Gonzalez. Exhausted and bouncing heavy off the ropes, Martinez seemed to be expending all his energy on simply keeping his feet and avoiding the worst damage. When he returned again to his stool between rounds, this time telling his corner “I feel great,” it was clear he was toast.
Gonzalez closed the show in impossible fashion — with power shots on 244 of his final 249 landed punches, according to Dan Canobbio of CompuBox. Chocolatito doubled Martinez’s landed punch count (374-182) and managed to limit his opponent to 34 power punches landed over a 12-round fight.
Hit. Don’t get hit. Gonzalez’s art, for all its gorgeous subtlety and shrouded virtuosity, can still be distilled to boxing’s basics. Even while making child’s play of bloodsport, no one does it better.
(Roman Gonzalez, left, Julio Cesar Chavez, right; Photo by Ed Mulholland for Matchroom Boxing)