Roman Gonzalez: A champion forever
This feature originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The Ring Magazine. You can purchase the hard copy at The Ring Shop.
It was Round 9, and Kal Yafai, perilously close to a corner, could only escape to his right. His opponent, four-weight world titleholder Roman Gonzalez, had moved quickly to cut off the left side. The legendary Nicaraguan had purposefully given Yafai an escape route, and when he took it, Gonzalez released a debilitating left hook to the body. The timing was exceptional. Despite having been knocked down and hurt in the eighth, Yafai took the punch well and found center ring. Gonzalez, however, reached him fast – very fast – and the Englishman’s shock was clear when he poked out a tepid left hand. Gonzalez seized the moment, flooring Yafai with a perfect one-two combination and, just like that, “Chocolatito” was the new WBA junior bantamweight titleholder.
The finish was effortless, but the journey to reach that point was anything but. Gonzalez, formerly The Ring’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, hadn’t won a world title bout since September 2016, when he outpointed then-WBC 115-pound beltholder Carlos Cuadras. Tragedy, misfortune and devastation soon followed. Two months after the Cuadras triumph, Gonzalez’s longtime trainer, Arnulfo Obando, passed away following a stroke. On March 18, 2017, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai handed Gonzalez his first defeat in 47 fights via controversial decision and repeated the dose six months later with a pulverizing fourth-round knockout. Many felt the Gonzalez era was over.
“I never stopped loving boxing, because it has brought so much passion and love in my life.”
– Roman Gonzalez
There was a knee surgery in late 2018 and only two fights in two years, but now, suddenly, Gonzalez was back on top. However, the Yafai fight, which took place at the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas, on February 29, was actually an undercard attraction. It supported the 147-pound non-title bout between Mikey Garcia and Jessie Vargas, but the fans that left the arena that night had their money’s worth before the main event began. Gonzalez is a legend in this sport, one of the finest boxers of this generation, and to see him in person and fighting in top form is a privilege. But what does this victory really mean, and what does the future hold for boxing’s holy warrior?
“I’m so happy with God to have been given the opportunity to be a world champion once again,” Gonzalez told The Ring through his manager, Carlos Blandon. “I value it so much more now, and I missed being world champion. To be able to get back up proves greatness. God has blessed me with the talent to keep harvesting victories and receiving these accolades around the world. I try to show young kids that everything you want to achieve in life is attainable as long as you put the work in.
“I’ve met a lot of new fans since this victory. The people that love me always wish me the best, and I identify with those people, but there are a lot of fans that have even more love for me now. Today, more than ever, my fans are happy that I’m world champion. This fight with Yafai was also special because there were some people who had never seen me fight live, and they were very proud of me. If it goes well for me, it goes well for them.”
It went very well. Yafai came into this bout unbeaten in 26 fights with 15 knockouts. The British Olympian had won the title in December 2016 by outpointing battle-hardened veteran Luis Concepcion, and he made five successful defenses. Gonzalez was the underdog – a rarity – but despite a slow start, he had shown more than a few flashes of the genius that took him to four divisional titles and pound-for-pound supremacy.
“It was pleasantly surprising to me that Gonzalez was able to recapture his form,” said Ring Magazine Editor-in-Chief Doug Fischer, who confidently selects Gonzalez as his Fighter of the Decade. “I didn’t think he had it in the first round or two; he looked like he was just going through the motions and didn’t have his full confidence, but it didn’t take him long to turn back the clock. He began to execute the way he did five or six years ago, and that’s special. The old-timers call that ‘fighting your way back into shape,’ where you don’t recapture your peak form in training camp; it actually happens during the fight. We’ve seen that happen with other great fighters. Erik Morales would start very slow in his later years, but if the opponent allowed him to get into a groove, he would recapture his form and cause them real trouble.”
However, against Sor Rungvisai it was Gonzalez who was in trouble, and plenty of it. Even if you believe that “Chocolatito” should have been triumphant against the Thai power-puncher in the first fight, it was a lot closer than you expected, and the one-punch knockout loss in the return could have been career-ending. Are fans getting too excited about the Yafai victory? What’s really changed since that brutal defeat in Carson, California?
“It was very difficult to see Roman lose the first fight to Sor Rungvisai, although we believe he won it,” admitted Blandon, who has been Gonzalez’s manager for almost six years. “The record book shows it was a loss, and we had to accept that, but in the second fight, Roman felt that he shouldn’t have been there. We had a great camp in Japan, he made weight good, but something was just missing. Entering the ring, he looked sad; he looked different, and mentally he just wasn’t there. When he got knocked out, he hit rock bottom, and to see him doubt himself as the legendary boxer he had become really hurt me. I’m his manager, but more than that we’re like brothers, we’re great friends, and we trust each other. When you see someone fall like that, you definitely feel bad for them, but at the same time you feel a responsibility to help that person. All I wanted to do was help as much as possible, and I think he’s evolved greatly as a champion but also as a person. He’s accomplished so much, he’s a great boxer, but now he’s overcome adversity.
“His fighting form is great again. We always thank God for everything that’s happened to us. It was fortunate that his knee was injured in the buildup to his (canceled) fight with Pedro Guevara and that it wasn’t before a title fight, because that would have been worse. At the same time, the injury meant that he got a great surgery, and that prepared him for a great comeback. The meniscus (cartilage in the knee joint) injury can really affect you and stop you from doing cardio. After surgery, he was feeling great, there were no problems and he was doing a lot more cardio work. And the physiotherapy really helped, too. We brought in a (strength and conditioning coach) from Costa Rica, Rafael Rojas, and he’s had such a great impact on Roman’s career.”
But despite all the things that Gonzalez was able to change and all the pain and anguish that he has been able to suppress, he still had to drag his 32-year-old body through yet another grueling training camp under coach Marcos Caballero. The Nicaraguan great turned professional in July 2005 and this was his 51st fight. Having been there and done everything, isn’t it harder for Gonzalez to get motivated at this point of his career?
“I never stopped loving boxing, because it has brought so much passion and love in my life,” said the future Hall of Famer. “Yes, the rest I had following surgery helped me and prepared me to come back from those losses, but my family, particularly my children, motivated me. This victory meant a lot to me because I promised my children that I was going to be world champion again. That’s why I put so much effort and heart into my training, and all the sacrifice was worth it. This wasn’t just my fight; it was my family’s fight. I was able to rise again, stronger, and I feel better than ever before.
“I would tell Kal Yafai the same thing. He needs to keep pushing forward, because everything is possible in life. When you lose and get back up again, you become bigger than before. He should praise God, and God will keep loving him and his family. He can continue to get better and attain all the things that he wants in life in order to become a world champion again.”
But while Yafai wants to become world champion again, Gonzalez wants to remain world champion, and that will not be an easy task. The 115-pound division is bursting with elite-level combatants, all of whom will be eager to knock the old gladiator off his perch. Gonzalez may start as the favorite against one or two of them, but he’ll have his hands full against any of the rival titleholders and contenders located within the Top 5.
“I want to say he’s back, because he’s my guy and I’m a huge fan of Gonzalez,” said Fischer before reminding even the most ardent of Gonzalez rooters to err on the side of caution. “I don’t know if Kal Yafai had maybe outgrown the division and was dying on the vine after having so many inconsequential title defenses. He looked huge at 115 and I’m not surprised that he’s talking about going up to 118. Or maybe Yafai was the weak link at 115 pounds. I don’t like to think that, because I was impressed with Yafai on his way to the title; I was impressed when he won it. But, and I have to admit this, I was not impressed with him as a defending titleholder.
“However, the form that Gonzalez showed against Yafai and the experience that he has makes me think that he’ll be a handful for anybody. It’s just that the junior bantamweight division is so deep. And it’s not just deep; he’s up against guys who are experienced like him. There are two other four-division titleholders at 115 pounds: Donnie Nietes and Kazuto Ioka. Sor Rungvisai is still out there, and he might just have his number. And our (Ring Magazine) champion, Juan Francisco Estrada, is a two-division titleholder and an elite-level fighter; he’s on everyone’s pound-for-pound list and he deserves to be.”
On November 17, 2012, Gonzalez defended his WBA junior flyweight title against Estrada at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. It was Estrada’s first world championship fight, but his lack of experience was far from obvious. The classy Mexican boxer-puncher displayed incredible skill and guts, hanging tough with one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters on the planet before dropping a 12-round unanimous decision. Hyperbole to one side, this was one of the Top 5 fights of the decade.
“Right now we’re very interested in unifying with Estrada; that’s a fight that we definitely want,” said Blandon. “Estrada is a great person and we’ve become great friends with his trainer, Alfredo Caballero, when he came to visit Nicaragua. There’s great chemistry for a fight, and I think it’s going to be a great event.
“We’re also interested in a third fight with Sor Rungvisai. That is also a great fight, and Roman and the whole team want it. If God gives us the opportunity to fight both Estrada and Sor Rungvisai, then I know, with God’s help, we can be victorious. We know that (Jerwin) Ancajas has (the IBF) belt and Kazuto Ioka has (the WBO belt). Ioka has somewhat of a history with Roman because he didn’t want to fight him at 108. But we love Japan; we feel like it’s a second home for us, and our father-figure, Mr. Honda, is of Teiken Promotions, so we would love a fight with Ioka. Our priority is Estrada, but after that, we want to unify all the belts.”
Throughout my conversation with Gonzalez, which was our first, the great Alexis Arguello would frequently enter my mind. Like “Chocolatito,” the great “El Flaco Explosivo” hailed from Nicaragua, he was a multi-weight world champion and he carried himself with identical dignity and class. Gonzalez, who was mentored by the legendary Hall of Famer during his early years, never forgets.
“He would be very happy and proud of me,” said the new titleholder. “After my father, it was Alexis Arguello that taught me how to box and do so many great things in the ring. I always listened to him and used his advice in my career. But I’m also very happy that my current team is strong and very confident. I feel blessed that God has put the key members of my team together because that led to me becoming world champion again.
“It was very hard, very difficult for me when Arnulfo passed away. But I had to acknowledge that life is that simple – one day you’re here, one day you’re not – and you have to live for today. When I found out he had passed away, I decided that I had to start living and remember all the good things that I learned from Arnulfo. I had to remember his teachings and all the things that led me on the path to victory.”
One day you’re here, one day you’re not, but Roman Gonzalez will be a champion forever. And that’s regardless of what the future holds for this incredible prizefighter.
GET THE LATEST ISSUE AT THE RING SHOP (CLICK HERE)