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‘Fighting Words’ — Chocolatito and Estrada got almost everything they desired

Gonzalez (right) on fire against Juan Francisco Estrada. Photo by Ed Mulholland/ Matchroom.
16
Mar

They were drawn together by destiny as much as gravity. 

Like two celestial bodies who had collided long ago, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada were sent their separate ways, occasionally entering enticingly proximate orbits, yet fated to return together only once the timing was right. 

After more than eight years, Estrada’s stardom had brightened considerably, while Gonzalez’s had dimmed dramatically before regaining much of its lost luster. Momentum carried them into the same ring in Dallas for their rematch on Saturday night. Magnetism did the rest.

They are far from polar opposites, and yet neither could repel the other. They are supremely skilled junior bantamweights whose 2,529 punches between them on Saturday supercharged an already electric arena, the fortunate 3,763 in attendance (socially distant amid this pandemic).  



Those fans came because they knew.

They knew that these were two of the best 115-pound fighters in the world — and, beyond that, two of the best boxers, pound-for-pound, in the entire sport.

They knew how good the first fight was and how great the second one was expected to be.

They knew that Gonzalez and Estrada would put forth performances befitting both their reputations and the stakes.

A mere reprise of their 2012 battle would’ve been enough to whet appetites. This sequel, however, carried with it an additional 100 months of storyline. It wasn’t just about earning a victory over a rival. It was about the paths they had taken in the time since and where this latest collision would bring them. The stakes, fittingly, were astronomical.

Estrada was 22 years old on that night in Los Angeles, a contender with one loss on his record, one wrong that had already been righted. 

He had been knocked down in the first round by Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr. in May 2011, then fought back and floored Sanchez himself, only to come up short on the scorecards. Seven months later, Estrada found himself in a similar position, down on the canvas early and returning the favor later. This time, though, Estrada stopped Sanchez in the 10th round. It was a good win, and it looked even better in retrospect when Sanchez moved up in weight and won a world title.

Estrada had spent his career fighting between flyweight and bantamweight. Yet he moved down to 108 to challenge Gonzalez in 2012, sacrificing himself at the scales for the opportunity to win his first title belt. Estrada fought well, but Gonzalez fought even better, too good and too much at that time for the younger man to handle. Gonzalez earned the decision. Estrada, however, earned respect. And, in hindsight, that night would look even better for both given what each went on to accomplish.

Estrada returned to the 112-pound weight class for his next outing, in April 2013, and defeated Brian Viloria to pick up two world titles. He added five successful defenses, two of which came against opponents who had previously held titles (Giovani Segura, Hernan Marquez), and one foe who would go on to win his own (Milan Melindo).

Gonzalez also moved up to flyweight in September 2013, debuting with a technical knockout over Francisco Rodriguez Jr., who himself would go down to the 105-pound division and unify two belts. A year later, Gonzalez knocked out Akira Yaegashi to become the lineal champion at 112, winning a world title in his third weight class after reigns at 105 and 108. 

Three of his four defenses ended comfortably before the final bell. Rocky Fuentes was dispatched in six rounds. Edgar Sosa, who had once held a title at 108, couldn’t make it past two. Viloria was more competitive but done by the close of the ninth. McWilliams Arroyo made it the distance but lost a wide decision.

Estrada had two flyweight world titles. Gonzalez had a third and was considered the top fighter at 112. But they didn’t meet again in that division. 

Gonzalez, beloved by hardcore fans, had occasionally appeared in the United States but otherwise largely competed in his native Nicaragua, in Japan — the home country of his promoter — or in Mexico. But at last this cult favorite began to get more attention in America. The fights against Sosa and Arroyo were on HBO underneath Gennadiy Golovkin fights. The battle with Viloria was a supporting attraction to the GGG-David Lemieux pay-per-view.

Both men soon moved up to 115 pounds. HBO continued to showcase Gonzalez with Golovkin. “Chocolatito” became a four-division titleholder with a tough victory over Carlos Cuadras in California, a split-site doubleheader on the same day in September 2016 that the network aired GGG vs. Kell Brook from London. And in March 2017, Gonzalez defended against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai on the Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs pay-per-view.

Surprisingly, Gonzalez lost.

It was a controversial decision. An immediate rematch was held later that year on what was marketed as HBO’s first “Superfly” card spotlighting some of the best names at and around 115. Naoya Inoue, another cult favorite, made his U.S. debut. And with the potential to set up Gonzalez’s next fight, the card also featured Estrada, who seemed to be closing in on his shot at revenge.

Both men just needed to win their respective fights. 

Juan Francisco Estrada. Photo by Melina Pizano/Matchroom.

Estrada did his part, defeating Cuadras by just one point on all three scorecards. Gonzalez, however, lost again. And this time it wasn’t just surprising, but shocking. There would be no controversy. Sor Rungvisai had knocked the champion out cold.

Just when “Chocolatito” was receiving greater recognition — when the fighter who’d been proclaimed the No. 1 boxer, pound-for-pound, had gotten a chance to demonstrate his talents to those who had only heard about them — he was rendered unconscious. 

It was fair to wonder whether he was essentially done, whether his best days were behind him, coinciding with moving up one weight class too far against opponents who could handle his power better, and whose power was harder for him to handle. Cuadras had battered him. Perhaps Sor Rungvisai had broken him.

And just when Estrada was in line for the rematch, the fight suddenly lost most of its meaning.

Estrada instead went toward the next best thing, or rather the new best thing — Sor Rungvisai. They fought in early 2018, and Sor Rungvisai won by majority decision.

This was Estrada’s third pro loss. As with the first — and as he longed to do with the second — he sought a rematch. Sor Rungvisai-Estrada 2 was held in April 2019. This time, Estrada triumphed with a close unanimous decision.

Estrada was the new king at 115. In the interim, Gonzalez had begun his comeback. “Chocolatito” picked up a victory in his return in September 2018 and then underwent surgery on his right knee. He didn’t return again until the end of 2019, once again shaking off rust and regaining confidence against an overmatched opponent.

About a year ago, a couple of weeks before the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down the world, and with it live sports, Gonzalez challenged for a world title. He fought the way he often did, getting inside and going to battle skillfully, breaking down Khalid Yafai with a high-volume attack, dropping him twice and scoring the technical knockout.

Estrada returned this past October with another tough battle with Carlos Cuadras, hitting the mat in the third round but finishing Cuadras off with two knockdowns in Round 11.

Estrada had the throne and a world title. Gonzalez had a title belt and as much of his old form as seemed possible. If a rematch was ever going to happen, this was the right time for a deal to be made.

Days before Christmas, boxing fans got an early present. The announcement made it official: Estrada-Gonzalez 2 would take place on March 13.

Both in the ring and outside of it, Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez represent so much of what is right about the sport of boxing. At the same time, who they are and what they do stand in stark contrast to what is so wrong about the business of boxing.

The Sweet Science, despite its countless stories of fighters who punched their way out of poverty, is not the pure meritocracy it is idealized as being. 

Yes, the fighters succeed as a direct result of what they do with their own hands, but their success is not only in their hands. There are those who are more accomplished than they are appreciated. The ratio can be reversed as well, reflecting those whose worth far outpaces their worthiness.

In a sport where top fighters often find reasons not to face each other, here were two fighters who regularly sought out challenges and were being rewarded for it. The amount of anticipation and the size of the purses for this fight were still somewhat of an outlier in the lighter divisions, even 28 years to the day after Michael Carbajal and Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez headlined a pay-per-view and opened the door for little guys to do big business.

In a medium where so much oxygen has been wasted on the “Four Princes” of the lightweight division before a single one has faced each other, here was a main event between two accomplished badasses — the 10th fight between any combination of Cuadras, Estrada, Gonzalez and Sor Rungvisai, one more than the nine meetings among the deservedly fabled “Four Kings” of Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard.

There was no oxygen wasted on Saturday night in Dallas. Everyone was left breathless — for good reason.

Roman Gonzalez. Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.

As infrequent as it is for top fighters to face each other, it’s even rarer that we can go into a fight with high expectations and end up wholly satisfied by the action and drama. (The scorecards threatened to diminish that joy, which we’ll get to later.)

Estrada threw an average of 101 punches per round, according to CompuBox. Gonzalez averaged nearly 110 per round. They exhibited remarkable skill. It wasn’t just how many punches they threw, but the ways they moved their feet, heads and upper bodies; how they feinted, blocked shots and slipped punches; and the beauty of the combinations, the counters, the traps and escapes. 

In the opening rounds, it looked like Estrada had learned lessons from their first encounter — particularly landing and then getting away when Gonzalez wanted to exchange — and had advanced far enough with his talent and skill to implement them. It also helped that Estrada felt stronger at 115 than he had at 108.

Gonzalez closed the distance, increased his volume, and scored often. Estrada sought to match him shot for shot, exchange for exchange. Gonzalez landed 391 punches in total, including 352 power shots. Estrada landed 314 overall, including 297 power punches. There was so much going on in each round, so many changes in momentum, that there were multiple swing rounds where you could make a reasonable case for either man winning it.

It was a sustained battle, and then in Round 7 it turned into a brutal war. Estrada landed more in the seventh round than in any other, going 47 of 133. Everything he landed was a power punch. Gonzalez landed more than in Round 7 than in any round except for the last, going 48 of 151. Just two of those landed punches were jabs. The rest were heavy crosses, hooks and uppercuts.

For a moment, it looked like Gonzalez might have punched himself out, as there were more lulls between his combinations in Round 8 rather than one ongoing onslaught. He only needed that brief rest — a lower gear for “Chocolatito” is still more volume than nearly everyone else can offer — and then he returned to the fray.

As expected, Gonzalez’s greatness inspired Estrada’s, who wasn’t demoralized by his opponent’s success, but rather was determined to meet it and exceed it. Estrada had a strong round in the 11th. And he came out for the 12th ready to empty his tank, throwing a fight-high 150 punches, landing 40 of them.

In emptying his tank, he was throwing gas on a fire, igniting Gonzalez, who went 55 of 158. “Chocolatito” didn’t just have better numbers. He was landing cleaner and harder, staggering Estrada with less than a minute to go. Estrada somehow withstood the barrage and even began to come forward again before the final bell.

They embraced with the respect of two warriors and brilliant practitioners who had pushed each other to the limit. This challenge had energized and elevated them.

Nearly 19 years ago, another pair of warriors, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, hugged each other at the conclusion of their brutal battle. As the scorecard of unofficial judge Harold Lederman showed on-screen — a 94-94 draw — another member of HBO’s broadcast crew, possibly Emanuel Steward, let out a laugh acknowledging something that was both absurd and appropriate, that a fight like this deserved to end on even terms. Ward ended up receiving the official nod, narrowly ahead by majority decision. 

There was an official winner of the Estrada-Gonzalez rematch, although it still doesn’t feel like either man can be described as defeated. Each gained more than they lost.

One judge had it 115-113 for Gonzalez, giving him seven rounds and awarding five to Estrada. Another judge had it the other way around, 115-113 for Estrada. The third judge had it wider, and it was this scorecard that drew much of the ire afterward, 117-111 for Estrada, nine rounds to three.

A whole column could be dedicated to the subjectivity of scoring and the importance of noting swing rounds when you watch a fight. I already wrote that article after the first fight between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward. We tend to react to what we feel is the right result, rather than accepting what is within the rational realm of possibility.

The 117-111 scorecard for Estrada, however, does not seem within the range of acceptable scores. Had the judge in question, Carlos Sucre, turned in the same 115-113 tally for Estrada that judge David Sutherland did, it’s possible that there would be far fewer people arguing that Gonzalez had been robbed. 

Or maybe they still would. Right now, there are plenty of respected voices out there who believe exactly that: “There is zero doubt that Chocolatito won this fight!” tweeted boxing writer Dan Rafael. “Not even a question.”

Others were understandably less certain: “There were probably nine or 10 rounds […] at the end of which I shrugged my shoulders before filling out my scorecard,” tweeted Eric Raskin, a podcast host for Showtime Boxing and columnist for Ringside Seat.

It is a shame that this became the dominant storyline for some after the fight, drowning out the amazing action that had just occurred. It is also an understandable response given how beloved a fighter “Chocolatito” has been, how far he had fallen after the knockout loss to Sor Rungvisai, and then how he had performed since. To many, this storyline was befitting a storybook ending, with Gonzalez announced as the winner.

The final result will not end up mattering much in the grand scheme. In lieu of an absolutely inarguable win on the cards, Gonzalez and Estrada otherwise got almost everything they desired. And so did we. The journey still brought us to a worthwhile destination.

Estrada (42-3, 28 knockouts) got the victory and has now, like Lennox Lewis, avenged all of his losses and beaten everyone he’s ever faced as a professional prizefighter. Even had the decision instead gone to Gonzalez, Estrada still would have cemented his rightful place among the greats.

Similarly, the loss that’s been added to Gonzalez’s ledger (he’s now 50-3, 41 KOs) doesn’t at all take away from what he accomplished on Saturday night. We know what we saw. He knows what he did. 

It would’ve been reasonable for Gonzalez to hang up his gloves after Sor Rungvisai knocked him out. Instead, at 33 years old — often an advanced age for the smaller fighters — after more than 15 years as a pro, through 53 pro fights, and despite a run at junior bantamweight that’s been particularly punishing, Gonzalez put forth one of his most memorable performances in a career full of them.

Photo by Melina Pizano/Matchroom.

They will likely face each other a third time. It will not be more than eight years from now. It may not even be more than eight months from now. It will be another great night and another great fight. 

That is the nature of their rivalry, powered by destiny, momentum and magnetism. Like two celestial bodies within a constellation, they shine brightly enough on their own but are fated to be recognized together forever. 

The 10 Count

1 – There is still the matter of the fight that Srisaket Sor Rungvisai was owed with the winner of Estrada-Gonzalez 2. Either way, it would have been a third bout with either “El Gallo” or “Chocolatito.”

After Saturday’s result, the future is both clearer and not so clear for Sor Rungvisai, who is the WBC’s mandatory challenger.

“Rungvisai vs Estrada 3 next!” tweeted Sor Rungvisai, or whoever handles his social media account, on Monday. “Then I will do Rungvisai vs Chocolatito 3 right after. Chocolatito is a legend. He deserves the opportunity. But I have been waiting patiently as mandatory challenger for over a year. I did everything I had to do to be here.”

He added more on Tuesday: “I did three mandatory [defenses] against [Estrada and Gonzalez] in two years when I was the champ. Estrada has been the champ for two years, and he did zero mandatory. I have been waiting for a long time. I did everything I had to do. They got the unification they wanted. Now it is my time.”

A third fight between Estrada and Sor Rungvisai is enticing. But the same can be said for a rubber match between Estrada and Gonzalez.

It’s possible that Estrada could vacate his WBC title, hold on to the WBA belt he just gained from Gonzalez, and go into a third match with “Chocolatito.” If that happens, we could see a second bout between Sor Rungvisai (the WBC’s No. 1 contender) and Cuadras (No. 2).

They fought back in 2014. The fight ended in the eighth round due to a clash of heads. Cuadras won the fight, and Sor Rungvisai’s title belt, via technical decision.

The winner of Sor Rungvisai-Cuadras 2 could then face the winner of Estrada-Gonzalez 3.

2 – Let’s not ignore the other junior bantamweights who should be in the mix with any of the 115-pound “Four Kings,” or each other, in the not-too-distant future.

Kazuto Ioka, in particular, should not be on the sideline. He won the vacant WBO belt in 2019 and thrilled with his technical knockout victory over Kosei Tanaka this past New Year’s Eve. Ioka and “Chocolatito” are two of the only four fighters ever to win world titles in all four of the lightest weight classes (105, 108, 112, 115), according to boxing writer and historian Cliff Rold of BoxingScene.com.

The third is Donnie Nietes, well advanced in age at nearly 39 years old — you and me both, Donnie — but still competing at a high level. Well, that’s true at least for his last time in the ring, which was at the end of 2018, when he defeated the aforementioned Ioka. Nietes is scheduled to return on April 3 in Dubai. (The other fighter to win titles from 105 through 115 is Leo Gamez.)

The fourth titleholder at junior bantamweight is Jerwin Ancajas, who won his IBF belt back in 2016. He didn’t fight in 2020 but has signed with Premier Boxing Champions and is expected to be in the ring on April 10, according to Bong Lozada of Inquirer.net.

Rounding out this list are Joshua Franco and Andrew Moloney, who also need a third fight after their head-butt-shortened, not-so-instant-replay-ruined debacle last November; Tanaka; Khalid Yafai; Francisco Rodriguez Jr.; and Jeyvier Cintron.

3 – If ever there is a time for the “Superfly” cards to return, it’s now. DAZN seems like an ideal destination, although the other outlets (Showtime, PBC, ESPN) have also given airtime to the lighter weight divisions on occasion.

Surely DAZN would get more bang for its buck with the 115-pounders than it will by dishing out $3 million to Devin Haney for his fight with Jorge Linares (per Mike Coppinger of The Athletic, citing unnamed sources) or the $2 million it paid for Haney vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa.

4 – Dear boxing promoters, marketing wizards, and journalists. Let’s get more creative with how we describe our headline rematches. 

Here’s but a mere sampling from the Just a Little Bit of History Repeating Department:

But wait, there’s more!

5 – A month ago, I wished for more accountability with bad scorecards (see item No. 5 in The 10 Count from February 17).

In the aftermath of Estrada-Chocolatito 2, the World Boxing Association announced that it had temporarily suspended judge Carlos Sucre pending a review of his 117-111 card for Estrada.

“Big shows and fights like this one do not deserve the kind of score he gave,” said WBA president Gilberto Mendoza in a statement. “His decision was misguided yesterday.”

Unsaid here, and hopefully revealed later, is what range of scores the WBA would’ve considered fair, or which rounds it felt were clearly deserved by one fighter or the other. Sucre was the only judge to give Round 12 to Estrada even though Gonzalez had him badly hurt.

And then it would be good to know what the WBA’s standards are for scoring a round, and how judges are trained in order to score according to those expected criteria. Are judges’ performances regularly audited? That’s unlikely. It’s rare that we get any accountability whatsoever, and when it comes only seems to coincide with a major fight ending in controversy.

Judging is subjective. But better training, and better management overall, could remove bad judges before they ever get the chance to mess up something big, or could at least prevent them from doing it again and again.

As always, whether with the WBA or any athletic commission, this is wishful thinking.

6 – The line of the week belongs to boxing fan Donovan Kasp, who wrote this in a post on the enjoyable SN Boxing group on Facebook about the sanctioning body’s punishment of judge Carlos Sucre:

“Gonna be a very tough decision for the WBA. I mean, which belt do you choose for the lashing?”

7 – How to see things through the lens of a jaded boxing writer, in three easy steps:

Step 1: See story in your news feed headlined “Local promoter helps boxer make comeback.”

Step 2: Read the story, which is about a local promoter setting up heavyweight Alonzo Butler — remember him? — with Don King and Yoel Judah.

Step 3: Wait for Alonzo Butler to show up in the WBA ratings.

Butler is now 41 years old and may be vaguely familiar for anyone like me who spent far too many Friday nights watching boxing on ESPN2 instead of going out and, you know, having fun that doesn’t involve listening to Teddy Atlas. 

On one night in 2006, the heavyweight Butler faced an opponent named Terry Porter who came in below the cruiserweight limit. Butler scored a third-round knockout with, well, his rear end. Porter was bumped out of the ring and hit his head on a ringside table for the KO.

Butler went on to suffer a few losses and fought intermittently over the past decade — he appeared just six times between 2011 and 2016 — before picking up a pair of victories in 2020. He’s now 33-3-2 with 25 KOs.

8 – One thing that struck me earlier this month after Claressa Shields defeated Marie-Eve Dicaire was that the post-fight interview asked Shields about facing Katie Taylor.

It bothered me more when writers continued to talk about Shields vs. Taylor over the last week or so.

I get why the fight comes to mind. Claressa Shields is the undisputed* 154-pound champ while Katie Taylor is the undisputed 135-pound champ.

But — and this is no small thing — there was an undisputed 147-pound championship fight scheduled for March 13, just eight days after Shields beat Dicaire. Math is not my strong suit, but I seem to think that welterweight is closer to junior middleweight than lightweight is.

On the undercard of Estrada-Gonzalez 2, Jessica McCaskill won her rematch with longtime champ Cecilia Braekhus, retaining all four major world titles and being named The Ring’s new champ at 147.

For the record, I don’t think either McCaskill or Braekhus have the hand speed or defense to give Shields much trouble. Then again, we don’t know if Shields can make 147 or what doing so might take out of her.

9 – Shields did mention the McCaskill-Braekhus 2 winner in a tweet on Sunday about her potential upcoming opponents in boxing (she also has a coming foray into mixed martial arts):

“OK, my schedule looks like beating up [Savannah] Marshall at 160, then dropping to 147 to take on McCaskill for my third undisputed title??? Sheesh!” Shields wrote. “That 147 gonna be tricky, though! Hmm… I can make it, though!”

I’m looking forward to both of those fights. There’s not much else out there in boxing for Shields. And I’m not sure what else would be left for her afterward, barring cutting off limbs and competing at featherweight.

10 – Rest in peace, Marvin Hagler…

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.

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