Tuesday , July 5 2022

How Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez changed boxing’s perception of smaller divisions

Gennadiy Golovkin was the main attraction, a staple of HBO Boxing for nearly a decade, but just before he entered the ring in Inglewood, California, on a May 2015 night to face Willie Monroe Jr., there was a diminutive boxer from Nicaragua who had the industry buzzing.

With a second-round TKO of Edgar Sosa, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez’s star shined bright. Once again, he highlighted the oft-dismissed lower weight classes and showed that those that step in the ring with him should no longer be neglected. Even though the action lasted less than six minutes, it became evident what only the most hardcore of fans already knew: Gonzalez, at 5-foot-3, was not only a generational talent but a thrilling fighter.

Gonzalez broke barriers with that fight against Sosa, becoming the first boxer under 115 pounds to compete on HBO since 1997. That moment was only the beginning. Gonzalez (50-3, 41 KOs) shared several other cards with GGG in the future, but ultimately found his way as a headliner, rewarding viewers with many fan-friendly fights.

All these years later, “Chocolatito” is more relevant than ever. Gonzalez, although no longer recognized as the pound-for-pound king, a title he owned for almost two years, remains one of the sport’s elite fighters. On Saturday in San Diego, he has another opportunity to enhance his Hall of Fame legacy. The 34-year-old meets Julio Cesar Martinez (18-1, 14 KOs), ESPN’s No. 1-ranked 112-pound boxer, in what could be viewed as a changing-of-the-guard matchup (9 p.m. ET, DAZN).

“Chocolatito has paved the way for the smaller guys to be in mega fights and bridged the pay gap between the divisions,” Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, who will promote his fourth consecutive Gonzalez fight on Saturday, tells ESPN. “The reality is that lighter weights tend to give us much better all-action fights, but without the exposure there is no opportunity to showcase this. Chocolatito gained exposure through major platforms that educated the audience in terms of the excitement of the smaller divisions.”

Martinez, a firecracker of a fighter who punches with reckless abandon, is able to shine — and earn lucrative paydays — because Gonzalez laid the blueprint. Gonzalez gained stardom, in part, because his bouts are guaranteed to be exhilarating, providing the kind of reliable entertainment the higher weight classes simply aren’t capable of on a consistent basis. Fighters in higher weight classes don’t throw nearly as many punches, both because they aren’t in the same kind of great cardiovascular condition and are just bigger and slower with their mechanics.

“I never imagined [these purses and exposure],” Gonzalez, who also won titles at 108 and 112 pounds, says via translator. He earned a career-high $700,000 in his March rematch with Juan Francisco Estrada. His $200,000 payday in his HBO debut was then a career best. “I’m very happy that today they are valuing more of the smaller divisions. And I hope to God they keep following the new ones, the ones that are coming up, the ones that are rising just like us.”

One of those upcoming fighters is Martinez, a 27-year-old Mexican who will look to upend Gonzalez in a 115-pound fight and gain the kind of momentum only attainable by defeating a fighter of legendary stature.

“Chocolatito is the kind of fighter who’s a great idol to the smaller weight classes,” Martinez says. “He did his story, he made his mark and that’s what we’re looking to do now.”

Gonzalez lay motionless on the ring mat as HBO cameras panned to see his girlfriend, Sofia, running away from her front-row seat, overcome with emotion. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, a hard-punching fighter from Thailand, had just eviscerated Gonzalez with a right hook that left the boxing world aghast and wondering if it was the end of the iconic Chocolatito.

Just six months earlier, Rungvisai scored a controversial decision over Gonzalez, a 20-1 favorite, to end his junior bantamweight title reign. There was no doubt left in the September 2017 rematch.

Gonzalez was just 30 years old at the time, but after all the brutal fights that featured thousands of punches exchanged, there was no telling what he had left. He was knocked from his pound-for-pound perch and didn’t fight for a year.

Seldom do fighters return to form following the sort of vicious knockout Gonzalez suffered at the hands of Rungvisai, but throughout his career Gonzalez showed he’s no ordinary fighter. He started his rebound with a fifth-round TKO of a shopworn version of Moises Fuentes. Fifteen months later brought another confidence-building win against Diomel Diocos.

Those were handpicked opponents to gauge his abilities, but then came an opportunity: a February 2020 title fight with the undefeated Kal Yafai. To the surprise of many, Gonzalez won nearly every round in dominant fashion, scoring two knockdowns en route to a ninth-round stoppage.

All the trademark Chocolatito maneuvers were on display, and he was once again champion.

“I look at him as like a natural disaster, like an avalanche type of style,” Timothy Bradley Jr. says, a former two-division champion and ESPN boxing analyst. “Once he got going there was no stopping him. He picked up momentum each round and the way he threw his combinations, the placement of shots and he stayed consistent. It was incredible.

“You don’t see fighters being able to throw combination after combination … while they’re getting hit, with great accuracy and power. Chocolatito is the only guy I know who can do it like that.”

He did that again last March in ESPN’s runner-up for fight of the year, a controversial decision loss to Juan Francisco Estrada. Gonzalez and Estrada, ESPN’s No. 8 pound-for-pound boxer, unleashed a combined 2,529 punches, a CompuBox record in a weight class known for its high-volume affairs.

The performance was further proof that Gonzalez was still elite and remained arguably the most reliable action fighter in the sport. The controversial nature of the bout and the breathtaking action left fans clamoring for a third meeting between the 115-pounders, and it was finally set for Saturday.

That fight was the one many expected to see this weekend, but a positive COVID test for Estrada changed the plans and created the opportunity for Martinez to step in for his idol and move up one weight class on five weeks’ notice.

While Gonzalez-Martinez is highly anticipated by boxing fans for the brutality it’s sure to deliver, the matchup remains a consolation prize following the postponement of the third fight with Estrada.

The first meeting came in November 2012, a classic battle for Estrada’s 108-pound title that Gonzalez won via unanimous decision.

Gonzalez quietly ascended to the top of the pound-for-pound list over the next few years, racking up knockout wins in all eight of his fights before returning to the Los Angeles area for the Sosa bout in his HBO debut. Those matchups were spread across eight locations: Mexico, Japan and Managua, Nicaragua, where Gonzalez was born and still resides.

“The flyweight fighters had to fight mostly in Mexico and Japan, where Japanese promoter Teiken supported many fights in those divisions,” says Tom Loeffler, who promoted seven consecutive Gonzalez fights from 2015 to 2018. “No promoter in the U.S. or Europe had any big financial interest in those divisions at that time. Working with Teiken, we were able to feature Chocolatito on a major stage on HBO on the GGG shows. Then we were able to launch the superfly [junior bantamweight] shows based on the success of Chocolatito.”

“That changed the economics of those divisions and we were able to feature the top fighters, including Chocolatito, Estrada, Srisaket, [Carlos] Cuadras, [McWilliams] Arroyo, [Naoya] Inoue and [Kazuto] Ioka.”

Since the Sosa fight, Gonzalez has fought 10 times. All but two of those bouts were staged stateside, proof of the lasting mark Chocolatito has left on the sport.

“He comes from humble beginnings, I think people can relate to that,” Bradley says. “The way he fought, how courageous he was; people dreamed to be that courageous, not only inside the ring but in life.

“He brought a lot of hope to a lot of guys in the lower weight classes. … When you put your heart out there inside the ring and people see it, they respect it.”

Martinez, too, was featured on Gonzalez undercards. He made his U.S. debut in November 2019 with a ninth-round stoppage over Cristofer Rosales to capture a vacant flyweight title, and like Gonzalez, impressed with his blinding speed and aggressive style.

He defended that 112-pound title on two Gonzalez undercards (both in the U.S., and Mexico), and is coming off a November bout with Arroyo that ended in a no-contest due to a clash of heads that left his opponent unable to continue.

Now, Martinez finally brushes up against greatness and the chance to become a star just like Gonzalez before him.

“[Fights like these are] going to help us get those big purses for those smaller weight classes,” Martinez says. “I think that sometimes the smaller weight classes are underappreciated and I want to be one of the best-paid fighters of the smaller weight classes. After me, maybe the fighters of those smaller weight classes will want their big money and big purses as well.”

They aren’t making millions, but they’ve come a long way from a time when Gonzalez was toiling away for five-figure paydays before his HBO debut. Martinez, who made $125,000 for his last fight, will earn a career-high purse Saturday.

A victory over Gonzalez, and he could extinguish hope of a third bout with Estrada and perhaps land the fight for himself — and the giant payday that would come with it.

“[Martinez] fights really nice,” Gonzalez adds. “After this he can become a complete boxer and a champion at 115 pounds.”

Until then, Gonzalez has more to give in a career that’s already opened so many doors for his fellow fighters. He was written off once before and is clearly soaking in the adulation during this second act. But he knows the end is near three months shy of his 35th birthday in a weight class unforgiving to older fighters.

“We are really in the last stage of our career, we’re closing a chapter before leaving the boxing world,” he says. “We’re looking forward to closing this chapter with everything.”

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