By Jake Donovan
Roman Gonzalez become just the second fighter in the history of Nicaragua to capture titles in three weight classes following a 9th round stoppage over Akira Yaegashi in their flyweight championship Friday evening in Tokyo, Japan.
Both fighters fought at a measured pace in the opening round. Gonzalez sized up his prey, scoring with uppercuts and body shots but reserving his best stuff for ensuing rounds.
Yaegashi came in as the defending World flyweight champ, but was reduced to following the challenger's lead for much of the night. Gonzalez stepped it up in round two, prompting Yaegashi to act in kind. The tactic resulted in solid two-way action, but largely controlled by Gonzalez.
Action became more competitive in round three, or so Yaegashi would have liked to believe. The champ enjoyed his best round to that point, but never fully in control and unprepared as Gonzalez caught him flush towards round's end for the bout's first knockdown.
Yaegashi beat the count, but slow to get up and his right eye beginning to swell shut. Gonzalez poured on a merciless beating in round four in hopes of finishing him off.
Rather than wilt, Yaegashi showed the level of heart and courage displayed in his brief-but-thrilling stay as a strawweight titlist. The crowd favorite rallied back hard in the middle rounds, with Gonzalez still getting in his shots and - according to the judges - well in control of the action, but slowing down just enough to save up for a big finish.
It came, and in emphatic fashion.
The tide swayed back in the challenger's direction for good in round seven, picking up the pace in each passing round as Yaegashi was beginning to break down. A brutal two-fisted attack in round eight was trumped only by Gonzalez' onslaught in the fight-ending 9th round.
With his title reign - and perhaps career - on the line, Yaegashi dug deep for one last stand. His attack had no impact, as Gonzalez continued to plow forward. A fight-ending volley of seven unanswered punches floored Yaegashi for the second time in the fight. Referee Michael Griffin had seen enough at this point, requesting Yaegashi's mouthpiece in signalling the end of the fight.
Gonzalez rolls to 40-0 (34KOs) with the win. In adding the flyweight crown to previous title reigns at strawweight and junior flyweight, Gonzalez joins the late, great Alexis Arguello as the only fighters from Nicaragua to serve as three-division champions.
Yaegashi falls to 20-4 (10KOs). His valiant effort results in the end of his flyweight title reign after just 16 months. Yaegashi captured the crown with a 12-round win over Toshiyuki Igarashi in April '13, making three successful defenses before running into Gonzalez' lethal fists.
Overall, Yaegashi's reign lacked the same impact he enjoyed even in a brief stay as a 105 lb. titlist. There, the 31-year old was involved in back-to-back title wars, including a title-winning 10th round knockout of Pornsawan Porpramook in Oct. '11, a fight hailed as 2011 Fight of the Year and possibly the greatest in the history of the strawweight division.
His title run lasted only as long as his next fight, a historic moment in Japan. A 12-round loss in a June '12 war with countryman Kazuto Ioka marked the only time two current titlists from Japan met in a unification bout.
The credentials Yaegashi boasted going in - along with his stance as the lineal flyweight king - gives Gonzalez the career-defining win he otherwise lacked heading into the title fight. The unbeaten 27-year old is widely regarded as one of the very best fighters in the world, but the talent far exceeded a modest level of competition.
It was through no fault of Gonzalez that the most significant fight of his career comes in his 40th trip to the ring as a pro. For years, he pursued a showdown with Ioka at 105 and 108, even following him up the scales to flyweight.
There were talks of Ioka facing Gonzalez or a rematch with Yaegashi had he completed his goal of becoming a three-division champ. Instead, the former titlsit at 105 lb. and 108 lb. fell short in a failed bid versus alphabet 112 lb. titlist Amnat Ruenroeng earlier this year.
By then, Yaegashi and Gonzalez were already in negotiations for a head-on collision, having appeared on the same show in April to further drum up interest.
In the end, it turned out to be well worth the wait for Gonzalez, whose greatness was emphatically confirmed Friday evening in Tokyo.
On the undercard, Naoya Inoue scored the first defense of his 108 lb. crown with a one-sided 11th round stoppage over Thailand's Samartiek Kokietgym.
Both bouts aired on Canal 4 in Nicaragua, and legally streamed live on its UStream channel.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox