Daniel Roman hasn’t been an ex-champion long enough for him to feel any different since losing his 122-pound belts to Murodjon Akhmadaliev via split decision in January, but what he does know is that there’s nothing more important than getting them back.
“I believe and I feel like I was the same guy with the belts and without the belts,” he said. “But mentally, I want them back.”
That quest to regain his place atop the junior featherweight division begins on September 26 when he meets Juan Carlos Payano at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. It’s a WBC title eliminator, will be seen by plenty of people on Showtime Pay-Per-View, and it’s the kind of high-profile spot the Californian has earned. So even though he’s had to wait a while to return to the ring, he expects the end result to be worth it.
“We were planning on getting back earlier, maybe the beginning of July, before all this (COVID-19) started, but now it’s a couple months later. We've been training, so that's the good thing about it.”
Roman has never been one to take long breaks if he didn’t have to, but after a hard-fought 12 rounds with Akhmadaliev, it might have been a good thing for him to get a nice physical and mental break from the sport. That didn’t happen.
“With this pandemic going on, you can't do much,” he said. “So the only thing you had in your mind was boxing. So I don't think it helped me. (Laughs) But I love boxing.”
He can’t hide that. And though he’s still young at 30, there’s an old school, old soul aura around him, like he would have been comfortable fighting in any era of the sport. He doesn’t deny that description, owing it to the fighters he saw in the gym during his formative years in the ring.
“I think where I grew up and the gym I was working out at, I saw the mentality of how the boxers were back in the day and it rubbed off,” he said. “These are the type of fighters I want to become. I want to fight. I want to prove that I got it.”
Roman proved it on the California fight circuit, and when he got his opportunity to step up on the international stage in 2017, he seized the moment, winning the WBA 122-pound title with a ninth round stoppage of Shun Kubo. He successfully defended the crown three times before adding an IBF belt to his trophy case with a win over TJ Doheny in 2019.
Then came the fight with Akhmadaliev, one of the better fights of 2020 and an action-packed 12-rounder waged at a high level for each of those rounds. When it was over, two judges saw it for Akhmadaliev, one for Roman, and while there were subsequent debates among fans and media about the verdict, almost all agreed that it was close enough to have gone either way.
Roman believes he deserved the decision, and while he didn’t make a fuss about it, getting the support of the fans following the bout meant a lot to him.
“It does, because the people saw who won that night,” he said. “Me, personally, I believe it was a close fight, but I believe I took it. The judges saw it differently. One of them gave it to me, the other two gave it to MJ, but the people, I've been getting a lot of comments, like, ‘It was a close fight but we know you won the fight,’ and I thank them. It makes you feel good because the people saw the fight.”
But how many times did Roman watch it?
“Not a lot,” he laughs. “I'm my biggest critic. I'm always thinking, you know what, I should have done this, I should have done that. I don't see the fight good because I'm always judging myself.”
That doesn’t just go for his own fights, but everybody’s fights.
“I can't watch it as a fan,” he laughs. “I'm always analyzing everything. It's either that or I'll be flinching myself; I get too into the fight.”
And though there were varying opinions on who won his fight with Akhmadaliev, what Roman believes beyond a shadow of a doubt is that, in true old school fashion, a challenger has to take the title from the champion, 10-point must system be damned.
“I do believe that,” Roman said. “When I fought for the WBA world title in Japan, I stopped the guy in the ninth round, and even with TJ Doheny, I dropped him twice and I tried to dominate the whole fight because, in my mind, in order to be the best you gotta beat the best, and that was my mindset going into those fights.”
It’s still his mindset, one that is solely focused on making a statement against Payano, and he wants to fight not as just another contender, but as a reigning champion.
“I know I don't got the titles, so I'm gonna get 'em back,” he said. “This fight, for me, I gotta look good and send a message that I'm still the champ. Even though I don't got the belts, I'm still championship material.”
With a win, Roman will be in line for a shot at the WBC crown unbeatens Luis Nery and Aaron Alameda will fight for on the same night the former champ returns. Akhmadaliev owns the WBA and IBF belts, but this is no dilemma for Roman. He’ll take whatever title he can for now, but he will still hunt for a rematch with Akhmadaliev. That’s how the old school fighters do it.
“We still got unfinished business with MJ,” said Roman. “I know this fight's for a WBC title eliminator, so if everything goes great September 26 against Payano, I might end up facing Nery or Alameda. But a fight's a fight and I'll fight anybody they put in front of me. But personally, I would like that rematch against MJ. I feel like we've got unfinished business.”