By Cliff Rold
The star of this weekend’s biggest card, Gennady Golovkin, might not be the best fighter in the building at the storied Los Angeles Forum. Sure, the spotlight will shine brightest on the Middleweight main event.
More than a few hardcore fans are hoping a smaller man steals the show.
On the eve of his HBO debut, one can make a case that World Flyweight Champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez (42-0, 36 KO) is already likely for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Gonzalez has won titles in each of boxing’s three smallest weight classes since 2008. Across those almost seven years, the Nicaraguan dynamo mentored by legendary countryman Alexis Arguello has rarely been tested.
Gonzalez might be the best fighter in the world, at any size, not named Floyd Mayweather.
This Saturday (10 PM EST), as the co-feature to the WBA Middleweight title fight between Golovkin and challenger Willie Monroe, Gonzalez will attempt his second defense of the lineal and WBC 112 lb. honors he won last September with a knockout of Japan’s Akira Yaegashi.
Gonzalez will face 35-year old former WBC 108 lb. titlist Edgar Sosa (51-8, 30 KO). Sosa is 2-0 since a competitive but clear decision defeat to Yaegashi in December 2013. This will be Sosa’s third chance at the 112 lb. title, also suffering a competitive decision loss to Thailand’s Pongsaklek Wonjongkam in October 2011.
Between those defeats, Sosa picked up big wins over former 108 lb. titlist Ulises Solis and former lineal 108 lb. champion Giovani Segura. While aged, Sosa remains one of the best Flyweights in the world. At a time when the flyweight division is experiencing a wealth of talent, Sosa is a solid debut foe for Gonzalez on his biggest American stage.
Gonzalez is expected to win big.
If he does, he will have cleared the deck for what could be the toughest stretch of his career. Flyweight is loaded with quality talents in their primes, including fellow titlists Juan Francisco Estrada (WBA/WBO) and Amnat Ruenroeng (IBF). Japan’s Kazuto Ioka, a former unified titlist at 105 lbs., holds the WBA’s secondary title in the division. Gonzalez defeated Estrada at 108 lbs. in a Forum barnburner in 2012. Both men have improved since and a rematch is the biggest fight the division can offer.
Should Gonzalez finish his business at Flyweight, an ingénue talent at 115 lbs. could be waiting by 2016: Japan’s WBO titlist Naoya Inoue (8-0, 7 KO). Inoue won titles in two weight classes in 2014, both by knockout, en route to being named the BoxingScene Fighter of the Year.
Plenty of fans around the globe have been in on the Flyweight thrill ride of recent years. After several years of producing outstanding action and copious YouTube hits, along with some afternoon attention on HBO2 in the last three years, the little men are finally receiving the opportunity to show their wares to the larger US audience. It’s fair to argue this is the best collection of talent and consistent action at 112 lbs. and below since at least the 1990s, a decade that produced four hall of fame entrants.
At 108 lbs., 1988 US Olympic Silver Medalist Michael “Little Hands of Stone” Carbajal remains the gold standard for that era in terms of quality opposition. He didn’t fight everyone, but he fought more top dogs than anyone else during his day and beat most of them. Carbajal’s archrival, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, got the better of their memorable three-fight series. Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, at 112, was the man everyone avoided, a combination of speed and power that rivaled Roy Jones pound-for-pound.
And then there was Mexico’s Ricardo “Finito” Lopez, the record-setting ruler at 105 lbs. The significance of Lopez to boxing’s smallest weight class can’t be understated. Ring Magazine listed Lopez among their pound-for-pound top ten by 1993. They didn’t produce ratings for his division until 1998.
It’s fair to say Lopez was the key to validating and legitimizing Strawweight.
Lopez didn’t have the quality of opposition Carbajal did nor quite the rival Gonzalez found in the American. He wasn’t the avoided athletic specimen Johnson was.
Lopez’s distinction in the crowd was being the man no foe could master.
Lopez had singular dominance, defending his WBC 105 lb. title 22 times. Rosendo Alvarez came closest to ending his run, scoring the lone knockdown of Lopez in their first fight and settling for a cut hastened draw. Lopez won the rematch in a bloody classic and went on to add a 108 lb. title. He defended that twice and retired with a mark of 51-0-1, his record in title fights a remarkable 25-0-1.
Gonzalez is having a similar run and it is to Lopez that he bears the strongest comparison so far in his career. Should Gonzalez continue on his present course, he has a chance to equal the career mark of Lopez.
He might even surpass it.
There are two questions posed here:
1) Is Roman Gonzalez the most dominant little man since Lopez?
2) How does Roman’s run compare to Lopez’s at the same number of fights?
Comparing the two fighters at similar points in their careers, an argument can be made that Gonzalez is already ahead of the Lopez curve. It’s not an exact comparison. Both men turned professional at 18. Gonzalez got to his first title sooner, winning the WBA 105 lb. title at the age of 21 in his 21st professional fight at a mark of 20-0, 18 KO. Lopez didn’t win his first title until the age of 24 in his 27th fight, his record 26-0, 19 KO.
Gonzalez is making his 43rd start approximately six years and eight months from his first title win at a mark of 42-0, 36 KO; Lopez made his 43rd approximately five years and eight months from his at 42-0, 33 KO.
What they did from their first title wins to 42-0 is analyzed in the chart below:
Lopez was 30, to Gonzalez’s 27, when he went for his 43rd win. Lopez was still three fights away from his first unification fight at 105 (with WBO titlist Alex Sanchez). He followed Sanchez with the two Alvarez fights, ultimately adding the WBA belt to his mantle in the rematch. Gonzalez has yet to be involved in a unification bout in any weight class. He can equal or best Lopez in that regard if he defeats Sosa and faces Estrada or Ruenroeng within his next three fights after that.
Lopez did not add a title in his second weight class until he was 33. Gonzalez betters him there twice over, winning the interim WBA (later full) belt at 108 at age 23 and the Flyweight crown at 27. Gonzalez, while listed two inches shorter than Lopez at 5’3, appears the thicker built of the two and his quicker moves up in weight reflect that.
As a fun historical aside, Lopez won his first title from Hideyuki Ohashi who went on to manage Akira Yaegashi.
Lopez holds the edge in the sheer number of title fights each competed in through 42 fights. Part of that can be attributed to Gonzalez having to wait for a mandatory after his move from 108 to 112 lbs. Gonzalez takes more non-title fights in general, against mostly insubstantial opposition. Every fight Lopez took after his first title win was with his title on the line.
There are some striking similarities in their title fight numbers. The winning percentage of each man’s title fight foes is roughly equal as is their number of rounds per title fight. Gonzalez holds an edge in terms of the knockout threat from title fight foes and the overall experience of title fight opponents.
Lopez, in five more title fights, faced one fewer foe entering the ring off a loss. However, more than a third of Lopez’s title challengers in the time period considered entered with ten or fewer wins. That number bears some context.
Lopez faced several fighters from Asia where it is not uncommon for fighters with few fights to get title shots. While their professional boxing resumes are shallow, many fighters from Thailand for instance participate in professional kickboxing or Muay Thai before going to strict fisticuffs.
The number of Lopez’s six opponents with ten or fewer wins that fall into that category was not researched here.
Gonzalez holds a one-fighter edge in terms of reigning, former, or future titlists faced and would move that advantage to two with a win over Sosa. Let’s look at the quality of the titlists each man faced from his first title victory to win number 42.
Gonzalez holds several statistical advantages in this category, though a caveat is merited. 19 of the losses suffered by Lopez foes came from former titlist Manny Melchor. Gonzalez faced the only man in this category entering off a loss. Garcia suffered a decision defeat to Donnie Nietes in his previous fight. All of the titlists Gonzalez has stopped experienced the phenomena for the first time.
In terms of the men they defeated who went on to win titles later, each has quality in their favor.
Guardia won the WBO 105 lb. title in 1998 and defended it three times before winning an interim belt at 108. Sorjaturong came from behind to knock out Humberto Gonzalez for the lineal, WBC and IBF 108 lb. titles in the 1995 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. Sorjaturong would defend the unified title once and the WBC belt a total of 10 times.
Takayama, already a former titlist at 105 lbs. when Gonzalez defeated him, won the IBF belt in 2013 and the vacant IBF and WBO titles in 2014. Rodriguez, who faced Gonzalez neat the Flyweight limit in a non-title affair, moved down to win the WBO 105 lb. title and then unified against Takayama in the 2014 BoxingScene and ESPN Fight of the Year. Rodriguez has since vacated and moved up in weight. Estrada, immediately after losing to Gonzalez, upset Brian Viloria in 2013 for the WBO and WBA titles at 112 lbs. His reign continues with four defenses to date of both belts.
Is Estrada a better win than Sorjaturong? Does Guardia stand out as superior to Rodriguez? It’s too early to fully assess either of the still active men, much the same way it’s still too early to have a full debate on the dominance of Lopez versus the dominance of Gonzalez. It’s not too early to return to the central questions asked here.
Is Gonzalez the most dominant little man since Lopez?
In a word, yes. There have been some stellar runs since the 1990s. Ivan Calderon had good title reigns at 105 and 108 lbs. Nonito Donaire began his assault on the scale at 112 with a title win over Vic Darchinyan and made a few defenses before winning titles up to Featherweight. Darchinyan had a quality reign at 112, as did Argentina’s Omar Narvaez. Wonjongkam broke Miguel Canto’s record for consecutive title defenses at 112 and regained the title for another solid reign.
None had Lopez’s combination of longevity and unblemished mark. So far, Gonzalez does.
How does Gonzalez’s run compare to Lopez’s at the same number of fights?
Whether Gonzalez can match the near perfection of Lopez’s overall career remains to be seen. He has work to do to equal Finito’s championship numbers but is ahead of Lopez in terms of age of accomplishment, titlists faced, and divisions conquered. A challenge at 115 is expected before he’s done, giving Gonzalez a chance to win titles in one more weight class than Arguello, certain to be a point of conversation. Gonzalez winning a title as high as bantamweight isn’t out of the question.
Through 42 fights, Roman Gonzalez is on the right track. As he continues to tempt the scale, the chances for defeat could go up but those risks could weigh in his favor in a historical comparison. Should Gonzalez finish his run at Flyweight and below without a loss, he will have a powerful case for superiority over Lopez.
It isn’t going to get any easier after Sosa.
It shouldn’t. Increasing levels of difficulty is part of what makes a special run worth watching.
The obstacles ahead will make for a thrilling ride. It is a ride, finally, that everyone can more fully enjoy.
Research Note: Records compiled with the use of www.boxrec.com
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]