By Cliff Rold
Nothing lasts forever, but in boxing some fighters can feel so automatic it’s hard to see the crash coming. From the time he first caught the attention of hardcore fans in a dominating stoppage of veteran Yutaka Niida for his first title, Roman Gonzalez often left that impression.
Gonzalez was so consistent, so impressive, that without the benefit of English language skills or a lot of opponents the mainstream would recognize, he created a groundswell that eventually made him a prominent player on US airwaves.
The crash came in 2017.
His first defeat came in one of the great 115 lb. title fights to date, an absolute war with Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Debate raged about the scoring and the rematch was set. There would be no more debate after that.
The last time we saw Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez in a boxing ring, he was counted out. The next time we see him will be this Saturday on the undercard of Saul Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin II. It is the sixth time Golovkin and Gonzalez have either been on the same card, or aired on the same day, by HBO or HBO PPV. This is arguably the first time Gonzalez has been matched softer on paper in their pairings.
He is probably due a relative breather.
To be sure, this is a toe in the water. After six consecutive fights with fighters rated in the top ten of at flyweight or Jr. bantamweight by both TBRB and Ring, Gonzalez is facing a former titlist but one who has seen even tougher times than him. Moises Fuentes (25-5-1, 14 KO) is well past his reign with the WBO 105 lb. belt. He enters the bout having lost 3 of his last four, two by knockout, with three stoppage losses since 2014.
It says a lot that Fuentes still makes some wary. Gonzalez lost more than his undefeated record to Sor Rungvisai. Since winning a title in his fourth weight division in a classic with Carlos Cuadras, he’s also lost his longtime trainer, his aura of invincibility, and many fans in his native Nicaragua due to his politics. The second loss to Sor Rungvisai, on top of all that, was the sort of devastating defeat that can often portend the end of a fighter’s serious career near the top.
Heading into this weekend, the question is simple: does Gonzalez have a second act in him?
With his style, a mix of constant combination punching and pressure, the miles were bound to add up. The sheer effort he extended in the late rounds of the Cuadras and first Sor Rungvisai fights was the sort few fighters can continue to conjure up for long. In those fights, Gonzalez emptied the tank. It was no surprise he hit a wall.
Will the rest help?
For some fighters, a long stretch of tough fights followed by some time off can be a good thing. Marco Antonio Barrera took a lacing from Manny Pacquiao at age 29 after years of wars. He returned eight months later and won six in a row before losses to Juan Manuel Marquez and again to Pacquiao signaled his real end as an elite fighter.
Unlike Gonzalez, Barrera had already begun to adapt his style long before the Pacquiao loss. Following a pair of losses to Junior Jones and then a brutal first battle with Erik Morales, Barrera evolved into an expert counter puncher whose boxing was as refined as his brawling was scintillating.
It’s hard to imagine Gonzalez playing the part of patient counter puncher. His ring temperament has been long ingrained. For fighters with his style, a lost step means that the shots they subtly used to ride or slip land more often, cleaner, pushing them to the exit sooner.
Could it then be an issue of matchmaking? Gonzalez is being given a chance at a rehab assignment here. If he doesn’t win fairly decisively, the risks of stepping back into the mix in the deep field of contenders at 115 isn’t going to be met with a ton of optimism. New arrival Kazuto Ioka looked fantastic against McWilliams Arroyo; undefeated titlists Khalid Yafai and Jerwin Ancajas are fresh and still hungry. There are steep hills to climb to hope for anything near a return to the top. Not everyone in the division is as physical, or as powerful a puncher, as Sor Rungvisai.
They’ve got assets of their own. Gonzalez’s handlers will have to pick their spot wisely as he mounts his comeback. Does that option really exist?
HBO’s investment in the super flyweight class, one of their few remaining investments in the sport, has worked because the matchmaking has been tough. The division provides quality fights at a lower price tag than larger divisions. They might pay for a showcase for a new face like Naoya Inoue once but it’s not something they’re likely to do much of. As witnessed with lower ratings for the SuperFly 3 card, a less heralded card doesn’t yield much on investment.
That means if Gonzalez is going to come back, on the same air he’s been riding since debuting on HBO in 2015, he’s probably going to have to fight for it past Fuentes.
There is nothing wrong with that and it adds drama to the question of whether a second act is possible. This Saturday, we will get our first impression of what he has left. If he wins, we’ll soon find out for sure.
Gonzalez is already a lock to head to the Hall of Fame. No one can take away what he got done from 2008-17. What remains to be seen is if he has an epilogue in him worthy of the chapters that came before.
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]