Certain fighters speak to us through their struggles, their pain resonating with our own shortcomings. We seek a connection that is both inspiring and, at the same time, deeply human. It’s a rare commodity and far more valuable than the padded records of undefeated fighters and media-managed PR.
Danny Roman’s story encapsulates why so many of us fell in love with the sport of boxing. It’s a tale of overcoming self-doubt, confounding the naysayers and setting yourself remarkable challenges in the face of defeat.
“It’s not easy getting up there, but if I can achieve it, you can achieve it as well. What’s stopping you? Those people that don’t believe in you – prove them wrong!” Roman told Boxing Social.
The former WBA and IBF super-bantamweight champion’s introduction to the sweet science came as a result of childhood beatings dished out by neighbourhood bullies. Introduced to the local gym by his father and brother, it was swiftly evident that the youngster was an accomplished and rare talent.
“When I was 11 or 12, I started winning fights and thinking ‘You know what? I think I’ve got the gift for this!’” recalled Roman. “My dream was to become an Olympic gold medallist. But I lost at the Western try-outs, so once that happened I got discouraged. I was like, ‘Forget boxing, I don’t want to do boxing no more’. So I stopped for a year when I was 17, 18 years old. I was working at a restaurant.”
Despite the monotony and burden of the minimum wage, returning to the ring remained an unappealing proposition for the teenager. His father, however, had other ideas and so began the sort of unyielding encouragement reserved for a directionless son.
“I looked at my dad and said, ‘Look Dad, I don’t want to do this no more!’ But my brother was still boxing, getting ready for a professional fight, and he asked for my help. So they tried to convince me to get back. I went back to the gym, once a week, once every two weeks, and my dad paid for my membership of the gym. I was still like, ‘Dad, you don’t want to do this, you’re wasting your money!’ But you know, as a parent you know how to deal with your kid and my dad knew how to deal with me. So I was like, ‘I’m not going to let this pass by’. Little by little, I started getting back into it and that fire in me sparked back up and I was ready to go.”
There was no razzmatazz to the early days of Roman’s professional career, no sales pitch from the promotional hype machines. He began, like so many others, by duking it out on small hall cards and hotel shows. His style was still crude, his defence far from refined. Despite exhibiting plenty of raw talent, Roman suffered his first defeat in just his fourth professional fight against Takashi Okada (L4).
“I took the loss. My dream of being an undefeated fighter, that was off the table now,” he said. “I thought, ‘So what am I going to do now? I can’t keep fighting this same style because I’m going to keep getting beat’. So I found a way to better myself. My coach helped as well, and the people around me who supported me. I started to improve. But then I got my second loss [L8, vs Juan Reyes in his 11th pro fight] and it was a controversial decision. So after that, you know it was hard enough to get a fight with one loss, imagine with two losses now! Because that’s what promoters see. They just want undefeated fighters. There’s a lot of talented fighters out there, but they have a loss or two, or maybe even a few of them, but once you lose a fight you become just an ‘opponent’ to them.”
With his career now disregarded by many, Roman once again went back to the drawing board. There were no excuses, no huge changes in his team. A period of deep self-reflection followed and, with it, the wins began to quietly rack up.
“I’ve always been like that. I don’t try to blame anybody. I try to take a step back and see what happened,” he said. “As humans, we always try to blame somebody else. We don’t want to take responsibility for our own actions. But if something’s going to change, it’s got to start with me.”
With his self-belief growing with each victory, Roman was suddenly on the cusp of the unthinkable, becoming a world champion. Still the hype was minimal and this suited the humble Californian just fine. He arrived in Kyoto, Japan, to little fanfare; a relative unknown viewed as just another opponent for WBA champion Shun Kubo to dismantle. Yet Roman upset the script. Kubo survived a nine-round shellacking before the referee mercifully intervened. Danny Roman was the champion of the world.
Three impressive title defences soon followed, along with the IBF belt courtesy of a majority decision over a tough T.J. Doheny. But in January 2020, Roman suffered his third defeat, a razor thin split decision to rising Uzbek star Murodjon Akhmadaliev. It’s a fight that’s left a bitter taste, and one he still can’t bear to watch back, but it’s done nothing to dampen his spirit and determination.
“No! I still can’t see it, man! Because it goes through my mind. I should’ve done this, I should’ve started a little earlier. I judge myself really hard,” he confided.
“I think I won the fight. I think I won it by two points. To beat the champion, you’ve got to do it how I did it in Japan. I dropped him and I stopped him in the ninth round and I tried to dominate the whole fight. Because that’s how you beat a champion.”
Compounding the loss even further came the news that Roman’s promoter, Matchroom, would not be re-signing him. But as he reflects upon these disappointments, it takes just a few seconds for the former champion’s tone to alter completely. His focus switches instantly to hunting for more prizes.
“You know I’m No.1 for the WBC now! So that’s [WBC Champion] Rey Vargas!” he said. “Even before fighting [Akhmadaliev]. I kept calling [Vargas] out. I called out all the champions. Because with my style and with the right adjustments, we could beat Rey Vargas. I was even there at his last match against [Tomoki] Kameda. And I called him out! I said that the winner of this match, I would like to face them! Now the opportunity has come… oh yeah, I’m excited!”
And his ambitions don’t stop there. Roman (27-3-1, 10 KOs) even has his eyes set on one of the most ferocious punchers in boxing today, Japan’s pound-for-pound star Naoya Inoue.
“My goal is still to be the undisputed super-bantamweight champion, but I believe that with a good diet I could move down to 118lbs,” he insisted. “Meaningful fights, that’s what I want. Inoue, he’s considered the best and that’s who I want to fight.”
With a world title fight on the horizon, as well as chasing a mammoth challenge down at bantamweight, it’s clear the 30-year-old feels he has more stories to tell. This relentless drive is what took the Californian to world champion status in the first place and it’s this same mindset that keeps the fires burning.
“As humans, once we get something we think, ‘that’s okay, that’s enough, that’s good’. But you know what? I’ve got to set my mentality. I still haven’t achieved everything that I want to achieve. I’ve got to go for more,” said Roman.
“I always believe that I haven’t achieved [anything]. Because there’s a lot that I can still do. There’s a lot that I still have to prove. And I’ve got to get those titles back! That’s the main one, that’s my main motivation. This guy didn’t beat me. I’ve got to get those belts back! Because that’s not how you beat a champion!”
The American philosopher William James once said, “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” Danny Roman is proof of what can be achieved if you press on through the pain. Keep going.