Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez meet this weekend in Dallas in an eagerly awaited rematch of their classic 2012 showdown. Luke G. Williams previews what should be another super-flyweight spectacular…
Over eight years have passed since Nicaraguan icon Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez and the then largely unknown Mexican Juan Francisco ‘El Gallo’ Estrada waged memorable war for Gonzalez’s WBA light-flyweight title in Los Angeles. After a pulsating contest, the judges unanimously swayed the champion’s way via scores of 116-112 (twice) and a too wide 118-110.
It was a fight that enhanced both men’s reputations; Chocolatito was propelled further towards the number one pound-for-pound rating that – by almost universal consent – he held for two years from the autumn of 2015 until he was defeated by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017.
As for Estrada, his valiant effort announced his arrival on the world stage. Just one fight later he became a title holder in his own right at flyweight, defeating Brian Viloria in Macao for the WBA and WBO belts.
Eventually, both men ended up in the stellar super-flyweight division – 8lbs further north than the 108lbs light-fly limit – where they have, alongside Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Carlos Cuadras, participated in a thrilling merry-go-round of contests for the WBC title.
Part of what has made this series of bouts so compelling is that none of the quartet has been able to dominate: Srisaket was toppled by Cuadras; Gonzalez deposed Cuadras; Srisaket then dethroned Gonzalez and Estrada repelled Srisaket – albeit at the second time of asking – before successfully defending against Cuadras. The only disappointment is that Japanese sensation Naoya Inoue didn’t stick around long enough at super-fly to fight any of these magnificent warriors.
Despite Inoue’s absence, it’s a rivalry that has – in quality and quantity if not mainstream profile and wider appeal – surpassed that of the fabled ‘Four Kings’ of the 1980s, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.
Indeed, with this fight at the American Airlines Center in Dallas this unofficial round robin will reach the ten-fight mark – one more than the original Four Kings managed in contests stretching from the first Leonard-Duran contest at welterweight in 1980 to the third battle between the American and Panamanian in 1989 at super-middleweight.
“We’ve seen a variety of great combinations from these fighters,” WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman recently reflected to Boxing Social. “Between them they’ve fought a good amount of times. Fans love to see continuity. One fight that stands alone is good, but when you have a concept and a series of fighters that combine between them to fight many times it’s tremendous. It’s those combinations that create greatness.”
What then, of this, the tenth contest in this incredible sequence? In many respects, the fight is a reversal of the first meeting between Chocolatito and El Gallo. Back in 2012 Gonzalez was the champion and the bookmakers’ favourite, now it is Estrada who holds the more significant belt (the WBC as opposed to Gonzalez’s WBA strap) and is widely favoured to prevail (Betfred make the Mexican the 8/11 favourite at present, with Gonzalez 5/4).
These odds reflect the fact that the 30-year-old is at his pugilistic peak right now. Since losing to Gonzalez he has gone 15-1 (8 KOs) beating fighters of the calibre of Viloria, Milan Melindo, Cuadras (twice) while also splitting a tight two-fight series with Srisaket.
Estrada also has a perfect record in rematches – having avenged his 2011 points defeat against Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr with a stoppage win a few months later, and turning the tables on Srisaket in 2019 afer dropping a tight decision to the Thai southpaw the previous year. It’s a hugely impressive run that has led Estrada to be ranked in most sane judges’ pound-for-pound top ten.
“I’ve had three losses and I’ve avenged two of them,” Estrada said in the build-up to this contest. “I haven’t been able to avenge my loss to Gonzalez yet because we never fought again, but hopefully this time around, I will win, and that loss will be avenged as well.
“It’s been eight years [since the first fight] and I’m very excited… I believe the people really want to see it as well. I’m a great fighter. It’s going to be a great show. It’s going to be a better and bigger fight.”
In contrast to Estrada, Gonzalez is widely assumed to have passed his formidable peak, although he has made a mockery of being written off before.
After he was flattened in four rounds by Srisaket in 2017, the obituarists insisted he was finished. Injury enforced inactivity followed as well as a couple of low key wins and by the time he took to the ring in February last year to face unbeaten British Olympian Kal Yafai for the Birmingham man’s WBA title, Gonzalez – despite his 48-2 record and experience acquired from 17 world title fights – was regarded as the outsider.
To the delight of his fans and many neutrals, however, Chocolatito brushed Yafai aside with a silkily brutal performance, stopping the champion in nine rounds.
Although Gonzalez looked sensational that night, however, it was a contest that you could argue provided few indications as to exactly how good he still is. Yes, Yafai was undefeated in 26 contests, but his CV contained a fair amount of protective padding.
Furthermore, although Gonzalez looked reborn against Yafai, in his subsequent defence against Israel Gonzalez he fought well, but did not look the formidable force of yesteryear against an opponent Jerwin Ancajas destroyed a couple of years earlier.
All of which begs the question: was the Yafai victory the final hurrah by a great fighter nearing the end of his meritorious career?
Saturday night should provide the answer, for one thing is certain amid all the uncertainties surrounding Gonzalez; namely, the test offered by Estrada will be by far the stiffest the Nicaraguan has faced since he was stopped by Srisaket three-and-a-half years ago.
Gonzalez certainly sounds ready: “I’ve had a very strong training camp,” he insisted to Boxing Social. “It’s been very demanding and I’ve spent a lot of time studying previous fights. Estrada is a great champion with many qualities and few weaknesses, therefore we are putting everything into training under the hand of God.”
Despite Gonzalez’s confidence, however, stylistically this bout is a good fit for Estrada. The Nicaraguan loves to cut off the ring using his superbly fluid feet and excellent stamina to apply constant pressure, rattling off quick and hurtful combinations to head and body and not allowing his opponents the space and time to breathe or think.
But this is a technique that Estrada is perfectly placed to combat with his own excellent footwork and penchant for precise and hurtful counter-punching.
Estrada will also be confident that he can compete well at close quarters and on the inside with Gonzalez, who has never looked as strong or dominant at super-fly as he did while winning world titles at minimumweight, light-fly and flyweight.
The Estrada who shared 24 rounds of unrelenting action with Srisaket across two magnificent contests would be heavily favoured to defeat the 2021 version of Chocolatito.
However, just as Gonzalez displayed signs of sudden deterioration in his second fight with Srisaket, might Estrada find – on 13 March – that the insane run of intensely epic contests in which he has been engaged over the past few years will suddenly catch up with him? By the same token, might Chocolatito’s less intense schedule of the last three years mean he enters this fight as the fresher fighter?
Perhaps. There were certainly signs in the Mexican’s last fight – a tenth-round TKO of old rival Cuadras – that Estrada is vulnerable. Cuadras had produced four underwhelming performances – and also battled drug and alcohol issues – since he and Estrada went the full 12-round distance in 2017, but in the rematch ‘El Principe’ hurt Estrada on several occasions, notably when he knocked him down in round three.
After being deposited on the seat of his shorts, Estrada was also backed up on to the ropes and looked in some difficulty when the bell rang 25 seconds early to end the round.
Without this erroneous timekeeping, would Cuadras have been able to halt Estrada?
Probably not, but Gonzalez will certainly take heart from the fact that Estrada can be hurt and will draw further encouragement from the fact that bruising assignment for the Mexican was less than five months ago.
It is also interesting to note that although Gonzalez is at 33 the older man by three years, with more professional bouts under his belt compared to Estrada (55 to 44), and a paid career that began three years earlier, the Mexican has accumulated 286 largely tough rounds in his career thus far, while Gonzalez has accrued just 259.
Estrada also often starts slow. If Chocolatito can hurt and deter him early, banking enough rounds in the first half of the fight to withstand the Mexican’s customarily strong finish, then perhaps, if time has partly or wholly caught up with Estrada, Gonzalez can outwork, outland and outpoint his great rival.
On the other hand, Chocolatito is not the hardest fighter to hit and once Estrada finds his range and rhythm, he will fancy his chances of picking Gonzalez off, frustrating him with his precision and power and winning via points or late stoppage.
Whichever scenario you feel is more plausible, this is a contest that surely cannot fail to deliver excitement and excellence.
Pushed for a final pick, my heart plumps for a sentimental victory for Gonzalez, a win which would seal his legend and cap an astonishing comeback since that heavy knockout against Srisaket – who lies in wait for the winner here, assuming he defeats Kwanthai Sithmorseng in Thailand earlier in the day.
However my head – and cold, hard rationality – leads me to believe that Estrada will win via a close but clear points decision.
Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.