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Yafai hails Chocolatito, predicts Estrada war

Tonight, Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada finally meet once again with the WBC and WBA super-flyweight titles on the line at the American Airlines Center, Dallas. Their first encounter in 2012 saw them vie for the WBA light-flyweight title, then in the possession of Gonzalez. ‘Chocolatito’ retained his belt by unanimous decision, but Estrada left the ring with his reputation greatly enhanced.

In the intervening years, both men have established themselves amongst the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world by capturing titles at flyweight and super-flyweight. To aficionados of the sport, this one of most highly anticipated fights of the year.

Among the interested spectators will be Kal Yafai. The 2008 Beijing Olympian lost his WBA 115lbs strap to Gonzalez in February last year. Having experienced the technical brilliance of ‘Chocolatito’ first-hand, Yafai (26-1, 15 KOs) is certain of the type of fight fans can expect.

“Just war,” Yafai predicted with a laugh as he spoke to Boxing Social. “I should have got a Marvin Hagler cap and watched it wearing one of them, because that’s what it’s going to be. There’s going to be a lot of skill on show. I think it’s going to be a boxing purist’s fantasy fight. There’s going to be a bit of everything in it. I think Estrada might start [by] trying to box his way into it, but he’ll get dragged into a war, no doubt about it.

“I just hope people actually watch it. I hope it gets a lot of viewing figures. I hope it gets a lot of attention. The boxing purists, it’s got their attention, but a lot of casual fans don’t know about it, which is a shame really. You are not going to see many bigger fights than that.”

Gonzalez is renowned for his ability to force opponents into his kind of fight through a combination of excellent footwork and educated pressure. When ‘Chocolatito’ faced Yafai, he did not have to compel the 2008 Beijing Olympian to engage, Yafai was happy to stand and trade with the Nicaraguan. Traditional logic dictates that such tactics are reckless against a fighter with the ability to elude punches and create the space to land his own hurtful combinations. Yafai acknowledges this, but due to his struggles with making the divisional limit of 115lbs, it was the only option available to him.

Yafai hoped his natural size advantage would be enough to help him secure a devastating early knockout victory. That was not the case. Gonzalez was able to evade Yafai’s early onslaught and, as the fight went on, ‘Chocolatito’ began to land on his tiring opponent with increasing ease before stopping Yafai in the ninth round.

“I knew that in that fight: ‘I can’t box this kid for 12 rounds,’” he said. “I knew my legs wouldn’t let me do it. My last couple of fights before that my legs were gone, after four rounds my legs would start seizing up and [I’d] have to stand in the pocket. I basically went there to try and chin him, really. I knew I couldn’t do 12 rounds with him; I knew I had to get him out of there as early as possible, but that played into his hands. That’s it, that’s what happened; I played right into his hands when I was in the pocket with him. Standing in the pocket with ‘Chocolatito’ is just the wrong thing to do [laughs].

“I’m the last person to make excuses. I’ll never take anything away from him because he’s a brilliant fighter, even if I did have my legs, I’m not saying I’d have won the fight because he’s that good. Going into the fight, when you are ready to ring walk and you know: ‘Realistically, I’ve got four rounds here to give it what I’ve got’. You think that there’s vulnerabilities there because of what [Srisaket Sor] Rungvisai has done to him and I was a lot, lot bigger than him as well. Even though I lost the fight, I learned a lot in there. I never thought I would learn that much in there, but seeing how technically supreme he is, he is the bollocks.”

Yafai was not surprised as a result of underestimating his opponent. He had spent years watching Gonzalez’s fights and possessed a great deal of reverence for him. However, he was shocked at just how good ‘Chocolatito’ was on the night. With Yafai’s amateur background and years spent attending some of the biggest fights in England and the United States, he has seen many excellent fighters up close, yet Gonzalez impressed him more than any other.

Gonzalez’s ability to anticipate and evade punches impressed and frustrated Yafai in equal measure.

“It’s just his reactions and how effortless everything he does is,” he said. “It’s like he’s just got out of bed and is slipping and rolling punches, it was really impressive. Ninety-nine percent of the time when you are fighting other guys, or even sparring world class fighters, I’ll find a home for that left hook to the body, I’ll always land it. There’s times in that fight where I could see the shot and think: ‘I’d bet my house on landing this left hook to the body’. I’d throw it, and all of a sudden, he’d stick his elbow out and deflect and I was like: ‘You little bastard.’

“My brother [Gamal] he was sitting there in the corner for that fight, and he said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’. All the fights we’ve been to and watched all the top world champions [at] ringside but seeing him was something else.”

Gonzalez’s performance was all the more impressive as he had been universally dismissed as a faded force. In 2017, ‘Chocolatito’ lost his undefeated record to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in an epic battle, which saw the Nicaraguan on the wrong side of a majority decision. Six months later, Gonzalez went in search of revenge, but instead was demolished inside four rounds.

Gonzalez appeared to be a fighter with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The previous year, his long-term trainer and mentor Arnulfo Obando passed away suddenly. The loss took a significant toll on ‘Chocolatito’. Two low-key wins followed, but it was believed that Gonzalez would never be able to recapture the form that saw him top pound-for-pound lists. 

Yafai knew he should have vacated his title and move three pounds north to the bantamweight division, but the opportunity to face a living legend at the right time was too tantalising to pass up. Yafai is not too proud to admit that he believed he would be facing a fighter in decline.

“I’d be the first to put my hands up,” Yafai said. “People like me and Eddie [Hearn], we thought: ‘He must be on the slide a bit now’. There’s no doubt about that, I think everybody thought that. I’m not deluded to think he wasn’t, but he just rolled back the years. When I watched it back, it looked like the old ‘Chocolatito’ in his prime.”

If Gonzalez has looked rejuvenated as of late, it appears that Estrada’s 44-fight career is finally taking a toll on his body. In October, Estrada faced his fellow countryman Carlos Cuadras. The pair had first fought in 2017 with Estrada winning by one point on all three scorecards, a 10th round knockdown proving to be decisive. Since their first battle, Cuadras has struggled with addiction issues and had looked to be past his best in recent fights. However, Cuadras produced a valiant performance in the rematch, sending Estrada to the canvas in the third round before being halted in the 11th frame.

Yafai believes that Estrada may now be past his physical peak, which adds another fascinating layer to the contest.

“That last fight Estrada had, I didn’t expect it to go that way, at all,” he said. “I thought it would be an easy fight and he would get [Cuadras] out of there in five, six rounds. I’ve seen Carlos Cuadras’ couple of previous fights, and he looked done as well. He was winning majority decisions against nobodies, but he looked far from done [against Estrada]. I think Estrada is probably just past his prime, but it’s just one of them really intriguing fights where you don’t know who’s got what left. They’ve both had very long careers and very tough careers. I think it’ll be whoever has most left at this stage.”

While Yafai has waxed lyrical about ‘Chocolatito’, he is also impressed by Estrada. The Mexican is an excellent counter-puncher, capable of punishing opponents for the most minor of mistakes. The bookmakers have Estrada as the slight favourite (currently 8/11 with Betfred) as he is perhaps the fresher the of pair, despite his showing in his most recent bout.

In 2012, Estrada was coming down in weight from flyweight. Tonight, he will almost certainly be the bigger man in the ring. Yafai believes if Estrada is to be successful, he should refrain from going in search of the knockout.

“Estrada has to use his legs,” he said. “He has to try to bring Gonzalez on to punches and make him fall in, make him lean over that front foot as much as he can. Gonzalez does lean over that front foot, but he’s really clever with it, how he manages to move back out of range before walking onto an uppercut. Estrada has to try to hit-and-move. At times, he’s going to have to stick in the pocket, and I’d bet my house on it that he will, because it’s instilled in him. Will he be the bigger, stronger man on the night? I think so. Estrada will be the physically bigger man, but I don’t know if he’s got the Rungvisai-style power to put Gonzalez away.”

Of course, Gonzalez has a blueprint to defeat Estrada, it is a tactic which has served him well against every foe, with the exception of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Yafai suspects we may witness a vintage ‘Chocolatito’ performance.

“Gonzalez has to do what he always does; put the calculated pressure on and grind him down, similar tactics to what he did in the first fight and what he does in every fight,” he said. “In [my] fight with Gonzalez, when he first started to land, I thought: ‘This is fine, he isn’t really a puncher,’ but as fatigue comes into it, you don’t see the shots coming and all of a sudden you are on the floor and you are trying to get up. I don’t think he’s got the concussive knockout power, it’s just the way he grinds you down. Never in a million years did I think he would stop me. He’s always doing something. Whether he’s switching the angle with his feet, little feints, he’s always making you think. Even if he’s not throwing, he’s working out ways to make you tired and slow down, which he does.”

Yafai expects the 10th instalment of the modern day ‘Four Kings’ to result in another tremendous contest and believes that Gonzalez can produce one more signature performance.

“Gonzalez, I’d fancy points,” Yafai said. “Not only because he beat me, I just think he’s resurrected his career. I think he’s got one or two big fights left in him.”