AS if planned by the boxing gods to send a message, it is somewhat apt that the trilogy fight between Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez happens to fall on the very same day as the – ahem – trilogy fight between Tyson Fury and Derek Chisora, the two separated by oceans, numerous weight classes, and so much more.
Paired together like this and what you have is a study in the difference between the big guys and the little guys, with the latter always in the shadows, alas. Not only that, in the case of these two particular fights, we see the marked difference between a necessary trilogy and one that has been forced upon us due to reasons pertaining solely to greed and convenience.
The fight between Estrada and Gonzalez, make no mistake, is the one with history, integrity, and value. It is, one suspects, the culmination of a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 2012, meaning this, the third fight, comes almost exactly 10 years after the first. That, as a stat, is a testament to both fighters’ ability to keep competing at the highest level – a feat even rarer in the case of boxers in the lower weight classes – and also offers an insight into just why this rivalry feels so compelling, particularly when placed in the context of what else is happening in boxing this weekend.
Ten years ago, when meeting for the first time, Gonzalez, from Nicaragua, was the WBA light-flyweight belt-holder and Estrada, from Mexico, was a hard-hitting contender whose only pro loss was an eight-round decision against Juan Carlos Sanchez in his homeland in 2011. It seemed, at the time, that Gonzalez, then 33-0, was perhaps a little too experienced for Estrada and this assumption rang true on the night itself, with Gonzalez tested but still relatively comfortable, winning a unanimous decision at the bout’s conclusion (118-110, 116-112, 116-112).
That was to be Estrada’s first title shot, though it would not be his last. In fact, in his very next fight he was again in the mix for titles, only now he was competing as a super-flyweight, a division in which he dethroned Brian Viloria just five months after losing against Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, also moved up in weight, first to flyweight. It was indeed there that he truly established himself as a modern great, winning the WBC belt against Akira Yaegashi in Japan in 2014 before going on to defend it four times. After that, he too moved to super-flyweight, where he conquered Carlos Cuadras in a 2016 classic and then, in his next fight, hit the first real rough patch of his career.
Adversity, for Gonzalez, came in the form of Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, who, in 2017, managed to beat “Chocolatito” not once but twice. He beat him the first time by decision, as big a shock as there was that calendar year, and then repeated the trick in the rematch six months later, only this time the result was far more emphatic, with Sor Rungvisai stopping Gonzalez in just four rounds.
Back then, with Gonzalez a man of 30 (considered “old” for a super-flyweight), most presumed we had seen the last of one of boxing’s great technicians. He looked, on that night against Sor Rungvisai, to be slow, all out of ideas, and, most worryingly of all, no longer able to absorb the punches he had taken from Sor Rungvisai in their vicious first encounter earlier that same year. Some, the more optimistic among us, prayed it was just a stylistic issue, and that Gonzalez had simply met his antidote, his kryptonite, his bogeyman. Yet the consensus view was that Gonzalez had had his time and that now it was time for others, like Sor Rungvisai, and like a certain Mexican with whom Gonzalez had history, to take over and build on all the good work he had previously done in the lower weight classes.
That same year – that same night, in fact – Juan Francisco Estrada was solidifying his status as one of the world’s premier super-flyweights by defeating fellow Mexican, and another of the top contenders, Carlos Cuadras via decision. A breakthrough moment in his career, this proved to be the statement win Estrada needed following a run of nine straight victories since losing against Gonzalez back in 2012. He showed, in beating Cuadras, that he was ready to again compete against the division’s very elite, which meant, after seeing what Sor Rungvisai did to Gonzalez in the rematch, his path would lead to the hard-hitting Thai in 2018.
That ended up being a fight some felt was controversial, given it concluded with a majority decision going the way of Sor Rungvisai after 12 rounds. Yet undoubtedly, in light of the ease with which Sor Rungvisai had handled Gonzalez, Estrada, in being so competitive with Sor Rungvisai, had shown his capabilities and truly arrived as a force at that kind of level. It seemed almost inevitable, too, that this would not be the end of the relationship between the pair. They would surely meet again.
And they did, a year later in 2019. This time, unlike before, Estrada left nothing to chance and attacked Sor Rungvisai with the kind of intensity for which he is known, eventually taking his WBC belt with a unanimous decision victory to even the score.
By that stage, Roman Gonzalez, the fighter whose epitaph had already been written by some, was back on his feet again and back in action. To his credit, he took a year off after that second loss against Sor Rungvisai, and then returned in a low-key and sensible manner, booking fairly straightforward fights against Moises Fuentes and Diomel Diocos and winning them both – the first inside five rounds, the second inside two. These were not, it’s true, particularly taxing affairs for Gonzalez, but that was of course not the point. The idea in pursuing them was to simply test the waters and, just as crucial, restore the confidence presumably shattered by Sor Rungvisai in 2017.
As an exercise in this, it worked. Better yet, by the time Gonzalez was ready to step back up to something resembling world level in 2020, he was more than ready for it.
His opponent for that return was to be England’s Khalid Yafai, a fighter unbeaten in 26 bouts who, at the time, held a WBA super-flyweight strap. On paper a fight sold as a passing of the torch, especially in the eyes of Yafai and his team, what was to later unfold in reality was quite the opposite. Instead, rather than a passing of the torch, Gonzalez vs. Yafai would provide one of the finest examples of a calculated gamble backfiring and a young champion severely overestimating the extent to which an old legend had faded.
Indeed, what happened that night was that Gonzalez first gave Yafai a boxing lesson, winning the majority of the rounds they shared, and then, as if that was not enough, finished the fight with a devastating right hand in round nine. As complete a performance as you’re likely to find, Gonzalez hadn’t just halted the progress of an undefeated and heavily hyped future star. He had also breathed fresh life into his own career; the final chapter of which he was now just about to enter.
Next up for him was a fight on October 23, 2020, against Israel Gonzalez, an underrated contender. He won that one, too this time by unanimous decision, and watched on that same card Juan Francisco Estrada, his old foe, steal the show with a stunning 11th round stoppage of Carlos Cuadras, a man familiar to both of them. Those two wins, coming as they did on the same night, then set the wheels in motion for a rematch between Gonzalez and Estrada, this time with Estrada the one seemingly in the prime of his fighting life.
Estrada, in fact, had lost just once since that Gonzalez defeat in 2012. He was, unlike the first time they met, an experienced, seasoned campaigner with all the self-belief of someone who had faced and beaten some of the best super-flyweights in the world. The only one he so far hadn’t beaten was, of course, Roman Gonzalez.
Interestingly, too, whereas before Gonzalez was the fighter entering his prime and Estrada was the one still finding his feet as a pro, second time around there was a belief that Gonzalez, for as good as his form had been post-Sor Rungvisai, remained a fighter, sadly, approaching his curtain call. This, on paper, appeared to give Estrada the edge, despite Gonzalez having beaten him before, and when it came time for the pair to reunite in March 2021, this may have in the end been the difference.
Whether true or not, Estrada ultimately got the nod, narrowly, after 12 frenetic and fascinating rounds. He did so via a split decision (117-111, 115-113, 113-115), but the fight was so good, and the respective performances so strong, nobody came away from it feeling as though either man had come up short or disappointed. Moreover, such was the nature of both the fight and its scorecards, it appeared only natural that they would at some point reconvene, hopefully, for Gonzalez’s sake, sooner rather than later.
For, after all, as much as Gonzalez, now 35, continues to confound the doubters and dazzle us with his longevity, it is surely only a matter of time before we witness a repeat of that second Sor Rungvisai loss with no subsequent miracle to follow. Three years Estrada’s senior, Gonzalez, 51-3 (41), maybe has one more trip to the well left in him. Or at least that’s what we hope.
Certainly, as he prepares to go there against Estrada again this weekend in Glendale, Arizona, we need him to get there and back safely. If he can, as he did so admirably with Estrada in 2021, we could be in for a fight every bit as magnetic and ferocious as that back-and-forth rematch. If, however, he can’t, and if that 2021 brawl proves to have been one too many, there is every chance Estrada, 43-3 (28), completes this trilogy with the kind of showing we saw him produce against Cuadras when they met for a second time in 2020.
The good news for Gonzalez, and all who continue to believe in miracles, is that even in 2022 he shows no sign of regression. Rather, as he demonstrated against Julio Cesar Martinez in March, there is plenty he can still teach the next generation, and plenty he can still offer himself. He was, in fact, near faultless that night against the unbeaten Mexican and again, as with Yafai, it was a fight ostensibly put together to enable a young up-and-comer to announce himself on the big stage.
That never happened, though, and Gonzalez, one suspects, could probably fight until he is 40 dishing out similar lessons to upstarts unlikely to ever be as intelligent or ring savvy as he. It is in the shape of Estrada, however, that he finds the true test of his capabilities at 35. It is in the shape of Estrada he will, on Saturday night, perhaps find someone a little too good, and a little too assured, for the Gonzalez story to receive the happy ending he, and all who follow him, thinks it deserves. He will fight hard for it, no doubt, and will push Estrada all the way, but the safe bet is Estrada on points, enough to give him a 2-1 edge in a quite brilliant three-fight series.
The Glendale undercard is dominated by little men, the highlight of which will be Julio Cesar Martinez, 18-2 (14), attempting to bounce back from that loss to Roman Gonzalez earlier this year with a fight against Spain’s Samuel Carmona, 8-0 (4), scheduled for 12 rounds at flyweight. There is also another fight at flyweight between unbeaten Mexican Joselito Velasquez, 15-0-1 (10), and Nicaragua’s Cristofer Rosales, 34-6 (21), which is set for 10.
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