Roman Gonzalez may be the sport's top talent. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
When you are as small a man as Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, your athletic options pretty much are limited to becoming a jockey or a boxer.
Barring a sudden career change, the 5-foot-3, 108-pound Gonzalez won’t ever be aboard the winning mount in the Kentucky Derby. But with the announcement of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s retirement from the ring, the 28-year-old Nicaraguan not only reigns supreme in the frequently overlooked subset of tiny prizefighters, but maybe above everyone in the big, wide world of those who punch for pay.
If Mayweather is absolutely, positively through with boxing, as he reiterated after closing his 19-year professional life with a typically dominant unanimous decision over Andre Berto on Sept. 12, the consensus choice to succeed him atop the unofficial but prestigious pound-for-pound list is an adult male who is no larger than many American sixth-graders. Mixing sports similes again, it’s like the best player in the Little League World Series jumping directly to Major League Baseball and being voted Most Valuable Player at the highest level.
“I never imagined becoming the best pound-for-pound (fighter),” Gonzalez said upon being told that The Ring magazine had transferred that cherished designation from Mayweather to him. “I never imagined being three times world champion and now being named the best in the world.”
Gonzalez (43-0, 37 KOs) defends his WBC flyweight (weight limit of 108 pounds) belt against veteran Brian Viloria (36-4, 22 KOs) on Oct. 17 in Madison Square Garden, in the principal supporting bout to a main event in which Gennady Golovkin (33-0, 30 KOs), the WBA “super” middleweight titlist, takes on IBF middleweight champ David Lemieux (34-2, 31 KOs) in a much-anticipated unification match. Both bouts will be televised via HBO Pay-Per-View.
In addition to The Ring, Gonzalez has also been cited as boxing’s best post-Mayweather pound-for-pound performer by ESPN, Yahoo.com and several other media outlets. The pound-for-pound title was first conferred upon the great Sugar Ray Robinson when he ruled the welterweight division in the 1940s, and since has been held by such acclaimed fighters as Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones Jr. and Mayweather, among others. What it means is that its claimant presumably is superior to any fighter in any weight class if their physical dimensions were more or less identical.
In anointing Gonzalez as the successor to Mayweather, the boxing cognoscenti are basically saying that he could and would defeat such other PFP candidates as Guillermo Rigondeaux (5-4, 122), Terence Crawford (5-8, 140), Manny Pacquiao (5-5½, 145), Golovkin (5-10½, 160), Andre Ward (6-0, 168), Sergey Kovalev (6-0, 175) or Wladimir Klitschko (6-6, 245) if they could shrink to his size, or he enlarged to theirs.
It all could make for some interesting debates, if only more fight fans in the U.S. actually knew enough about Gonzalez to form an opinion, one way or the other. But despite the fact that “Chocolatito” will be fighting in America for the seventh time, and making his second straight appearance on HBO, he remains something of a mystery man to those in this country who have been preconditioned to believe that bigger is better. It’s an almost understandable reaction given the fact that no flyweight has managed to gain much attention on these shores since 1999, when Hall of Famer Michael Carbajal, the “Little Hands of Stone,” retired with a 49-4 record that included 33 victories inside the distance.
“I’m not sure,” Carbajal, 48, said when I asked the Phoenix resident and 1988 U.S. Olympic silver medalist if it was possible for Gonzalez to attain as high a profile in America as he did during a heyday that saw become the first flyweight to earn a million-dollar purse or be named Fighter of the Year by The Ring, which he was in 1990. “He didn’t come out of the Olympics, as I did. It could be a tough sell.
“I think ‘Chocolatito’ is a very good fighter, but he’s going to need someone in the United States to really bring him up to that level. I don’t know what kind of money he’s making or what his highest purse has been, but he has the style and the talent to make it. I like the way he fights. But when you’re in the lower weight classes as he is, the average American fight fan doesn’t know that much, if anything, about you. Only the real hardcore fans do.”
Carbajal knows how difficult it is for a small guy to make the kind of breakthrough he did. Even after he took the Olympic silver medal in Seoul, South Korea -- and it should have been gold, his “loss” to Bulgaria’s Ivalio Hristov in the light flyweight final a travesty of the first order -- none of the major U.S. promoters were lining up to sign a jockey-sized fighter in a division mostly populated by Asians and Central Americans.
Top Rank boss Bob Arum ultimately offered a contract to Carbajal, but only after two members of his organization, matchmaker Bruce Trampler and former WBA bantamweight champion Richie Sandoval, pleaded for him to take a chance on the small guy with the big punch.
“When Richie brought Michael to my office, I thought he was out of his mind,” said Arum in 2006, the year that Carbajal and his greatest rival, Mexico’s Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez (no relation to Roman Gonzalez), were announced as impending inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “I had seen Michael in the Olympics, but he was, like, 106 pounds. What the hell were we going to do with someone that little? But there was something about Michael that intrigued Richie, and he pleaded for me to take Michael on.
“The more I listened to Richie make his case, the more I came around. Finally. I said, `I don’t know if we can make this work, but what the heck, I’m going to give it a try.’
“Gradually, we worked our way into it. I remember one fight in Phoenix when (heavyweight) Tommy Morrison was on the card with Carbajal. This casino executive, who shall remain forever nameless, came to the fight to check out Morrison. He was sitting right near me and he said, when they introduced the Carbajal fight, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, promoting midgets.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Unlike Carbajal, whose idol was Panamanian great Roberto Duran (hence his “Little Hands of Stone” nickname), Roman Gonzalez has patterned himself after an all-time great, fellow Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello, who tutored him before Arguello died in 2009. “Chocolatito” is a boxer-puncher, with masterful boxing skills but also possessed of putaway power and a finisher’s instincts. His promoter is Akihiko Honda of Tokyo-based Teiken Promotions, which makes sense when you consider how deep the talent pool is for flyweights in Asia, where their diminutive size is not held against them. Gonzalez is already a superstar in Japan, where he has fought nine times and the red carpet is always ready to be rolled out whenever he returns.
But all fighters, regardless of their nationality, are intrigued with the notion of making their mark in the U.S., and Gonzalez can take a long step toward that goal with a terrific performance against a tough, battle-tested customer like the 34-year-old Viloria, and even more so if his fight produces more thrills than what figures to be generated in the matchup of big bangers Golovkin and Lemieux.
They say good things come in small packages. That is usually associated with diamond rings prospective bridegrooms offer to their fiancées, but who’s to say the concept can’t apply to a ring of a different sort if the love affair involves a sparkling gem of a fighter?
Bernard Fernandez, a five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, received the Nat Fleischer Award from the BWAA in April 1999 for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, as well as the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. The New Orleans-born sports writer has worked in the industry since 1969 and pens a weekly column on the Sweet Science for Sherdog.com.
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