One last miracle for Roman Gonzalez?

Elliot Worsell wonders if Roman Gonzalez can add yet another layer to his legend against the fearsome Julio Cesar Martinez

NO sport loves a resurrection story quite like boxing, and no resurrection story has been as compelling as that of Roman “Chocolatito” González in recent years.

Deemed washed up and on his way to retirement in 2017, the outrageously skilled Nicaraguan has somehow, against the odds, flourished in the Indian summer of a fantastic 53-fight professional career. Now, at 34, very much retirement age for a boxer of his size, González is deemed not washed up but dangerous all over again. He is a man whose experience is seen as a benefit and not a hindrance; a man whose damage has led to adjustments and not retirement.

This Saturday (March 5) in San Diego, however, he will be visited once more by Father Time to see if he is ready for him, or, conversely, should be granted a stay. The test will arrive in the form of Mexico’s Julio Cesar Martinez, a man seven years his junior, whose style – all aggression and spite – is both capable of making González look a million dollars and ushering him towards the exit door.

Whatever happens, it’s almost a miracle that González is still operating at the level he is today. After all, back in 2017, when he first went to war with Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and was stopped by the Thai in the rematch, it seemed all over for the four-weight belt-holder. If the first fight added miles on the clock, the second, a brutal fourth-round stoppage, suggested that even his punch resistance was on the wane. At 29, most believed his best days were behind him.

Yet, of course, when looking at those defeats now with a fresh context, it is easier to appreciate both González’ powers of recovery and also Sor Rungvisai’s own brilliance. For though the González wins marked something of a coming-out party for Sor Rungvisai, he has since proven himself a quality fighter in his own right. He is a southpaw to boot, and a wild and dangerous one at that. Moreover, while González appeared to have the answer to every style he faced going into that fight, he is nevertheless human and if boxing has taught us anything it is that every fighter encounters a style and opponent for which they have no answer.

As far as González’ near-perfect career is concerned, Sor Rungvisai could have been that opponent. Right place, right time, he punched when González didn’t expect him to punch and he took punches González didn’t expect him to take. He then learned his lessons from fight one and implemented them to devastating effect in fight two, ending – or so we thought – González’ career as an elite fighter.

So great was his fall from grace, in fact, González even suffered the indignity of approaching a 2020 fight against Kal Yafai as an underdog in some people’s eyes. He had won two fights since his defeats to Sor Rungvisai by then, but that was not enough to deter Yafai’s people from pursuing him, nor enough to convince fans that González would beat Yafai. A matter of timing, many believed Yafai, younger and apparently hungrier, would be able to capitalise on González’ fading star and finish him for good. Many said he wouldn’t have taken the fight if any other outcome had been possible.

González, though, knew better. Just 29 seconds into round nine he had Yafai flat on his back, having schooled him leading up to that point, and any reports of his demise were proven to be greatly exaggerated. He had won bigger fights, and beaten better opponents, but González’ stoppage of Yafai, when so many were doubting him, was significant at the time. If nothing else, it was proof that he still had something left. Better yet, it was proof that he was still leagues above the up-and-coming fighters itching to claim his scalp and build their own careers on his name.

That realisation introduced an interesting new dynamic to the Chocolatito story. If no longer in his fighting prime, athletically speaking, nor topping the pound-for-pound rankings, González had seemingly been reinvented as a man of great experience prepared to expose the limitations of younger fighters who were better served studying him than fighting him.

Later that same year, he outpointed namesake Israel González in defense of the WBA super-flyweight strap he ripped from Yafai and, again, even if not at his absolute best was still poetry in motion, defiantly spurning the advances of both González and Father Time . This form carried through to last year as well, when González faced up to his sternest challenge since losing to Sor Rungvisai in 2017. His opponent on this occasion was Juan Francisco Estrada, a Mexican González first fought – and defeated – all the way back in 2012, down at light-flyweight. Since then, Estrada had become the super-flyweight world champion, lost and won fights against Sor Rungvisai, and therefore brought to González no small amount of danger.

Yet, despite the threat, González matched the younger Estrada every step of the way and seemed unfortunate not to get the decision after 12 grueling rounds. He was beaten in the sense of the result (a split decision), but beaten in the sense of his career, the loss owing as much to Estrada’s improvements as any obvious regression on the part of González.

Still, the Estrada fight was the latest war in a career full of them and we should not forget that González is only human. His next opponent, too, is frighteningly fresh by comparison.

In fact, at 27, Julio Cesar Martinez is the perfect age to now announce his arrival on the world stage. More than that, he has been spared the wars González has had to endure primarily because of the power he possesses in both hands. It is this power that has seen Martinez end all but one of his last 14 fights within the distance. It is this power that makes him such a threat to a former champion like González.

Obstinate in all the best ways, Martinez knows only one method of fighting and sticks with it, his heavy hands often vindicating the decision. He comes forward, he throws hard shots to the body and head, and he usually breaks the will of his opponent before taking them out, typically around the halfway mark. His strength and power, surprising for a man so small, made its first dent on the world scene back in 2019 when Martinez stopped the then-undefeated Andrew Selby in five rounds. Body shots did for Selby that night in Mexico and all of a sudden the flyweight division had a new potential sheriff in town.

His next fight, a much bigger one, took place that same year in London, England and was against Charlie Edwards, with a flyweight belt at stake. That was a fight spoiled by controversy, however, when Martinez, having mauled Edwards for three rounds, ruined all his good work by hitting the Brit while he was down, thus changing what would have been a clear stoppage win to a No Contest. It was after that Edwards vacated his belt to flee the flyweight division and Martinez eventually won the title four months later against Nicaraguan Cristofer Rosales.

Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

Four defenses on and Martinez remains the WBC belt-holder at flyweight. He has, during this run, defeated another Brit in Jay Harris, who bravely lasted the 12 rounds, as well as Moisés Calleros and Joel Cordova, with his most recent defense against McWilliams Arroyo ending in another No Contest (this time due to a head clash).

That’s all well and good, of course, but it is worth noting, too, that in November 2019 – that is, prior to fighting Rosales for the title – it was revealed Martinez had tested positive for clenbuterol, a banned substance. (This positive test was ultimately ignored by the WBC, which decided not to punish him on account of the amount of clenbuterol in his system not being deemed sufficient, after getting advice from WADA, to lead to any in-competition benefit.) It would be remiss not to at least mention this test in the context of Martinez’ title reign, just as it would be remiss not to mention how protective the WBC has been of Mexican boxers with a propensity to deliver positive drug tests of late.

Regardless, Martinez, 18-1 (14), sadly remains yet another of those asterisk fighters in boxing; Someone whose achievements will always be both revered and scrutinised in equal measure. Indeed, to watch a fighter like Martinez is to watch a magician perform a magic trick. As you watch, you resent the fact you are unable to suspend your disbelief and fully admire what it is you are watching. You resent the fact you can’t simply sit back, relax, and enjoy. Instead, even if impressed, their past form means you are consumed by the illusion, the sleight of hand, the deception, which could be unfair – who knows? – but is nonetheless true of any boxer whose performance-enhancing drug history becomes as relevant to their story as titles won.

Martinez won’t care, mind you. Nor should he. He is moving up to super-flyweight for this fight against González and growing in both state and reputation.

“I am thrilled that I am able to move up in weight and fight the very best straight away,” Martinez said. “Chocolatito is a living legend and a fighter I have always admired, so to be fighting him in my first fight at super-flyweight is special. But, on the night, it’s going to be war and I am ready for it.
“I have ambitions to unify the flyweight division and that flame still burns, but this fight is so huge for me, and I did not hesitate to accept it. I promise the fans that I will put on a show.”

There comes a time in every great fighter’s career when believing in them becomes like believing in Santa Claus. You want to believe but know perhaps you shouldn’t and know, deep down, it’s time to surrender to common sense.

In the case of González, 50-3 (41), this feeling has reared its ugly head on a few occasions in recent years but each and every time he has shown that any concern for him is – for now – unwarranted. He has shown, with an unmatched blend of heart and technical prowess, that he can extinguish even the fiercest fires and has displayed, in the process, staying power unusual in champions in the lower weight divisions.

On Saturday, it’s most likely Martinez will challenge him in areas past opponents have not and he could even be the man to join hands with Father Time and take González away. But, in addition to it being almost sacrilegious to go against González at this point, there remains a hope, perhaps a naïve one, that pure boxing skills will always win the day. Here, that would mean González, a master boxer, drawing the sting from Martinez’s punches, then disciplining him in ways he has never before been disciplined, the lesson finally confirmed by a close decision win.

On the San Diego undercard, featherweight Mauricio Lara, 23-2-1 (16), the scourge of Leeds’ Josh Warrington, fights American Emilio Sanchez, 19-1 (12), over 10 rounds. Lara, from Mexico, has not fought since the second of his two fights against Warrington ended in a No Contest last September and will be eager to regain some momentum and build on what was a stellar 2021 for him.

Also on the card is an all-Mexican battle at lightweight between Angel Fierro, 19-1 (15), and Juan Carlos Burgos, 36-4-2 (21), as well as a super-welterweight clash between France’s unbeaten Souleymane Cissokho , 14-0 (9), and Mexico’s Roberto Valenzuela Jr, 19-2 (19).

The Verdict A truly fascinating clash of the ages.

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