A FEW years ago, in an interview BN conducted with Roman Gonzalez, the diminutive Nicaraguan said he lived by the “law of the jungle” while growing up in Barrio La Esperanza, a poverty-stricken suburb of Managua.
The dead-end streets are filled with crime but lack a decent level of sanitation. Flooding is frequent, and the rising waters attract a swarm of bugs and rodents. Gonzalez’ father opportunistically used this rather bleak context to ply his trade – door-to-door sales of cleaning supplies and insecticides. His employment record was patchy at best, meaning the Gonzalez household struggled to make ends meet and little Roman, just a child at the time, would frequently join his father on sales trips around their community of roughly 1,000 souls.
That’s a fairly steep learning curve for a young lad in the balmy climate of Nicaragua, though even when Roman merely wanted to play with his friends outside, he would have to adopt the sort of warrior mentality that has helped him rise to the top of the toughest of sports.
“I had to have a really rough personality in my neighbourhood, even if I wasn’t that type of person, in the meaning that in order to survive in the neighbourhood and walk outside and do normal activities, play with the other kids, I had to adopt the law of the strongest,” he told Boxing News.
“I had to be rough. I always mention where I come from because I feel it’s motivation for other young athletes and other young kids to know that even if you’re brought up within the struggle, if they really want to be able to get somewhere in life they can perfectly obtain it as long as they have discipline and motivation.”
Those are two qualities Gonzalez showed when he first pulled on a pair of gloves – though those gloves were of the rubber variety, more like the type an electrician would wear as he could not afford a real pair of boxing gloves.
In place of a heavy bag, Roman filled a milk sack with sand and hung it from the guava tree in his back garden, pounding away while his father, himself a former boxer, watched on.
As is so often the case in stories shaped by boxing, Gonzalez was carved by the sport into a demonically driven fighter, desperate to claw his family out of their financial troubles – something three previous generations of fighters could not do.
“I believe that’s helped me to become the champion that I am, but not just me, other great champions have also been motivated by that understanding of having to value what it is to have money and what it is to not have money. That’s why I make an effort every day to keep being an athlete of recognition.”
Now, after 11 years as a professional and world titles in three weight divisions, Gonzalez is finally recognised for what he is – the best fighter on the planet. When Floyd Mayweather retired last year, the boxing fraternity turned in unison to ‘Chocolatito’ to place him atop the pound-for-pound throne. It’s taken the 29-year-old years of hammering the best fighters in boxing’s lowest weight divisions to earn that status. Roman wasn’t built in a day.
“I feel happy and I feel motivated, it’s a great feeling to be where I’m at and to have a team and a promoter that help me and give me opportunities to be able to shine,” he said.
Softly-spoken and particularly unassuming, Gonzalez has been a stalwart of pound-for-pound lists for years and has gradually crept up them as he moved from strawweight, to light-fly, to flyweight with ease.
Last year, his stock soared. Just as Mayweather was winding down his record-breaking career, Gonzalez made his debut on American broadcast giant HBO. Boxing on a Gennady Golovkin undercard for the first time – marking the conception of everyone’s favourite double act – Roman dazzled against Edgar Sosa, bludgeoning the former champion inside two rounds. It was the perfect introduction to the masses.
Where Mayweather was balletic in his work, Gonzalez is ballistic. Gonzalez’ left hand is rapid and potent while his right holds the kind of power that can change a multi-weight world champion into a complete novice in an instant.
A perfect storm of fearsome offensive weaponry mixed with technical brilliance makes him a joy to behold, and it was all on display against Sosa. Up and down like a yo-yo, Sosa was badly out of his depth.
A ninth-round demolition of former two-weight world champion Brian Viloria followed, before McWilliams Arroyo managed to take Gonzalez the 12-round distance in April. All were on HBO, and all served as extended showcases of Roman’s majesty.
His success has brought unprecedented attention to the lower weights and, of course, to the man himself. At 5ft 3ins, unable to speak English and promoted by a Japanese outfit (Teiken), ‘Chocolatito’ is an unlikely flag-bearer for boxing.
“I feel very proud and motivated, the extra attention has helped me get to where I am and I feel very blessed to be able to be where I am. God has given me this opportunity, to help bring my family out of poverty,” he said.
“It just motivates me, I don’t feel pressure, I’ll fight how I’ve always fought, I’ll fight my fight and on the day of the fight, it’ll just be a normal fight. I’ll fight intelligently.”
However, it’s one thing to be considered the most gifted pugilist on Earth, it’s quite another to be a crossover superstar. To the hardcore, Gonzalez is must-see but the casual masses who swell the purses of the sport’s biggest names are yet to truly buy into him. Conversely, 11 years into his career, Mayweather was breaking revenue records and becoming one of the most recognisable athletes around.
Roman, though, sees beyond the commercial value of his role.
“I feel very happy, it motivates me to be an even better person and to strive for greatness inside and outside of the ring. I feel happy to be able to help and that I’m a role model to the youth,” he mused.
That pursuit of greatness is one key way he differs from his predecessor – though Mayweather was undoubtedly great, his key motivator was money. Roman understands the weight of being the best; you wouldn’t see him launching dollar bills into the air while surrounded by gyrating strippers in a Las Vegas club.
That steadfastness also stems from his humble beginnings and the deep religious roots of Nicaragua. Gonzalez is a Roman Catholic and the influence of God is never far from his thoughts.
“Yes, part of my faith comes from family but at the end of the day it really comes from within,” he explained.
“You can have family members have their religion, but if you don’t want to follow it, you won’t. You have to really want to follow it, and want to be part of a religion.”
He frequently attributes his success and “blessings” to God and is wholeheartedly convinced that his fate lies in the big guy’s hands. Perhaps that’s why he enters the ring with unwavering confidence, his face emotionless and his body primed for battle.
Another major influence in Gonzalez’ life – and arguably the biggest on his career – was Alexis Arguello, an icon of Nicaraguan sport. When Arguello opened an amateur boxing gym within walking distance of Gonzalez’ childhood home, a fateful meeting occurred. Alexis took Roman under his wing and guided him to amateur success and with Gonzalez fighting every 15 days, national titles followed.
Arguello, however, was much more than a mentor, much more than a trainer. He became a father figure for Gonzalez.
“The most important thing that I learned from Alexis was to be humble, to train like a champion and to be able to always help other people, and to be disciplined within your work,” he said.
“My principal motivation is my family; my father, my mother, my brothers, everyone that helped me growing up in my strong beginning. Then there’s obviously Arguello because I feel everything Arguello taught me, I am now finally fulfilling the legacy that Alexis left me.”
Arguello and Gonzalez remain the only two Nicaraguans to win world titles at three weights, though Roman is on the verge of going one better.
On Saturday (Septembr 10), he will challenge WBC super-fly champion Carlos Cuadras, the unbeaten Mexican who has held his title for over two years.
Despite Cuadras’ talents and the fact he is the naturally bigger man, Gonzalez is a heavy betting favourite. The move up in weight is yet another step toward stardom for Gonzalez, another rung on the ladder.
“I believe that it’s odd, and that it’s good, to fight the best of your division and I think it’s something of merit to fight another great fighter, even if that means moving up another division,” he said.
“I feel very happy to go up in weight to 115lbs, if everything goes as planned it will be very motivating to be in that weight class for a while, and then I will leave it up to God to decide what happens after that.”
The fight at The Forum in Inglewood, California, another show Gonzalez is working with K2 Promotions on, will also serve as the first time Gonzalez headlines a card on a major television network in America.
The next step would be to headline a pay-per-view show, a goal of any prizefighter, given the financial rewards it brings.
Japan’s Naoya Inoue reigns supreme at super-fly, and a clash between the pair has long been a dream for fans in the know.
“I believe I have what it takes to headline a pay-per-view card. If that fight with Inoue happens, I would be happy and I would definitely accept it. I will accept any fight, I’m willing to fight anybody… as long as they pay me well.”
Greatness beckons and with it, the spoils of war.