“The fights had a discipline to them and a tangible life behind them, a consistency that was correct and obvious.” — Richard Ford, ultimate happiness
“It was a nice fight for the crowd, I did what I could and that was the result.” That was Roman Gonzalez’s response to the outcome of his third fight with Juan Francisco Estrada. Question loaded, predictable and handled flawlessly. That’s where the scorecard moaning ends – with Gonzalez. For the second time in three attempts, Estrada lost to him, winning a majority decision in front of a rowdy and boisterous supportive crowd at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona this weekend. All three fights (as if they couldn’t be anything else) were fought at a level rarely reached; therefore, what separates the combatants in the eyes of the judges matters less than what unites them. Estrada-Gonzalez (or, if you prefer, Gonzalez-Estrada) is a defining trilogy of this era for its excellence, of course, but also for its generosity: for even without it, both Estrada and Gonzalez have careers that mock many of their contemporaries.
As for that last distinction: Estrada might as well consider it beneath him. What matters to Estrada is not how he compares himself to others, but how close he comes to the standards he sets for himself. There is an icy arrogance about Estrada, a distinctly Mexican growl; one gets the impression that he considers himself something of a Platonic form, an ideal that others could embody, and in that sense the comparisons are below his level.
Except maybe when it comes to Gonzalez. Gonzalez, standing between Estrada and the honor of being the greatest minorweight of his era; between Estrada and the distinction of being the greatest active fighter in the world. Estrada, supernatural self-confidence and pride – they are related, dependent and grateful to this particular one Other.
As for Gonzalez, he would advise against any comparison that detracts from his peers. What Gonzalez achieved in the cruelest sport was never about him; indeed, this humble little warrior mirrors Estrada in that he fights not for himself but for God and country. Felix Trinidad also fought for his country, but he killed people on behalf of Puerto Rico. He did this to prove the strength of the island, directed as if to his left hook. Gonzalez? He achieved the same results, except he did so as an act of gratitude to honor Nicaragua. A benevolent destroyer, devoid of malice, sublime demons – any of those intrinsic motivations we expect to push a man into a blood sport.
For that reason alone, Gonzalez is a miracle (although no one would care if it wasn’t for the striking contrast between his blissful disposition and his ruinous style). However, at thirty-five and a few critical pounds over his record, Gonzalez suffers from the limitations of this style. Against Estrada, he didn’t start slow: the fight took on a familiar pace and intensity in the third round. But the early urgency of Gonzalez’s corner was evidence of a poor start to ‘Chocolatito’. If it is true that Gonzalez gave up the first two rounds to analyze his opponent, it is no less true to say that Estrada immediately took advantage of this advantage.
Estrada was brilliant early on, shooting combinations from his back foot before turning around, controlling the action with deft footwork and piercing left hands. If the commentary offered insight into the judges’ minds, the problem presented by Estrada was twofold: Gonzalez had to beat Estrada, and do it in a way that was striking enough to restore neutrality to the judges. It required more than subtlety; unfortunately, what separates Estrada and Gonzalez has never been loud. And in a fight with no knockdowns, no blood, no drastic or prolonged momentum changes, a competitor who captivates the judges early is well positioned to keep their attention.
Nevertheless, Gonzalez came to the fight, imbuing the action with his brutal essence – hence the disappearance of the other half of Estrada, the cause of which was determined long before its effects manifested. He caught enough of Estrada’s punches to soften their injuries, and found a home for his fists as he laid Estrada on the ropes. Against underdogs (certainly against underdogs), Gonzalez’s upgrades would yield something undeniable, something definitive: a bent knee, a bloodied forehead, flesh on canvas, and the minor betrayals of weakness that precede them. But Estrada was too cunning, too strong, and too determined, so neither the gains nor all of Gonzalez’s work had their usual punishment effect. It seems unthinkable, but at 115 pounds Gonzalez, with his subtle defense and softened attack, has become quite a difficult player to score.
The stage was no different. Few opponents can take viewers’ eyes off Gonzalez, but Estrada did. The slowed pace and reduced activity of the third fight played a role here, but Estrada deserves credit for that – for his success in making it his kind of fight. And when it wasn’t his fight, when Gonzalez and fatigue conspired against “El Gallo”, he did his best to steal rounds with combinations before the bell. Like a child who has seen a horror movie enough times to anticipate and process its terrifying elements, Estrada fought with an almost exhilarating confidence that was all the more impressive considering Gonzalez’s late stature.
Even for this surge, Estrada had an answer. A lasting image of their rematch was Gonzalez hunting and unloading on Estrada as the last three minutes ticked by. It was a reminder that when any man is at his limit, Gonzalez’s greatness puts him above him. When Estrada was declared the winner, this image was etched deep into the minds of those who could not bear the decision. But the twelfth round of the third fight was different. Estrada had the answers for Gonzalez that night, nothing better than a left hook to the body that forced Gonzalez to lock his elbows, sheath his gun and wait out the momentary crisis. Gonzalez’s roaring finish probably ended like this: a silent struggle to get his breath back.
Is it a permanent image? Gonzalez waited when the moment called for more than that; Estrada mockingly within reach, relishing his painful agency in almost. “I did what I could and that was the result.” It was a fair and honorable result.