1 Great fighters are rare, and victories over them rarer still. That has always been true; it is more so now as few fighters aspire to greatness with more than bandwidth. And how misguided are these fighting influencers? Greatness isn’t wrought with patience or confirmed by earnings. It isn’t achieved through prudence either—it takes courage, a willingness to learn that greatness might be beyond you. It is an elusive quality, greatness, a concoction of talent, ambition, and circumstance, with that third condition thwarting the best-intentioned of current aspirants.
1.1 How to become great without great opponents? That is a question Marvin Hagler, for example, never pondered: the opponents were there. You know them, those symbolic surnames made regal by blood. How to become great now, however? Which current fighters have considered this question seriously? Saul Alvarez certainly, Naoya Inoue, a few others. And Roman Gonzalez, maybe.
2 Revenge was on his mind. Juan Francisco Estrada admitted as much. That fire smoldered, its embers stoked by the breeze born of a Nicaraguan sun, one heating the lower weights even before a young Estrada earned violently—if in defeat—the gratitude of boxing’s most gracious fighter. Victory was Estrada’s expectation, a knockout, his desire. It is easier to court revenge when the advantages lie with you because while vengeance sweetens victory, its escape embitters defeat. Estrada boasted nearly every advantage. He was bigger than Gonzalez, who has seen diminishing returns since invading his fourth division. Estrada was fighting—as he didn’t in 2012, as Gonzalez does not now—in his ideal division. He is younger, fresher too. None of this was lost on the fighters. There is a snarl to Estrada, and when he spoke of his rematch with Gonzalez, you could see it.
3 The WBA suspended judge Carlos Sucre, who turned in an indefensible 117-111 score for Estrada. Sucre scored the last five rounds for the Mexican fighter, including the twelfth, a round where Gonzalez, like a laundry wallah on the bank of the Ganges, thrashed the object of his efforts with verve. That card is proof that on this night, Sucre did not know what he was watching.
3.1 But even for more competent judges, Gonzalez may be a challenging fighter to judge. He is hittable, in the way that all pressure fighters are, which is to say knowingly. But Gonzalez catches punches on his guard so subtly that it appears he gets hit. Indeed he often is hit, albeit in a way he’s deemed acceptable. The optics conspire against him, however, as do the acoustics. A punch that smacks into Gonzalez’s glove and cheek may register little effect on him, but if he fails to retaliate, the impression is, understandably, of his opponent’s success. That impression is stronger at super flyweight, where men hit even a well-protected Gonzalez hard enough to stop his momentum, spoil his range, force him again to unlock his infinite combinations. And if a fighter can slide or pivot after landing such a punch, if that fighter can crack Gonzalez skillfully and answer (or even silence) the return, he would look like Estrada did in his best moments on Saturday.
4 “Certain things seem to be forever irrecoverable. Perhaps that proves the reality of the past.”—J. M. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country
4.1 At the end of the ninth round, Estrada’s corner reprimanded him, warning him he needed a stoppage to win. It was a plea for urgency—Estrada was running out of time. One round later, Gonzalez’s corner mirrored that sentiment, drew their fighter’s attention to the number of rounds remaining not to spur him on but to relieve him, to help him marshal his dwindling energy accordingly. Gonzalez was wearing down: wearing down because of Estrada, because of the fifty-two previous fights, because of the four divisions, because of his thirty-three years, sixteen of which he spent fighting professionally. He shivered Estrada in the fourth, twice drummed a new rhythm into the sturdy legs of “El Gallo.” But Estrada answered, outworked him intermittently, gored him to the body. In the eighth, Estrada forced Gonzalez onto his back foot. Incredibly, Gonzalez fought well from that unnatural position, but not by choice. The penalty for his impossible activity, exacerbated by striking and being struck by a larger opponent, was undeniable. Just two more rounds, Roman, two more rounds. He gave them two, the last one breathtaking.
4.2 Juan Francisco Estrada now has a win over a great fighter. A dubious one, to be sure, but that qualifier will fade with time. If he did not convincingly beat a great fighter, if he did not make his fight against Gonzalez, he met “Chocolatito” with sufficient mettle to leave the outcome to the judges, two of whom looked favorably upon him. Only the indomitable and belligerent Srisaket Sor Rungvisai has accomplished that. Only he, Rattus Norvegicus Rex, who deliquesced Gonzalez in 2017, has done better. Rage about the scorecards will subside but these truths will remain: Estrada has been a world-class fighter for nearly a decade, Gonzalez has forced him to prove that twice, and Estrada has answered the challenge both times. Twice Estrada made earnest and unforgettable prizefights with Gonzalez. No scorecard changes that, and no one will rewatch those spectacles to hear the scores read.
5 Gonzalez welcomes a rubber match with Estrada, the third fight with Sor Rungvisai too. Perhaps this is what faith does? When all is God’s will even disaster is divine. And yet, while Gonzalez spoke to Nicaragua, his hands lifted in worship, voice cracking, did he betray a moment of genuine disappointment? It is easy to imagine him allowing himself a slackening in his sanguinity, hiding it safely in that devotional. There are no riddles to Gonzalez between the ropes. But if there are none beyond them, he is inscrutable.
5.1 When Estrada was announced the winner, when he heard his name fan out through the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas, he looked incredulous. How much can be read into his expression though? Was he translating Michael Buffer’s words in disbelief? Was he, as photos of that moment have captured, still recovering from what may prove to be the last great round in the last great performance of a once-great fighter? Perhaps. But Estrada too welcomes a third fight. And likely a fourth. Estrada knows what Gonzalez has left; more important, he knows what has left him, that “forever irrecoverable.” One, maybe two more tries, and Estrada will have that definitive victory.