Revival (Maybe): Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez Returns

Roman Gonzalez vs Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez is cut against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai during their championship fight for Gonzalez's WBC junior bantamweight title at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

If there is no such thing as a second act in boxing, to paraphrase a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, there have at least been plenty of attempts to fashion one. But sometimes—just sometimes—the attempts become actualized. Two examples: In 1983, several years removed from his prime and the shame of “no mas,” Roberto Duran showed up, in shape, before a packed Madison Square Garden and proceeded to whipsaw the young, gung-ho Davey Moore for eight brutal rounds. And in 1996, Evander Holyfield, a natural cruiserweight thought to have been over the hill after his loss to Riddick Bowe, threw Vegas bookies into a tizzy when he bullied Mike Tyson, the 25-1 favorite, into an eleventh-round submission. These are lofty precedents, but they come to mind as Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez seeks to conduct his own second act.

Tonight, on the undercard of Canelo-Golovkin II at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Gonzalez will duck through the ropes for the first time since he was brutally short-circuited by the bullish Srisaket Sor Rungvisai almost exactly one year ago. His comeback opponent is Moises Fuentes, a respectable Mexican journeyman but someone who is otherwise tailormade for Gonzalez and his heat-seeking pressure style. Of course, that is assuming that Gonzalez is not completely shot. As in Manny Pacquiao’s first fight after getting poleaxed by Juan Manuel Marquez, Gonzalez’s every movement on Saturday night will be under scrutiny, as observers look for signs of regression, residual effects leftover from the beating he took against Sor Rungvisai. Brushing aside such speculation, Gonzalez insists his focus now is to rack up a few wins and brace himself for another shot at a 115-pound title. “I have faith in God, in God’s work,” Gonzalez said over the phone from Las Vegas, just before a public workout. “I want to be a world champion again. Retirement, right now, is not an option.”

But calling it quits was more than just an idle thought. “Retirement was on my mind for a moment, early on (after the loss to Sor Rungvisai),” Gonzalez admitted. “But my team has stuck with me and after more than a year of rest I’m more motivated to come back.” In fact, a few days after the fight, Gonzalez told La Prensa, a newspaper in Nicaragua, that he was “close to retiring,” adding that “I already did what I had to do [in my career]. Make no mistake: Having earned titles at 105, 108, 112, and 115 pounds, across a remarkable near-decade long run, all while employing a fan-friendly, risk-embracing style, Gonzalez’s place in posterity has already been made. Yet what motivates the elite fighters—aside from a crisp paycheck—is often a private matter, be it pride or relish for competition. Gonzalez, for his part, refuses to let the last image of his career be one of him splayed out on the canvas, looking up at the harsh lights.

He received his family’s blessing to continue fighting, as well as counsel from his longtime promoter Akihiko Honda—that is, senor Honda—who is credited with guiding the majority of his career. Honda, Gonzalez explained, was far from discouraging after the loss. “On the contrary, he was one of the main motivating factors for me. After the [loss to Sor Rungvisai] he told me we can keep fighting and kept supporting me that way. He’s one of the reasons I’m still in the game.” Asked if the long layoff affected his making weight for the fight, Gonzalez responded, “One of the things that characterized my career is that I’ve never missed weight at the scale. This time is not an exception. I’ve been working hard I’ve been eating clean. I’m ready.”

Longevity is a rare quality in the fight racket, but it is even more elusive among the lower weight classes. Indeed, Gonzalez has been punching above his weight for some time now. Though he prevailed against Carlos Cuadras in 2016, in what was his first fight at 115 pounds, his victory came with a significant asterisk: he exited the ring looking far more battered than the fighter he outpointed. Further, his two bouts with Sor Rungvisai confirmed his physical limits, even if in the misjudged first fight it was thrilling to see Gonzalez trying tirelessly to overcome the size disparity. “We’re going establish ourselves deep in the 115-pound division,” said Gonzalez. “We’re not going anywhere but staying at 115.” Yet when he was asked if he would be interested in avenging his loss to Sor Rungvisai with a third match, Gonzalez said, rather nonchalantly, “If it comes, it comes.” Asked if that means he would not be necessarily demanding the fight, he replied, after a beat, “No.”

Even if a third match with Sor Rungvisai fails to materialize, there are enough fights remaining in the division through which Gonzalez can reburnish his name, including the other titleholders in Khalid Yafai or Jerwin Ancajas. Not to mention intriguing talents, all in their prime, like Kazuto Ioka, who recently made his debut on HBO, and the always capable Juan Francisco Estrada, who tussled with Gonzalez at 112 pounds in 2012; a rematch at 115 would be tantalizing. In other words, Gonzalez can very well have his Moore/Tyson moment.

These days, a tense cloud hangs over Gonzalez. Various reports from his homeland have pointed to a rift between Gonzalez and his countrymen, stemming, supposedly, from his endorsement of controversial Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Earlier this year, Ortega proposed legislation that would simultaneously slash pension funds and increase the payroll tax, only to renege on it after intense protests rippled throughout the country and which have resulted in hundreds of dead bodies in their wake. Ortega has long been unpopular with the Nicaraguan masses, but his latest power move was something of a last straw. Without waiting for his manager Carlos Blandon to translate a question asking to clarify his stance, Gonzalez batted away any attempts to divert the conversation from his upcoming fight. “I’m here to answer questions about the sport, right now. I don’t want to get involved in political issues at the moment.” (It should be noted Gonzalez’s mentor Alexis Arguello was involved with the Sandinistas, the party helmed by Ortega, in his post-boxing years up until his suicide in 2009).

“Everybody has the right to their own opinion,” Gonzalez continued. “I’m just going to do my job. I’ll leave everything else to my team to handle. On Saturday, I’m going to do what I’m best at.”