Don’t be fooled. The orange expanse, black piping, white spots that Mullerian mimicry isn’t quite deception, but one is not the other. They are both toxic; they patrol similar territory, each is striking in its own right. But the viceroy is not the monarch. There is the king, and there is the imitation thereof. Do not be fooled.
Super flyweight Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez won a lopsided decision WBC flyweight champion, “El Rey” Julio Cesar Martinez, at the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, California, Saturday. There is the king, and there is the imitation thereof. Do not be fooled.
That is what the extra two pounds Martinez brought to the scales Friday said. Martinez took the fight on six weeks’ notice, accepting that regicidal opportunity like any fighter worthy of his arrogance would. He won’t see another Gonzalez in his lifetime (and neither will you), so Martinez inked his chance to add a legend to his ledger. Those two extra pounds, the ones that pushed Martinez over the super flyweight threshold, revealed a fighter who was coming to win. His team knew the fight would go on so long as Martinez met the weight requirements of the California Atheltic Commission. Gonzalez wasn’t going to walk away, he wouldn’t even register those two pounds as a sleight.
The sardonic smirk at the weigh-in, Martinez owned it. There is no replacing Juan Francisco Estrada, who was supposed to face Gonzalez a third time this Saturday until Covid forced him out of the rubber match. But in his bearing, it was clear Martinez thought there was no replacing himself either.
When he got his chance to put hands on Gonzalez, he set about it with a malevolence befitting the opportunity. That comportment did little to alter his fortunes, alas, but not for lack of trying. Martinez waved Gonzalez in, shook his head defiantly, banged his gloves, urging Gonzalez to weave more leather into him. But these were futile histrionics, the viceroy’s camouflage. Martinez was pulped just the same. He survived his twelve rounds with Gonzalez, though, an accomplishment itself; and one he likely owes in part to those impertinent added pounds. Such is the chasm between good and great.
It takes two fighters to make a great fight. One of boxing’s truths, it’s confirmed by the iconic moments in our sport’s history: Ali–Frazier, Foreman–Lyle, Hagler–Hearns, Corrales–Castillo, Vazquez–Marquez. If exceptions establish rules, though, perhaps Gonzalez is one of these exceptions: a rare fighter who begets the exceptional on his own. Why might that be?
There is his style, of course. The boxer, with his ability to confound, diffuse, subdue, speaks to our vanity, our desire to control the world around us, and make that control explicit to all. But a boxer can take the fight out of fighting. The puncher strikes a more primal note, playing on the connection between our fears and our desire to be feared. But how many times has a puncher frustrated you for refusing to punch? The volume puncher, however, is a priori the most exciting. Even when ineffective, he is wedded to action (and only people who prefer fighters to fights find inactivity charming). The volume puncher is also the most vulnerable of the three, the one who imperils himself most often, who is least himself when his fitness falters. And vulnerability is a virtue when action takes precedence over outcome. But style alone is insufficient to explain the exception that is Chocolatito. Otherwise, Leo Santa Cruz would be a sacred name.
On the surface, matchmaking also seems relevant here. Gonzalez has been matched ambitiously for most of his career and dangerously of late, and even his overmatched opponents cannot still the percolating drama that attends each round. Opponents, however, can’t explain one-man spectacle.
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”—David Foster Wallace, Roger Federer as Religious Experience
So what is it? Perhaps it is that Gonzalez is beautiful. Beauty here is not quite a matter of technique, though a perfectly leveraged cross or calibrated sense of range is indeed beautiful. Gonzalez has both, but beauty here has more generally to do with the body in motion. Some fighters throw flashier combinations, but no one throws them like Gonzalez—no one else throws them endlessly. His misses seem insignificant, even strategic at times: Gonzalez knows that so long as he doubles and triples his couplets and triplets bodies will shatter, daylights dim.
(That he does consider violence in these violent terms is yet one more reason to appreciate him. And that too is unusual in a sport that idolizes the unhinged, the feral, the berserk. Gonzalez, meanwhile, is impossibly gracious.)
He seems to have a sublime understanding of his opponents’ bodies as well, such that their movements eventually intertwine with his. A fighter like Terence Crawford applies himself to an opponent, where Gonzalez is more intimate, coaxing, leading an opponent into something collegial and ruinous. All of this is an expression of human beauty, bodily beauty.
Yet even that may not reach the heart of the matter. If reading can, in the words of John Williams, provide “a kind of epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words,” could Gonzalez provide something similar? An understanding of fighting that cannot be analyzed or reduced to movements, captured in highlights, isolated in gifs? “A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly,” Wallace continues in his celebration of Federer: it is something you have to speak around, he suggests, or establish by way of negation. In the case of Gonzales, maybe he’s right.
That beauty can be celebrated, though. And it should be.