“The fights had a discipline to them and a palpable life behind them, a coherence that was correct and apparent.”—Richard Ford, The Ultimate Good Luck
“It was a nice fight for the public, I did what I could, and that was the result.” Such was Roman Gonzalez’s response to a question about the outcome of his third fight with Juan Francisco Estrada. A question loaded and predictable and handled flawlessly. That is where the griping about scorecards ends—with Gonzalez. For the second time in three tries, Estrada hung a loss on him, winning a majority decision before a boisterous and boisterously supportive crowd at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, this weekend. All three fights (as if they could be anything but) were fought at a level rarely achieved; thus, what separates the fighters in the eyes of the judges matters less than what unites them. Estrada–Gonzalez (or, if you prefer, Gonzalez–Estrada) is the defining trilogy of this era for its excellence, of course, but also its generosity: for even without it, both Estrada and Gonzalez have careers that make a mockery of many of their contemporaries.
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About that latter distinction: Estrada might very well think it beneath him. What matters to Estrada is not how he compares to others so much as how closely he approximates the standards he sets for himself. There is an icy arrogance to Estrada, a distinctly Mexican snarl; one gets the sense he believes himself a sort of Platonic Form, an ideal that others might instantiate, and in that sense, comparisons are beneath him.
Except, perhaps, where Gonzalez is concerned. Gonzalez, standing between Estrada and the honor of being the greatest lower-weight fighter of his era; between Estrada and the distinction of being the greatest active fighter in the world. Estrada’s ego, preternatural self-belief, and pride—these are linked, dependent, and indebted to this particular other.
As for Gonzalez, he would discourage any comparison that diminishes his peers. What Gonzalez has managed in the cruelest sport has never been about him; indeed, this humble little warrior mirrors Estrada in that he fights not for himself but for God and country. Felix Trinidad fought for his country too, but he cut men down on behalf of Puerto Rico. He did it to prove the island’s strength, channeled as it was into his left hook. Gonzalez? He produced the same results, except he did it as an act of gratitude to honor Nicaragua. A gracious destroyer, absent of malice, sublimated demons—any of those intrinsic motivations we expect to drive a man to a blood sport.
For that alone, Gonzalez is a marvel (though no one would care without the striking contrast between his beatific disposition and ruinous style). But at thirty-five, and a handful of critical pounds beyond his best, Gonzalez is suffering the limitations of that style. He did not start slowly against Estrada: the fight reached a familiar tempo and intensity as early as the third round. But the early urgency of Gonzalez’s corner was proof of a poor start for “Chocolatito.” If it is true that Gonzalez ceded the first two rounds to parse his opponent, it is no less true to say Estrada seized immediately that advantage.
Estrada was brilliant in the early going, firing combinations off his back foot before pivoting away, controlling the action with deft footwork and piercing left hands. If the commentary gave insight into the mind of the judges, the problem Estrada presented was twofold: Gonzalez had to beat Estrada and do so in a manner striking enough to restore neutrality in the judges. That required more than subtlety; alas, what separates Estrada and Gonzalez has never been loud. And in a fight without knockdowns, without blood, without drastic or sustained shifts in momentum, the fighter who captivates the judges early is positioned well to preserve their attention.
Still, Gonzalez came to fight, imbuing the action with his violent quiddity—hence Estrada’s second-half fade, the cause of which was laid well before its effects manifested. He caught just enough of Estrada’s punches to mitigate their damage and found a home for his fists when he put Estrada on the ropes. Against lesser fighters (certainly against smaller ones) Gonzalez’s improvements would result in something undeniable, something definitive: a buckled knee, a bloody brow, a body on the canvas, and the little betrayals of weakness that precede them. But Estrada was too crafty, too sturdy and determined, so neither the increments nor the totality of Gonzalez’s work produced their usual punishing effect. It seems inconceivable, but at 115 pounds, Gonzalez, with his subtle defense and mitigated assault, has become a somewhat difficult fighter to score.
Estrada was anything but. 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 was not 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 that he can anticipate and process its frightening elements, Estrada fought with almost joyful confidence, a confidence all the more impressive considering Gonzalez’s late surge.
Even that surge Estrada had an answer for. The lasting image of their rematch was of Gonzalez hunting and unloading on Estrada as the final three minutes ticked away. It was a reminder that with each man at his limits, the greatness of Gonzalez set him above. When Estrada was announced the winner, that image was etched deeply into the minds of those who could not abide the decision. But the twelfth round of the third fight was different. Estrada had answers for Gonzalez on this night, none better than a left hook to the body that forced Gonzalez to pin his elbows, holster his weapons, and wait out a momentary crisis. The roaring Gonzalez finish likely ended thus: in a quiet struggle to recover his breath.
Is that the lasting image now? Gonzalez waiting when the moment demanded he do anything but; Estrada tauntingly in range, relishing his hurtful agency in the almost. “I did what I could and that was the result.” A fair and honorable result it was.