The first seven rounds of Saturday's Juan Francisco Estrada-Roman Gonzalez rematch were terrific, with both world-class, 115-lb. boxers engaging in fierce combat and dazzling with memorable offensive sequences and fantastic power-punching displays. Estrada started the fight brightly with left hooks to the head and body, subtle (and brilliant) lateral movement and numerous crunching uppercuts underneath. Estrada did his best work of the fight in rounds six and seven where it looked like Gonzalez couldn't match the ferocity of his counters.
Gonzalez found his way into the fight with lead right hands from mid-range. He also showcased his considerable inside fighting skills, using his forearms and shoulders to protect himself, and create angles to throw power punches. It's his ability to fire on all cylinders in the trenches while finding a way to take steam off his opponents' best shots that is rarely found among his contemporaries in the sport.
|Gonzalez (right) landing an uppercut|
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland
In my opinion the fight changed for good in the eighth with Gonzalez deploying the first of two significant tactical adjustments. Uncharacteristically, Gonzalez boxed off the back foot and had a great round. Estrada looked uncomfortable leading and Roman, who is known as one of the best front-foot fighters of his generation, was having a lot of success picking him off with pot-shots, lateral movement and quick combinations.
During the next round, Gonzalez made another adjustment to his offense. Instead of initiating attacks from mid-range and moving into the trenches, Gonzalez took a couple of steps back and started his offensive forays from the outside. This gave him an extra bit of steam as he came forward and also disrupted Estrada's timing for his counters.
In the back third of the match, I thought that Gonzalez was consistently the better fighter. Estrada was still getting work done and connecting with solid shots here and there, but his punches lacked the sting of his earlier work. He started off the fight menacingly, but I would characterize the last part of his performance as workmanlike. He still was throwing lots of punches, but that little bit extra, that majesty, was missing.
Estrada did have some spirited moments in the 11th and 12th, but Gonzalez's overall eye-catching shots most appealed to me. In the end I had Gonzalez winning the fight 115-113, sweeping the last third of the fight. There were several close rounds in the fight (I split the swing rounds) and I thought that two of the judges turned in scores (115-113 for Gonzalez and 115-113 for Estrada) that could have accurately reflected the action of the bout. But Carlos Sucre's 117-111 scorecard for Estrada was well off the mark. That he gave Estrada the last four rounds of the fight could not be more damning of his ability to be a professional boxing judge – that was Gonzalez's best sustained period of the fight.
Estrada would win the fight by a split decision, which isn't a tragedy. It WAS a close fight. And if you have enough 7-5 type of fights, eventually you are going to win some and lose some – Estrada lost such a fight against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in their first matchup. The problem with Sucre's card is that it lacked competency, and ultimately damaged the legitimacy of the contest. If two judges had Estrada winning 115-113, that would have been a bitter pill to swallow for Gonzalez's supporters, but they would have swallowed it. 117-111 just wasn't conceivable with a neutral and competent judge. (Rumors are going around as I write this the day after the fight that Sucre has been suspended for his card, and I would welcome that decision.)
|Estrada lands his own uppercut|
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland
Estrada and Gonzalez first met in 2012 back when Gonzalez was already among the best fighters in the sport and Estrada was a little-known fighter out of Mexico. That fight was contested at 108-lbs. Estrada performed ably in a competitive loss and that fight essentially announced him on the world stage. He subsequently defeated pound-for-pound fighters such as Brian Viloria and Sor Rungvisai, as well as tough hombres like Milan Melindo, Giovani Segura, Hernan Marquez and Carlos Cuadras (twice).
Going into Saturday's title unification match, Estrada was a slight betting favorite. He had a three-year age advantage, looked more natural at the weight and had more consistent recent performances.
Saturday's fight turned out to be better and more competitive than their first bout. Estrada, who often will take breaks in the action, only had one small stretch in the eighth where it looked like he needed a blow. He also was far more consistent offensively than he was in their first matchup.
And while Gonzalez performed wonderfully on Saturday, it's not harsh to say that he's past his absolute peak. However, it's worth noting that even in a diminished physical state, he perhaps should have beaten one of the top fighters in the sport. That may be the best way to praise Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez. Even five or six years removed from his best, he still has enough to get it done against the elite.
Now Gonzalez must wait for his next opportunity, but it will come. Entering Saturday's fight, the winner was mandated to fight Sor Rungvisai, who won his stay-busy match earlier in the day on Saturday in Thailand. But this is "Hashtag Boxing"; who knows exactly what will happen? A third Estrada-Gonzalez fight would still be the biggest money fight in the division. Maybe the powers that be will find a way for that to happen next. And either way, Gonzalez should have a meaningful fight with Estrada, Sor Rungvisai, or even titlist Kazuto Ioka in the near future.
|Estrada celebrates his victory|
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland
This era of super flyweights, with Estrada, Gonzalez, Sor Rungvisai, Cuadras and Ioka, has been the best grouping of talent in the weight class during my lifetime. There are two obvious Hall of Famers in the group with Gonzalez and Estrada and two others with Sor Rungvisai and Ioka who could be one big win away from getting there (Ioka has won titles in four divisions, as has Gonzalez, but without Roman's same strength of competition).
Fortunately for fans of the sport, the boxing world is now hip to the little guys. Whereas fights such as Gonzalez-Estrada I and Sor Rungvisai-Cuadras were nowhere to be found among major U.S. broadcasters, now it would be inconceivable for fighters among this group not to have their major bouts televised. So, for as often as older boxing fans talk about how much better the sport was in the past (and in some ways they are right), we must also remember that the present holds many advantages.
Gonzalez and Estrada have become staples of boxing programming. They have helped to illuminate a class of fighters that has been sensational and have provided many memorable nights of boxing. They have helped grow the sport. Nine years ago, no major network would touch their first fight, now the rematch was one of the signature events of a major boxing platform.
In the end, I don't care as much that Gonzalez may have deserved to win against Sor Rungvisai in their first fight or against Estrada in the rematch, that Cuadras perhaps deserved more love from the judges against Gonzalez than he received, or that a judge had a bad scorecard in both Estrada-Gonzalez fights. What I will remember about this era is ferocious combat, exceptional competitors and the growing acknowledgement within the wider boxing community that these smaller-weight fighters are not just among the best in the sport but can be major entrees in the overall professional boxing menu.
And they have done more than just grow the sport; they have changed it. They have shifted thinking. They have made boxing executives and many fans discard their prejudices against smaller fighters. Gonzalez and Estrada have expanded the possibilities for smaller-weight fighters and allowed a handful of top fighters at 115 lbs. and below a chance at making a solid living in the sport. It's not just that Roman Gonzalez and Juan Estrada are stars or elite fighters. Now networks will look for the next Gonzalez or Estrada. And that is a change that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.