During the first half of Roman Gonzalez’ trilogy fight with Juan Francisco Estrada, on Saturday night, something sad happened. ‘Chocolatito’—famous for his whirlwind, insanely high-volume attacking style—seemed reluctant to throw punches.
He’d press, get into the positions he needed to be in for much of the time, but the punches weren’t coming. On the occasions that he did throw something and was countered, he looked more bothered by taking the shots than he has usual. Estrada, on most observers’ cards, took a wide lead, and it looked worryingly like we might see the great Chocolatito fading into the end of his career in a timid, worried way.
There’s a chance, of course, that it wasn’t anything of the sort; that he was telling the truth post-fight when he said he was just taking a look at what Estrada was bringing this time. And, of course, fans and pundits have written him off before. Perhaps we shouldall know better.
In the second half of the fight, something fantastic happened. Gonzalez’ defense started to click, and from that, so did his offense. He pushed on, finally making it the furious fight between the pair we’d been expecting, and oh so nearly pulled a draw—or even a win—out of the bag.
The official scorecards read 115-113, 116-112, and 114-114; a majority decision victory for Estrada. Unlike the last time there isn’t a lot of controversy about that one. Obviously, the narrative of the fight can’t be just about what Chocolatito did or didn’t do. ‘El Gallo’ is a great boxer in his own right, and Gonzalez’ early reluctance didn’t happen in a vaccuum. Estrada did the work to cause it. The fight was a story of little adjustments back and forth that led to big momentum shifts, a different sort of battle from the first two but fascinating nonetheless.
Let’s take a look.
The first round started, to be fair, with both men largely just taking a look at one another. Estrada won it mostly by virtue of picking up the pace and throwing a couple of right hands behind his jab in the last minute or so. In hindsight, it was perhaps a bit worrying that those landed so easily—the kind of work Gonzalez would normally have seen coming—but the pattern didn’t really start to take shape until round 2. There, the Nicaraguan started to push forward and press Estrada to the ropes, even succeeding a few times, but the necessary punches didn’t come.
The worries about age and getting gunshy jumped to mind, partly because of what Estrada did as Gonzalez approached him. The timing of his own movement was excellent to keep Gonzalez from getting where he wanted when he wanted, and he intercepted movement with punches—in particular utilizing a short, sneaky uppercut to interfere with the weaving head movement Chocolatito uses to come in under his opponent’s line of sight.
Interestingly, this was a trick Estrada’s last opponent, Argi Cortes, used against him effectively in that fight (maybe he borrowed some ideas). In any case, it led to Chocolatito being more upright once he got into position than he’s comfortable with, and may also explain some of why his guard seemed leakier than normal. His head was on a higher line than he intended and his gloves were later getting to defensive positions.
Estrada also took steps to make Chocolatito’s movement harder for him. He’s always been a good out-boxer when needed, but there was a particular focus here on lateral movement—switching direction frequently to prevent his opponent from getting a fix on moving to one side or the other. Estrada took a page out of the Srisaket Sor Rungvisai textbook, and stepped in to meet Gonzalez mid-bounce, just as Gonzalez aimed to moved forward.
Naturally, not actually being SSR, he didn’t follow up with blitzing flurries. But, those short forays forward served to make Gonzalez a bit cautious about setting himself for the final step. They also led to several fairly solid head clashes, and we were lucky not to see a cut.
That pattern continued through much of the first seven rounds. In some of them Gonzalez had a bit more success than others, but for the most part the significant work came from Estrada. Particularly, Estrada’s shovel hook left to the body and a long overhand right (often in combination) were landing well.
All that changed in round 8. Gonzalez started to get closer, in large part (somewhat ironically) by approaching less quickly. By starting his level-changing and slipping a little farther away, without stepping in, Estrada bit earlier with intercepting punches. As those fell short, Gonzalez could follow the punches back as Estrada withdrew (or come in under of he timed it particularly well). When that happened, suddenly it was Estrada finding himself a little out of position when exchanging in close, and Gonzalez was able to throw his shots while keeping his defense more polished.
Estrada became increasingly hesitant to throw those initial intercepting shots, even when Gonzalez did move directly in—weaving instead of waiting. It was a great display of the importance of giving an opponent something to think about. Suddenly, because of a few seconds of a new approach, the old approach worked a lot better too.
Gonzalez also got a better grip on Estrada’s physicality as the fight wore on, once again not by engaging more but by engaging less. In the first half, one of Estrada’s main tactics when Gonzalez did get close was to bring his left shoulder forward, lengthening his stance into the space Gonzalez wanted to move in and bracing to shove him back. It’s a somewhat risky strategy, because lengthening a stance like that against an opponent so adept at circling in close can leave openings for them to get round to the undefended side behind the lead hand. But Estrada is so good at using that left to intercept with hooks that he was mostly safe, and if they came in too close for those he’d stick his elbow out and block the way.
Gonzalez’ eventual response was to slide back a bit as the shoulder came forward, leaving Estrada pushing at air. That gave him free movement while the Mexican recovered his stance. Alternatively, at times he’d accept the push, shift his own stance to match, and throw shots to the body as Estrada concentrated on stopping movement that was never really coming.
Estrada caught on to both these responses quite quickly, but by then he’d given up crucial momentum and couldn’t use the tools that had given him such a strong start. He didn’t fall apart by any means—he was still competitive in every exchange—but those exchanges were now far more on Chocolatito’s terms and in his wheelhouse in the pocket.
This was where a weakness in Estrada’s jab was also exposed. He is fantastic (as good as anyone) at using it to set things up, to distract his opponent—all the little subtle trickeries that a jab can be used for. But as an actual defensive tool, a stiff sharp jab to stop his opponent in his tracks? It’s never really been part of his game, and it really would have helped him here. He could score with it, and was still setting up good work, but he didn’t have the simplest tool available to stop a hard-pressing opponent, and it showed.
What he could do, and did to make the last two rounds much closer (and win at least one of them on most scorecards, probably making the final difference in the fight), is go back to his movement in a big way. Not by anything like running, though. The actual plan was pretty simple: Move back just as Gonzalez moved forward, letting him fall short with the initial step and then throw combinations at him as he tried to force the issue. The timing to do this has to be flawless. Move too late and he’d just be caught off-balance by Gonzalez as he arrived. Move too soon and Gonzalez would have no reason to approach at all. It didn’t succeed every time, but that it succeeded enough to turn the momentum and give him the fight is a testament to just how good his timing was throughout.
It wasn’t a sure thing as the scores were read, but the feeling was that the odds bent towards Estrada, and so it proved. Gonzalez had left himself too much of a hole against too good an opponent. No matter who had won or lost, however, it was another remarkable performance by both men.
The talk in the immediate aftermath was of a fourth fight. In honesty, the viability of that as a worthwhile contest depends on just how much Chocolatito’s issues early on were tactical and how much were genuinely being a touch slower. If it’s the latter, another six months or a year aren’t going to make that disparity any kinder. With that in mind, other opponents first might be an idea, perhaps Argi Cortes to test himself against someone who gave Estrada trouble.
Gonzalez also hinted at retirement. A loss—even a well-fought one—would be a sad way to go out, so a farewell fight against a slightly lower-level (but still credible) competitor would be a nice way to do it.
Estrada’s focus in any case will likely be on the winner of the Ioka-vs-Franco unification fight on New Years Eve in Japan. That’s for the WBA and WBC title belts, so adding (re-adding, in the case of the WBC title he was stripped of when he failed to fight Franco earlier this year) those to the WBO belt he has would be a pretty solid plan.
Ultimately, Gonzalez is more or less on the victory lap portion of his career. Belts or not, his legacy is secured, and what he does next will be about getting those final paydays and putting on a good show. Estrada, meanwhile still has things to do. Whether they fight each other again or not, it’s been a joy to see this trilogy. We don’t get enough of these rivalries in boxing these days. That trend is shifting slightly, but this one will be hard to top for a long while.
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