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Roman Gonzalez Sees No End in Sight to Legendary Boxing Career

Still possessing plenty of fight at 35 years old, Chocolatito attempts to further cement his legacy in Saturday's trilogy against Francisco Estrada.

GLENDALE, Ariz.—In a quiet ballroom, with a handful of cameramen still packing up equipment around him, Roman Gonzalez slouches in a straight back chair. This is the side of Gonzalez rarely seen. Quiet. Contemplative. Emotional, even. In the ring, Gonzalez—better known in boxing as Chocolatito—remains one of the sport’s fiercest warriors, an indefatigable puncher with head-snapping power. Outside, he is reserved, not uncomfortable with the spotlight as much as he is indifferent to it. His eyes light up when discussing his family. They water when the subject turns to his childhood here, Alexis Arguello.

“I still watch his fights,” says Gonzalez. “I like to think when I fight I’m continuing his legacy.”

Gonzalez will attempt to further that legacy Saturday, when he takes on Juan Francisco Estrada in the third installment of one of boxing’s best rivalries. They first met in the ring in 2012, when a 25-year-old Gonzalez outmuscled Estrada, then an unheralded 22-year-old making his U.S. debut. They fought again in 2021, with a more seasoned Estrada squeezing out a narrow—and controversial—split decision. COVID-related issues prevented an immediate rematch but after a few stops and starts—and interim fights for both in between—they will meet in Glendale, Arizona to settle the score.

“He is,” says Gonzalez, “my greatest rival.”

Estrada, left, faces off against Gonalez for a trilogy bout Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. 

Estrada, left, faces off against Gonalez for a trilogy bout Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. 

At 35, Gonzalez remains one of boxing’s top fighters, which in itself is remarkable. It has been five years since Gonzalez was demolished by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, flattened in an anticipated rematch inside four rounds. That was supposed to be the end of Gonzalez. Instead, he picked up two low-level wins, battered Kal Yafai to regain a title and scored quality victories over Israel Gonzalez and Julio Cesar Martinez that sandwiched the questionable loss to Estrada.

As much as Gonzalez accomplished before the losses to Sor Rungvisai, there’s a case to be made that his resume is equally as strong—or close to it—since then.

“It's God who gives me the strength,” says Gonzalez. “The spirit gives a strength like no other. This camp has ended up being a very special camp, an almost perfect camp. And I feel the strength and I feel better than ever.”

At 35, Gonzalez’s legacy is secure. He will go down as one of the greatest small fighters ever, sharing a small circle with the likes of Ricardo Lopez and Ivan Calderon. He will fight for a 115-pound title Saturday, but he has held plenty of them. He used to fill milk bags with sand and hang them from a guava tree in Nicaragua to train for fights he was lucky to collect a few hundred dollars for. Today, he works under pristine conditions and takes home purses that approach, even exceed, $1 million.

“I used to fight just to make sure my family could get ahead,” says Gonzalez. “Now I fight for a country and there's a whole country behind me. God has blessed me. But I don't need anything by now. And the world of boxing, having something you like so much, it's very hard to leave. And so I'm asking God to help move me forward. I feel good physically, mentally, and hopefully I can do a few more fights.”

Listening to Gonzalez, it’s clear he believes he has plenty left. He’s in the twilight of his career, but he doesn’t see the end of it. He enjoys working with Marcos Caballero, his head trainer who stabilized his corner in the aftermath of the untimely death of Arnulfo Obando. He is in a talent-rich division—or divisions if you factor in the crop of fighters likely to move up from 112 pounds—that includes Jessie Rodriguez, Joshua Franco and Sunny Edwards. And he’s still great: In his last fight, a lopsided decision win over Martinez, Gonzalez averaged 90 punches per round, according to CompuBox, landing a total of 374, while connecting on 51% of his power shots.

“Honestly I'm more motivated than ever,” says Gonzalez. “I have a beautiful family. I have kids. My wife, she's a motivation. And I keep looking for more achievements.”

Gonzalez will forever chase the legacy of Arguello, with no interest in catching up to it. “It’s Alexis Arguello, one,” says Gonzalez of Nicaraguan boxers. “Gonzalez, two.” Arguello was a decorated fighter, a three-division world champion who never lost a title in the ring. To Gonzalez, he was a father figure, a trainer who took him in when he didn’t have to, a mentor who guided him through boxing’s complicated political maze. His death—Arguello committed suicide in 2009—hit Gonzalez hard but his teachings stick with him.

“Alexis used to say something,” says Gonzalez. “That he was a beast. That may sound bad, but sometimes there are moments when you have what comes to your mind, this idea that perhaps maybe you're done. And I think of what he says. When it comes to a beast, you have to be a beast to know or to bring out that beast inside of you.”

On Saturday, Gonzalez will look to bring that beast out again. There’s no bad blood between Gonzalez and Estrada. Just the opposite. Earlier this year the two spent time together in Nicaragua. “I like to have friends,” says Gonzalez. Estrada, a longtime rival, readily admits that Gonzalez is the best smaller fighter of this generation. “In the ring, I'd say he's my enemy,” Estrada said. “But once the fight is over, we'll hug, come out of the ring, talk to each other and we'll wish each other good health and we'll be on our way.”

In interviews, Gonzalez is often asked about his future. But he refuses to put a clock on his career. If he is successful Saturday, he hopes to unify the titles next year. There’s a lucrative fight with Rodriguez, considered by many to be Gonzalez’s heir. Gonzalez says he is also interested in moving up to 118 pounds to pursue a title in a fifth weight division. “Trying to get a title at 118 pounds is very hard,” says Gonzalez. “But everything can be done in life.”

Gonzalez is proof of that. He rose from the streets of Nicaragua to become a champion and later rose from boxing’s ashes to do it again. He has not only dominated the smaller weight classes but popularized them, opening doors for the next generation to get high-profile—and highly lucrative—fights. And he still has a few left.

“That beast on Saturday is going to come out,” says Gonzalez. “I will transform. And when I transform, it’s very difficult to stop me.”