By Gabriel Cordero and Darrel Williams
WBA minimumweight world champion Roman “Chocolate” Gonzalez (22-0 20 KOs) of Nicaragua, is one of the diamonds that are the future of boxing that continue to emerge from poverty and hunger. Growing up in the barrios of Managua, poverty and hunger were his daily dose of life. “We were so poor, often only eating once a day,” he says. “My mother took care of us, cooking, cleaning, ironing other people’s clothes, just to make sure my four brothers and I could have food on the table and clothes on our back.”
He recalls that his motivation for entering the ring was focused on only one thing in those early days. “PRODESA promotions had started sponsoring amateur boxing on a bi-weekly basis. The winner of each bout would get a basket full of provisions such as rice, beans, pasta, cooking oil, and other stuff. I got into boxing as a way to get that food.”
Gonzales has come a long way in a meteoric rise since those dire days of childhood.
He stormed through the amateur ranks (74-1) like a runaway truck, destroying everything and everyone in his way. The food baskets were no longer enough to pacify his hunger; the hunger was now for the glory and all the spoils that would make his and his beloved mother Liliam’s life better.
After signing with PRODESA boxing, it took Gonzalez just 15 months from fighting his first ranked fighter to destroy and retire one of boxing’s longest reigning champions, Yutaka Niida of Japan, who had held the title for seven years. In three and a half rounds, he reduced the once great champion to a veritable punching bag, throwing a mind-boggling 36 uppercuts in the last two minutes of the fight.
A placid, humble young family man outside the ring, it’s hard to find the reason that makes him the most brutal young search-and-destroy fighter in the game today. But it all comes back to one thing: hunger, the need to eat. “The sooner I finished off my opponent and didn’t get hurt, the sooner I could fight again to make a little money for me and my family,” Gonzalez recalls.
At only 21 years of age and already a world champion, Gonzalez should be in no hurry to achieve the apparent greatness that beckons him. The fire has been lit though, and the hunger for more titles and financial security for his family fuels the controlled rage that erupts at the sound of a bell.
Like Manny Pacquaio, Gonzalez also feels the weight of a nation behind him “We are a very poor country, Alexis Argüello made 16 defenses with the whole nation behind him. Those are very big shoes to fill.” he says. ” When I won the title in Japan, an estimated 70% of the Nicaraguan population saw my fight at four o’clock in the morning. That motivates me to really work hard in order to deliver a good performance which will make them proud.”
Argüello, a three-weight world champion himself, has no problem relinquishing the mantle to the young star. “He is a natural talent, much more polished at the age of 21 than what I could ever dream of being. If he dedicates himself, he can be one of the all time greats.”
A self-confessed gym rat, Gonzalez is always looking for ways to improve, “I spend a lot of time at the gym and I like to practice punches all the time. I start practicing them on the bags and then slowly move them up to the sparring sessions. After I feel confident, I start throwing them around during fights. I don’t model my style after anybody in particular. I used to style it after Alexis but realized that as a lower-weight fighter, I need speed to be much more of a factor. Three years ago I was working on closing down the ring, two years ago I was working on my hooks to the liver, and last year, I worked on throwing my upper cut and improving my mobility in the ring. This year I am working on improving my jab and throwing more straight punches. I feel I am really improving as a fighter.”
When asked about the prospect of fighting the great Ivan Calderon, the humbleness disappears out the window as the alter ego of Gonzalez oozes with anticipation. “I don’t have a great deal of experience against lefties, but if Calderon wants to fight, I will gladly jump up a weight class and accommodate him, and I guarantee, I will be ready to give him a real beating.”
Gonzalez, although having the utmost respect for Calderon’s achievements, seems to have little fear of the pound-for-pound star. “I will fight him anywhere: in the backyard of my house or his,” he jokes.
Ulysses Solis is another champion that Gonzalez has problems holding back on. “I would love to fight Solis ’cause he beat a teammate of mine named Nerys Espinoza. He was able to squeak by Nerys, but he will not be able to handle my pressure.”
If Gonzalez does have a weakness, it’s his lack of fear; his total disdain for anyone who dares to stand and trade with him, that could eventually lead to his downfall.
While most great champions have always cited nervousness before a fight as quintessential for being ready, the young gladiator just blows it off, “I never get nervous: my manager does that for me. Watching him is the only thing that makes me nervous.”
As we talk of fighting in Las Vegas, the humbleness returns to the young champion. “I can’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to fight on a big stage such as the arena at the MGM Grand or the Mandalay Bay,” he says. “I am a minimum-weight boxer who may someday grow into a flyweight. I know that I am a good boxer but unless I am going to unify a title with another champ, my chances of fighting in Las Vegas are slim to none.”