In a way, it makes perfect sense that the true stand-out prizefighter of the past decade would become for many boxing fans, if not most, something of an afterthought. Modest, soft-spoken and unassuming by nature, a serious craftsman and professional who appeared indifferent to the spotlight and never really went out of his way to be in it, Roman Gonzalez becomes easy to overlook amidst all the bluff and bluster and never-ending hype attached to so many of his pound-for-pound, “Fighter of the Decade” rivals. But if you go to the art gallery and give your attention only to the biggest, brashest canvases by Pollock and Picasso, and ignore the smaller works by Renoir and Rossetti, then the loss is yours, isn’t it? Take a closer look and a more careful assessment and you may come to the same conclusion we have.
Besides, while pondering this matter, one’s mind goes back to consider anew which boxers deserved similar laurels and it should be no surprise to learn that in the main there has been little consensus. For example, at the close of the 1990’s many regarded Roy Jones Jr. as clearly the pugilist of the decade, but in fact strong cases still stand that Evander Holyfield or the late, great Pernell Whitaker were more deserving. Similarly, as the year 1980 dawned, many saw “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, as the boxer of the decade just ended, while others preferred Carlos Monzon or Roberto Duran.
But this is as it should be. The nature of professional boxing is such that no single fighter can actually claim to be the premier, all-encompassing king of the sport for ten full years. There is always room for discussion and debate, is there not? And yet, when assessing the relevant weights and measures, it is the conviction in this corner that the present choice for boxing’s Fighter of the Decade is an easy one to make.
Yes, Andre Ward won multiple titles and retired undefeated. Yes, Floyd Mayweather scored wins over two greats of the current era, Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez. Yes, Gennady Golovkin dominated a division like few fighters of recent years, and the seemingly ageless “Pacman” continued to collect big wins and title belts as he entered his fifth decade. But simply put, in terms of quantity and quality, not to mention craftsmanship and technical brilliance, none of these boxers had a decade to match that of Roman Gonzalez. The “twenty-tens” belong to “Chocolatito” and no one else.
To make the case let’s first consider his activity over the ten years in question. Unlike many of his rivals, Gonzalez’s accomplishments do not overlap the previous decade. One can argue he came into his own as an elite-level boxer in 2010, with nine world title victories leading up to his showdown against Juan Francisco Estrada in 2012, one of the decade’s outstanding battles. For several years nothing but victories and superlative performances followed as fans came to understand that Roman Gonzalez was more than just another belt-holder from south of the bantamweight division, more than simply a protégé of the great Alexis Arguello.
In all, Gonzalez scored 23 pro victories in the decade just ending, thirteen of them championship wins, numbers that dwarf the paltry activity levels of Ward and Floyd. But by the time Roman gained widespread recognition as, pound-for-pound, the best boxer on the planet, it was 2015, he was 28-years-old, near the end of his prime, and now facing boxers naturally bigger and heavier. Which brings us to another essential criterion: competitiveness. Unlike so many present-day elite champions, Gonzalez welcomed the challenge of facing one champion after another while moving up in weight, in the process becoming the first in boxing history to win world titles at minimumweight, light flyweight, flyweight and super flyweight.
And if the case can be made that certain signature wins on the records of Canelo, Floyd and Ward could, or should, have an asterisk beside them, no such argument can be made for Roman Gonzalez, who found himself pressured to keep moving up while being featured by HBO on the undercards of Gennady Golovkin’s fights. “Chocolatito” was in no position to demand catch-weights, even though the day-before weigh-in didn’t help him one bit, quite the contrary. And yet win after win showcased not only Gonzalez’s superlative skills, but also his courage, heart and willingness to give fans the action and excitement they crave while overcoming disadvantages in size and weight.
The list of elite-level battlers whom Roman defeated is impressive by any measure: Estrada, Akira Yaegashi, Edgar Sosa, Brian Viloria, McWilliams Arroyo and Carlos Cuadras were all top-level talents and all were bested by “Chocolatito.” And all, it should be noted, were either in, or very close to, their respective primes when they faced the pride of Nicaragua. Despite this, most of these duels were barely competitive. Only Estrada and Cuadras can be said to have given Gonzalez serious tests; the others, as capable as they may have been, were outclassed. Simply put, Gonzalez’s run from 2010 to 2017 was something to behold and sets him apart from every other world champion in the game.
In the process, Roman Gonzalez brought a much-needed spotlight to the lightest weight classes, divisions which in years past simply haven’t produced major box-office attractions. For the first time in recent memory, boxers who weighed little more than a kid in fifth grade could negotiate for serious paydays and mainstream attention, which is only fair given the activity and entertainment they bring to the ring. Let’s face it: your average flyweight tilt is far more engrossing than most heavyweight title fights. But the point here is that, unlike some champions, Gonzalez attracted only positive attention to boxing. A true sportsman and an admirable competitor, “Chocolatito” brought new fans to the small men of the sport while disdaining trash talk and tacky theatrics.
But the feel good story and the run of great victories couldn’t go on forever. From Thailand came a powerful young warrior named Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and on paper it looked to be another opportunity for Gonzalez to showcase his extraordinary skills on HBO and little more. Overlooked at the time was that while Rungvisai was an unknown with four losses on his record, he was in fact an extremely rugged and durable fighter with absolutely nothing to lose. Also, to judge from his stocky frame and bulging muscles, he was in all likelihood a featherweight disguised as a super flyweight. Few commentators like to talk much about the implications of the day-before weigh-in, but in retrospect it’s clear Rungvisai numbers among the boxers who have learned to exploit it for maximum advantage.
But this circumstance only bolsters the standing of Gonzalez, as Roman’s heroic performance in one of the best fights of the decade is also one of the primary reasons to choose him as the boxer of the decade. In the opening round he tasted the canvas for the first time in his career, confirming that he was both past his prime and physically out-gunned by the burly Thai, the latter doing all he could to turn the match into a brutal, grueling, war of attrition, with plenty of rough stuff and headbutts mixed into his attack. Before long Gonzalez was badly cut and taking serious punishment and all knew he was facing a challenge unlike any before in his prolific career.
And how did Roman Gonzalez respond? With nothing but the will and sheer guts required to bring his skills to bear in a vicious war. Finding himself on the precipice of defeat, he summoned up every ounce of energy and heart to out-work and out-land his stronger, heavier opponent. He never retaliated to Rungvisai’s questionable tactics with rough stuff of his own or complained to the referee, but instead simply out-fought him, his ferocious barrage of clean shots enough to put the challenger on the run, literally, in the final round. Looking back at this thrilling struggle, one can admire the courage and spirit of both fighters while lamenting the final decision from the judges. Yes, it was highly competitive, but there’s no question which of the two landed the cleaner, crisper blows and who truly deserved to have their hand raised at the final bell.
But what could be more fitting in 21st century boxing than to have a Fighter of the Decade who is the victim of an obvious injustice? Bad decisions are almost routine and rarely cause us to do more than shrug our shoulders now. After all, that’s not the only injustice Gonzalez has had to endure. While he struggled against a bigger, stronger opponent through twelve punishing rounds, in the process shedding his blood all over the Madison Square Garden canvas, he could only look forward to a six-figure check, while clowns like Adrien Broner earn millions. The fact he suffered a brutal knockout loss to Rungvisai in their rematch only adds to the poignancy of Roman’s no-win situation and highlights how extraordinary his showing in their first meeting truly was, a showing this site hailed as 2017’s Performance of the Year.
The bottom line is Roman Gonzalez had a better run at the elite level of boxing over the past ten years than any other professional prizefighter on the planet, winning more meaningful matches, overcoming tougher opposition, and in the process establishing himself as one of the most effective pressure fighters in boxing history. No one else achieved more, or showed more heart and competitive zeal. Roman Gonzalez is our Fighter of the Decade, and we grant him this honour without hesitation or equivocation. Because before making such an assessment and coming to a final decision, we give just as much attention and scrutiny to the smaller canvases on the wall as we do to the big ones. — Michael Carbert