It’s hard to overstate how big a deal this weekend’s main event is if you’re a boxing fan. Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada aren’t the biggest stars of the last few years- but that’s because fighters at the lighter weights rarely are. In terms of skill level and achievement, though, they are and have been as good as anyone, fighting it out in shark-tank divisions and coming out on top- and they’ve done a lot to ensure these divisions have far more attention on them than they did previous. They meet here for the third time, looking to settle a rivalry that’s been going on for a decade and put a cap on two legendary careers. Estrada’s WBC superfly world title belt is on the line here, but that’s almost beside the point. This is historic.
The fight will air on DAZN in the US and Europe, with the card starting at 2am ET on Sunday.
There was a while between their first two fights, though. For the first, all the way back in 2012, Gonzalez was already established as one of the star fighters of the smaller classes and WBA champion at light flyweight, but Estrada was at that point completely unknown, not having fought at world level before or even in a 12-round fight. Often, contests like that turn out to be time-fillers, one-sided stay-busy fights for the star, but this time, we went in with one star and came out with two. Much to the bafflement, it has to be said, of the commentary team on the broadcast at the time, Estrada proved his mettle, and we got an incredible, high-skill back-and-forth war that Gonzalez won clearly, but not by very much.
After that, they went their parallel but separate ways. They both jumped up to flyweight, and then eventually to superfly, and Chocolatito caught promoter attention, first in Japan and then from HBO, that led them to eventually establish the classic series of Superfly cards that brought the division and the fighters within some much-deserved wider public attention.
The actual jump was a little tough for Gonzalez, clearly by now above his comfortable weight, and he fought a series of brutal fights that eventually ended in a devastating knockout by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. That seemed like it might be the end, and the long-awaited second fight with Estrada off the cards, but after a couple of years recuperating and refocusing, he won another title in a solid win over Kal Yafai, and with Estrada having beaten Sor Rungvisai for his own belt in the meantime, it was back on.
The second fight, nine years after the first, was even more brilliant than the first. It ended a touch controversially though, as some felt the scorecards to Estrada were generous. It was too close to call it a robbery, but that means that both come into this third one with something to prove, as Estrada seeks to show he deserved it all along whereas Gonzalez wants to reclaim what he believes should be his. Naturally, they haven’t waited for half so long to get in the ring again, so the stage is set for something fantastic.
One would think it would be easy to break down the style matchup of two high-profile champions who have already fought twice, especially when Chocolatito in particular is so defined by his high-volume pressure, but it isn’t. These two men are so good and so closely-matched that what they bring out of each other is not just their best, but the weird little corners of each other’s skillsets that are there but they rarely have to use. The first fight saw them almost swap styles for much of it, with Estrada the one unloading 6-punch+ combinations and Chocolatito responding by darting in and out with 1-2s and shorter combos. The second was even more of a back-and-forth game of adjustments, with the pattern of the fight changing round by round. So yes, there’ll be certain skills each one will be aiming to impose, but it’s likely to prove far more complicated than that.
Let’s take a look at those skillsets, though. Chocolatito, as mentioned, is known as a massively high-volume pressure game. He regularly throws over a thousand punches in a fight, and combinations of 8 punches or more are the norm. Fighters with those sort of numbers, when they exist, are often not thinking about deference much, or throwing flurries of punches without much thought for placement. Chocolatito, though, has excellent defence in all facets: his head movement as he comes in, an active guard, and his feel for positioning relative to his opponent all come together in a cohesive whole, allowing him to get close and unleash those punches in relative safety. Of course he ships a few, but almost no opponent can land on him at close to the volume he lands on them. That volume too is highly-skilled: it’s very notable once you’ve spotted it that in his combinations, he’s almost always throwing the current punch at an opening created by the reaction to the one before.
In contrast to all that incessant pressure, Estrada’s basic gameplan is more based on in-and-out movement and volume counterpunching. Rather than trying to force defensive reactions he can take advantage of, he’ll poke at his opponent’s defences with his excellent jab until he gets a response, then jump in and unload a short combination before disengaging. He’s extremely smooth with it- not necessarily as lazer-focused on each reaction as Chocolatito, but so cleanly rattled together, targeting both sides to head and body, that it’s next to impossible to block every shot. Defensively he’s more focused on distance, aiming to be gone before his opponent can get a response going- but when needed his guard is excellent too, and he can also use it as part of a catch-and-counter gameplan. His head movement isn’t as flashy as Chocolatito’s slipping and weaving, but few fighters have as good an understanding of head position, both on approach to stay safely off his opponents lines of sight, and when in close to frame up and disrupt the balance.
That’s part of why he is so special: despite his preference being to not stay in too close too long, he can and will engage there – not just when needed if his opponent forces it there, but frequently just to keep an opponent from getting too comfortable in a particular groove. Because his bag of skills is so big, too, he doesn’t have to cycle between two or three preset plans as with many fighters employing a similar idea- each adjustment is something new.
And if an opponent does work out a thing or two and manages to get him in consistent difficulty, he’s probably as good as anyone in the sport today at just making things up on the spot to disrupt them. Sometimes, that’s regular, textbook stuff, like just cranking up the pressure more consistently to push a man on the back foot, but at others it can be downright weird, as in his almost-wild, janky movements when seeking to take control of the final round in his first fight with Sor Rungvisai.
So: yes, you’ll see Chocolatito ducking and weaving trying to get close, and Estrada managing distance and trying to intercept him. That almost certainly will be the basic grounding of the fight, so to speak. But the way both are capable of responding to not getting their initial plan going means it’s unlikely to just be that. The first two fights were constantly changing, patterns adjusted in small and big ways, surprises sprung on both sides. Quite who will do what and when is impossible to nail down.
There are a couple of things to note in their recent careers that might have an impact, though. Estrada had a disappointing performance in September against countryman Argi Cortes- while Cortes performed better than expected, it was still below Estrada’s usual standard. Still, fighting to the level of his opponent isn’t new for him, so you’d expect him to be better here.
For Chocolatito, the note of caution is simply his age. 35 isn’t that old for a modern boxer, but smaller-weight fighters do tend to age out a bit quicker, and Chocolatito has been fighting at the elite level for a very long time and above his natural weight class for much of it. After that brutal loss to Sor Rungvisai, it seemed for a while he was already past his best, but the fight against Estrada and his most recent performance, a sublime win over Julio Cesar Martinez in March, prove he’s not done just yet.
There’s no simple summary for a fight like this, but to try: probably the difference between the two in terms of their areas of strength is that Estrada has the wider skillset, but Chocolatito the deeper one. Estrada can do more things, make bigger overall changes- but the layers upon layers of the skill with which Chocolatito does what he does mean he usually doesn’t have to make as many to bring himself back into things. Estrada, meanwhile, does no single thing quite as well as Gonzalez applies pressure in the pocket. The razor’s edge that this fight balances on, then, may be how much Gonzalez can keep himself pushing into the pocket, and how much success Estrada can have when it gets there.
But it might be something else. Who knows? All we do know is it’s can’t-miss.
What’s on the undercard?
It must be said, the support doesn’t really stack up to the main event. The biggest name featured is Gonzalez’ previous opponent, Julio Cesar Martinez, but since he’s fighting Samuel Cardona, a Spaniard with 8 fights whose pro career has barely got going, it seems chosen more to be a recovery and showcase than anything else. Beyond that, there are some prospects, also mostly in showcase fights. They’ll be wanting to take the opportunity of being on this kind of show, of course, but really it’s all about the headline act with this one.