Roman Gonzalez’s earliest memories of fighting are from his childhood on the streets of Managua. Long before Alexis Arguello became his mentor and named him Chocolatito, before he became so iconic that he would be mononymous, he was the smallest kid in his friend group playing soccer. Particular spots in the neighborhood were of high value for kids looking to get a game of footy in, and with some regularity, Gonzalez and his friends had to physically fight off kids trying to take their spot.
Eventually he learned to fight for real under the guidance of Arguello, the finest person his homeland of Managua could possibly offer to teach him. Of all the minutiae Arguello taught him over the years, when speaking about the advice that sticks with him, Gonzalez stresses it was the virtue of discipline. Early in his amateur career, Arguello told him “your hardest opponent will be yourself.”
At the age of 34 and at 115 pounds, four weight classes above where he started as a professional boxer, Chocolatito is still fighting off the new kids trying to take his spot. Except now they aren’t just street toughs from the neighborhood, they’re the best fighters in the world in his weight neighborhood, and he’s dispatching them with the same ease. Everyone from 118 pounds on down has designs of springboarding their careers with a win over a legend, of taking the ball and his place, and time after time his stands firm. True to Arguello’s prophecy, the only thing that has been able to inhibit Chocolatito over the years has been himself—not anything he hasn’t done however, but merely his age and increasing weight, the time and body he’s been given.
On Saturday night, Gonzalez scored a unanimous decision victory over Julio Cesar Martinez in San Diego, CA, in a main event broadcast by DAZN. Martinez, the 112-pound titleholder who replaced Juan Francisco Estrada on six weeks’ notice, was considered a true threat to Chocolatito. Oddsmakers made him only the narrowest of underdogs, +115 in many places. But if you didn’t have a concept of who either fighter was and watched the fight, for one, your mind would have been blown watching Chocolatito for the first time, but you also might have thought Martinez ought to have been a +1500 underdog instead.
That’s how thoroughly Gonzalez dominated a highly regarded world champion who, to his credit, never stopped trying all the way to the final bell. Gonzalez was absolutely mesmerizing all night long, blending hyper-aggression and volume punching with fluidity and expert defense all in one perpetual whirlwind. According to CompuBox, Gonzalez threw 1076 punches and landed 374, including 346 power punches. Of those power punches, he landed 50.7%.
For all intents and purposes, the fight was over after the first round. When Gonzalez sat down in the corner after the first three minutes, his corner asked him “did you feel his power?” In boxing parlance, “feeling your opponent’s power” often refers to acknowledging after first-hand experience that your opponent has the power to hurt you. In this exchange however, it meant that Gonzalez had felt the strength of Martinez’s blows, mainly on his gloves and arms, and determined he didn’t have to be concerned. Following the fight, Gonzalez said as much, admitting that he wanted to take the first round specifically to “feel (his) power.”
The other part of that one minute exchange that was instructive was an inquiry from trainer Marcos Caballero. “He’s easy to figure out, right?” Chocolatito nodded. He’d already done so.
As he’s displayed throughout his career, Gonzalez is an offensive marvel, able to throw punches at a rate few fighters in the sport can match up with an accuracy few can match and in the midst of that, block, roll and ride with punches all in one continuous motion. Particularly when he gets into a groove, Gonzalez can look like a character in Fight Night video games, where fatigue and physics are ignored and movements happen as fast as one’s thumbs can think.
On defense, his is an approach that welcomes contact from his opponent, rather than trying to avoid it entirely. While he’ll dodge some punches outright, he’s mainly blocking with his gloves and arms, utilizing his upper body to leverage the momentum and the openings from the shots being thrown to land his own.
For a period of time in the bout, Martinez’s corner gave him sensible advice, which was to simply try to land on Gonzalez’s gloves more often so as to occupy his hands. For the vast majority of fighters on the planet, that would be effective in at least forcing them to alter their approach. Against Chocolatito, it not only doesn’t deter him, it’s built in to his whole strategy. Ultimately, the fight reached a point where the best Martinez’s corner could offer in the way of advice was a profoundly irresponsible message that “he has to be willing to die” before the final round.
Stepping in the ring with Chocolatito is like being placed in a human-sized blender, the blade chopping you up as you rattle against the perimeter, try as you might to fight back against it. The best-case scenario is that you’ll be transformed into something softer, more maneuverable, less resistant. In Martinez’s case, a hard, macho power puncher was ground into a pulpy version of himself. Into a target along the ropes, swishing around the outside, fighting for nothing other than the pride of hearing the final bell.
The only opponent who has ever been able to conclusively best Chocolatito has been Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, who knocked him out in the fourth round of their rematch in 2017. That year, Hall of Fame trainer Nacho Beristain was interviewed by Nicaraguan journalist Bayron Saavedra and asked for his thoughts on Chocolatito’s shocking demise.
“He looked like he had done very little physical work and that gave me a fear. [He looked worried], that's what a boxer does usually knows he did not train well. He knew he was not ready for that. He knew that the result would be negative because he did not train well or the people who trained him did not demand a full, hard training,” said Beristain. “He is a fighter who depends on his combinations, he is spectacular [when he does them]."
Beristain’s instincts were correct. A combination of the death of Chocolatito’s coach Arnulfo Obando and nagging knee injuries had relegated him to an essentially solo training camp at the bare minimum intensity so as to preserve his legs.
The sight of Chocolatito prone on the canvas in California was a difficult one for many fans to witness. A once invincible yet still diminutive man finally felled by age, size and the consequences of his own bravado. At least in part, a loss to himself, as Arguello cautioned him against as a child, as much as anything.
In the wake of Chocolatito’s victory over Martinez this past weekend, talk turned to his potential future opponents, as it always does in boxing. On the live DAZN broadcast, commentator Sergio Mora suggested Gonzalez “stay away” from Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez, not necessarily because he couldn’t beat Rodriguez, but because the amount of money he could make for doing so might not be worth the relative risk. Online, some fans salivated over a potential bout against Naoya Inoue, but perhaps just as many seemed to caution against the idea of moving up to 118 pounds to face a colossal puncher.
Chocolatito occupies a special place in the hearts of many fans. Despite being one of the greatest to ever lace up the gloves and still swatting the sport’s best around the ring to this day, some fans feel protective over him. Perhaps, having seen what they thought to have been his demise at the time, they know how it feels and never want to experience it again.
Having won titles in four weight classes, Gonzalez doesn’t need to chase a fifth. If his recent bouts are any indication, 115 pounds, somehow, is a safe zone for him, save for perhaps a rematch with Srisaket. He has expressed interest in moving up to 118, but many fans would prefer to have him stick around and turn in masterpiece after masterpiece until he calls it quits on his own terms.
For the bulk of his career, Chocolatito was merely someone boxing fans read about, or perhaps a grainy figure on footage downloaded on Torrent sites. By the time he hit American TV, he was above his optimal weight, and within a year was knocked out on HBO. Fans of his remember life without him, and the feeling of seeing him hurt. The feeling of either is something many of them would prefer to avoid, as much for him as themselves.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.