The heavyweights return on Saturday, with an end-of-the-year reminder why we love boxing. No, it’s not the quartet of Tyson Fury, Derek Chisora, Daniel Dubois and Kevin Lerena giving us that reminder from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England, but Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez meeting for the third time a hundred pounds lighter and 11 hours away in Glendale, Arizona’s Gila River Arena.
The expected final chapter in one of the sport’s great trilogies won’t get the media coverage the title fight between Fury and Chisora will get, nor are 60,000-plus fans expected to travel to the desert to see two future hall of famers clash for 12 rounds or less. But don’t get it twisted – the biggest fight of the weekend is between two 115-pounders who your best buddy probably doesn’t know.
That’s unfortunate, but we know better. Estrada-Gonzalez III is the kind of matchup the diehards live for, the one where we like to show our superiority to the casuals, almost like that unsigned band you’ve been watching in the clubs for years finally getting a record deal. Oh, those guys? Yeah, I saw them in Johnny’s basement playing in front of five people a year ago.
And the beautiful part of the whole thing is that while we wish Estrada and Gonzalez could be household names making the money Fury and Chisora are going to get this weekend, these are the moments where we don’t care if the rest of the world is in on the secret. These are “our guys,” and all we care about is the fight. The same goes for the ones who will stand center ring on Saturday with gloves on. As brutal as they’ve been to each other over the past 24 rounds in the ring, there is no trash talk, no nonsense, no pushing and shoving at press conferences and weigh-ins. Just two of the fiercest competitors you’ll find bringing the best out of each other.
Maybe what makes this friendly rivalry so good is that it was unexpected, at least from Estrada’s point of view. Last summer, I spoke to him for a feature in Boxing News magazine and asked him about the magic the pair made together.
“Like a lot of other fighters, when I first started, I did want to try to get to a point where I could have big, meaningful fights that could go down in history,” Estrada said. “The one thing that surprised me or is a little different is that I really didn't expect to have these amazing two fights with a Nicaraguan. Because of my weight division, I always thought that my biggest fights would be against an Asian champion because of the smaller weights. But it ended up being that my two biggest fights were against a great Nicaraguan champion like Gonzalez, and hopefully we can make the third fight and make it the same or even better.”
Estrada, and Gonzalez, for that matter, have had their wars with Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Mexico’s Carlos Cuadras, making the quartet the modern equivalent of the 80s Four Kings (Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran), but when the dust settles, it will be the battles between Chocolatito and Estrada that will be remembered, regardless of the end results.
“I believe we have a lot of similarities,” said Estrada. “We both have an equal will to win, but also aggression and great technique, so I believe everything meshes together to make a great fight.”
Entering the third bout, it’s very possible that Estrada could walk away with a 2-1 edge on his foe, having lost the first bout in 2012 via unanimous decision, and won the 2021 rematch by way of a highly controversial split decision. Since then, Estrada stayed busy with a close, but unanimous, decision victory over Argi Cortes, while Gonzalez defeated up and comer Julio Cesar Martinez in March, the night he was supposed to face Estrada, who was forced from the bout due to COVID-19.
If we’re going off recent form, Gonzalez should be favored, but many consider him to be the underdog heading into this bout. That’s not surprising, since he has been written off since a knockout loss in his rematch with Sor Rungvisai in 2017. But for the last five years, all Chocolatito has done is win, five times to be exact, with the only defeat being the decision most believe he deserved against Estrada. A ninth-round TKO of previously unbeaten Kal Yafai in February of 2020 was particularly impressive and should have been a warning to never underestimate a great fighter when the stakes are at their highest.
And they are at that level in Arizona, and those stakes have nothing to do with the vacant WBC super flyweight title up for grabs. Instead, this is all about the belt that was on the line when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought for the third time. The way the great Jerry Izenberg wrote it, the Thrilla in Manila was the heavyweight icons fighting for the championship of each other.
That’s what Estrada and Gonzalez are fighting for this Saturday. Like Ali and Frazier, their legacies are secure, their spots in the hall of fame even more so. This isn’t to set up some other fight in 2023 or to wave a belt around. This is to prove who the better man in that squared circle is – 1-1, winner take all in bout number three.
Sure, Gonzalez is 35 and Estrada 32, ancient for the 115-pound weight class. But didn’t they say that about the 33-year-old Ali and the 31-year-old Frazier when they traveled to Manila? Too old, past their prime, fighting for the money and nothing more.
Look what they gave us. On Saturday, two more heavyweights named Roman and Juan look to give us an encore.