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Kings of Combat: Roman Gonzalez, Little Giant

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Bad Left Hook's resident technical analyst breaks down the three sides of Roman Gonzalez, and incredible champion who seems composed of the best parts of some of history's greatest fighters.

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I shun no hardship, fear no foe;
The future calls and I must go:
I charge the line and date the spheres
As I go fighting down the years.

--Georgia Douglas Johnson

So now you've seen Roman Gonzalez.

It's been a long time coming. Since his first marquee win--a fourth-round TKO over #1 strawweight Yutaka Niida in 2008--El Chocolatito has been building one of boxing's most impressive resumes, moving up from strawweight to flyweight and dominating the best of each division along the way. Gonzalez usurped the lineal flyweight throne in his divisional debut, and since then he's been staking his claim as not only the best flyweight on earth, but the best fighter period.

As always, let's pay a little tribute to the oft forgotten but ever important tradition of lineal titles by listing the names of the men who wear the crowns. There are several important changes since the last Kings of Combat: Terence Crawford is no longer the man at lightweight, having vacated to destroy Thomas Dulorme at junior welterweight. Following a long-awaited victory over Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather briefly held the welterweight in addition to the junior middleweight crown, but he has since announced his retirement, vacating both lineal titles. And Danny Garcia, having officially announced his move to welterweight following a series of catchweight bouts, leaves the junior welterweight field wide open, with Viktor Postol and Lamont Peterson atop the rankings.

These are the current Kings of Combat.

DIVISION NAME SUCCESSION
Heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko W12 Alexander Povetkin,
5 November, 2013
Light Heavyweight Adonis Stevenson TKO1 Chad Dawson,
8 June, 2013
Super Middleweight Andre Ward W12 Carl Froch,
11 December, 2011
Middleweight Miguel Cotto TKO10 Sergio Martinez,
7 June, 2014
Junior Featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux W12 Nonito Donaire,
13 April, 2013
Flyweight Roman Gonzalez TKO9 Akira Yaegashi,
5 September, 2014

Gonzalez, situated right there at the bottom of the list, may very well belong at the top of the heap. Few boxers on earth can claim to match his skill, and there are none who can equal his habit of not only beating, but knocking out top notch opposition.

Now that he's finally made his debut on a major American broadcast, this little giant may finally get the recognition he deserves. Couched on the undercard of fast-rising superstar Gennady Golovkin's pay-per-view debut, Chocolatito is sure to earn some new fans this Saturday, October 17th. Let's take a look at what makes him so special.

The Champ

Name: Roman Gonzalez
Record: 43-0 (37 KO)
Stance: Orthodox
Trainer: Arnolfo Obando, (formerly) Alexis Arguello 
Country: Nicaragua

Gonzalez is the student of the late Alexis Arguello, and there's a lot of Arguello in him. It's impossible to watch him punching in combination, flowing seamlessly from uppercuts to straight right hands without being reminded of Alexis. There's a little Joe Louis in Gonzalez as well, in the efficiency of his movements. But as much as Chocolatito resembles the great Arguello, his style also recalls that of his trainer's greatest foil, Aaron Pryor. Pryor wasn't the only man to beat Arguello, but he was the only one to beat him up. And like a man vicariously righting past wrongs, or perhaps a man paying tribute to the fighter that put the first nail in the coffin of his own illustrious career, Arguello seems to have put a lot of Aaron Pryor into Roman Gonzalez.

All of these facets combine to make for a fantastically skilled, incredibly complete fighter, and one with an alarming tendency for knocking out men who specialize in remaining conscious. Let's explore the three sides of the best fighter on the planet.

I. ALEXIS

When people think about great combination punching, hand speed is often the first attribute that comes to mind. In reality, truly great combination punching requires more than mere speed. In fact, a reliance on speed alone can leave a fighter clueless once he finally meets someone with enough confidence and skill to see through the facade of quickness--as Amir Khan and Gary Russell Jr. might tell you.

Timing and placement are the measures of a great combination puncher. The art of punching is in the subtle interplay between the constantly shifting target and the two fists of the attacker.

Like Alexis Arguello, Gonzalez is a fantastically organic combination puncher. Though his careful schooling is evident in each movement, his punches are always tailored to the specific target in front of him. Watch how he adjusts his attacks for the moving target of Edgar Sosa.

Moving forward with his feet slightly square (few fighters fight better out of unconventional positions), Gonzalez notices that Sosa is carrying his head forward with his left hand a little low, and instantly shoots a lead right through the gap, using this punch, as he often does, to close the distance. As he comes forward, he easily slips Sosa's jab, and immediately comes up with a left uppercut to the body. Sosa blocks this and looks to counter, but Gonzalez has excellent awareness, and brings his left hand back to block Sosa's right uppercut before successfully doing what Sosa just tried to do to him: he clips Sosa's jaw with a short left hook before Sosa can get his hand back to defend. Sosa's instinct is still to counter left with right, but this time Gonzalez pulls back to his right hip, letting Sosa's short right slide off the angle of his shoulder. Gonzalez looks to counter Sosa with an uppercut, expecting him to drop down after his right hand, but Sosa takes a backward step instead, and Gonzalez immediately adjusts for the change in angle and distance, flashing a quick jab in Sosa's face before putting him down with a long right hand across the jaw.

You really get a sense for Gonzalez's brilliant punch selection when you watch him in slow motion. At full speed he can look like a blur, but slowed down you can see every opening just as he does. Not only does he attack the holes in his opponent's defense, but he attacks with the right weapons: short, quick punches for close targets. Upward attacks for lowered targets. Long, straight punches for retreating targets. For Roman Gonzalez, everything is a target, and every target can be pinpointed and destroyed.

There's a beautiful rhythm to the way that Gonzalez throws his punches in concert with his opponents' reactions. Obviously his defense while attacking is impressive, but what has always stood out to me is his patience. This is something that Arguello also possessed, something you can plainly see if you go back to watch his slow dismantling of Ruben Olivares. If you watch Gonzalez in the pocket, you won't see him flurrying with rote combinations, hoping to overwhelm his opponent with flashy volume. Instead, he often waits after connecting with his first punch. In waiting, he lets his opponent move into the position for his next punch. It's clear that Gonzalez knows what he wants to throw next, but he never rushes, always attacking at the right time, as the opponent is moving away, or ducking down, or after he misses on an attack of hi own and leaves himself open.

II. JOE

Efficiency is the word that first comes to mind when thinking about heavyweight great Joe Louis. Virtually everything Louis did as a fighter was utterly intentional, and remarkably minimalist. Even the champion's footwork, much maligned by pundits of his time, is a study in efficiency. Louis may not have been the greatest ring cutter or the quickest mover, but he rarely moved any more than he needed to, making it no surprise that he was such an excellent 15-round fighter--on the rare occasions when his efficiency didn't contribute to an early knockout win.

Gonzalez's efficiency is just as impressive. In recent years, Chocolatito has begun to find a streamlined style very reminiscent of Louis at his best, such as when the Brown Bomber took apart the awkward Arturo Godoy over the course of eight rounds in 1940.

Take this wonderful bit of work from Gonzalez's thrilling battle with Juan Francisco Estrada, for example. Throughout the fight, Estrada impressed both Gonzalez and the spectators with his smart lateral movement and punch volume. But look at how much work Estrada has to do compared to Gonzalez in this sequence.

First, Gonzalez comes forward, using a series of small steps to close the distance an inch at a time before attacking the nearest available target, Estrada's torso, with a right hand to the body. A left hook right after comes up short, but Gonzalez demonstrates that patience discussed above, waiting for the evasive Estrada to bring his head into the path of a right uppercut. Gonzalez knows that by standing so close to Estrada, he can make the out-fighter jumpy--Estrada, smart boxer that he is, continually moves his head, but Gonzalez doesn't throw more than he needs to, and simply times Estrada with a short, calculated punch.

Estrada flashes a jab followed by a left hook, but Gonzalez doesn't overreact. He simply steps back and catches the hook on his glove, pivoting on his back foot as Estrada circles around him. Note how Estrada has to take half a dozen big, exaggerated steps to create distance and move around Gonzalez, while Roman limits his own footwork to small, short steps that keep his back to center ring and his opponent right in front of him.

III. AARON

Aaron Pryor is, without a doubt, one of the greatest pressure fighters to ever grace the squared circle. Fans forgot this, at times, because Pryor could move and box with the best of them, but his calculated bouts of out-fighting were only punctuation marks in the stream-of-consciousness assault that was his real specialty. Pryor was used to keeping an absurd pace, using his presence and the constant threat of his combination punching to force opponents backward into the ropes, where he could draw out their punches and put them down with precision counters.

This seems to be the direction in which Gonzalez's game is headed as well. As he gains recognition and his opponents gain respect for his power (it's hard to scoff at an 86% knockout rate, especially at flyweight), Gonzalez has taken to pressuring his opponents more and more, fine-tuning his efficient footwork to make him a better ring general than Joe Louis ever was. As he continues to develop, we see less and less of Gonzalez turning around his opponent, and more and more of Gonzalez turning his opponent around the ring.

His last fight was his best example of this swarming style yet, as he pressed poor Edgar Sosa mercilessly. Like Pryor, Gonzalez has solid upper body movement, and a tight, active guard to go along with it. This allows him to defend nearly everything Sosa throws back at him without having to take more than a single backward step at a time. From this close range, his efficiency, patience, and superb combination punching make him a terrible threat.

As with all great pressure fighters, Gonzalez's fights tend to have the look of a chain reaction. Many of them start out somewhat close, with Gonzalez closing the gap and cutting off the ring, but not throwing much in return. As soon as his hands start to flow, however, the opponent begins to make mistakes. Gonzalez doesn't step away or let up--his constant presence is like a weight on the mind of his opponent. Once he punishes one mistake, the opponent starts to make more. The new, swarming iteration of Gonzalez breaks down his opponents' wills with the careful, relentless precision of a sadistic psychiatrist, and it's never long before the punches start to add up.

In Brian Viloria, Gonzalez finds himself faced with a strong, athletic opponent with more than respectable power of his own. It's hard to imagine, however, that "Hawaiian Punch" will have much success when it comes to pushing Chocolatito backwards, and if the champion has his way, it won't be long before the pressure builds to a head.

It's a blessing that Roman Gonzalez is finally getting major exposure on American TV. Despite great success in the rest of the world, the US is still the home of the most big money fights. If anyone in boxing deserves big money, it's Roman Gonzalez, the biggest and best little fighter on the planet.

For more in-depth analysis of Gonzalez-Viloria and Golovkin-Lemieux, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.