When Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez first met, no one realized that both men were destined for such great things. Gonzalez now seems poised to become the face of little fighters in the United States, with an HBO pay-per-view co-feature just around the corner. A two-fisted knockout puncher with ferocious killer instinct, Gonzalez defies the American myth that small men can't hit, and does so with style. And while Estrada doesn't possess Gonzalez's sheer stopping power, his 68% knockout rate is hardly a source of embarrassment.
What sets Estrada apart from his peers--and what may very well give him the upper hand over Roman Gonzalez in a rematch--is his versatility. He's the Gene Tunney to Gonzalez's Jack Dempsey; the Lionel Rose to his Fighting Harada; the Alexis Arguello to his Ruben Olivares. Like those greats, Estrada wears his unbreakable composure like a suit of armor, and that allows him to adapt his tactics constantly.
Even in the midst of so much creativity, Estrada's jab--call it "pico de gallo"--is a wonder to behold. It's not technically brilliant in its own right, but Estrada uses his jab as well as anyone in boxing right now. With that constantly flashing left hand he blinds, distracts, stings, and attracts. His jab, along with the right hand that follows it, is the cornerstone of Estrada's brilliant boxing.
Today, ahead of Estrada's September 26th fight with Hernan Marquez, I'll be giving you a brief look at the depth of Estrada's craft. Instead of doing this by showing a half dozen of his most eccentric techniques, however, I'm going to focus entirely on his 1-2, the oldest and ostensibly simplest combination in boxing.
Estrada is no rote puncher. He does not do things simply because they are supposed to be done, something we see in the unimaginative combination punching of men like Amir Khan and Gary Russel Jr. Estrada always has either his eyes, his body, or both on his opponent at all times, and he throws at openings that he sees and feels, not ones that he expects to be there. His jab is the tool that creates these openings, and more often than not it's the right hand that finds the mark soon after, often to devastating effect.
One of the best lessons an aspiring boxer might learn from Estrada is that attacks don't have to be unusual to be unpredictable. Estrada lands the 1-2 with extreme regularity against just about everyone he faces, and he does it by playing with the opponents expectations, altering the time between attacks as well as the type of attack.
In this case, Estrada circles and jabs with Milan Melindo. This sort of light exchanging is a common sight in boxing matches, and ostensibly boxers do it to feel out the reactions of the opponent as well as the space of the ring. If a fighter gets careless, however, the process can often devolve into a meaningless game of tag. A mindless pattern of "you go, I go," is not uncommon.
In this case, Estrada gets Melindo to play this game, setting him up all the while. A quick double jab elicits a small grin from Melindo, who steps back and drops his hands, resetting both physically and mentally. Now Estrada raises both hands in a defensive posture, all but asking Melindo to try a few jabs of his own. Melindo obliges, throwing out a pair of jabs as Estrada circles away.
Now it's Estrada's turn, but Estrada isn't playing by the same set of rules. He throws a single jab instead of a double. This change in pattern ensures a moment of hesitation from Melindo. Just as he did before, Melindo unconsciously drops his guard and begins to stand up for a reset, expecting Estrada to step out of range after his lone jab. Instead, Estrada steps into range, closing the distance, bending his knees, and sitting down on a hard, short right hand. The beauty of this follow-up is in the timing. Rather than firing off a quick 1-2, Estrada lets just enough time elapse between his two punches that Melindo is no longer ready to react, but not so much that he can collect himself and respond with a counter. There's a devilishly awkward rhythm to Estrada's combination that belies its simple nature. Even a credible, experienced boxer like Milan Melindo can't deal with a basic 1-2 if it's thrown like that.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Estrada's jab is that he uses it as a data collection tool. Too often fighters throw jabs in an effort to send a message to the opponent, without ever considering what lessons they might glean from the feedback. A well executed jab can serve multiple aims at once. When Estrada jabs his opponent, he is learning as well as teaching. Often his self-education pays off within an instant.
Here Estrada closes the distance with Melindo, expecting him to step in and in-fight. Melindo hesitates at mid-range, however, and Estrada spies an opportunity. He throws out a quick left hook, perhaps hoping for Melindo to duck into it. Instead, Melindo takes a short step back, but still doesn't react. Realizing that he'll need to layer his attacks in order to land, Estrada flings out a jab. Melindo slips it, but brings his head downward and forward, putting himself in prime position for a straight right hand.
This is where the data collection comes in. Some fighters might see an opponent slipping their jab as a failure. Estrada sees it as an opportunity. As he watches Melindo slip, he realizes that the Filipino boxer's vision is obstructed by his extended left arm. Instead of retracting his arm immediately, he lets it hover in front of Melindo's eyes while he loads up on a heavy cross, recovering his jab only after Melindo has no hope of evading the crushing follow-up.
Here's a similar sequence from later in the same round. This time, Estrada manages to put Melindo down.
In this sequence, very similar to the last, Estrada actually connects with his jab. Again, it serves multiple ends at the same time. Just like the last one, this jab obstructs Melindo's vision, enticing him to counter without realizing that he's leaping into a trap. Secondly, the jab tells Estrada exactly how close to him Melindo is. As he steps into the jab, Estrada can feel his fist connect before his arm reaches full extension, telling him how short to throw his right hand as well as where to throw it.
What stands out about this slow motion replay are Estrada's eyes. Focused on his opponent, he never blinks, even as Melindo's right hand comes rocketing toward his brow and nearly slices open his cheek. If you're looking for an image of an acutely aware fighter, you won't find many examples better than that. Estrada's composure, like that of the great Salvador Sanchez, is revealed by the intent in his eyes as well as the lack of expression on his face.
BONUS! HE THROWS LEFT HOOKS TOO!
While I did promise to focus this article entirely on Gallo's jab and cross, I couldn't leave out this stunning sequence of jabs and feints which terminates in a left hook instead of a right hand.
I could watch this all day. Again, Estrada turns a simple movement into the basis for a scheme of attack that develops freely with his opponents reactions. He starts off at range, circling Milan Melindo, who flicks out a jab. Estrada catches this and fires back a jab of his own. This catch-and-jab sequence is one of the most fundamental exchanges in boxing, and it serves a few distinct purposes. First and foremost, it tells Melindo not to put too much faith into that jab; if Estrada is ready with such a quick offensive response, then Melindo will have to figure out a more subtle way in. Thus, Estrada can assure himself a little time to work with Melindo at this distance, reading his reactions and looking for an opening of his own. That catch jab also gives Estrada a quick and dirty read on the distance. Notice how quickly and confidently he steps in after firing that left hand into Melindo's glove. By having Melindo touch his glove and returning the favor, Estrada immediately has a feel for the gap between himself and his opponent.
Once Estrada sees that Melindo isn't going to rush in with another attack, he tests him with another jab. Estrada knows that a good boxer doesn't make his opponent miss without also looking to punish him, so he quickly bobs and leans in close, sensing that he is vulnerable to a right hand and looking to neutralize it. Melindo doesn't counter, of course, but that's where Estrada's mind games start to get really interesting.
Estrada knows that his level change was a defensive response, but Melindo doesn't necessarily know that. So Estrada decides to test him with that same movement, this time used as a deliberate feint. Estrada steps in again, this time leading with the bobbing motion. Perhaps sensing that he's being set up, Melindo doesn't react in any major way other than by raising his guard slightly and taking a hesitant step back. It's not much of a reaction, but even no reaction is a reaction of sorts in the ring. Estrada digests this information quickly, and immediately looks to capitalize.
He steps in low once again, this time bringing a lancing body jab along with him. Melindo actually does think about countering this time, but he can't step through the left arm of Estrada, planted in his center of mass, and Estrada is able to back away. Melindo throws next, hoping to loop a hook around Estrada's guard. The jab feint with which he tries to set this up is unconvincing, however, and Estrada manages to evade his punch with ease. Ever the one-upper, Estrada decides to show Melindo how it's done, working with the threat he has already established. Before Melindo can comfortably reset from his miss, Estrada steps forward, ducks low for a second, and then comes up high with his own left hook, not only scoring around Melindo's guard but pivoting out of the way of a counter immediately after.
Layers upon layers, Estrada builds his attacks over the course of entire rounds--entire fights, even--often with tools as unremarkable as a simple jab. With Juan Francisco Estrada, the devil is most assuredly in the details. Despite an occasional flair for the extravagant, Estrada is a technician and a tactician at heart, a consummate boxer-puncher who, in the three years since his hard-fought loss to Roman Gonzalez, has masterfully outboxed and outhustled six of the best flyweights on earth.
Roman Gonzalez is now the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, and Estrada remains the only man to give him a truly competitive fight at the world level. Hopefully a rematch between Estrada and Gonzalez is more a matter of "when" than "if," and "sooner" rather than "later," because that is a fight we absolutely need to see.