The Kingship of Roman Gonzalez

By Matt McGrain on September 6, 2014
The Kingship of Roman Gonzalez
Roman Gonzalez is underrated because his opposition is underrated. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

Breaking Yaegashi is not something you can do in nine minutes. He did not clinch, he did not run and instead, at the bell, he was fighting back…

Roman Gonzalez (now 40-0) became the lineal flyweight champion of the world this weekend, crushing the incumbent king Akira Yaegashi with a combination of ruthlessness and brilliance that comes together rarely in fighting. In the last thirty hours boxing’s corner of the internet has recognized that fact and raised a collective glass, the uniting call tending to be that Gonzalez has been neglected by the power structure and has become grossly underrated as a result; this is true.

Also true, and less often said, is that Yaegashi was underrated going into his fight with Gonzalez. And that, in itself, is the problem. Gonzalez has gone underrated because his opposition has gone underrated because 105 lbs. and 108 lbs. lie below the line for radar just as flyweight lies barely above it. Yaegashi could not even gather momentum after defeating Pornsawan Porpramook for a strap in 2011 in a fight that I thought at the time could not be ignored come the fight of the year awards. Naturally their war was overlooked in favor of a fight fought on American soil, Victor Ortiz’s twelve-round decision over Andre Berto (props to Boxing Scene’s Cliff Rold and ESPN’s Dan Rafael for calling it the other way). 

To be fair, it did not help Yaegashi’s momentum when he was beaten in his very next fight by the anointed Kazuto Ioka who was seen by many at that time as nothing less than an all-time great in the making. The wheels have come off a little bit for Ioka who may have gone too far too soon in trying and failing to pick up a flyweight strap this summer but that didn’t stop him smothering the Yaegashi flames. It was he, not Yaegashi, that Roman Gonzalez began to stalk up the weights in hopes of making the superfight his career desperately seemed to need to get him over the top. That this fight was to come against Yaegashi rather than Ioka must have surprised the fighters as much as it surprised the rest of us, but the difference perhaps was Yaegashi’s belief. Even as Ioka was being hounded out of the title picture by Amnat Ruenroeng, Gonzalez’s people were deep in negotiations with Yaegashi’s. 

By that point, Yaegashi had returned himself to the top table with a dominating performance against the legitimate and lineal flyweight king Toshiyuki Igarashi (you can read about that contest here). What impressed was Yaegashi’s determination to take control of the fight against a fighter who, going in, seemed the superior ring general. What the Japanese had demonstrated was the type of steel-trap determination that makes for a hard night for any fighter; this, he demonstrated by rattling off three defenses in eight months, most impressively against Edgar Sosa who had won twelve of his last thirteen but who Yaegashi beat soundly.

So although in previewing the fight I predicted Gonzalez would score his sixth consecutive knockout, I also had to acknowledge Yaegashi’s chances as being real. Yaegashi was the very personification of bravery in the ring this Friday in Tokyo, but at no time did he look like a fighter with a chance to win.

He wanted to move in the first round and Gonzalez followed. To be clear, moving away from Gonzalez as a strategy is suicide; I remain convinced he would have retired Ivan Calderon had he reached him before Giovani Segura simply because no matter the ability of the retreating fighter, Gonzalez cannot be beaten purely from the backfoot. It allows him his full range of boxing, it allows him to pursue the deep stance that best supports his power punching and it allows him to dictate the range he will choose to attack at. Gonzalez is so well rounded that no distance unmans him – he is as confident and brilliant chest-to-chest as he is jabbing for openings. Writing in 2010 I said that footwork was “the area where Gonzalez has shown the most improvement” and that this was his “major hope for retaining his status as a puncher into the world-class.” His footwork has continued to improve and that is the single most important factor in his development into one of the world’s greatest fighters. 

But Yaegashi’s strategy wasn’t to run. Such is the lump of molten iron that beats in his chest when he steps between those ropes that he couldn’t even if he wanted to; rather, Yaegashi was going to pick his spots for fighting while trying to force Gonzalez to betray that supernatural balance as he followed, checking the bulldozer’s momentum. It is a reasonable and well thought out plan, and it might have worked were Yaegashi faster, but he is not faster. In terms of handspeed there was little between them, as there is little between any flyweights who have moved up from below, but it was Gonzalez who was faster of mind and foot. Even in the opening seconds he seemed to know where Yaegashi was going to be before Yaegashi did. Hands high, he pre-cut the ring on the Japanese over and over again, and soon it was fostering his right-hand.

Watch the Gonzalez right; it has become a terrifying punch. He shapes it in all ways, he throws it at all ranges, he targets head, body, chest, and such is his balance and stance that he does all of this without selling the punch, at least as far as I can see. When Gonzalez dips his left shoulder to throw a left-hook or uppercut, he can instead transplant that punch with a straight right. He does this as the final thirty seconds of the first round begins, only moments after launching a driving straight right-hand at the retreating Yaegashi who was clearly disturbed. Moments later he was pinned to the ropes for the first time. When he reclaimed the center of the ring it was to his own detriment. Two and a half minutes into the fight and Gonzalez was already finding him with punches.

Such ability is distressing even to seasoned professionals. Gonzalez’s skill with the right hand has now created nothing less than a living feint, a glove that draws a reaction without first making an action. The rules of fistic causality no longer apply. Yaegashi has been made so aware of the right-hand that he can’t wait for Gonzalez to bring it in before he reacts to it. He has to attempt to counter it in some way before it is thrown. Except for in cases where great speed is the chief factor, this is the type of thing, specifically, that spells an imminent outclassing.

The second and third rounds are all about transition for Gonzalez. It is the transition of ranges and also the rounds where, he hopes, he can transit Yaegashi from resistance to survival. The first of these, he achieves with great ease. Once he’s feinted Yaegashi out of position and onto the rope before moving him across the ring he throws a straight-right, left hook, steps inside for a left-uppercut, back out, jab, right-hand to the body which brings him inside for a wide left hook. He misses the left uppercut but he’s also unlocked the door. He’s tested Yaegashi’s defenses and has found them wanting. 

When Yaegashi, already swelling badly around one eye due to the lead right hands that Gonzalez was ratcheting him with, was dropped with a snapping left hook near the end of the third, it seemed Gonzalez was on the road to changing Yaegashi’s mind about how to fight too. It wasn’t just the punch that had dropped him, or the left-uppercut right-hand combination he had hit him with the moment before but rather the fact that Yaegashi couldn’t decode what was in front of him. He was getting hit with punches in combination with planes of movement that he just had not seen before, at least not in the footage of him which is available. 

But breaking Yaegashi is not something you can do in nine minutes. He did not clinch, he did not run and instead, at the bell, he was fighting back. This is the difference between a good fighter, so many of which have been taken out early by Gonzalez, and an excellent one, which is what Yaegashi is. He fought back in the fourth like a man who has drawn a line at the edge of his own property over which no enemy can be allowed to step without first taking his life. What is protected within is betrayed by the savagery with which he protects it, and despite being subjected to the brutality the ring so often offers, right eye closing, clearly tired, his hands low, Yaegashi was fighting back desperately with body-shots, in defense of nothing more than his pride and his standing. He fought so hard he actually gave a surging Gonzalez pause.

He’s in no rush, the new champion. He just shortened up his punches and kept stepping, kept that awful indelible pressure on, a pressure not counted in punches but paces, a pressure that cannot be underestimated in terms of the psychological duress it exerts on the opponent. Gonzalez is a master at this and the greatest exponent of this style of fighting on the planet currently (Golovkin and Kovalev will be breathing down his neck this time next year though). Only his left-hook betrayed him, as he cracked right-hands into Yaegashi’s face with a success tempered only by the bravery of the violence coming back at him. At the bell they shared the second clinch of the fight.

Yaegashi may even have won the fifth such was his combination of heart and surge, but as I wrote pre-fight, the Japanese may “muscle his way to some rounds but box his way to none…that isn’t sustainable against a fighter of Gonzalez’s quality.” So it was proving as Yaegashi continued to bow under the Nicaraguan’s yolk even as he was gathering points. He needed them badly; the judges (USA, USA, Mexico) had given him just one of the first four rounds between them.

Nevertheless he worked diligently to bring something back every time Gonzalez scored, throwing a wild right-hand as he was brutalized downstairs by the two-fisted assault coming the other way. Sometimes though there is nothing a mortal boxer can do – at 1:17 of the sixth, Gonzalez dropped a double-jab, right uppercut, left-hook, overhand right combination that was nothing short of Tysonesque. The difference is, the flyweight has the temperament to match his brilliance where the heavyweight did not.

By the end of the seventh this treatment had left Yaegashi in a desperate position, tired by his own workrate, savaged by a body-attack that had by now eclipsed his own, his eyes swollen and behind on all cards. He began the round by giving ground and Gonzalez finally got that heart-breaking momentum going, landing an unanswered seven-punch combination to body and head. Yaegashi clutched.

Gonzalez probably broke his man midway through this round, Yaegashi accepting the awful punishment his opponent gave out with a kind of resigned sadness, hands low, body often half-turned as he attempted to duck from the terrible delivery, but such was the Japanese champion’s heart that he somehow staggered out of the round and into the next one. At bell, he attacked. I think he knew he was spending his last but he did so with such courage and daring that it is hard not to root for him even as Gonzalez moves in and begins to close the show. 

With :36 of the ninth remaining, fallen hero Akira Yaegashi was spared his own bravery when referee intervened as he began to rise from the second knockdown of the fight. The title Gonzalez took from him is the single longest legacy in boxing. Succession reaches all the way back to 1975 and Miguel Canto, who for me is the single greatest flyweight champion of all time. Passed down from Canto through fighters such as Yuri Arbachakov and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, Gonzalez is a worthy successor. Whether he can match such men for stature remains to be seen, but the competition is there. The winner of Giovani Segura and Juan Estrada, who fight tonight in Mexico, should be first, but Brian Viloria, Toshiyuki Igarashi, Moruti Mthalane and wonderboy Naoya Inoue are all waiting in the wings for his tender attentions. Flyweight has its own murderers’ row and Gonzalez, should he master it, must be rated great.

As to his current status – let me join the cacophony naming him underrated, but I’ll go one step further. He’s still underrated. Since the seemingly universal choice for pound-for-pound #2 Andre Ward fought and defeated Chad Dawson at 168 lbs., Gonzalez has gone 8-0 with seven knockouts. Included in his victims are Francisco Rodriguez Jr., victor in the fight of the year so far and the undisputed top man in the 105-lb division, and Juan Francisco Estrada, who dominated Brian Viloria at a time when “The Hawaiian Punch” was ranked #10 on the pound-for-pound list for the Transnational Boxing Board and who now ranks as the #10 by my own count.

He has defeated three world-class fighters and taken five other scalps in the same amount of time it has taken the injury-plagued Ward to beat one. He is one of the absolute elites of the sport, and I could happily see him ranked above Ward as the second best fighter on the planet behind only Floyd Mayweather. 

But he hasn’t made that case inarguably with his fist yet, so I will not make it here. Gonzalez does not have the frame, I don’t think, to go any higher than 115 lbs., and he looked his physical best at 112 lbs., so I think he is likely to make his bones, if they are to be great, in this stacked flyweight division. 

40-0 and twenty-seven years old is a great point to occupy when you first come to the attention of the mainstream.

At just twenty-seven years of age and with a career as busy as his hands, that number could get considerably larger.

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Akira Yaegashi vs Roman Gonzalez Full Fight 八重樫 東 vs ローマン・ゴンサレス

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  1. Matt McGrain 01:48pm, 09/07/2014

    Both of them have fights before they can meet, but they are scheduled for next year.

  2. nicolas 11:23am, 09/07/2014

    Nacho, I definitely hope there is a rematch, as for Estrada it only makes sense. They definitely are the two best flyweights in the world, and we need to see the two best in the ring.

  3. Nacho Lopez 10:03pm, 09/06/2014

    I think that the kingship should be named more like “The knight trying to obtain the Kingship” because Roman did not defeat El Gallito Estrada when they fought about two years ago, In fact, the majority of the fans that watched the fight thought that Estrada was robbed of the victory. Now that Estrada is champ to his own belt I think that there should be a rematch.

  4. nicolas 12:18pm, 09/06/2014

    I have had Jimmy Wilde in my top ten flyweights of all time, though, I question the opposition that he had. I have even stated that he, not Ricardo Lopez in the greatest mini-flyweight of all time, as he often reported to have come in at this weight, and beaten men far heavier than he. I can not have Pacquiao in the top ten of all time great flyweights. However, of any Flyweight champion, at this time is the most accomplished, as he has gone as far as Welterweight champ (I dismiss his Jr. Middleweight title). Pound for Pound though, I could not have Wilde above Pacquiao. Roman Gonzalez, at this time with his record, has the highest percentage of knockouts to fight 85 percent, far above Wilde or Perez. What he has accomplished so far, may even make him a challenger to Ricardo Lopez as the greatest fighter ever to hold a mini flyweight championship, even the light flyweight championship.

  5. Matt McGrain 11:38am, 09/06/2014

    Wilde should very probably be above him though?

  6. Matt McGrain 11:37am, 09/06/2014

    I agree with everything you wrote - even the Pacquiao remark which has come as a great and interesting surprise to me.

  7. nicolas 11:35am, 09/06/2014

    Matt: If your meaning me, when you ask because he won’t be beaten, very possibly not. But a lot of other things can happen as example his moving up in weight, and vacating this title this way. Yes, he might not lose this title. But for 41 years, an amazing run so far, there have been a succession of champions in the WBC flyweight championship. Yuri Arbachikov, of Asian descent though from Russia, the first of that countries world champions post Communist era, lost only one time, but defeated every man he ever fought. He lost the title to Chari Saskul of Thailand, whom he earlier had beaten. Of course, as I suggested somewhere else, perhaps the greatest fighter ever to hold a flyweight title, but not the greatest flyweight fighter was perhaps Manny Pacquiao.

  8. Matt McGrain 10:48am, 09/06/2014

    Thanks a grand compliment AB,thank you.

  9. Adam Berlin 10:31am, 09/06/2014

    Thank you for this enlightening piece, Matt—like a veteran trainer, you broke down the fight with precision and insight.  I’m guilty of overlooking the lowest weight classes, but Gonzalez sounds like the real deal, a king to watch.  As Willy Loman said, “Attention must be paid.”

  10. Matt McGrain 09:20am, 09/06/2014

    Because he won’t be beaten, you mean?

  11. nicolas 09:15am, 09/06/2014

    As I mentioned earlier, as expected Gonzalez beat the first WBC flyweight champion (not including Jorge Arce, who briefly held the interim championship of this organization) from the America’s since Gabriel Bernal of Mexico, who passed away too soon like many boxers this year. Also of interest that back in 1973 Betulio Gonzalez of Venezuela captured the vacant WBC flyweight title over Miguel Canto of Mexico. Canto of course would win the next two fights between these two men. Since that time, there has been no fight for the vacant WBC flyweight title (at least one that mattered). This is I am sure a record, however, with this Gonzalez, Roman, I think it might come to an end.

  12. nicolas 09:03am, 09/06/2014

    Yaegashi to his credit went down fighting like a champion. Watching him fight, made me think what respect David Haye would have gotten had he fought like this against Wladimir Klitschko, though I did recognize that Haye had quite a considerable weight disadvantage, but still you are fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.

  13. Matt McGrain 08:50am, 09/06/2014

    Thanks Peter, and yes it was, hopefully some people get to see it for the first time in here.

  14. peter 08:39am, 09/06/2014

    What a great fight! These two fighters are topnotch. Excellent article!

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