Román “Chocolatito” González
By Jonathan Jackson, Photography by Flor Marenco, Chris Sataua.
“I’m not afraid of defeat, because eventually we all lose. However, if someone comes to defeat me, I’m going to make his life as difficult as possible. The person who beats me has to be a bull in terms of physical condition and must be prepared to give everything he has against me in the ring because I will not give in.”
- Román González
Yokohama, Japan – September 15, 2008
Román González had just sent one of Japan’s longest reigning champions into retirement. Yutaka Niida had held the WBC minimum weight title for seven years but in less than 4 rounds it was gone, along with his career. “El Chocolatito” had pounded the once great champion like a piece of Kobe beef, punishing him with uppercut after uppercut, hook after hook until the referee mercifully stepped in and granted reprieve.
In a state of disbelief, González wandered around the ring for several seconds, seemingly unsure what to do. At 21 years of age the skinny kid from Managua was a world champion. As a member of his entourage proudly waved a Nicaraguan flag, his corner joined him in the ring and lifted up the new champion. González raised his hands and began sobbing uncontrollably.
Halfway around the world, far from the high-rises, bright lights and organized chaos of Japan’s streets, is the neighborhood where Román grew up with his mother, father and four brothers, La Esperanza. Here the buildings are all one story, the light at night is sparse at best, and none of the chaos on these dirt roads is organized.
As a kid, life for Román was filled with too many brawls and not enough food. “Times were rough. It was a tough neighborhood. It’s gotten better. There were many times where we had only enough money to eat one or maybe two times a day. Eating three times was unheard of,” he recalls.
Part of the reason Román got into boxing was to take his fighting in the streets and channel it into something positive; and as he put his opponents on the floor he put food on the table thanks to PRODESA promotions which had begun sponsoring an amateur boxing program where the winner received a basket full of food items including rice, beans and pasta.
As the victories and food baskets began stacking up, everyone around him knew that Román, the kid with the fast hands and the killer left hook, had the potential to be something special.
Alexis Argüello was one of those people. The greatest Nicaraguan boxer of all time, a three-time world champion and one of the most vicious punchers in boxing history, Argüello was idolized by all the young Nicaraguans in the sport. Román had come from a long line of boxers, but Argüello took him under his wing and helped him better understand boxing.
“My father was a boxer, my uncles and my grandfather were boxers as well. I think it’s been in my blood since birth. Alexis Argüello helped me and taught me the first steps in boxing, along with my father,” recalls Román. “He was a true inspiration to me. He was my mentor. I tried to copy his style of boxing, adding my personal touch.”
Román tore through the amateur ranks in Nicaragua. “I was undefeated in 89 fights,” he proclaims proudly. Officially though, the record stands at 88-1, including a lone controversial loss where the crowd vehemently booed the decision. “He lost to a boy from the army named Saul Baca. The judges saw it that way at least, even though Román gave him a horrible beating,” says Silvio Conrado, the vice president of PRODESA productions.
Ready for bigger fights, bigger paydays and a better life for his family, Román told Conrado he wanted to go pro and asked him to become his manager. Within 15 months of his first professional fight El Chocolatito was a world champion.
Training Day – Managua, Nicaragua – Carretera Sur 4AM
González cuts through the darkness of the early morning; a lone figure running up the winding Carretera Sur highway, heading for the hilltop town of El Crucero. It is a daily ritual when he trains. At a distance, he is followed by his father, Luis González, on a scooter, who makes sure no speeding cars approach too quickly from behind. These morning runs of an hour to an hour and a half are one of the few times during the day that he has a chance to be alone with his thoughts.
After some rest and food, he heads to the gym to train with his coach, Gustavo Herrera. His workouts leading up to a fight are especially intense. Under Herrera’s supervision González fights round after round, with a new opponent being substituted every two or three rounds. With only ten seconds of rest between each, the champ’s excellent physical conditioning shines through. Chocolatito is quick to point out that it is his conditioning, not aggressiveness, or an especially hard punch that has given him a knockout ratio in the 80th percentile, something rare for a fighter of his weight class.
“Aggressiveness isn’t everything. Rather, (knockouts) have more to do with your own physical condition. That’s the main key so that you can transfer that to your hands and be constant in the beating. It’s not so much to hit harder, but rather, it’s hitting more accurately and with more consistency. I try to vary and increase the frequency of my punches, so that my opponent feels like he is fighting against a pack of guys and not just against me.”
Weathering the storm – 2009
Though he dreams of being a mentor to others the way Alexis Argüello was to him, at only 22 years of age, Román still has a lot of growing up of his own to do and so far 2009 has been a rough year for him from a public relations standpoint. First there was the controversy that arose after becoming champion when he bought his first car, a gold Mercedes Benz, that many criticized for being an excessively extravagant purchase, made worse by the fact that at the time he didn’t know how to drive. Next, he was hit with an alimony lawsuit by his ex-wife, claiming that he wasn’t properly supporting his only daughter. He then suffered harsh criticism from Argüello himself, who publically chided the new champion for his behavior, including keeping bad company and not being dedicated to boxing. It culminated in a lackluster performance in his first title defense against the lightly regarded Alberto Rosas in Oaxaca, Mexico in February of this year; a fight he won in a majority decision after winning 20 of his previous 22 fights by knockout.
Managua, Nicaragua – July 1, 2009
Román insists he has learned from the experiences earlier in the year and is determined to move forward. When he met with Argüello and spoke with him about his comments, Román says he realized that the criticism was Argüello’s way of trying to help him, and though some of the words stung, Román accepted that the tri-champion had his best interest at heart.
That is what made it so hard for him when he heard the news that Argüello had been found dead in his home on the morning of July 1st, just as Román was getting ready to leave for Japan and continue training for his fight there on the 14th. The reported suicide left a country shocked and confused, few people more than Román, who quickly dedicated the fight to his mentor and friend.
In Japan, González delivered a beating to the overmatched Katsunari Takayama, winning in a unanimous decision. It was an exciting fight, and dominant performance by González. And though Takayama showed a lot of heart in refusing to get knocked out, by the end of the fight he looked like he had been through hell, with his purple swollen face resembling a plate of ‘ensalada de remolacha’ (beet salad). The champ was back.
Gimnasio Polideportivo España, Managua, June 6, 2009
Dressed in a nice grey suit, most likely purchased in Japan, where he says he likes to buy suits because they always have his size, the 5’3” guest of honor enters the general admission section of the gymnasium and climbs the stairs to his row of family and friends. As Chocolatito heads to his seat, fans in the section clamor for handshakes and wish the champ well. He smiles graciously and shakes each hand before settling in next to his fiancé, friends and family to watch the night’s match-ups headlined by Nicaraguan ex-world champion, José Alfaro.
One of the undercard matches features Carlos “El Chocorroncito” Buitrago, a frequent sparring partner of Román’s, who at only 17 years of age is one of PRODESA’s and Nicaragua’s most promising professional prospects. Román seems to perk up as he watches the match. From an even younger age than Román was, Buitrago has been anointed and promoted as one of Nicaragua’s next great champions. However, those familiar with the sport know that all too often the pressure of such proclamations can be too much for these kids as they become men in and out of the ring. Such was the case with Román’s own brother.
“My brother Luis could have been a great boxer, perhaps just as good or better than me, but he became entangled in drugs. I don’t want that to continue happening,” he says.
And so he takes an active role in supporting other young fighters, even if he could be facing them one day inside of the ring.
“He’s a strong champion. I have so much respect for him. He is a natural boxer, something like a phenomenon,” says Buitrago of González.
Tonight, the teenager defeats his older opponent, but does so in a less than spectacular fashion. As he later takes a seat ringside with his father, he appears frustrated. Román leaves his section and goes down to sit next to the two of them to talk about the fight and offer advice and encouragement.
“I want to be a role model just like Alexis. I want to show that through hard work and persistence one can accomplish many things, of course with a lot of help from God,” he says.
When he arrived at Sandino airport after winning the world title in 2008, Román was blown away by the reception he received.
“When I saw the amount of people that were waiting for me at the airport, I felt like someone important, like a President or someone famous,” he says with a big smile on his face.
That realization that he is indeed someone famous is something that those close to him hope he can learn to deal with in a positive way.
“It has been a lot more difficult to manage him now that he is a champ,” says his manager, Silvio Conrado. “He is 22 years old and having achieved so much at such an early age is hard to assimilate. Sometimes my advice is not heard and that is when he winds up getting into trouble. In the ring when he is in good shape, I don’t think that anybody can beat him.”
When asked about his motivation now that he is champion, Gonzalez isn’t afraid to admit that it really is all about the money. It’s still about putting food baskets on the table, even if these days the food baskets look more like gold Mercedes’ and business ventures.
“My motivation is to win the big money to improve the wellness of me, my family and the people I love. I don’t want to always be a fighter. I want to have a comfortable life, have my own business and a stable family,” he says. “I only have eight years left in this career because I want to retire as young as I can because as much as I like boxing I know for a fact that the sport is very hard on you.”
And while many boxers talk of early retirement, it is rare to actually see those who have been successful walk away from the sport at the age of 30, but for the skinny kid from La Esperanza, whose humble dream is to open his own business in Managua’s Oriental Market, right next to the two stores owned by his fiancé, life has always been more about living better and being happy.