It’s not difficult to find a Roman Gonzalez fan in a boxing crowd.
In fact, writers, promoters and network executives of all stripes will tell you that the Nicaraguan flyweight should rightfully be the sport’s next big thing.
He’ll face McWilliams Arroyo on Saturday night in the 14th championship bout of a career that’s already yielded 38 knockouts, three world titles and kudos from Ring Magazine as the first pound-for-pound kingpin of the post-Floyd Mayweather Jr. era.
It’s Gonzalez’s third shotgun ride alongside middleweight KO machine Gennady Golovkin, who’ll headline a two-bout HBO World Championship Boxing card that begins at 10 p.m. ET from The Forum in Inglewood, California—and, given their habitual carnage, is a fair bet to be done by 11.
The tandem’s first two dates have prompted nothing less than rave reviews.
“Not only are both these fighters gifted, Golovkin and Gonzalez, but they’re both willing to fight anyone,” Peter Nelson, HBO’s chief boxing executive, told Bleacher Report. “Neither guy has ever stepped away from a challenge. Those are the kinds of fighters that the fans embrace the most.”
He’s humbler than Mayweather. He’s more entertaining than Mayweather.
And he has a backstory that rivals Mayweather’s or anyone else’s.
Mired in poverty, Gonzalez began boxing around the time his homeland hero and mentor, Alexis Arguello, threw the final paid punches of his 85-fight career. The former three-division champion put on monthly amateur bouts that enabled the former soccer player to work on the form that’s since vaulted him past three generations of his family’s middling ring success.
Gonzalez was unbeaten through 88 amateur fights, won a gold medal at the 2004 Central American championships and had his first pro fight on July 1, 2005—two weeks after turning 18.
His manager still gives Arguello full credit. And the fighter remains loyal to his guru’s memory.
“It is a dream come true,” Gonzalez told RingTV.com's Anson Wainwright. “I know he is happy watching me from heaven.”
But given the reality that Gonzalez is also the size of a jockey, lives thousands of miles from the U.S. border and doesn’t speak English, it remains difficult to envision his star in a pay-per-view sky.
By the time Mayweather reached the 11-year mark as a pro, he was a villainous HBO staple who helped drive a 2007 PPV date with Oscar De La Hoya to a buyrate record that stood for eight years—until another of his fights broke it.
He was American. He was articulate. And he was three-dozen pounds heavier.
Meanwhile, though he has more wins and KOs than Money had compiled by the same point, Gonzalez is still fighting to get past the image of second banana to Golovkin’s top billing.
“Due to the fact of my weight class, the purses are not as high,” he said in a Monday conference call. “I do believe that after this fight, where Arroyo and I will give such a great fight, that soon I will be receiving the purses that I deserve.”
HBO doesn’t have a concrete plan for Gonzalez to step out and headline a show, but Nelson said there’s reason to believe he can—as Manny Pacquiao did at the start of the century—at least dent the stereotype that American viewers won’t gravitate toward a smaller fighter from another country.
Pacquiao debuted on the network in 2001 and impressed his way into big events with Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez within three years.
Of course, there’s a vast difference between headlining an HBO show and becoming a pay-per-view commodity, as evidenced by the few of any size who’ve made the transition.
The other questions with Gonzalez—aside from size, language and ethnicity—are whether a series of significant fights even exist for him. Will the necessary audience be there without the high-profile fights? Or are the high-profile fights impossible to consider without the audience showing up in advance?
On the same conference call, K2 Promotions boss Tom Loeffler said there’s been a been an effort made to at least get Chocolatito into a prime viewing position—while using the career arcs of previous small fighters as proof that a big showdown can draw a crowd.
From there, he’s fine with letting the fighter’s performance determine his status.
“We’ve been pushing for that, and Roman has gotten a great response from the HBO viewers, and if he wins on Saturday we will have more discussions,” Loeffler said. “Michael Carbajal and Chiquita Gonzalez both had great stories. Both were built up, and to have that fight at the Forum made for an historic event. It depends on having someone at the same level, and there are a lot of great fighters in the lower divisions. I think it’s possible, and the more exposure the lighter divisions get the easier it will be to make that type of fight possible.”
Gonzalez won his first domestic title belt in just his ninth pro fight, took his skills outside Nicaragua for the first time in his 15th fight and became a full-fledged world champion six fights later by stopping Yutaka Niida in four rounds to win WBA honors at 105 pounds.
He graduated from mini flyweight to light flyweight—a gap of three pounds—within three years and then bridged the subsequent four-pound gap to flyweight in 2014.
It was amid all that, Nelson said, that Gonzalez became a down-the-road commodity.
“He’s been on everyone’s radar for years. It was just a matter of time, timing and the right partnership coming about,” Nelson said. “He is a superstar because he brings that 'it' factor and excitement in the ring with him that makes boxing fans gravitate to him and want to watch his fights. I see his career path as Chocolatito becoming one of the most marketable and successful boxers in the sport."
And, if nothing else, that's not a bad sales pitch for premium cable.
“It’s one of the great things to see," Nelson said. "I think they’re going to continue to take the best fights possible, and the fans will have a referendum as to how big or small his fanbase will reach.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.