By Derek Bonnett: Due to their diminutive stature and seemingly forced exile from televised boxing cards after the retirement of Ricardo Lopez, the strawweight division (105 pounds) is boxing’s most overlooked weight category now more than ever. Even some of the most ardent of boxing fans would be hard pressed to name the three reigning world champions in the eyes of the WBC, WBA, and IBF.
Strawweights are almost mythical creatures in the sport. We know there is a division, but only a small few have actually had an eyewitness account of their existence. The participants in boxing’s lightest weight class have become the yetis of the sport; no, wait, the leprechauns. Unfortunately, that metaphor doesn’t work either because there hasn’t been much gold involved in the careers of even the best strawweights outside of Lopez, who had a regular spot on Don King Pay-Per-Views throughout the mid to late 1990s.
However, right now in 2009 just might be the best era the 105 pound class has ever seen excluding when Lopez, Rosendo Alvarez, Zolani Petelo, and Alex Sanchez all resided there simultaneously. As overlooked as it may be, the strawweights of today could comprise one of boxing’s best divisions if the powers that be gave a hoot and helped make some of the better match-ups in the division a reality.
Since 2001, the strawweight division has been looking for its next Lopez. Ivan Calderon had the skill, but lacked the fan-factor to carry the torch before moving up to the 108 pound class in 2007 where he still toils in virtual anonymity outside of his native Puerto Rico. It’s a shame because Calderon is a considerable talent and likely in the final stages of an unbeaten career.
Today’s top ten looks something like this:
1.) Roman Gonzalez - 23-0 (20)
2.) Raul Garcia - 26-0-1 (13)
3.) Oleydong Sithsamerchai - 31-0 (12)
4.) Nkosinathi Joyi - 25-0 (15)
5.) Milan Melindo - 18-0 (5)
6.) Donnie Nietes - 24-1-3 (14)
7.) Juan Palacios - 26-2 (21)
8.) Florante Condes - 23-5-1 (20)
9.) Manuel Vargas - 26-3-1 (11)
10.) Francisco Rosas - 20-6-2 (12)
The man topping the list, Roman "El Chocolatito" Gonzalez, just might be the successor to Ricardo Lopez and, should he and Raul Garcia collide, we could end up with our next Lopez-Alvarez. Coincidentally, like Lopez and Alvarez, Garcia and Gonzalez hail from Mexico and Nicaragua respectively. The rest of the top 10 reside mostly in the Philippines, Thailand, and South Africa.
Silvio Conrado, manager of the WBA champion Gonzalez, explained why he thinks the strawweights are considerably harder to manage than fighters in other divisions and why the division lacks popularity world-wide.
"It’s been a bit difficult [managing a strawweight] because fighters of this size are hard to come by. Anatomically, you will find people of this size mostly in Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico, and a few places in Latin America," Conrado stated. "Finding good rivals is hard unless you have access to one of these markets."
Yet, Conrado recognizes the potential residing in boxing’s most diminutive division.
"Even though it is the smallest division, there exists some topnotch talent out there. In Nicaragua alone, there are two current world champions at 105," Conrado boasted proudly. "Roman is the WBA champion and Juan Palacios is the interim WBC champion. There are some great match-ups out there for Roman. A unification with IBF champion Raul "Rayito" Garcia would be nice. However, going up in weight would open up an intriguing array of possibilities for Gonzalez. My choice would be to fight Calderon, [Edgar] Sosa, or any of the other champions."
So, like Lopez, Alvarez, and Calderon, we see that other strawweights might need to make that jump up in weight if the best fights can’t be made. Boxing is always a business first and even little men need to eat and pay their bills.
As of this writing, Gonzalez had recently traveled to Japan to make final preparations before his July 14 title defense against two-time world titlist Katsunari Takayama. The trip to Japan is Gonzalez’ fourth in his career. In 2008, he came to Japan to soundly thrash one of the country’s top champions Yutaka Niida in just four rounds to claim the title.
"I am taking Takayama very seriously. In my last fight, I took things a bit easier. I need to be more focused," Gonzalez said. "My plan is to apply constant pressure. Takayama is a two-time champ and a great fighter. It should be a great fight. Hopefully, this up and coming fight will show that I am getting into a better mindset."
Gonzalez clearly feels he is in need of an impressive showing. After decimating Niida, the Nicaraguan champion put forth a sub-par performance in decisioning Francisco Rosas in the challenger’s homeland.
"I was not happy with my performance against Rosas. I was feeling very sick," the champion admitted. "I ate too much prior to the fight and got an upset stomach minutes before the fight. I threw up in my corner just before the ninth round. I could have been disqualified had more people noticed it. After that, I felt much better and boxed to a majority decision. I don’t want to take anything away from Rosas, but I am a more complete fighter. Because of this fight, I feel the pressure is on to put on a much better performance."
This could be terrible news for Takayama.
Being a complete fighter is one of the reasons Gonzalez stands atop the strawweight division and draws some comparison to the great Lopez. His constant pressure, superb combination punching, debilitating body attack, and sheer power make comparison to "El Finito" natural.
"Ricardo Lopez is an all-time great. I only have twenty-three fights. I have a lot more to accomplish before I can even start thinking about being named in the same sentence as him," Gonzalez responded humbly. "I am really not that powerful. I have quick hands and combine my punches accurately. I can’t knock somebody down with one punch like my stable mate Jose Alfaro (a former WBA lightweight champion), but twenty punches in a row, thrown from different angles and to different parts of the body, will knock down anybody."
At twenty-two years of age, Gonzalez would appear to have plenty of time to chase the legend of Ricardo Lopez and already has an excellent start. His body is still growing and so is the level of opposition surrounding him. Finding that special rival to advance his career shouldn’t be that difficult. If it’s not Garcia, Sithsamerchai, or Joyi, it just might be someone more obvious, someone right under his nose.
"In Nicaragua, Roman Gonzalez versus Juan Palacios would probably be the biggest fight in the country," Conrado speculated. "It would be a shame for our country to lose one of the belts; we don’t have many to begin with. There is some rivalry between them, but nothing out of the ordinary. We have tried on many occasions to arrange a sparring session, but this has not happened yet."
Over the years, we have heard talks about heavyweight tournaments on HBO, lightweight tournaments on PPV, and now Showtime is considering a super middleweight tournament on their network. It’d be nice just to see one of them feature a significant strawweight bout on the undercard of one of their cards. Outside of YouTube, it is very difficult to find footage of these microscopic minimumweight fighters. One glimpse of Roman Gonzalez and fight fans would be hooked and screaming for more.
"I am working hard to be the very best I can be," Gonzalez asserted. "Nobody at 105 is going to stop me. After that, it’s on to junior flyweight."
Having seen Gonzalez fight, it’s easy to take him seriously. This prophecy will likely happen. However, the majority of the boxing world may never know unless the promotional companies and boxing networks get together and allow us to actually see it happen.
July 8, 2009