Greatness, true greatness, borne of excellence and deployed over an extended period, is not a prize many fighters acquire. The term is liberally used. An affectation encouraged by a culture of over-promotion and the superficiality of the social media age. Perception, however unsubstantiated it may prove, is always king.
Last night, as two of the modern era’s greatest, Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzales, waited to provide another example of their outstanding talent and devotion to the craft, the news Marvellous Marvin Hagler, the former Middleweight champion had passed away, aged 66, was revealed to the arena. A silence and sadness fell across proceedings, punctuated only by the trill of the ring bell, struck ten times in keeping with boxing’s tradition.
Michael Buffer was clearly emotional in announcing the news to the gathered audience and those of us fighting the call to sleep in the early hours of the morning shared his emotion too.
The fight was thankfully not subdued and served as a pulsating reminder of how greatness, of the type Marvin Hagler represented a luminous example, was once earned.
Across 12 rounds of elite combat Estrada and Gonzales exchanged 2,500 punches. There were few of those not selected with masterful timing, precision and purpose. Gonzales came closest to a decisive breakthrough, stiffening the Mexican’s legs in the early going, though the effect was momentary and that aside it was thrilling contest, fought at a brisk pace with mutual respect between the pair. Everything that is great about boxing. Both men would excel in any era they’d emerged in.
Combinations were multiple and from Gonzales, for periods, often relentless. His ability to cut off the ring, to draw opponents into a close quarters battle that is usually at odds with their own strengths, as it was for Estrada is timeless, and all too rare. The greater the proximity, the smaller the margins, the gaps. It is there that Gonzales’ ability is more profoundly employed. Estrada was willing to meet him there, and successful too, investing to the body and drawing Gonzales’ respect with combinations of his own. That both men could land the volume they did against each other, both accomplished defensively, made for a rich spectacle for those of us privy to what this fight promised.
Scorecards stole a little from the lustre of the Estrada victory, consensus leant to Gonzales, but the scorn was largely reserved for a 117-111 card in the victor’s favour. Close though rounds were, it is hard to imagine Estrada won 9 of the 12. This writer found an even round but awarded the Nicaraguan the win on 6 rounds to 5. Notes were scribbled on Gonzales’ tactic of conceding the opening minute in handful of rounds with a view to finish the session strongly, a veteran’s trick the ringside judges appear to have seen through. The 117-111 included a sweep of the last five rounds, which added further to the criticism the tally drew.
A paragraph should be all the time afforded the scoring, it was a razor tight contest of the highest quality and while the majority consider Gonzales the victor, Estrada was not the beneficiary of a stolen decision. He matched Gonzales punch output and had success in every round too. Less successful when he sacrificed his natural height and reach advantages but even in the maelstrom of the ‘phone box’ Gonzales invited him into, Estrada still had success.
With the fight finished, the scores announced and the television switched off, thoughts turned back to Marvin Hagler. Another man who would meet you in the phone booth, or walk you down and beat you up, or break you down from distance, in short he could beat you in any sort of fight, yours or his. Switching stances, punching holes in opponents, with a chin of cast iron. He was more than even the greatness of Saturday night. Greater even than Gonzales.
A transcendent fighter gone too soon at 66, missing the championship rounds of life that his greatness, his character and contribution thoroughly deserved.