It was a question, posed to Twitter, about the state of boxing in Puerto Rico, the island in the Caribbean which is a United States territory and home to some of the best pugilists the planet has ever known, as well as some of the sports’ most passionate fans.
How are Puerto Ricans doing in the pro ranks, a curious fight fan asked of the masses. The Puerto Rican fight scene, is it good, great, or not so hot? Name the top three talents.
The answers tumbled in, with respondents furnishing names of boxers who are repping that island fistic hot-spot. No, there are no Tito Trinidads campaigning today. Who, if anyone, is the next Miguel Cotto, Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfredo Benitez or Carlos Ortiz?
Edgar Berlanga’s name came up, and Xander Zayas as well, the super middleweight and junior middleweight Top Rank prospects. Amanda Serrano, coming off her superb showing against Katie Taylor in a packed-to-the-roof Madison Square Garden, slick and fierce junior welterweight Subriel Matias and another Top Rank signee, Henry Lebron (15-0 junior lightweight) got mentions as well. Finally, someone piped up: what about Jonathan ‘Bomba' Gonzalez? He isn’t a prospect, he’s a champion, right now, he holds the WBO light flyweight title.
AN UNDER THE RADAR PUERTO RICAN PUGILIST
Yes, a name, let's be honest, which is unfamiliar to plenty of fight fans who would consider themself hardcore…If you are one of the unfamiliar, and let me out myself as one of them right now, as luck would have it, Gonzalez is defending that strap on June 24, in Kissimmee, Florida, topping the second ProBox TV card since fight fans were clued in to the offerings the global network is promising.
The inaugural event came off as a unanimous success, practically. Even the sometimes snarling keyboard tappers on Twitter were tamed, with complimentary critiques making the rounds as people tuned in to see the improbable Jean Pascal have his hand raised after doing battle with unbeaten Chinese light heavy Meng Fanlong.
Some of the tweets referenced the ProBox TV commentary team being A grade, people loved the pacing of the show, the matchmaking, they said the main event was worth the cost to subscribe to PBTV for a year, $18.
The June 24 program will feature that same announce team, combat sports OG Mike Goldberg calling the action while Roy Jones Jr, Antonio Tarver and Paul Malignaggi weigh in with illuminating remarks and explanations. The top of the card will feature a wholly different vibe at the Osceola Heritage Park, in the central Florida city south of Orlando, Kissimmee. A venue larger than the cozy confines of the ProBox TV Event Center needed to be secured. ProBox would need to accommodate the Boricuas who will want to wave their flag to encourage the 25-3 (14 KOs) lefty who holds claim on the WBO 108 pound crown he took off Elwin Soto in October of last year, as he defends against the WBO No. 9 contender, the skilled tradesman Mark Barriga, who proudly reps the Philippines.
It’s possible that some who indulged in that Twitter poll used the strict definition of “Puerto Rican fighter” and selected only from the batch of those born, raised and living in Puerto Rico. That would mean Amanda Serrano, born in PR but having made Brooklyn her home for decades, wouldn’t be in the running when selecting top 3 Puerto Rican hitters. Jonathan Gonzalez is in a different category, he lived in the Bronx, until his dad got a job in Puerto Rico, in Caguas, where “Bomba” has made his home for 21 years.
I checked in with the 31 year old fighter as he juggled a daily routine which includes a boxing workout and a conditioning session, as well as some oversight of his two cell phone stores in Caguas “(“Cellular City”). Bomba came off as gracious and humble, apologizing for not responding to a request for an interview within ten minutes of the ask. “I’m so sorry, man,” said the apologetic gent, speaking in a car on the passenger side.
First, I wanted to get one thing out of the way. Not that it’s tricky or controversial, exactly, but you should know that because Puerto Rico boasts loyal fight fans who are voracious consumers of content, promoters will pitch boxers with only a minor affiliation to Puerto Rico as being boxing’s next big thing. So, I wanted to know just how “Puerto Rican” he is…Gonzalez said that his dad Luis fought Golden Gloves in NYC, and he’d go to the gym with pop when they lived in the Bronx.
Dad got offered a sweet job in Puerto Rico, so Team Gonzalez transitioned out of the bustling city to a less frenetic milieu. “I go back to the Bronx pretty much every year,” Gonzalez told us, “but I can’t live there. In Puerto Rico, I can get in my car, and go anywhere, parking’s not a problem. Plus, there’s no snow.”
That endorsement of Caguas, Miguel Cotto's hood, should add another bunch of eyeballs tuning in to the ProBox TV stream on June 24, one would think. There will be a chunk tuning in to see Mexican fan favorite Axel Vega (15-4-1, 8 KOs), rated No. 11 by the WBA, fight Venezuelan Angelino Cordova (16-0-1, 12 KOs) with the WBO Latino light flyweight strap for the taking. Plus, Georgia will be in the house, from a streaming-standpoint, because brothers Najee Lopez (age 22; 4-0, 4 KOs) and Hakim Lopez (age 27; 12-0, 8 KOs) are scheduled to glove up in Kissimmee.
BOMBA BREAKS DOWN HIS PATH TO TODAY
Any Boricua boxing fan trying to be patient as newbies and prospects seek to elevate their profiles and inspire the island to embrace their career journey should know that Gonzalez looks to be peaking, at 31. Also, the boxer is saying the right things in terms of his commitment to craft, his regimen to ready himself for the 28 year old southpaw sporting an 11-1 record, Barriga, as well as his prediction for what will transpire in Kissimmee.
It’s not a stretch to say Puerto Rico fight fans scouring the ranks to dial in on a fighter to follow and revere tend to give bonus points for humbleness. Trinidad, who is Gonzalez’ fave, followed by Cotto, wasn’t one to toot his own horn, chest thump and shit talk to feed his ego. That Gonzalez sees a 2019 loss to Japanese standout Kosei Tanaka as a positive turning point in his evolution as a prize-fighter bodes well, possibly, in his quest to rise his profile.
“I was doing well in the Tanaka fight, but that weight class, 112 pounds…,” Gonzalez told me. “I saw Tanaka at the weigh-in, and I thought, ‘I got this, he’s too skinny! Then, in the ring, he’s so big!’’
A body shot from a man who looked two weight classes larger than him took a lot of out him, in round two, Gonzalez recalls. He battled valiantly in Japan, hitting the deck three times in round seven, when the ref waved his hands to signal that Tanaka had retained his WBO world flyweight strap. The battle gave Gonzalez food for thought. In fact, he had seen the light while Tanaka marched him down. “I tried to do my best, but it was against a guy, we’re talking pound for pound,” he says. “So I decided to go down, to 108. Now, when I make 108, a few hours later, I’m 123, 124.” In other words, there’s a much better chance that he will enjoy status as the bigger, stronger man in a forthcoming face-off.
In his last fight, Gonzalez came in as the underdog against 19-1 flyweight titlist Elwin Soto, a Mexican who many assumed would exert a strength/power edge on the Caguas resident with Bronx in his blood. We asked Gonzalez, part of the All-Star Boxing stable, to clue us in as to why it looked like he was an improved version of the guy who’d lost a step up to Giovani Segura in ’13 and got stopped by 14-1 Filipino Jobert Alvarez in ’16. “The Soto camp was my best training camp, I had a good eating diet, proper rest, everything. This prep, I did it perfect, other ones had little ups and downs.”
Watch the split decision back, and you’ll probably agree with the two cards giving Gonzalez a 116-112 edge, rather than the one that chose Soto and his ineffective aggression as the better man, 112-116.
“I was being more intelligent,” Gonzalez said. “All the fans want to see toe to toe, but sometimes you can’t fight for the fans. That really was a great training camp. We need to move 12 rounds, we are not dancing, we are fighting, we keep composure, we keep jabbing.” His feet were as useful, often more, than his fists. He’d slide right, two two/three steps, then slide left to keep Soto guessing.
You believe Gonzalez when he’s citing the reasons he looks like a different boxer against Soto than the one who faced Tanaka. For one reason, that’s because he comes off as believable, because he seems to be able to scrutinize himself, and find places where he can improve. Like, against Segura…Gonzalez admits that back then, he was a different animal. Top Rank had signed him, he enjoyed the money.
“I was just a little kid, I liked to drink, hang out. Now I’m more mature.” That comes out even when I ask about his nickname, “Bomba.” It came from a sparring partner in a camp, in Cuba, in maybe 2007. “He said I hit hard, ‘You throw a lot of bombs.’’
But maybe the boxer took that tag to heart, he says, and instead of using more tools from the box, he focused on trying to go the flashier route. That was fighting harder, however, not smarter.
“I really like Ivan Calderon (two division world champ from Guanaybo, now a ProBox TV analyst), how he didn’t get hit,” the man ranked No. 2 by RING at light flyweight says. “I can punch, and at one time I just wanted to punch. Now, I’m boxing, and I’m dominating these guys at high levels. That’s gonna be my style, Barriga will try and make me miss, then try to throw, and we’re working that out in camp, how to deal with that.”
THE LOWDOWN ON THE SHOWDOWN FROM THE BARRIGA SIDE
For those that are not as versed in the players at 108, here is a primer on Barriga. First off, you must know that he has a style which is a rarity. Check out this video, you'll see why I say that.
Beyond that, he comes off as a good dude, for whom family is quite important. “I am a simple person,” Barriga told me. “I help my parents because we are poor. I have a brother and now he is my assistant coach and a sister who is studying in our province. We were raised well by our parents and taught good manners and to be god-fearing people.”
His vocational choice does make sense. “My grandfather on my mom's side is a former professional boxer in his time,” Barriga said. “So when I was five years old, my grandfather taught me basic training. I liked it and I also saw that I had a skill in boxing. I also love basketball and badminton but my heart and skill in boxing are different, I really want to box.”
I asked him about that gap you see on on his resume. He fought in December 2018, then not again until March 2021. “I decided to turn professional in 2016, and in 2018 I earned an opportunity to fight for the vacant IBF world minimum weight (104 pounds max) title on the undercard of Tyson Fury vs Wilder I against Carlos Licona. I lost that fight via split decision. (Read report by Ryan Songalia of RING here.) Then after that Covid happened and my mom passed away so I stopped boxing for almost three years. I decided to do business because I didn't feel like boxing since I lost mama because she's my number one.” But the itch returned, he talked to his bro, and it was decided the fighter nicknamed “Da Baby Face” would re-enter the fray.
And what's Barriga's take on Gonzalez? “He is a good fighter and I respect him because he's a champion and is not the kind of boxer that's easy to beat. But if you ask me if he is the toughest opponent I have fought, I think no! There's a lot of fighters that I fought with much better skills than Gonzalez, like in the Olympics, before you qualify you first go through the “hole of the needle.” I don't like predictions so let us see in the fight but 100% this gonna be a good fight!”
He sure does sound dialed in, same as Gonzalez. I was curious why Barriga seems so upbeat about his chances, frankly.
“We are ready and I am 100% ready for this fight. I train like demon at the gym and I am confident I will win this fight because I train with the former IBF world welterweight champion Jan Zaveck and also my brother Ed Mel Barriga, who is always there to take good care of my condition.” He also cited the support he gets from his manager, Hinko. “He is always supporting me, especially during the hard times of my career. He never quit supporting me, that's why I don't want to waste this opportunity. Because this is OUR dream, of my manager, my coach, my brother and me that I become a world champion. When I win that fight, that's my gift to my manager Hinko, brother Ed Mel, and coach Dejan.”
He will get an extra kick, he said, because he will be doing battle in front of the man he most looked up to as a fighter on the come-up grind. “Growing up my idol was Roy Jones Jr, and of course also Sir Manny Pacquiao, Joseph Parker and Tyson Fury. I cannot believe that Roy is part of this great broadcaster ProBox TV and that I will have the opportunity to fight in front of Sir Roy and have him commentating on my fight.”
Back to the other side; Gonzalez too seems pleased with his team. That means dad Luis, and trainer Luis Espada, as well as conditioning coach Victor Martinez. Jonathan has watched tape of Barriga and says he respects the Filipino. “At the end of the day, he is a good fighter,” said the Puerto Rican. “We want to put pressure on him, maybe box a couple rounds, in this fight 1, 2, 3, 4 rounds will be close, but my condition, my sparring partners will be the difference. I’ve fought better fighters. I think I can win by KO.”
Of course, yes, Gozalez does want to be held in high regard by his homeland rooters. He sounds sensible and spot-on when he reasons: “ProBox is a new thing, a lot of people find it very interesting. After this fight, the people asked about the top Puerto Rican fighters, they’ll mention me.” And, we're betting, there will be no shortage of fight fans buzzing about this evenly matched contest. Subscribe now to ProBox TV, so this event is placed on your To Watch list.