Juan Francisco Estrada rebounded from tragedy at a young age to become one of the most respected fighters of his era by following the old school formula – challenge the best to be the best, writes Thomas Gerbasi

FORTY-EIGHT hours. No food, no water, nothing. If you believe what you’ve seen on the internet, that’s what Juan Francisco Estrada endured to make weight for his first bout with Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez in November 2012.

“At least that part of what you read on the internet is true,” said Estrada through translator/manager Juan Hernandez. “I actually was not able to drink water or eat for a really long period in order to make weight, and I believe that affected my endurance and resistance in the fight because I felt a little weak. But I still put up a great fight.”

Calling it a great fight might be underselling it, as Estrada and Gonzalez waged war for 12 fast-paced rounds that ended in a unanimous decision victory for the Nicaraguan 108-pound champion. It was a disappointing result for Mexico’s Estrada, who had previously fought in the 112 and 115-pound divisions. But to get a title shot and to compete in the United States with the platform that provided, the then-26-1 Estrada made the sacrifices necessary to make it to fight night.

“The reason I believe I take this so seriously is because, at least that fight, I saw it as this huge opportunity,” he recalled. “It was my first fight in the U.S., it was against a great champion like Gonzalez, and whenever I have to make the weight, even if it’s a difficult task, I always want to make sure I’m a professional, not only for myself, but for my team, for the fans, and for the public in general. I feel that responsibility.”

Estrada met that responsibility and went above and beyond the call of duty in a fight that took him from obscurity to a new level of recognition, first among the hardcore fanbase, then even to casual followers of the sport. Today, nearly nine years after his first meeting with Gonzalez, the native of Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico is a tenured member of the pound-for-pound list and the all-conquering world super-flyweight champion. And though he could walk away from the sport today and have a spot waiting for him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, the 31-year-old still has plenty of fight left in him.

“From the very beginning up until now, I’ve always used my family as my motivating engine,” he said. “When I had fights when I was coming up, I would always think about my family and use that as motivation, and I still do that now. And I believe I’m even more motivated now to keep winning more titles. Now that I’ve compiled four [sanctioning body] belts, I think I can keep accomplishing more things in the sport for me and my family.”

If you ask any fight fan, the one thing they will all want for Estrada is a third fight with “Chocolatito”. In March, the two warriors met for a second time and quickly set a high bar for the 2021 Fight of the Year race with another epic battle, this one taking place at 115 pounds. And while the level of world-class action was the same, the outcome was different, with Estrada evening the score via split decision. It was a verdict that drew some controversy, mainly concerning Carlos Sucre’s 117-111 score in favour of Estrada, but what everyone could agree on was that these two friendly rivals need to do it again, with October 16 being the reported date for part three.

“I’ve read the rumours,” said Estrada of a rubber match with Gonzalez. “We are talking about October, but it’s only in the negotiation stage. Hopefully we can make it official soon because it would be a great fight again.”

Estrada and Gonzalez producing fireworks is as close to a sure thing as there is in boxing, and a third fight would likely produce the same scenario. So what’s the secret of the chemistry between these two?

Roman Gonzalez vs Juan Francisco Estrada
Melina Pizano/Matchroom

“I believe we have a lot of similarities,” said Estrada. “We both have an equal will to win, but also aggression and great technique, so I believe everything meshes together to make a great fight.”

Correction, two great fights, with another one hopefully on the way. And no matter what happens in the conclusion to their trilogy, it will have its place alongside great series like Ali-Frazier, Zale-Graziano and Gatti-Ward, Gonzalez-Carbajal and Bowe-Holyfield. That’s the dream of so many fighters, to not just win titles and gain individual glory, but to share that glory with a rival in a series of fights that transcend the sport. Estrada has that with Gonzalez, and that came as a bit of a surprise to “El Gallo”.

“Like a lot of other fighters, when I first started, I did want to try to get to a point where I could have big, meaningful fights that could go down in history,” Estrada said. “The one thing that surprised me or is a little different is that I really didn’t expect to have these amazing two fights with a Nicaraguan. Because of my weight division, I always thought that my biggest fights would be against an Asian champion because of the smaller weights. But it ended up being that my two biggest fights were against a great Nicaraguan champion like Gonzalez, and hopefully we can make the third fight and make it the same or even better.”

That doesn’t mean Estrada hasn’t had other great rivals over the years, and it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that the quartet of Estrada, Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Carlos Cuadras have been the lighter weight class and modern version of the legendary Four Kings (Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns). That’s high praise, and Estrada is humbled by such a suggestion. He even has a couple more names to make it the Six Kings.

“I definitely appreciate that possible scenario that people consider those fighters, including me, as a possible Four Kings, similar to the era that people talk about,” he said. “I believe there are also a few other guys in the same weights that could also be considered kings in the division, which are [Jerwin] Ancajas and [Kazuto] Ioka.”

Estrada has yet to throw hands with 115-pound belt-holders Ancajas and Ioka, but in his bouts against the other three members of the New Four Kings, he is 4-2, proving that in a day and age when the big fights often don’t happen, Estrada and his cohorts have gone to great lengths to make sure they’re fighting the best night in and night out.

That’s earned Estrada respect from fans, the media and his peers, and it’s clear that he’s left his mark on the sport since turning pro in 2008. The only sad part about his journey is that it was a devastating tragedy that may have been the catalyst for Estrada to find the sport as a youngster. “You never know what life can bring at you, but just because of the timing and the tragedy of my mother’s passing, when my mom passed away, I had to relocate from one state to another, and because I relocated and started living with my aunt, that’s when I was introduced to boxing,” said Estrada who was only seven years old when his mother died of leukemia. “I believe there is a chance that had my mom not passed, then I wouldn’t have relocated to a different state and maybe I wouldn’t have been in boxing. But things happen in life for a reason, and I use that as a motivation as well.”

Estrada’s father would pass away when the future world champion was 14, and at the age of 21, Estrada lost Lupita, the aunt who raised him. That’s a lot of heartbreak for anyone at any age, but particularly for a young man just trying to find his way in the world. But Estrada has a fighter’s heart, and he persevered and succeeded. It would have been some celebration for his mom and aunt to see where their little boy wound up.

“I believe my mom would be very happy to see that I’m now in a successful position in the sport and doing well financially also,” Estrada said. “And when my mom passed away, I relocated because I was living with my aunt, Lupita, my mom’s sister, and I was living with her when I was introduced to the sport and she was very happy that I was a boxer and that I was winning tournaments and titles. And I believe my mom would also be very happy like her sister. I just wish that they were still around so they could see my success and also so I could help them out financially.”

It’s the only dark cloud in a sunny future for Juan Francisco Estrada. Maybe that’s why he’s not always smiling, joking or appearing to be enjoying what has been a memorable career thus far. That may be only half-true, though, as he does admit to being satisfied with the way his life is these days.

“I consider myself a little bit of an introvert in public,” he admits. “But I’m definitely enjoying my career, I love fighting and obviously I love winning. I’m aware that I’m not a big talker, and I don’t like to make a lot of noise, but I like to prove everything in the ring. And with my family and my private circle, I probably let loose a little more, and I’m definitely enjoying the ride.”



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