By Fiona Manning
Julio Gonzalez made history last weekend by becoming the world’s first-ever Mexican light heavyweight champion.
And it was a victory that almost never happened, thanks to one judge’s controversial scoring in the fight held in Hamburg, Germany against then-champion, WBO superstar Darius Michalczewski.
They used to say that foreign fighters could not get a fair decision in Germany. In fact, the joke was that a foreign fighter had to knock out the German fighter to get a draw.
Los Angeles-based, Mexican-born light heavyweight contender Julio Gonzalez heard all the jokes and heeded the warning as he laced up his gloves to face long-time champion Michalczewski in Hamburg’s Color Arena last Saturday night.
One hour later, 27 year old Julio Gonzalez, against all predictions, not only ripped the coveted title from the man known simply as “The Tiger” in Germany but he managed to do so despite the German judge ruling the fight in Michalczewski’s favor.
“They were very upset,” said Gonzalez. “I can’t say I blame them. I went to his house and I beat him. I also prevented him from beating Rocky Marciano’s record but I’m not that sorry. This was my dream come true. I waited a long time for this moment.”
It was a moment that seemed far away for one split second when the fight went to the scorecards.
“When they read the scores out, I couldn’t understand what they were saying because it was in German,” Gonzalez said. “I figured the first score was mine because the crowd went very quiet. Then I knew the second judge’s score was Michalczewski because they went berserk.
“I looked at my manager Norman Kaplan who was standing in the ring next to me and I was really worried. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We won this fight.”
And he did. While Polish-born Michalczewski ponders his future, Gonzalez is on a well-deserved brief vacation on Mexico with his wife Christine and sons Julio Jr, 5 and Anthony 2 “to share my victory with everybody there.”
Back home in California, his promoter Bob Arum is planning a victory party at his November 22 show at the Anaheim Arrowhead Pond in Orange, California.
The WBO belt, which is en-route from Puerto Rico, will be handed to the new champion in the ring right before the main event.
It’s a fitting tribute for the fighter who made his pro debut there and remains a top draw there for the Latino-based fight crowd.
Meanwhile, other light heavyweight fighters’ managers are scratching their heads at the news of Gonzalez’s victory, scrambling all over each other, eager for a crack at the title.
“I haven’t had one manager that I have dealt with in the past call me to congratulate us,” said Kaplan who refuses to comment on the German judge’s score except to say, “I’d be curious to know if he’s ever scored a fight before.”
The canny, LA-based criminal defense attorney has had world champions before (Art Frias among them) and has negotiated many contracts for fighters fighting them, but this world championship is especially sweet.
“There are certain media people who were very quiet before we went to Germany who now suddenly want to talk to Julio, but I read all the stories before the fight. Practically nobody gave Julio a chance.”
Kaplan said from the outset that he felt Julio could win if he followed their game plan.
“Our plan was to attack the body but the main thing was to get past the fourth round. He drilled that into me,” said Gonzalez. “He told me I had to get past the fourth round because if I didn’t, there was no way I could win.
“Norman told me Dariusz cuts real easy and we didn’t want to run the risk of the fight not getting past the fourth. When he got cut in the second over the left eye I got real nervous but then after the fourth, I felt I was winning. I felt I was in control and then I could hear loud and clear some guy in Michalczewski’s corner screaming at him, ‘Tiger, Tiger!’
“I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ When they told me it was his promoter Peter Kohl screaming at him to do more, I knew they were panicking and I felt very confident that I was winning.”
Understandably ebullient about his victory, he is equally unfazed by his critics. He doesn’t even care that on-line betting sites had him a major underdog before the fight.
“Honestly, I don’t care what people think of me. People have always counted me out,” said Gonzalez who after a series of crowd-pleasing performances in California, faced his biggest challenge last year tackling the division’s superstar, Roy Jones Jr, earning his first loss.
“I was discounted even before the Jones fight,” said the man who as a small child in Mexico, eked out a living picking onions.
Since moving to the US and turning pro, he has worked security at a bowling alley but most of his attention has gone into boxing.
As an amateur, people told him he would never get past Cuban dynamo Ramon Gar-bey but beat him definitively, before representing his country at the 1996 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
“I wish I had done better at the Olympics,” he said. “I lost to Vassiliy Jirov and I would still love to avenge that loss.”
Trained by veteran Japanese trainer Mack Kurihara as an amateur, Kurihara turned to Kaplan who signed Gonzalez immediately after the Olympics.
“I saw something special there,” said Kaplan. “I just knew Julio would go places.”
Just ask previously undefeated Julian Letterlough, Jesus “Chucho” Ruiz and Reggie Roberts. All three saw not only their records shattered, but in the case of Ruiz, his career ruined.
The Ruiz fight was the defining moment in Gonzalez’ life and his career. His cool detachment with people may seem off-putting initially, but actually shields a sort of sweet shyness. It has also helped in the high-pressure fights he has had. Ruiz was one of them.
“A lot of people lost money on that fight,” said Gonzalez. “Norman didn’t tell me until after the fight but a lot of people expected Chucho to win. Instead I beat him up pretty bad and I know it took him a long time to fight again. I would really like it if we could meet up again one day.”
His barn-burning fight with Julian Letterlough last year put him on the map. Getting off the canvas three times to beat Letterlough earned him Jones’ respect and a shot at the generally-accepted pound-for-pound champion’s array of titles.
Losing on a decision, Gonzalez took some time off then switched trainers. After a couple of lackluster outings this year decision wins over Glengoffe Johnson and Manu Ntoh in which Gonzalez appeared to be restless and bored Gonzalez and Kaplan decided to part ways with trainer Samuel Gomez and return to Mack Kurihara.
Kurihara wanted back in but had a problem. He had a fight in Japan, so he recommended trainer (and former middleweight contender) Dub Huntley who took the reins and prepared Gonzalez for battle at the LA Boxing Club as well as Gonzalez’ “home” gym in La Habra, CA.
“Dub was fantastic and I am so grateful to him,” said Gonzalez. “He really got me ready and got me focused. I was very energized. Mack came to Germany two days before the fight and was in the gym for one day with me, so it was Dub who really got me ready.”
Rounding out his corner was lightweight fringe contender Yoni Vargas, with whom Gonzalez has been best friends since the Olympics.
“We run together every morning and I have to thank Yoni because he kept making me run faster,” said Gonzalez. “I plan to keep them all in my corner. We are a winning team. I plan to keep training with Dub and Mack too. I want a little break then I am ready to get back into the gym.”
Huntley was impressed with Gonzalez’ willingness to work and his willingness to learn new tricks. “I get guys who think they’re something and think they know it all but Julio’s an athlete,” he said. “He thinks about the sport first, not the fame. That’s how the real champions look at it.”
Going to Germany was an emotional experience for Team Gonzalez; one they are unlikely to forget soon. “Everywhere we went there were posters of Michalczewski with just “Tiger” written underneath,” said Gonzalez. “He is so loved there. I have never seen a fighter who is so adored by so many people. He’s a superstar over there.”
“We were treated very well, like well fed lambs being led to the slaughter,” said Kaplan. “I have never experienced anything like it. We were followed everywhere. They gave us a car with a bodyguard and they took us on a tour of Hamburg. They filmed us on a boat tour of the city. They even let Julio steer the boat and filmed it.
“The funny thing was that in the arena, the gloves came off because on the overhead monitors, they played endless footage of Julio and of Michalczewski but the footage they kept showing over and over was of Jones knocking down Julio.”
Team Gonzalez experienced tremendous support from the boxers at the gym where they were sent to shake out and stay busy prior to the fight.
“They were mostly kick-boxers and they were wonderful to us,” said Kaplan. “They even came to the airport to say goodbye to us at six o’clock in the morning. We were very surprised and very touched by that.”
Ironically, the fight which was not seen in the new champion’s own country, was a major event in Germany. “I don’t think anybody watched anything else that night,” said Gonzalez. “At the airport, even the check-in girls and the baggage handlers came out to meet me. Everyone had seen the fight.”
They were even mobbed at Frankfurt airport where they had a layover before flying home to Los Angeles. “The Cinderella story ended there,” joked Kaplan. “There was no mob scene at LAX.”
Kaplan said he is proud of his fighter, as proud as a surrogate boxing dad could be. “He handled himself so well in front of 16,000 hostile fans. He fought a perfect fight. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I knew he could do it and he followed the plan all the way.”
Who is up next for the champ? “I have no idea, I leave that up to Norman,” he said. “I can honestly say I trust him completely. He takes very good care of me. I felt very bad when I lost to Roy Jones, now I feel we have both been compensated.
“For me, this was a great day. It was a great day for Norman, it was a great day for Mexico, for California and for America. It was a great day for boxing.”