Before she passed away last month, Mary Marie Gonzales had a message for her grandson, rising middleweight prospect Brandon Gonzales.
“Don’t get hit in the face, O.K.?” she pleaded with him whenever they spoke. “I’ll support your career, but I can’t watch you fight because I can’t bear to see you get punched in the face.”
Of course, boxing is a sport where taking a wallop to the jaw is inevitable at some point. But Gonzales has slipped enough shots—and landed enough devastating blows on his end—to compile an unbeaten record heading into Friday’s clash with Don Mouton at the Indian School in Santa Fe, N.M. (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 6 p.m.).
One could say Gonzales finished 2011 on the verge of living up to his trainer Virgil Hunter’s projection as a future middleweight champion, but his nightmarish 2012 put those plans on hold.
“I had a couple long layoffs last year and a couple injuries, and that kind of stopped my momentum for a bit,” Gonzales (NorCal No. 6; 16-0, 10 KOs) said.
With the hiatus behind him, the 28-year-old from Sacramento aims to ring in the new year with an impressive win over Mouton on national television.
“You know what? It’s not really a time to look back at what could have been,” he added. “It’s 2013, and I’m just looking forward to putting on a great show on ESPN.”
Once ranked the top amateur light heavyweight in America, many observers pegged Gonzales as the successor to Oakland’s Andre Ward, who captured an Olympic gold medal at the same 178-pound weight class in 2004.
Instead, Gonzales spurned the 2008 Beijing Olympics and decided to turn pro one year before as a 168-pound super middleweight. The decision appeared to be a wise one, as he knocked out nine of his first 11 foes (one bout was a one-round no-contest) and decisively bested Darnell Boone—a man who has pulled many an upset and even knocked Ward down in a close 2005 loss.
After descending eight pounds to middleweight in 2011, Gonzales earned NorCal Prospect of the Year honors for craftily outpointing two tough outs in Lester Gonzalez and Ossie Duran, putting himself one victory away from a world ranking.
With powerful manager James Prince behind him and a co-promotional deal with Goossen Tutor and Antonio Leonard in his pocket, the fighter known as “Flawless” was poised to finally break through to the big time in 2012.
“I was right there. I had it all ahead of me,” Gonzales said.
Then he somehow drew Lady Luck’s ire and found himself mired in a 12-month rut.
A January matchup with Caleb Truax on Showtime disintegrated when Gonzales tore his groin during training. When he recovered and returned to his Hayward camp for another TV fight on ESPN2 against Elie Augustama in June, an accidental headbutt during sparring opened up a massive cut over his left eye.
Faced with the possibility of scrapping two straight tilts, Gonzales opted to glue the laceration shut rather than sit out. Sure enough, the cut re-opened during the middle of the fight, but Gonzales followed Hunter’s gameplan to pin Augustama on the ropes and cruised to a shutout triumph on the cards.
“Just because you have a difficult camp doesn’t mean you’ll have a difficult fight,” Gonzales said. “That’s the one lesson I learned from that Augustama fight. You can still prevail even if everything in camp doesn’t go your way.”
Following the win, now Gonzales would require some rest in order for the skin to heal, and combined with negotiations falling through for a November or December bout, the father and husband of two was able to savor as much family time as possible during the holidays.
While Gonzales enjoyed his “vacation,” his boxing career was stuck in neutral with his inactivity, and being so close to 30, an even greater sense of urgency began to set in.
“It will be seven months since I’ve had my last fight, and it’s ironic,” Gonzales said. “Alfredo Angulo, who I’ve been sparring with, was out for seven months as well, but he was locked up [in an immigration detention center due to visa issues]. And yet, he’s fought twice since coming back. That’s kind of a joke we’ve got going on the gym.”
Another fighter in Hunter’s growing Hayward stable is Ward, who is currently in the midst of his third bout-postponing injury in the last four years after incurring a slight tear in his right shoulder. Gonzales has drawn inspiration from the super middleweight world champion in the manner that Ward has bounced back each time.
“Our paths might have been a little different, but there’s a lot of similarities,” Gonzales said. “It’s the same ocean, but a different boat. These are all just setbacks that I just have to keep overcoming.”
But with a new year comes a new fight, and Gonzales can finally cash in on the aggression accrued from his previous frustration. He has even moved back up to super middleweight in the process.
“I not only feel stronger, but stronger for longer, and maintaining the endurance and power over a fight is more effective for me now than when I was at 160 [pounds],” Gonzales said. “Right around rounds four to six is when you want to turn it up, and you want your power to be there late.”
Mouton (12-4-1, 10 KOs) has quite a comeback story in his own right. Imprisoned in 2010 and 2011 for possession of stolen mail, the Houston native has given up the streets for the sweet science and has been rewarded with three consecutive wins over the last five months.
“If I would have never left, I would have destroyed myself,” Mouton told RingTV.com’s Corey Erdman. “I'm my biggest enemy.”
While Mouton is determined to continue his climb, the favored Gonzales is confident that his versatility will derail his opponent’s path to an upset.
“I think Mouton’s style is cut-and-dried,” Gonzales said. “He comes forward and likes to mix it up. He can box a little bit, but I think I have more options to react to when I see the way he comes out in the ring.”
Considering that Grandma might possibly be watching him trade leather for the first time on that Gigantic Tube in the Sky, Gonzales hopes to have saved his most complete performance to date for Friday.
“My dad told me he wanted a stoppage in her honor, and so I’m definitely trying to fulfill that wish,” he said.
And if he can avoid the gratuitous left hook to the face, it would also be much appreciated from on high.
CSNBay Area Boxing Insider Ryan Maquiñana is a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and panelist for Ring Magazine’s Ratings Board. E-mail him at email@example.com, check out his blog at Norcalboxing.net, or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.