When news of Julio Cesar Gonzalez’s death circulated last weekend the first things that crossed my mind were his easy-going attitude outside of the ring, and fierce mentality inside the ropes.
Once those gloves were on Gonzalez was a beast.
Friends, family and admirers were saddened by the passing of Gonzalez, who was allegedly killed by a drunk driver near his native town Guerrero Negro in Baja, California last Saturday. He was 35.
“He was 12 years old when I first saw him here,” said David Martinez, head trainer at La Habra Boxing Club where Gonzalez first started boxing. “He began playing pool but after a few weeks tried boxing. He became a gym rat.”
Librado Andrade was another who hung out at the same pool table where he and his brother Enrique Ornelas first encountered Gonzalez. All three would later become professional boxers, but it was Gonzalez who led the way.
“At one time all three were rated number one at the same time,” said Martinez. “Julio was ranked the number one light heavyweight. Librado was number one super middleweight and Enrique was the number one middleweight.”
Aside from becoming the first Mexican-born fighter to win a light heavyweight world title, he also fought in the Olympics representing Mexico in 1996.
“He had an awkward style but had a lot of heart,” said Martinez.
Perhaps it was best exemplified in two fights that took place in 2001. First, Gonzalez engaged in an all out war with Julian Letterlough (who passed away in 2005) at the Celeste Center in Youngstown, Ohio. Both battered each other relentlessly with Gonzalez hitting the deck three times and Letterlough looking up from the canvas twice. Gonzalez won that fight. The second exemplary fight was against the great Roy Jones Jr. when he was untouchable and perhaps the best prizefighter the world had ever seen. Jones floored Gonzalez multiple times but just couldn’t keep him there.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I ever faced,” said Jones at the post fight press conference at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Andrade remembers sparring with Gonzalez to help the fellow Mexican prepare for the biggest fight of his career.
“I was trying to imitate Roy Jones Jr. for Julio. We had another kid who fought more like Roy Jones but he left after only a week,” said Andrade, remembering back 11 years ago. “Julio was very tough to spar with because he didn’t take it easy ever.”
Sparring wars were eye-opening at La Habra where all three could be seen slugging each other with abandon. It was brutal stuff.
Very few expected Gonzalez to beat Jones, especially during the peak of the Florida speedster’s career. But most were not surprised that Gonzalez was still standing after 12 rounds of sustaining blinding blows from one of the fastest prizefighters ever seen.
“It was an honor to fight Roy Jones Jr.,” said Gonzalez to me after the fight.
That was Gonzalez. Throughout his career he was a humble man outside of the ring and a monster inside.
After losing to Jones, the lanky Gonzalez was back scrambling to get another world title shot. At the time Jones held most of the titles except for the WBO version that Germany’s undefeated Dariusz Michalczewski possessed. The two light heavyweight titleholders refused to fight on each other’s turf so the opportunity was offered to Gonzalez in 2003. The Huntington Beach resident entered the arena expected to be a sacrificial lamb and exited with the WBO title wrapped around his belt. He became the first Mexican to grab a light heavyweight world title in the history of the sport.
“Oh my gosh,” remembers Martinez who was sick for that fight and unable to work Gonzalez’s corner that night in Hamburg, Germany. “We had a parade here in La Habra. Julio wore the title. It made the club.”
The club gym was always loaded with youngsters and adults but after Gonzalez captured the world title there seemed to be more boxing taking place inside the La Habra Gym than ever before.
And those sparring wars were still vicious.
“It was one of the reasons I just turned pro,” said Andrade, who was told by Martinez that he might as well box. “We battered each other senseless.”
Andrade said it became a matter of pride to for all three fighters to spar at full tilt. One day he asked Gonzalez why he always went extra hard in sparring.
“Julio told me he never wanted somebody to say that they kicked his ass,” said Andrade about Gonzalez’s answer. “That was Julio.”
Last year Gonzalez’s close friend Mark Cordova passed away from diabetes. Both were often seen together at the gym and outside of the gym.
“They were very close friends,” said Andrade.
Gonzalez had attempted one last stab at winning a light heavyweight title, but in 2008 was stopped by Tavoris Cloud, who currently holds the IBF light heavyweight title.
“He retired after that fight with Tavoris but then I heard he fought again for the Mexican light heavyweight title. He wanted that title as bad as he did the world title. But he lost,” said Martinez. “He tried one more time against the same guy and lost again. He knew he didn’t have it any more.”
Martinez said that Gonzalez recently bought a tractor and also some pieces of land for his father’s ranch in Guerrero Negro, Mexico.
“The last time I saw him he gave the (La Habra Boxing) club two Coke machines and a candy machine,” said Martinez wistfully. “That was Julio, he never forgot his roots.”
Julio Gonzalez leaves behind his wife and sons Anthony and Julio Jr.
A memorial is planned for Julio Gonzalez in Orange County. At the time of this story there was no definite time or place.
While looking for old photos of Julio Gonzalez (41-8, 25 KOs) I searched for an old photo album that was about a decade old. Ironically the first photos I saw inside the album were of Vernon Forrest, Diego Corrales, Hector Lopez and “Astro Boy” Gonzalez, who have all passed away.
After a short glance at the photos I finally came across some of the Julio Gonzalez-Roy Jones Jr. fight photos and post fight press conference shots.
Gonzalez was trained by Mac Kawihara out of the Westminster Boxing Club as an amateur and pro but usually sparred at La Habra Boxing Club.
The day he won the title several boxing journalists including myself were at the Commerce Casino for the Johnny Ortiz boxing show on ESPN. I always remember Ortiz getting the call from Julio Gonzalez when he won the fight. It was a great night.
Gonzalez fought four times in the Inland Empire and many times in Los Angeles and Orange County. He was one of the most popular boxing attractions in Southern California due to his crowd pleasing style. And was one of the most likeable boxers too.
“It’s a great loss not only to the boxing world but to the club,” Martinez said.
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV