I’m in a sports bar with few redeeming qualities on Vancouver’s Granville strip, sipping a pint of Guinness in anticipation for what promises to be a night of great boxing (on the television that is). When Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez enters the arena, alongside the blue and white flag of Nicaragua his team host high the red and black flag of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), or FSLN. These are the colours of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, also the traditional colors of anarcho-syndicalism – the red is for the working class, the black is against the state. The flag is a modified version of the one created by the Nicaraguan revolutionary hero Augusto César Sandino in the 1930s, which reflected his background in the Mexican anarchist movement. As Gonzalez enters the ring, he bears the same symbol on his trunks amongst the logos of his corporate sponsors. After another victory – he is currently undefeated in his 45 professional fights – he dawns a jersey emblazoned with the words Cristiana, socialista, solidaria! (Christian, socialist, solidarity!) When he returns to his native Nicaragua, he will be mobbed at the airport by members of the Juventud Sandinista (Sandinista Youth). Clearly, this is not your typical professional boxer.
The red and black flag which Gonzalez fights under only adds to the enigma of the man currently rated as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He is the current WBC, Lineal and The Ring flyweight champion, and a three-weight world champion. With a record of 45-0, thirty-eight of those victories have been by knockout.
Above: Gonzalez catches Edgar Soso with a left jab during their April 2015 bout.
His affiliation with the FSLN is something he shares with his late mentor, Nicaraguan boxing legend Alexis Argüello. Argüello was briefly a contra fighter, before later repenting for his involvement in the US-funded counter-revolution, and becoming heavily involved in the FSLN. Argüello was elected vice-mayor of Managua as the FSLN candidate in 2004, and finally as mayor in 2008. His brother Eduardo was an original Sandinista revolutionary, killed in battle in the 1970s.
However, the FSLN is not what it used to be. Nowadays, its leader and president of Nicaragua since 2007, Daniel Ortega, has been denounced by many as a sell-out and opportunist, and the party has been accused of loosing touch with the values of the 1979 revolution. On the other hand, Ortega is still widely popular with Nicaragua’s poor, and the Juventud Sandinista is still clearly a conduit for militant, revolutionary ideas.
The question is, given the current state of the FSLN, what should we make of the fact that Gonzalez fights under the red and black flag? Do we have here a Sandinista champion, who represents the high ideals of the 1979 revolution? Or is this just an expression of Central American clientelism? Certainly, the right-wing media have alleged Gonzalez is simply being “manipulated” by Daniel Ortega, and have lumped it with a longer Nicaraguan tradition of politicians buying the support of prominent athletes.
In interviews, Gonzalez, a devout Christian, talks more about God than socialism, but he also praises the FSLN government for its efforts to improve the plight of Nicaragua’s poor, which were punished under the string of US-backed, neo-liberal governments that ruled the country between 1990 and 2006. Moreover, his support for the FSLN has gone beyond merely what attire he wears when he is in the media spotlight. Last year he used his Twitter account to celebrate the 36th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, tweeting “We are ready to Celebrate the Victories…We continue forward;” and he has also headed pro-FSLN rallies in the capital. For many people outside of Latin America, the connection between Christianity and revolutionary-Left politics might seem contradictory. But this is the birthplace of Liberation theology, and nowhere more than in the Sandinista Revolution did progressive Catholics and militant Marxists find common ground.
Regardless of what we are to make of Gonzalez’s pro-FSLN stance, there’s no questioning that in addition to being a phenomenally gifted fighter, he is a gentlemen and role model as well. His humility and positivity are a breath of fresh air in a sport marred by trash-talk and crass materialism. Gonzalez, who grew up poor in the La Esperanza suburb of Managua, refuses to forget where he came from, and remains humble despite his incredible success. In interviews, he stresses the importance of a moral and disciplined life and speaks on behalf of Nicaragua’s poor.