Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez had reached the heights of boxing. The protégé of the late, great Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello was atop the pound-for-pound rankings, an unheard of position for a fighter all of 115 pounds, and he would break the legend's record as the first fighter from Nicaragua to win world titles in four weight classes.
Indeed, Gonzalez, who had claimed belts at strawweight, junior flyweight and flyweight, persevered through a grueling fight with Carlos Cuadras to win a junior bantamweight world title in September 2016 to maintain his perfect record. It was the sort of meaningful victory that likely clinched Gonzalez's election to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He had reached what, looking back, appeared to be the apex of his career.
It has since been a difficult road for Gonzalez. First, his longtime trainer, Arnulfo Obando, died suddenly at age 54 from a stroke in November 2016. Gonzalez was heartbroken.
A miserable 2017 followed.
Gonzalez lost his title by bloody and controversial decision to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in a hellacious contender for fight of the year. In the fourth round of a rematch he suffered a massive one-punch knockout loss. Gonzalez's time at the top appeared over.
He took off a year to collect himself, and it paid off. Gonzalez returned to knock out heavy underdog Moises Fuentes in September 2018. It was his first fight with a new trainer -- the Coachella, California-based Marcos Caballero, who is the father of former bantamweight world titlist Randy Caballero.
Chocolatito was back.
But while training for his fight against former junior flyweight world titlist Pedro Guevara scheduled for that December, Gonzalez tore the meniscus in his right knee while jogging. He underwent surgery and was out of the ring for 15 months.
"The layoff and injury were very frustrating. I had never had a serious injury before," Gonzalez told ESPN through an interpreter. "Right after the injury happened, we kept training for 15 days, hoping I would be able to fight. But when I realized it wasn't possible, I was very unhappy with the decision we had to make."
When his knee finally healed, Gonzalez returned to knock out journeyman Diomel Diocos in the second round in Yokohama, Japan, in December. "With the fight in Japan, we wanted to showcase that his knee was in great condition and that Roman was hungry and ready to be back at the elite level of boxing," Carlos Blandon, Gonzalez's longtime adviser and close friend, told ESPN.
It was a bout meant to shake off any ring rust and set up Gonzalez for what he hopes will be a return to the top on Saturday (DAZN, 8 p.m. ET) at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
Gonzalez (48-2, 40 KOs), 32, of Nicaragua, will challenge junior bantamweight world titlist Kal Yafai on the Mikey Garcia-Jessie Vargas undercard. He aims to reenter the consciousness of boxing fans as the most accomplished small-division fighter of his generation.
"I am just very happy to have this opportunity," Gonzalez said. "Winning another title -- it will be a blessing from God to me and all my team. We will be very happy."
But there was a time following the death of Obando and the losses to Sor Rungvisai that he was far from happy.
Even if Gonzalez did not talk about it, Blandon said he knew he was upset.
"The knockout to Rungvisai was rock bottom," Blandon said. "Roman had lost his trainer and then he lost the title to Rungvisai in the first fight and then the knockout loss in the second fight. Everything was disintegrating. We had to start all over. Now we have a really solid team and we are a couple of days from being champion again and everybody feels very excited."
Gonzalez acknowledged that things were difficult after Obando died and after the knockout loss. He said his spirituality helped him to cope.
"There were some very sad moments," Gonzalez said. "But that is what life teaches you. That is what God teaches you. You don't have to have your head down. You always have to raise your head and look to the future. Right now I have Marcos Caballero with me and he has most of the qualities that Arnulfo had."
Besides Caballero, there is strength and conditioning coach Rafael Rojas and Gonzalez's father, Luis Gonzalez, who has always been part of the team.
"Roman feels energized and ready to take on the world again," Blandon said. "I haven't seen that motivation since he lost [Obando] and [since] the knockout. Roman is eager to showcase his talent on Saturday. He is definitely ready for this fight.
"This is like a new beginning for our team, like the second stage of Roman's career."
Although Gonzalez's long layoff before December was caused by an injury, Blandon said he believes it was good for the fighter in the long run.
"He had boxed 12 or 13 years without that kind of rest. I believe the time off revamped him mentally and physically," Blandon said. "He hadn't wanted to visit his feelings and emotions when he lost his trainer, lost his title and got knocked out by Rungvisai.
Gonzalez faces a quality opponent in Yafai (26-0, 15 KOs), 30, of England. He was a 2008 Olympian and will be making his sixth world title defense, although it will come against the most significant opponent of his eight-year professional career.
"Kal Yafai has my respect," Gonzalez said. "I always say all boxers, we are like family and fighting gets us to know each other more. I think the fight is going to bring out a lot of emotion. One of my dreams is to become a world champion again and whatever comes from that result is welcome."