After three fights and 36 rounds between two future Hall of Famers, the rivalry between Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez still isn't quite settled.
Estrada defeated Gonzalez via majority decision Saturday in Glendale, Arizona, to retain his lineal 115-pound championship, but the result was far from convincing.
One judge scored it even but was overruled by scores of 115-113 and 116-112 in favor of Estrada.
ESPN scored the bout 114-114.
Estrada, a 32-year-old Mexican fighter who also captured the vacant WBC junior bantamweight title, controlled the first half of the fight by boxing from the outside. He regularly timed Gonzalez with a crisp left hand to the body that disrupted his rhythm and surely contributed to his slow start.
Estrada was able to walk Gonzalez into counter shots while he swept the first five rounds on two scorecards. But after a sluggish start, Gonzalez suddenly found his footing in Round 6.
Gonzalez cranked up the volume and swarmed Estrada, who was repeatedly pinned on the ropes by the increased output. Gonzalez continued to come forward and poured punches on Estrada, who couldn't match his older foe shot for shot. Gonzalez swept Rounds 6 through 10 on two scorecards.
The championship rounds were the difference. Estrada won Rounds 11 and 12 on two scorecards to avoid the draw and closed strong with a clear final frame in which he connected on 26 punches, his best of the fight.
"I do believe that Roman deserves a fourth fight," Estrada (44-3, 28 KOs) said in Spanish in translated comments. "I think we left the result clear about who the winner was, and if he wants the fourth fight, we can do it.
Estrada added: "He's a future Hall of Famer. I won today out of my own merit. It doesn't take anything away from him. I won because I was better prepared. I think that he still has a lot ahead of him in his career."
That's if Gonzalez (51-4, 41 KOs), a 35-year-old native of Nicaragua, chooses to continue with his boxing career.
"I don't know yet. I'm going to talk about it with my family," Gonzalez said in remarks translated from Spanish. "All fights are different and all fights are difficult, and I think this is the most difficult one."
However, Gonzalez said he would fight Estrada a fourth time "as long as they pay well."
Saturday's fight was entertaining during the second half, but it was a far cry from their first two battles, which were instant classics. Gonzalez won the first meeting via unanimous decision to retain his 108-pound title in 2012.
The rematch didn't materialize until nearly nine years later, with Estrada taking a controversial split decision in March 2021. Somehow, they topped their epic first fight with a total of 2,529 punches in the return bout.
They twice were scheduled to fight a third time, but those plans were postponed by positive COVID-19 tests, first by Gonzalez and then by Estrada. Gonzalez fought Julio Cesar Martinez on short notice in March and picked him apart en route to a lopsided decision win. In September, Estrada defeated Argi Cortes in a tougher-than-expected challenge.
On Saturday, Estrada and Gonzalez combined for 1,610 punches in a more tactical battle to determine supremacy at 115 pounds.
But there was no clarity in the end, as the fight truly could have gone either way. A fourth bout would surely be welcomed by boxing fans, but there should be plenty of other options for both men. Chief among them could be the winner -- and perhaps loser too -- of the New Year's Eve title unification fight in Tokyo between Kazuto Ioka and Joshua Franco.
No matter which path each boxer takes going forward, one thing is certain: Estrada and Gonzalez will forever be linked to each other.