Miguel “Mickey” Román shouldn’t be here, fighting for a world championship.
“I’ve had everything against me,” Román says in Spanish.
In this era where a boxer’s undefeated record is part of his identity and marketability, Román has lost 12 times. And where the top boxers may fight once or twice a year, or even less, over his 15-year career, which he describes as “sad,” Román has averaged almost five fights per year. Most of them took place in Mexico, away from the bright lights that come with boxing’s biggest events. Of course, Román has never been mistaken for the type of boxer to fight on the big stage.
On Saturday, in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juárez, Mexico — his home — Román faces defending champion Miguel Berchelt for the WBC’s super featherweight title in a bout streamed on ESPN+. As usual, Román is the underdog.
“Román will be at a disadvantage in … areas like youth and talent,” said Patrick Connor, boxing historian and host of the “Knuckles and Gloves” podcast. “But he shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Compared to Berchelt, Román (60-12, 47 KOs) has crude skills more fitting of a well-versed street fighter. See him fight and there’s a ferocity and look of desperation; eyes narrowed, teeth clamped so tight on his mouth piece that the muscles around his square jawline seem that much tenser. Román is boxing’s answer to a manual laborer, the type of fighter more likely to get sponsorship from a local muffler shop than well-known corporations. He is also the kind of fighter that perfectly symbolizes where he’s from.
Despite being in different countries, El Paso and Juárez are more similar than different. Sister cities along borders usually are. Here, the area used to all be one — El Paso del Norte. In the mid-1800s, the U.S.-Mexico War culminated with the Rio Grande becoming the political border. When it did, it split this area into what later became El Paso and Juárez.
El Paso County is nearly 83 percent Latino, mostly Mexican and Mexican-American, and you’re just as likely to hear people speaking Spanish than English. Compared to the rest of the U.S., it ranks lower in education and higher in poverty rates. And yet, largely because of the military that first arrived around the time of the U.S.-Mexico War and the Border Patrol’s continuing and escalating presence, the city ranks among the safest in terms of violent crimes. This is especially true when compared to Juárez, which, as Mexico’s fifth-largest city, has always had they type of violence associated with a city its size. But Juárez’s violence, as we know it today, began about a decade ago. With drug cartels fighting to control what serves as the entry point to the U.S. — their best client — Juárez’s murder rates increased tenfold. By 2010, averaging over eight murders a day, authorities considered Juárez the deadliest city in the world. For a few years those numbers declined, but they are rising again. This is where Román is from and where he learned to fight.
“We were a very poor family,” Román explains about growing up in colonia Primero de Septiembre, one of Juárez’s poorer neighborhoods. “We struggled even to go to school.” When he attended school, he often fought. To keep him from trouble, Román’s father took him to a boxing gym. “I ran with gangs,” Román admits, “but once I started boxing and dedicating 100 percent of my time to it, I was able to leave that behind.”
Román turned professional in 2003. Two years into his career, tragedy struck. That night, Román was at home with his family when he heard gunshots. Soon after, he heard his name called. “Mickey, Mickey,” the voice said. As he walked outside, Román learned his brother — who was unwilling or unable to leave the gang life behind — had been shot. “I was carrying him,” Román remembers, “we were just about to get to the hospital. He took two deep breaths and that’s when he passed.”
Román not only held his brother as he died but knew who was responsible.
“I know a lot of fans follow me now. That’s why I didn’t take vengeance on the guys who shot my brother,” Román explained. “I have to be an example — to the people who trust me.” And so, Román kept boxing. Four years into his career, he was an undefeated prospect. And then he lost.
After accumulating a record of 22-0, Román lost two of his next three fights. The losses continued. In about a three-year-span, during what should have been the early prime of his career, Román lost seven of 13 fights. He then won four straight before, again, suffering more setbacks, losing three of four fights in less than a year. He contemplated retiring.
“I didn’t have a plan,” Román said of what he would have done for a living. “I have a lot of family in the United States, maybe I would have gone there.”
In early 2013, with his career on the verge of ending, Román rededicated himself even if his status within boxing became that of an opponent. Increasingly, he fought away from home, going to an opponent’s hometown with most expecting him to lose.
“I proposed that if I lost a fight I’d retire,” Román recalls. “And I won 18 fights in a row and, until now, we are still here.” In his last 23 fights, he has lost just once. Román fought and forced his way into being named the mandatory challenger for the world championship.
More recently, trainer Rudy Hernandez has contributed to Román’s continuing success. During training camps, which now include a dietary focus and increased attention to the technical aspects of boxing, Román moves to Southern California. Away from training, he still lives in Juárez.
“I like it there,” Román said of Juárez. “The people treat me good.” Wherever he goes — restaurants, plazas, malls — Juárenses show their admiration. “If I crown myself as world champion, I will make history,” said Román. “I will be the first world champion from Juárez. And truthfully, that is a great motivator.”
Beating Berchelt (34-1, 30 KOs) won’t be easy. Román will have to turn the fight into a brawl — as he usually does. His experiences, both good and bad, will serve him well.
“I’ve been through it all,” he said, giving the impression he’s talking about more than boxing. “I have been knocked down and I have gotten up. I have gotten up to win.”
“In a sense, his [career] is … the opposite of sad,” Connor said. “He’s been able to go farther than many thought he could despite not having the talent, protection, etc. When compared to where he could be, it’s a success story in [several] ways.”
Mickey Román shouldn’t be here, but he is. And everything about him — including his thin, Pachuco-style mustache, reminiscent of one of Juárez’s favorite sons, Tin Tan — symbolizes the El Paso-Juárez borderland. He’s a blue-collar type of boxer. He has more knockouts than any other active boxer and is tougher than most. If Román can crown himself world champion, Juárez, the city he never left, and El Paso, the city that was once part of Mexico, will have something to celebrate.
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