(Reuters) – When Nicaraguan boxing great Román “Chocolatito” González struts around a glitzy American ring in pursuit of becoming a six-time world champion on Saturday, he will also represent a vast sporting project of another man: authoritarian President Daniel Ortega.
González, 35, a lightweight boxer renowned for his blistering speed and willingness to wear the Sandinista flag sewn on his boxing shorts, is seeking the fight in Glendale, Arizona to cement his legacy by wresting the super flyweight title from him. of the WBC in his third fight against old enemy Juan Francisco Estrada.
For Ortega, a González victory and a televised hero’s welcome could offer a distraction from growing discontent over runaway inflation, widespread repression and the country’s international isolation.
“Ortega’s public image has been seriously compromised by the continued crackdown on dissent since the outbreak of mass protests in 2018,” said Tiziano Breda, Crisis Group Central America analyst.
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However, it is no longer clear that González will have the same populist impact.
The boxer’s support for Ortega’s efforts to cling to power and for the Nicaraguan National Police, which were sanctioned by the United States for “serious human rights abuses” during the 2018 protests, have left González a deeply divisive figure. .
Boxers, soccer players and baseball stars have been instrumental in shoring up Ortega’s base among the poorest and most marginalized people in Nicaragua.
In return, the Ortega government has rewarded flexible athletes by paying their salaries, distributing houses, and using state institutions to help them.
The Ortega government gave González a house when he won his first world title in 2008, and in 2020 a court issued a decision in his favor for $1.15 million against one of Nicaragua’s largest family businesses.
“Sports in Nicaragua is used as public policy,” said Nicaraguan sports journalist Camilo Velásquez Mejía, comparing Ortega’s project to the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome, when emperors used entertainment to calm public discontent. . “Roman is part of this structure,” Mejía said. “He is key.”
Ortega’s wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who oversees government communications, responded to Reuters’ detailed request for comment: “Thank you for your interest.”
González did not respond to an interview request and his legal representative did not respond to requests for comment.
The soft-spoken González has embraced Ortega at political rallies, decked out in T-shirts emblazoned with the president’s face and caps and jackets emblazoned with slogans of the ruling Sandinista party, joining other pro-government sports figures.
Former world boxing champions Rosendo Álvarez and Ricardo Mayorga have endorsed Ortega. New York Yankees pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga flew to Nicaragua last month to vote in opposition-boycotted municipal elections. The Sandinistas now control all 153 municipalities.
González’s trainer, Marcos Caballero, told Reuters that the criticism of his boxer was unfair. Athletes from other countries air their political beliefs without backing down, he said.
“People are going to hate you and you are going to have (other) people love you and move on,” Caballero said, adding that González was a patriot who spends most of his days reading the Bible.
Many Nicaraguans disagree. They see González as an enabler of what the opposition calls a “dictatorship.”
“Chocolatito is an accomplice of the government,” said Gabriela Hernández, 23, a Nicaraguan student in exile in Costa Rica. She expects González to be thrashed by Estrada, a Mexican.
“He does not represent Nicaraguans. He represents the Ortega family.”
Raised in a poor Managua neighborhood, González trudged through his childhood on an empty stomach. He would later recall that he only ate mango or sugar water during hard training sessions.
The 5-foot-3 (160cm) fighter struck gold in the 1990s when his father introduced him to the late boxing great Alexis Arguello, an ally of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza during his 1970s heyday, who he also rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty.
After ousting Somoza in 1979, the Sandinistas seized Argüello’s properties. They later capitalized on the charismatic boxer’s electoral appeal, with Argüello elected mayor of Managua on a Sandinista ticket in 2008.
Under Argüello’s tutelage, González transformed into a firecracker boxer, combining quick flurries of punches with ballet defense. He would go on to win world titles in four weight divisions, one better than Arguello.
Shortly after González turned professional in 2005, Ortega returned to power and began courting sports stars. He created a national amateur baseball league financed by municipal governments. Meanwhile, many soccer teams are effectively funded by regional authorities.
González, who comes from a Sandinista family, did not need much courtship. He had developed a link to the Sandinistas after being paid small stipends when he was a teenager at Arguello’s gym, according to Germán García, a journalist who has written a book about González.
The relationship would prove beneficial, say critics, who allege Ortega used the judiciary on several occasions to help González.
In 2011, a judge threw out the case when González’s first wife, Raquel Doña, accused him of domestic abuse. González denied wrongdoing. “It’s false,” he said in 2011. Courts also dropped Dona’s other legal claims.
In 2014, a judge threw out drug trafficking charges after Gonzalez’s brother, Milton, was arrested with a backpack containing bullets, a scale and 1.5 grams of white powder that, according to a field test by the Police, it was cocaine.
A subsequent laboratory test showed the substance to be talcum powder, authorities said, prompting outrage amid suspicions Ortega was shielding his ally. Milton González has always denied having done anything wrong.
In 2015, at the peak of his powers, González was named by ESPN and Ring magazine as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, taking the crown from retiring superstar Floyd Mayweather.
Two years later, the wealthy Coen family hired González to promote their Grupo Coen conglomerate in three world title fights in exchange for a house valued at $150,000.
In April 2018, as waves of protests against Ortega convulsed Nicaragua, Piero Coen, a scion of the family, appeared on live television getting into his car and unfurling a Nicaraguan flag, a symbol of the movement, among a sea of protesters.
Sandinista mobs raided and occupied nearly 1,000 hectares of Coen family land.
González’s relationship with Grupo Coen also fractured. In 2019, he sued the Coen Group after it refused to pay the boxer, claiming he didn’t fight enough world title fights to fulfill his contract.
Nicaraguan courts awarded González $1.15 million in damages in October 2020 and frozen Grupo Coen’s bank accounts until they paid González’s high legal fees.
The Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce condemned the verdict and “the use of the judiciary as a repressive tool.”
Murillo did not respond to claims that the Ortega government uses the judiciary to punish its enemies.
But the Sandinista society continued. A week after González lost his titles to Estrada in his second fight in March of last year, the boxer led a rally with Ortega, who hailed him as a “Champion of Champions.”
This year, courts awarded an additional $150,000 to González against Grupo Coen, according to court documents seen by Reuters.
Coen Group declined to comment.
With the aging boxer out of big payday fights, trainer Caballero said Gonzalez is focused on securing a financial future for his family.
“He knows he has to live the rest of his life with the money he’s earned,” she said.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Suzanne Goldenberg)
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