Published on Yahoosports.com
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.