By Drazen Jorgic
(Reuters) - When Nicaragua's boxing great Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez struts into a glitzy U.S. ring bidding to become six-time world champion on Saturday, he will also represent a vast sporting project of another man: authoritarian President Daniel Ortega.
A small fighter renowned for his blistering speed and willingness to wear the Sandinista flag stitched to his boxing shorts, Gonzalez, 35, is looking to the fight in Glendale, Arizona to cement his legacy by snatching the WBC Super Flyweight title in his third bout against old foe Juan Francisco Estrada.
For Ortega, a Gonzalez victory and a televised hero's welcome could offer a distraction from rising discontent due to soaring inflation, widespread repression and the country's international isolation.
"Ortega's public image has been severely compromised by the ongoing crackdown on dissent since the eruption of mass protests in 2018," said Tiziano Breda, a Crisis Group analyst for Central America.
Yet it's no longer clear Gonzalez packs the same populist punch.
The boxer's support for Ortega's efforts to hold onto power and for Nicaragua's National Police, which were sanctioned by the United States for "serious human rights abuses" during the 2018 protests, have left Gonzalez a deeply divisive figure.
Boxers, soccer players and baseball stars have been instrumental to shoring up Ortega's base among Nicaragua's poorest and most marginalized people.
In return, Ortega's government has rewarded pliable sportsmen by paying their salaries, doling out houses, and using state institutions to aid them.
Ortega's government gifted Gonzalez a house when he won his first world title in 2008 and in 2020 a court delivered a $1.15 million decision in his favor against one of the biggest family businesses in Nicaragua.
"Sport in Nicaragua is used as a public policy," said Nicaraguan sports journalist Camilo Velasquez Mejia, comparing Ortega's project to the "bread and circuses" of ancient Rome, when emperors used entertainment to soothe public discontent. "Roman is part of this structure," Mejia said. "He is key."
Ortega's wife Vice President Rosario Murillo, who oversees government communications, responded to Reuters' detailed request for comment by replying: "Thank you for your interest."
Gonzalez did not respond to a request for an interview and his legal representative did not respond to requests for comment.
Softly spoken Gonzalez has embraced Ortega at political rallies, sheathed in t-shirts bearing the president's face and caps and jackets emblazoned with ruling Sandinista party slogans, joining other sports figures in supporting the government.
Former boxing world champions Rosendo Alvarez and Ricardo Mayorga have backed Ortega. New York Yankees pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga flew to Nicaragua last month to vote in municipal elections boycotted by the opposition. Sandinistas now control all 153 municipalities.
Gonzalez's coach, Marcos Caballero, told Reuters the criticism of his boxer was unfair. Sportsmen in other countries air their political beliefs without blowback, he said.
"People are going to hate and you are going to have (other) people who love you and you move on," said Caballero, adding that Gonzalez was a patriot who spends most of his days reading the bible.
Many Nicaraguans disagree. They see Gonzalez as an enabler of what the opposition calls a "dictatorship".
"Chocolatito is an accomplice of the government," said Gabriela Hernández, 23, a Nicaraguan student exiled in Costa Rica. She hopes Gonzalez is thrashed by Estrada, a Mexican.
"He doesn't represent Nicaraguans. He represents the Ortega family."
Raised in a poor neighbourhood of Managua, Gonzalez trudged through childhood on an empty stomach. He would later recall being sustained only by mango or sugary water during punishing training sessions.
The 5 foot 3 inches (160cm) fighter struck gold in the 1990s when his father introduced him to the late boxing great Alexis Arguello, an ally of Nicaragua dictator Anastasio Somoza during his 1970s heyday who also hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty.
After overthrowing Somoza in 1979, the Sandinistas seized Arguello's properties. They later tapped the charismatic boxer's electoral appeal, with Arguello elected Managua mayor on a Sandinista ticket in 2008.
Under Arguello's tutelage, Gonzalez morphed into a firecracker of a boxer, blending rapid fire volleys of punches with a balletic defense. He would go on to win world titles at four weight divisions, one better than Arguello.
Soon after Gonzalez turned professional in 2005, Ortega returned to power and began to court sports stars. He created a national amateur baseball league funded by municipal governments. Many soccer teams, meanwhile, are effectively financed by regional authorities.
Gonzalez, coming from a Sandinista family, didn't need much courting. He had developed a bond with Sandinistas after they paid him small stipends when he was a teenager in Arguello's gym, according to German Garcia, a journalist who wrote a book about Gonzalez.
The relationship would prove beneficial, say critics, who allege Ortega used the judiciary on several occasions to help Gonzalez.
In 2011, a judge threw out the case when Gonzalez's first wife, Raquel Dona, accused him of domestic abuse. Gonzalez denied wrongdoing. "It's false," he said in 2011. The courts also shelved 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 weighing scale and 1.5 grams of white powder that a police field test determined was cocaine.
A subsequent lab test showed the substance was talcum powder, authorities said, prompting outrage amid suspicions Ortega was protecting his ally. Milton Gonzalez has always denied wrongdoing.
In 2015, at the peak of his powers, Gonzalez 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 contracted Gonzalez to promote their Grupo Coen conglomerate in three world title fights in exchange for a house worth $150,000.
In April 2018, as waves of anti-Ortega protests convulsed Nicaragua, Piero Coen, a scion of the family, was shown on live television jumping on his car and unfurling a Nicaraguan flag, a symbol of the movement, among a sea of protestors.
Sandinista mobs raided and occupied nearly 1,000 hectares of Coen family's land.
Gonzalez's relationship with Grupo Coen also fractured. In 2019, he sued Grupo Coen after it refused to pay the boxer, claiming he didn't contest enough world title fights to fullfil his contract.
Nicaraguan courts awarded Gonzalez $1.15 million in damages in Oct. 2020 and blocked Grupo Coen's bank accounts until they paid Gonzalez's hefty legal fees.
The American Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce condemned the verdict and "the use of judicial power as a repressive tool."
Murillo did not respond to claims Ortega's government uses the judiciary to punish its foes.
But the Sandinista partnership continued. A week after Gonzalez lost his titles to Estrada in their second bout in March last year, the boxer headlined a rally with Ortega who lauded him as a "Champion of champions".
This year, the courts awarded an extra $150,000 to Gonzalez against Grupo Coen, according to court documents seen by Reuters.
Grupo Coen declined to comment.
With the boxer aging out of big payday fights, coach 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 made," he said.
(This story has been refiled to replace 'lightweight' with 'small' in paragraph 2 to avoid any confusion with boxing weight categories)
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Suzanne Goldenberg)