When it was announced that Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk won the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year for 2020, it reminded me of a similar fight. The fight I’m referring to is Julio Cesar Gonzalez vs Julian Letterlough. Like the Zepeda/Baranchyk fight, the Gonzalez and Letterlough fight was televised on ESPN and it was also a slugfest with multiple knockdowns.
The fight occurred on February 2nd, 2001, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Going into the fight, both fighters were undefeated and both were top contenders. Julio Cesar Gonzalez, of Mexico, had a record of 25-0, with 16 KO’s and Julian Letterlough, of Reading, Pennsylvania, had a record of 15-0-1, with 15 KO’s. Noticeably, Letterlough had all his wins by knockout, which made his nickname “Mr. KO” suitable. Letterlough was also known to get knockdown in his fights due to his brawling style. However, he always got up and stopped his opponent. Gonzalez had decent punching power but liked to brawl as well. So on paper, the fight was expected to be a shootout. The fight did not disappoint one bit. It took place at the Celeste Center in Columbus, Ohio. It would be part of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights with Teddy Atlas and Bob Papa calling the fight. The fans in attendance that night and the fans watching from home would be in for a treat.
In round one, Letterlough decided to come forward and put pressure on Gonzalez. As the two fighters started to mix punches in the inside, Gonzalez landed a straight right hand that floored Letterlough. Letterlough got up immediately and Gonzalez started to push back Letterlough. Gonzalez landed a few punches to the head and body of Letterlough to finish the round. In round two, Gonzalez went back to work and he got more aggressive. He backed up Letterlough to the ropes and landed powerful body shots. Gonzalez also landed a couple right hands to the head of Letterlough. A good round for Gonzalez who outworked Letterlough. Gonzalez had the height and reach advantage over Letterlough but decided to fight Letterlough in the inside and had success. However, Gonzalez would pay the price for it in round three.
Letterlough finally landed a powerful right hook that dropped Gonzalez to his knee. Gonzalez got up and shook it off. Instead of trying to grab Letterlough to clear his head, he went right back in the inside and continued to work the body of Letterlough. If it was not for the knockdown, Gonzalez might have won the round as he continued to stay busy. Letterlough would have a better fourth round. For most of the round, he pushed back Gonzalez to the ropes. He was getting his share of power shots to the body and head of Gonzalez. Both fighters went back at it and exchanged shots in round five. Letterlough landed a left hook that dropped Gonzalez for the second time.
Gonzalez fell harder but got up again. Gonzalez showed a lot of heart and endurance. He still went back in the pocket to exchange with Letterlough and he landed a few crushing punches to the head of Letterlough. Round six, both men took turns exchanging power shots. It was a fairly even round.
The fight was already halfway done and it was hard to imagine the fight would go to distance. The pace between both fighters was intense.
Gonzalez picked up the tempo in round seven. It seemed Letterlough was tired and was taking a breather in the round. Gonzalez was more effective in the round by finally using his jab and creating distance. He was able to land right hands using his jab to set it up. Towards the end of the round, Gonzalez landed a right hand and a left hook to the liver of Letterlough. The liver shot hurt Letterlough but he was saved by the bell. In round eight, Gonzalez abandoned the body shots that worked effectively for him in the seventh round. He went back to using his jab and he kept his distance again. In round nine, Letterlough decided to use his physical strength to try and bully Gonzalez. However, Letterlough was not throwing too many punches and Gonzalez was still busier of the two fighters. In the tenth round, Gonzalez got close again and fought in the inside with Letterlough. Just when it seemed that Gonzalez was having his way, Letterlough nailed Gonzalez with a devastating right hand. Gonzalez dropped hard on his back and was almost knocked out. It was a miracle that he got up from that punch. This time, Gonzalez was in serious trouble.
Letterlough tried to finish him off but Gonzalez managed to hang on and for the first time, he had to clinch. Gonzalez made it to the end of the bell. In round eleven, Letterlough was tired. Just as you thought things couldn’t get more interesting, Gonzalez nailed Letterlough with a left hook and dropped him. Even though Letterlough was more off-balance, it counted as a knockdown. In the final round, both fighters went for it. Gonzalez was getting the better of the exchanges as Letterlough missed more punches. In the final seconds, both guys traded to the final bell. All the fans in attendance stood up in appreciation and applauded the fighters. ESPN commentators Teddy Atlas and Bob Papa summed it all up and said “What a fight!” It was a close fight. Gonzalez won more rounds as he threw and landed more punches than Letterlough. However, Letterlough landed the harder punches. The judge’s scored the fight unanimously for Gonzalez with scores of 113-110, 114-109 (twice).
The fight had it all: Action, mayhem, and knockdowns. It was an underrated slugfest that some might have forgotten. Maybe this was due to the fact that another slugfest overshadowed it almost six months later. That fight was between Micky Ward and Emanuel Augustus. The Ward and Augustus fight won the award for Fight of the Year in 2001 by Ring Magazine. Ironically, the fight was also televised on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights.
Afterwards, the win would open new opportunities for Gonzalez. In a few months, he would earn a title shot against WBA/WBC/IBF World Light Heavyweight Champion and Pound for Pound King Roy Jones Jr. Gonzalez would end up losing a lopsided unanimous decision to the great Roy Jones. Gonzalez won his next seven fights from 2002-2003. He would once again get another title shot and this time the hard work paid off. In 2003, he defeated long-time reigning WBO World Light Heavyweight Champion Dariusz Michalczewski by a split decision. It was a huge win for Gonzalez as he defeated the champion in his adopted hometown of Germany and he ended Michalczewski’s nine-year championship streak. Also, this achievement would make Gonzalez the first Mexican fighter to win a major world title at light heavyweight. Gonzalez lost the title in his first defense against Zsolt Erdei. Gonzalez was close to winning a world title again in 2005 but came up short against IBF World Light Heavyweight Champion Clinton Woods. He lost a unanimous decision in a close controversial fight. Gonzalez had one more crack at the world title against Clinton Woods in 2007 and lost again by unanimous decision. He lost four straight times and retired in 2011 with a final record of 41-8, with 25 KO’s.
As for Letterlough, we would earn a title shot later in 2001 in the cruiserweight division. He challenged IBF World Cruiserweight Champion Vassiliy Jirov. Letterlough made a good effort but Jirov was too big. Letterlough lost by an eighth-round stoppage. Letterlough would fight on for another three years and he managed to fight some solid competition but was never able to land another major world title fight. He retired in 2004 with a final record of 21-5-3, with 20 KO’s.
Both fighters died tragically. On July 8th, 2005, Letterlough was shot and killed at a bar in his hometown of Pennsylvania. As for Gonzalez, on March 11th, 2012, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle in Mexico. Both fighters’ lives were taken away too early and ironically both passed away at the age of 35.
However, both Gonzalez and Letterlough should not be remembered for their deaths. This is a tribute to both fighters as they should be remembered for their heart and courage they showed in the ring. Both fighters provided one of the best fights of all time and it should not be forgotten. If you have not seen the fight yet, please view the fight on YouTube and see for yourself.