Play it By Ear: How El Chocolatito Went From Garbage Collector to World-Class Boxer

Everybody wants to find a way to get paid to do what they love. But the path to making a living off your passions is often an unscripted journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, reinventions and surprises. After all, it’s estimated that our generation will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of our lifetimes. In our new Play it By Ear series, we’ll take a look at the career 180s that got some of the young creatives we’re excited about where they are today.

For someone like Nicaraguan Román “El Chocolatito” González – a flyweight from a country not known to churn out elite-level fighters – to get to the top of the boxing pyramid, you have to have more than just talent.

His explosive style has made him someone who stands out in the sport, despite competing in an often overlooked weight class. With an unblemished professional record (43-0, with 37 KOs), the 28-year-old was recently named the best pound-for-pound fighter by both ESPN and The Ring. And ahead of his fight on October 17 at Madison Square Garden, El Chocolatito has declared that he’s still hungry, a sign of someone who is conscious of what it takes to stay at the top now that everyone he fights will be gunning to make their name off him.

Each opponent he faces may be looking to become the one who takes down El Chocolatito, but  it wasn’t always so clear that he’d ascend to these heights. As a child working to supplement his family’s income, González worked as a garbage collector, and dreamt of becoming a futbolista. “I come from a very humble family, we fought every day,” he told ESPN Digital. “We sold insecticide, floor wax, floor cleaners, clothes. That’s how my dad supported the family, we would go door to door selling these items.” El Chocolatito worked alongside his father Monday through Friday and on weekends, he collected garbage in a cart that was pulled by a rented horse.

All the while, he was drawn to soccer, a sport that doesn’t have the same level of popularity in Nicaragua as it does in other parts of Latin America. His father persuaded him that the sport would take him nowhere, and just as El Chocolatito learned his work ethic from his father, he also learned how to box.

It wasn’t until later that he was mentored by the late Alexis Argüello, a retired Nicaraguan boxing legend. In his 10-year career, he is only now starting to gain the attention he deserves. He previously fought mostly in Asia, and he had no promoter, according to AFP. Being ranked el mero mero by ESPN and The Ring has given him and his weight class more visibility, but El Chocolatito holds on to the experiences that have shaped him. “Thanks to God, I became a world champion, but I won’t forget where I came from,” he said. “That’s still where I live.”