Srisaket Sor Rungvisai may well have the most deceptive record of any current world champion in boxing. The story of where he came from in order to become a champion may also be one of the most remarkable in the sport.
Emerging from an impoverished background in Thailand’s rural northeast, Sor Rungvisai (42-4-1, 38 KOs) neatly fits the mould of the gutsy, tough-as-nails Asian boxer who fought his way to a better life. The typecast is perhaps overused to the point of being cliché, though in this case it is not without basis. After moving to Bangkok to find work, for a time Sor Rungvisai had reportedly been forced to live off food scavenged in garbage cans and walked 60 miles and back just to get to a job interview. He was set to earn $75,000 for his world title challenge on Saturday – a fraction of what the champion would make, but a fortune in the challenger’s home province of Sisaket.
Going into his match with undefeated Nicaraguan great, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, several respected commentators had warned that Sor Rungvisai would be a tough customer. A natural 115-pounder, he was also the former WBC champion, only losing his title via a technical decision to the man whom Gonzalez dethroned, highly-rated Mexican Carlos Cuadras. He had also posted solid stoppage wins over the likes of Jose Salgado and Yota Sato, and carried a KO ratio of over 80%, huge for the lower weight classes. However, a closer look at his record reveals several anomalies.
The first thing you notice looking over Sor Rungvisai’s résumé is the number of times the word “debut” crops up in the column displaying the opponents’ record. Sor Rungvisai has faced a total of 14 fighters making their pro debut in his 47 contests, and a further 13 with losing records. Of the debutants, only one went the distance, taking him to a draw in his third bout. Every one of the remaining 13 was knocked out, with only one of them ever boxing again.
Incredibly, the list of debutants on Srisaket Sor Rungvisai’s record also included the last three opponents he faced prior to meeting the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer, and another two he had faced while owner of the WBC’s world championship. In fact, as well as knocking out two boxers making their debut in the period between winning his WBC belt in May 2013 and losing it to Cuadras a year later, he also stopped fighters with records of 0-1-0 and 1-3-1 – though thankfully, none of these were defences of the title.
What on earth the boxing board in Thailand was thinking sanctioning these men to step into the ring against a bona fide world champion is a mystery. Boxing regulatory bodies are supposedly there to protect the health and safety of the fighters, but in Thailand, at least going by Sor Rungvisai’s record, this does not appear to be the case.
Making matters worse, in the 14 contests since losing to Cuadras in May 2014, the combined record of Sor Rungvisai’s opposition was 181-182-21. You would have been forgiven for thinking these stats suggested the Thai did not have the requisite pedigree to trouble the world’s finest pugilist. Compounding that feeling was the fact that every one of his defeats had come in the only four fights he had ever boxed outside of his home country.
It was quite a shock then when, with 41 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai sent the reigning champion to the canvas from a solid body shot. Although not looking seriously hurt, Gonzalez (46-1, 38 KOs) certainly showed signs of discomfort. The Thai’s natural physical strength and powerful left hand from his southpaw stance caused the great Nicaraguan trouble and he took the opening round 10-8 on all three judges’ cards.
A close second round saw the challenger pour on pressure for the first minute-and-a-half, pushing the champion back to the ropes and banging away to head and body. In a taste of what was to come over the remainder of the contest, Gonzalez fought back effectively over the final minute, landing a series of crisp, hurtful blows. One judge went with the late work of Gonzalez; the other two opted for the early volume punching of the challenger.
A minute into the third, the boxers banged heads and a nasty cut was opened over Gonzalez’s right eye. The two men proceeded to trade leather, but after a rocky start the champion started to find his rhythm. Sor Rungvisai was game and still throwing hard shots, but Chocolatito was by far the more accurate puncher. In the sixth, after landing a series of pinpoint body shots and visibly hurting Sor Rungvisai, the referee deducted a point from the Thai as the fighters clashed heads yet again, effectively cancelling out the extra point he had earned from dropping Gonzalez.
Going into the second half of the contest then, the brilliant Nicaraguan had survived an early knockdown, a number of head clashes, and a nasty cut to regain firm control of the bout. All three judges awarded him rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6 – with the exception of one judge, who gave Sor Rungvisai the 4th – and he took a 57-55 lead on all three cards.
CompuBox punch stats also reflected the champion’s dominance over these rounds: he out-landed the challenger in every one, with his average connect rate exceeding 40%. Interestingly though, in round four, which one judge elected to give to the challenger, Gonzalez had in fact out-landed Sor Rungvisai by 56 to 29 punches, connecting at an extraordinary rate of 50.5%.
In rounds seven to twelve, the fighters continued to trade at a furious pace. The ring mat was splattered with crimson as blood gushed from gashes on Gonzalez’ face and head, though incredibly the former strawweight stood right in the pocket with the bigger man, landing more shots and at a higher connect percentage in all of the last six rounds except the 11th. And yet, remarkably, with the exception of one judge who gave Gonzalez the eighth, the challenger swept rounds seven to eleven on all three cards.
Of course, determining the winner of a round in a boxing match involves much more than tabulating punch stats. But when you have one fighter more than doubling the connect rate of his opponent, as Gonzalez did in rounds eight and ten, you have to ask serious questions about why the judges were not rewarding him for his accuracy. If only one of the other two judges had given Gonzalez round eight – or indeed any one of rounds seven to eleven – he would have retained his title via majority draw.
Had Srisaket Sor Rungvisai been landing the more effective, telling blows during these rounds, the judges’ divergence from the punch stats would have been more understandable, but the reverse seemed to be true. This was particularly evident in round eight, with Gonzalez catching the Thai repeatedly with clean, head-snapping hooks and uppercuts. And though he was not visibly hurting the challenger, the punches were crisp, unmistakable scoring shots.
In the final round, the two fighters ended the contest by exchanging at a furious volume, blood now streaming down both of their faces and covering their bodies. At one point Gonzalez literally chased after his tiring foe, eager to close the show, but the marauding challenger kept coming back and was letting his hands go in the centre of the ring at the final bell. Both men embraced and the crowd roared in tribute to a truly great battle. All three judges gave the champion the last round, but it was not enough; they had already given the Thai an unassailable lead, and he took the verdict by majority decision, with scores of 114-112, 114-112 and 113-113.
In such a competitive contest, it would be unfair to the judges to start throwing out the dreaded “R” word, though ultimately, I thought they got the decision wrong. On this occasion it was the stats that told the most reliable story, and after a rocky start, Chocolatito always seemed to be a step ahead. He was the more accurate, effective puncher in the majority of the rounds and possessed a much superior defense, out-landing Sor Rungvisai by 441-284 punches over the 12 completed rounds (43.5% to 30.2%).
That being said, the challenger never stopped marching forward and made the champion work for every second of every round. Without his grit, physical strength and offensive style it would not have been such an enthralling contest. Together, both men threw an amazing combined total of 1,953 punches. One can only hope that the great Nicaraguan is granted the rematch he deserves, and though sadly his pristine undefeated record can never be regained, this needn’t detract from his outstanding legacy.
As for Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, he returns to Thailand to the adulation of an entire nation. Whether or not he deserved the decision, he fought with determination and played his part in an epic battle that demonstrated yet again just what a tremendous sport boxing can be. Any man capable of emerging from the kind of arduous journey that he has endured is worthy of our respect; to do so versus one of the greatest fighters of the modern era is nothing short of incredible.
— Matt O’Brien