Srisaket Sor Rungvisai: Challenger At Heart

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai enters tomorrow night’s “Superfly 2” card as the “A-side” of a marquee, HBO-televised main event, something that, a year ago, would have been unthinkable. But in a turn of events that capped nothing less than a real life “Rocky” story, a single fight changed everything for the boxer some know as Wisaksil Wangek. Last March he participated in “Superfly 1,” Tom Loeffler’s initial endeavour to shine a spotlight on boxing’s best little guys, and on that particular night he was barely the “B-side” as most expected him to come up empty handed after his second crack at the WBC super flyweight title. Instead, not only did he give that night’s “A-side” one of the toughest battles of his career, he left the ring as the new world champ.

The “B side” flips the script at Superfly 1.

Now the WBC 115-pound champion is nothing less than a folk hero in his native Thailand, not to mention The Fight City’s 2017 Fighter Of The Year, after twice defeating former pound-for-pound king Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez. Now Sor Rungvisai, who boasts 40 knockouts in 44 wins, is the main attraction on “Superfly 2,” another stacked bill featuring two critical bouts in his weight class. This reversal of fortune is more than impressive; it’s genuinely fascinating because so much about this humble champion has yet to be written.

When Sor Rungvisai defeated Gonzalez via majority decision, the result was controversial and, in many respects, it only magnified the greatness of Chocolatito. After getting dropped in the opening round and battling through a nasty cut that painted his face crimson, the Nicaraguan legend dug in and appeared to outfight his naturally bigger and granite-fisted foe. Make no mistake, Gonzalez did not dominate that first fight, but he did give a truly gallant performance and many thought he rallied well enough to edge Sor Rungvisai in a gruelling Fight of the Year contender.

But at the time, Gonzalez’s hold on the top pound-for-pound spot was precarious. There was the lingering sense that he’d begun a gradual slide from his remarkable peak when, six months prior to his war with Srisaket, he struggled for 12 rounds with the brash Carlos Cuadras. Moreover, it was already clear that 115 pounds was a step too far for “Chocolatito.” Sure, he could still beat the majority of elite contenders at super flyweight, but now his opponents had a marked advantage in size and that, combined with the physicality of his fighting style, created the conditions for a wrecking ball like Srisaket to batter him. Although the Sor Rungvisai defeat was debatable, what was clear was that Gonzalez absorbed some serious punishment over 12 brutal rounds.

The rematch: “Chocolatito” is down and out.

The rematch, which took place six months later and headlined the first “Superfly” card, could have easily followed a script. Sor Rungvisai, his record littered with a couple of recognizable names sandwiched between obscure regional challengers and a surprising number of debuting pros, could have failed to live up to his first performance against Chocolatito, especially since many assumed he’d fought out of his skin. Gonzalez, having already taken Sor Rungvisai’s power shots to then battle back and wrest control of the first match, stood to improve on his performance. Instead, the unfathomable happened. Sor Rungvisai annihilated Gonzalez, knocking him out with a devastating southpaw right hook to end a brutal bludgeoning in a mere four rounds.

“I am very happy with the result,” says Sor Rungvisai via translator. “I trained very hard in the gym, and I got a great result. It was definitely one of the greatest wins of my career, and I felt very fortunate to get the opportunity to achieve my dream. I have to thank everyone who gave me the chance, especially the WBC, HBO, 360 Boxing Promotions, my team, the press, and all my fans.”

The modest champion, who has gone from obscure challenger to marked man in one of boxing’s hottest divisions, also asserts that he felt no extra pressure heading into the second Gonzalez fight, despite how most fans and pundits scored the first encounter. If anything, what Sor Rungvisai showed in the rematch was a clear infusion of world level confidence, the kind new champions tend to exude when they’re coming into their own.

The new “A-side.”

“I just focused on my training and my strategy,” Sor Rungvisai says when asked about feeling any pressure to justify his majority decision win. “I focused on doing my best in the gym and in the ring. I knew Roman Gonzalez is such a great fighter, so I had to prepare the best I could, regardless of what people thought about the first fight.”

Having definitively closed the Roman Gonzalez chapter of his career, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai sits at the top of his division, but, for some, the question remains: how good is he really? Conventional wisdom dictates that beating a top pound-for-pound fighter means the victor is at the same level, but sometimes boxers just have an opponent’s number and can fight beyond their abilities in spots. Sometimes timing allows a pugilist to profit from the decline of a great talent, with that serving as the “lesser” fighter’s high-water mark. On Saturday, Sor Rungvisai has the chance to again prove many wrong.

And that’s what makes him both particularly motivated and supremely dangerous.

Sor Rungvisai speaks of the confidence he gained from the Gonzalez wins, noting that he had a four month training camp for the rematch compared to less than two for their initial contest. But even if what we saw from Sor Rungvisai in the Gonzalez rematch is the new norm for the Thai boxer, he’ll need every ounce of this devastating form to best Juan Francisco Estrada (36-2), a former unified champion who gave Gonzalez a terrific battle in 2012 and who is generally considered one of the best pugilists on the planet. If Sor Rungvisai defeats Estrada, there will be no doubting his credentials and ability.

What these stakes guarantee, if anything, is an enthralling match. Estrada is eager to claim the division’s lineal and WBC titles after his riveting victory over the aforementioned Cuadras, while Sor Rungvisai won’t suffer any complacency heading into his second title defense. Srisaket is also fighting for national pride, a fact that shouldn’t be discounted given Thailand’s rich combat sports tradition and the potential for other boxers to follow in his footsteps.

“I am very proud that I could show the world what Thai boxers are capable of,” Sor Rungvisai says. “I really hope my victories in America will open the doors for more and more boxers from Thailand and Asia to fight in the major events, especially in the U.S.”

Much has changed for Srisaket Sor Rungvisai since his breakout 2017 campaign. Celebrity status in Thailand is his new reality, and he’s aware of the palpable joy he’s able to bring his supporters. He again insists that this doesn’t lead to extra pressure to win and perform, and he actually might be onto something. In our profit-driven, fame-above-all sports economy, the need to ruthlessly maintain one’s status in the eyes of a largely unforgiving audience is the norm. But, instead of being riddled with the anxiety that follows the possibility of high-profile failure, Srisaket is basking in the unconditional love of his countrymen.

Fighting in the U.S. has been a “dream come true” for Sor Rungvisai. Early in his career, he never imagined that he’d get these kinds of opportunities. But if living his dream hasn’t fundamentally changed him, the sense among many fans and pundits is that he is indeed a different fighter. Or maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at his evolution. After all, our sense of Sor Rungvisai’s maturation into an elite champion is grounded in how little the public knew of him. Success, its seems, could boil down to one simple, humble axiom.

“I am still the same person that I used to be,” Sor Rungvisai says. “I think of myself as a challenger, and I still work very hard every day in the gym.”

— Zachary Alapi 

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