When Srisaket shocked the world

Luke G. Williams
07/09/2017 11:15am

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai’s triumph against Roman Gonzalez in March was arguably the greatest victory in the distinguished history of Thai pugilism. Ahead of the rematch, Luke G. Williams puts the first clash in context and examines reaction to Srisaket's achievement in his homeland…

Ahead of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai’s WBC super flyweight world championship clash in March against consensus pound-for-pound king Roman Gonzalez at Madison Square Garden, New York, most experts had summarily dismissed the Thai’s chances of victory.

Bookmakers were offering dismissive odds of around 7-1 that Srisaket would reclaim the WBC title he lost three years ago on a technical decision to Carlos Cuadras, while ‘Chocolatito’ was rated a 20-1 on favourite.

In the aftermath of Srisaket’s majority-points victory (114-112 twice and 113-113), the fevered debate concerning whether he deserved the verdict or not sadly detracted from the Thai’s historic and awe-inspiring triumph.

Although I made Gonzalez a narrow victor, this was a mightily close contest and I had no argument with Srisaket’s hand being raised.

The Thai fought a gutsy and fearless fight, as well as scoring the only knockdown of the contest. Furthermore, his refusal to be cowed by the fact that he was making his American debut at the 'Mecca of boxing' against the man most experts regard as the best boxer in the world was nothing short of astonishing. Incredibly enough, the fight was also the first time in Srisaket's 47-fight long pro career that he had gone a full 12 rounds.

A Thai boxer fighting for a world title on American soil is a surprisingly rare occurrence considering the nation’s proud and glittering history in boxing’s lower weight classes.

The majority of boxers in Thailand find their way into ‘western style’ pugilism after an apprenticeship in Muay Thai, the national sport, whose origins extend back to the 18th century and earlier, most notably to the heroic exploits of Siamese prisoner of war Nai Khanom Tom, who was freed by the King of Burma after winning a series of ten fighting contests against top Burmese fighting men.

After the Allied occupation of Thailand in 1946, there was a gradual increase in the number of exponents of Muay Thai who moved into boxing. Flyweight Pone Kingpetch became Thailand’s first world boxing champion on 16 April 1960 by defeating Argentinian Pascual Pérez in Bangkok.

Since then numerous pugilists from the south-east Asian nation have won world titles, although the majority of these champions have rarely fought outside their home continent.

Indeed, the only previous example I could recall of a Thai wresting a ‘big three’ world title from an existing champion on American soil is Saman Sorjaturong’s thrilling WBC / IBF light flyweight victory against Humberto Gonzalez in July 1995 at the Great Western Forum, Inglewood, California, a forgotten classic which won The Ring magazine’s 'Fight of the Year' honours.

The sole Thai representative in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Khaosai Galaxy, never fought in the United States in a glorious 48-fight career – somewhat surreally Galaxy’s only professional contest outside of Asia was a WBA super flyweight title defence against Venezuelan Israel Contreras on the Caribbean island of Curaçao in the Dutch Lesser Antilles.

For all his amazing accomplishments, though, including 19 defences of his WBA super flyweight crown, Galaxy never enjoyed a win approaching the profile of Srisaket’s against Gonzalez.

For the 30-year-old Srisaket (whose birth name is Wisaksil Wangek) the Madison Square Garden triumph was the culmination of an incredible rags-to-riches life story.

Born into poverty in 1986 in the Sisaket province in the northeast of the country, when he was just a penniless 13-year-old Srisaket first made his way to Bangkok in search of a better life.

He picked up a poorly-paid job as a garbage collector in a shopping mall and was often forced to subside on scraps of food he found on the streets. His salvation came in the form of one Surachart Pisitwuttinan, a former film producer who was been a boxing promoter in Thailand for around three decades and who owns the Nakornloung gym in Nonthaburi.

After a chance meeting with the youngster, Pisitwuttinan brought him into his stable and gradually built up his career and confidence.

Some sources claim that Srisaket fought around eleven contests under other names before his ‘official’ professional debut.

Whatever the truth of that claim, his early days in the pro ranks were inauspicious. His ‘official’ bow in 2009 saw the then 22-year-old TKO’d in three against future Japanese minimumweight, flyweight and light flyweight world titlist Akira Yaegashi in Tokyo.

Remarkably, Srisaket also lost his next contest, when he was again stopped in three, this time by another Japanese boxer, Yushin Yafuso. A draw with Sean Patavikorngym and a points reverse to Kenji Oba bookended a victory against Prakaipetch Aunsawan - meaning that after five fights, Srisaket’s unimpressive resume read 1-3-1.

Amazingly though, the powerful southpaw then went on a 26-fight winning streak, including 25 stoppages, lifting the WBC super flyweight title along the way courtesy of an eighth-round TKO of Yota Sato in a wild brawl in his home province in 2013.

Srisaket lost the title the following year in his second defence against Carlos Cuadras on the Mexican’s home turf. Cuadras, of course, would keep hold of the belt until toppled by 'Chocolatito' in a thriller last September.

The Thai’s technical decision reverse to Cuadras was, truth be told, a touch unfortunate – the fight was halted in the eighth round on the advice of the ring doctor after an accidental clash of heads exacerbated a bad cut over Cuadras' left eye caused by an accidental head butt by Srisaket in round four (for which the Thai had a point deducted, as per WBC rules).

Cuadras was ahead on all three judges' cards at the time of the stoppage but Srisaket demonstrated the impressive perseverance and aggression that are his hallmark qualities, looking dangerous and competitive at all times.

In the seventh round, in particular, he seriously troubled Cuadras with some crunching body shots, one of which was the most impactful punch of the fight, being sufficiently vicious to make the Mexican wince and beat a hasty retreat.

After this defeat, Srisaket’s promoters unsuccessfully lobbied the WBC for a rematch. Patiently, the Thai returned home and built up another winning run, this time of 14 stoppage victories, most of them against weak opposition, with the notable exception of a May 2015 TKO of dangerous Mexican Jose Salgado (who fought a technical draw with Cuadras in 2014).

When he was finally granted a chance to regain his old title with a mandated shot at 'Chocolatito', few gave Srisaket a prayer, but the man himself remained supremely confident.

“This is history,” he commented in the week leading up to the bout. “I will fight for Thailand and my family. I will fight to bring back the WBC super-flyweight belt to Thailand where it belongs. Some fans in America might not know me well, but I have knockout power and I will go there to win."

By knocking down Gonzalez in the first round and giving him without doubt the toughest fight of the Nicaraguan’s stellar career, Srisaket not only regained his world title but succeeded in becoming the first man to ever defeat ‘Chocolatito’ – one of the greatest boxers of the last 20 years and a man who was closing in on Floyd Mayweather and Rocky Marciano’s historic 49-0 career ledgers.

Unsurprisingly, on his return to Thailand, Srisaket was hailed as a national hero, support he was clearly grateful for, having commented after the fight: “I would like to thank all the Thai people for their support. To be honest, Roman was so strong and he kept punching. I won today because of the support from the whole country.”

Srisaket’s victory was hailed on the front pages of Thai newspapers, such as the one at the top of this page, whose headline reads: "Srisaket shocks the world," while a large crowd gathered to greet him when he arrived from America at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, including his proud parents.

The boxer's home district of Uthumpornpisai greeted their hero's return with a parade of ten elephants, while Srisaket won words of admiration from Thailand’s Prime Minister. As reported by the country’s English language newspaper 'The Nation', government spokesperson Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd announced: “The prime minister really admires Srisaket for his determination and boxing without fear. He showed his mental strength, which enabled him to beat the champion in front of the whole world today.

“All is down to training and preparation, both physical and psychological. The prime minister would like to see youths follow Srisaket’s example. We can succeed in anything if we show determination. With good preparation we can overcome any big obstacle.”

Whatever the outcome of this weekend's rematch between Srisaket and Gonzalez, and wherever the Thai’s career goes next, his exploits at Madison Square Garden have assured him a central place in the proud fighting history of Thailand.

Quite an achievement for a 30-year-old garbage collector turned pugilistic hero.

A version of this article was originally published on the Boxing Monthly website in March