'I want to fight everybody': Srisaket Sor Rungvisai interview
Luke G. Williams
Ahead of his WBC super flyweight showdown with Juan Francisco Estrada on Saturday, Thai sensation Srisaket Sor Rungvisai speaks to Boxing Monthly's Luke G. Williams about being a role model, his impending marriage, why he will fight anyone at 115lbs and much more…
It's a cold winter's night in England when I speak to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai down a crackly phone line from Bangkok. Ensconced in his training camp, Srisaket is about to start work for the day and I can hear birds - no doubt of the exotic variety - chirping away merrily in the background. The WBC super flyweight champion is clearly in high spirits - his voice is animated and several times he laughs when discussing his responses to my questions with his interpreter.
It's a mellow scene quite at odds with the extreme violence that Srisaket's fearsome fists have wrought over the past 12 months in the course of two memorable battles with former pound-for-pound king Roman 'Chocolatito' Gonzalez - contests that have propelled the 31-year-old Thai to international boxing superstardom.
Ahead of Srisaket’s first showdown with Gonzalez at Madison Square Garden last March, most experts had summarily dismissed the Thai’s chances of victory. Bookmakers offered dismissive odds of around 7-1 that Srisaket would reclaim the WBC title he lost in 2014 via 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.
Srisaket was - for my money - a worthy victor; he 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 regarded as the best boxer in the world was nothing short of astonishing. Incredibly enough, the fight was also the first time in Srisaket's then 48-fight long pro career that he had gone the full 12 rounds.
Reflecting on his memorable 12-round war with the Nicaraguan almost a year later, Srisaket tells me: "I was really proud to be fighting in America. For the first fight with Gonzalez I really had in my mind that I wanted to show the world, especially the fans in the US, that both myself and Thai boxers in general can be top class boxers.
"I had not had so much recognition [outside of Thailand] in the past, and once the opportunity came I really wanted to use that opportunity to show the world I could do it. The result, of course, was great, which I was really happy about, although before the fight, to be honest, I was not thinking about the result so much, all I thought about was making sure the fight was really good. I wanted to make sure that all the fans enjoyed the fight and could see what I and Thai boxers are capable of."
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 can 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 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 wider profile of Srisaket’s toppling of Gonzalez.
Nor could Srisaket's victory be dismissed as a fluke - indeed, less than six months later, he demolished Chocolatito in a rematch, savagely knocking him down once and then out in the fourth round courtesy of a pair of massive right hooks. The image of Gonzalez sprawled unconscious on the canvas was one of the most iconic and shocking boxing moments of 2017.
"For the second fight I trained really hard," Srisaket emphasises. "I did nothing but training for four months so I was really confident, but I did not expect that it would end so fast. I was very confident I would win the second fight - a lot more confident than the first fight - and I was very happy that it turned out that way."
The pair of victories against Gonzalez have, Srisaket admits, transformed his life. He is now a national hero, who has been feted and hailed by the Thai Prime Minister among others. Srisaket is well aware that with such status comes a certain responsibility. "My life has changed a lot," he confirms. "People recognise me a lot now. When I walk around a lot of people ask me for pictures and photos. I’ve realised that I have a lot of fans and I’m very honoured and proud of that. It’s extremely important to me to be a role model.
"I’m very proud and happy that I can be an example to other kids and young boxers to inspire them to train hard and be mindful of the goals they have. I want to show everyone that no matter where you can from, you can work hard and achieve what you wish for."
The rags-to-riches nature of Srisaket's life story is certainly inspiring. Born into poverty in 1986 (with the birth name Wisaksil Wangek) in the Sisaket province in the northeast of the country, when he was 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 subsist 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, Surachart brought him into his stable and gradually built up his career and confidence.
The other major influence on Srisaket's life has been his fiancée Patchareewan Kanha, who has been by his side since before he first came to Bangkok.
"The wedding is going to be later this year," Srisaket tells me when I enquire about his relationship with Patchareewan and her influence on his life and career. "My fiancée has been with me for so long. We came together from a rural area of Thailand to Bangkok when we were teenagers. We have been through a lot of tough times together."
And a lot of fights too, many of them dramatic. 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 2016.
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 and the boxer himself admits the bitterness of this loss left him re-evaluating and reconsidering his career.
"The three years before I got to fight for the title again against Chocolatito were really tough," Srisaket tells me. "I considered ending my career many times, but [my fiancée] told me and encouraged me to keep on fighting, to keep on boxing because she considered one day it would be our time."
Patiently, Srisaket built up another winning run, this time of 15 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), before eventually being made Gonzalez's mandatory challenger.
Now that he has cemented his position as champion, Srisaket faces another mighty challenge this Saturday night at the Forum, Inglewood (the same venue where Saman faced Gonzalez) in the form of the highly accomplished former WBO and WBA flyweight champion, Juan Francisco Estrada from Mexico.
"My preparations for the Estrada fight have been really good," Srisaket emphasises. "I’m feeling ready now [N.B. this interview was conducted in early January]. My conditioning is great and I’m almost ready to fight. I could fight in a few days actually!
"I’ve been training two times a day – firstly in the morning for around three to four hours - running and other conditioning training and circuit training. Then another training session in the afternoon for about four hours – in the afternoon it’s purely boxing training."
When asked to assess his challenger's strengths and weaknesses, Srisaket speaks generously. "Estrada is a very strong boxer, physically strong and mentally strong," he says. "He’s also very experienced. As for weaknesses, he doesn’t have so many. He’s a very, very good boxer, a great fighter, who is almost at the same level as Chocolatito so it’s going to be a really great fight. Estrada also has a lot of technique. We will see in the ring what happens, it’s difficult to predict right now."
Despite this modest assessment, Srisaket makes it clear he is confident that he can overcome anyone in the talent rich super-flyweight ranks.
"I want to fight everybody," he explains. "I am not the only good boxer in the super flyweight class but I am confident that I train harder and work harder than anyone else, that’s why I’m confident that I can beat anyone else at super flyweight. I realise that [WBO champion Naoya] Inoue is probably moving up [to bantamweight], but if he stayed at 115lbs that would be a great fight. If not, then any other champion at 115lbs would also make a great fight."