The top ten super flyweights of all time: no. 2 and no. 1
As Saturday's 'Superfly 2' card headlined by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs Juan Francisco Estrada approaches, Kyle McLachlan counts down his choice of the top ten super flyweights of all time - continuing today with Sung Kil Moon at number four and Johnny Tapia at number three...
This coming weekend, the super flyweight division will play host to what is one of the most anticipated match-ups in all of boxing.
Thai powerhouse and WBC kingpin Srisaket Sor Rungvisai will take on the all-round technical wizard - and former flyweight title holder - Juan Francisco Estrada of Mexico, in a clash of styles that should not only provide a meeting of minds but an explosion of violence.
Given that both have already taken some impressive scalps at the weight, a clear win will likely see the victor make a claim for being one of the best ever at the weight.
The 115lbs weight class is not one known for its depth historically, yet it has seen talent pass through that can be put alongside the best of nearly any weight class.
Super fly is sandwiched between two of the sport's most longstanding divisions, flyweight (112lbs) and bantamweight (118lbs). When the division was first created, the WBC claimed it was to benefit those who were too big to drain the necessary poundage to reach the flyweight limit, or too small to reasonably compete against the strongest bantamweights.
With the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation having strong ties to the WBC, and Venezuela not yet the home of the rival WBA (who would follow the WBC’s super fly lead in 1981) the first title fight in the division was made between 10-0 Venezuelan bantamweight champion Rafael Orono - coming down three pounds - and 11-2 South Korean flyweight champ Seung-Hoon Lee.
They might not have been the best fighters that could conceivably make the weight class, but in February 1980, they found themselves in a world title fight. The Korean was game, but Orono, big for the weight, proved too strong, and he became the first ever junior bantamweight champion. He ended up a fine champion too, with eight title defences split over two reigns against some very good fighters.
In time, super flyweight would find itself home to more impressive champions than Orono, fighters who gave their best years to the fledgling weight class.
But who really are the best super flyweights of all time? Who beat the best? Who staked their claim as a true divisional great by seeking out the top challenges available?
We conclude our countdown by today revealing the fighters ranked in the top two slots...
2. Jiro Watanabe 26-2 (17 KOs)
The first unified champion of the super-flyweight division is also one of the most bad-ass fighters to ever lace up the gloves. A kenpo karate practitioner first who later became a Yakuza enforcer, Jiro Watanabe’s long reign atop the super-flyweight division is what gets him on this list.
The great scribe Joe Koizumi once wrote in Boxing Illustrated magazine: "Jiro loved street fighting as a youngster." Taking that natural enjoyment for combat into karate, Watanabe faced a six-foot, 200lb opponent in the All-Japan Kenpo Championship. Watanabe lost that battle, but fighters his own size would prove less formidable foes once he focused on punching.
A relaxed, precise sniper of a stylist, Watanabe was sometimes lackadaisical in his approach and sometimes found waiting for the perfect time to strike rather than creating his own offence. But when he had his man hurt, the Japanese fighting spirit came out, and he was a deadly finisher.
Before growing into the 115lb weight class, Watanabe had already proven himself one of the best fighters in the always heaving Japanese lower weight classes, pitching his perfect six-fight record against lanky puncher - and future lineal flyweight champion - Koji Kobayashi, laying waste to him inside the first stanza.
After ten fights, Watanabe was in position to fight for a world title, but lost a hard-fought decision to the excellent Chul-Ho Kim.
The lineal title travelled with Kim, back to Rafael Orono and then away from him again. Watanabe quietly picked up the WBA title, making six defences against fighters of a generally high quality, including Gustavo Ballas, Shoji Oguma and Soon Chun Kwon, before opting to unify with the WBC champion, then Payao Poontarat.
Trained by renowned British trainer Charles Atkinson as a pro, Poontarat was not without his chops, claiming Thailand’s first-ever Olympic medal (a bronze) in Montreal ‘76, and taking that pedigree into the pros, outboxing Rafael Orono for the lineal title, and taking out the always dangerous Guty Espadas in his first defence.
Watanabe showed his nerve in gunning for the best fighter in the division, knowingly giving up his WBA title (who thought belt politics was a modern thing?) and risking coming out of the bout with nothing but his pride.
In a top-notch battle of wits and fists, Jiro Watanabe took the WBC title in a split decision. The video shows that the decision is debatable, but Watanabe proved his superiority once and for all in a rematch four months later, battering the tough Thai to a stoppage in eleven rounds.
Having spent his prime years defending the WBA trinket, Watanabe’s reign as lineal champion was short in comparison. Two years and three defences were all he could manage, before he was stifled and outmaneuvered by the brilliant Mexican who sits atop this list. However, by this stage his prominent place in the history of the 115lbs division was secure.
1. Gilberto Roman 54-6-1 (34 KOs)
When Salvador Sanchez died aged 23 in 1982 he left a void in the hearts of the passionate Mexican fans.
Roman had no chance of becoming the next Mexican boxing idol. Although he was comparable to Sanchez as a stylist, a young kid from Culiacan called Julio Cesar Chavez won the love and respect of the nation by winning world titles in multiple weight classes at the same time. Roman, meanwhile, was plying his trade in the less glamorous super-flyweight division. Nevertheless, the defensively minded and technically proficient Mexico City boxer was among the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at his peak, and his run at the top of the division is unsurpassed even to this day.
Roman did not follow the typical route of the prototypical Mexican boxing legend. A quality amateur, he failed to medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, despite beating the excellent Pan-Am gold medalist Alberto Mercado.
Turning pro in the Fall of ‘81, Roman then chose the typical trajectory of a young Mexican prospect, amassing 43 bouts in five years, including a win over the hard-hitting former (and future) world champ Antonio Avelar.
Roman was 40-3 before he got a world title shot, and had no less a fighter than the great Jiro Watanabe standing in his way.
The bout itself was low on drama. But to the purist, to watch it now is to watch Roman at his tactical peak. He feints, jabs, and circumnavigates Watanabe throughout. Watanabe has his moments, but Roman plays to his strengths and the great Japanese’s weaknesses, showing a higher ring IQ and a more diverse skill set.
Roman displayed these same skills throughout his career. And he would need them.
The incredible Thai Kontoranee Payakaroon gave Roman issues, but the Mexican made the adjustments down the stretch to keep his belt. Former lineal flyweight champ Frank Cedeno floored Roman early, but got disheartened when he found that the defending champ wasn’t fazed.Two-time world flyweight challenger - and reigning European bantam champ - Antoine Montero was perfectly built for super fly, but Roman took him apart in nine rounds.
Roman’s ring generalship found its most severe test in three bouts that featured possibly the highest combined skill level you’ll find at 115lbs. Roman went 1-1-1 with the hard as nails Argie Santos Laciar, and over the trilogy both men displayed the finer side of the sweet science, both in a gruelling inside battle and a tit-for-tat battle for the outside.
Laciar - a former WBA flyweight champ - was a broad shouldered, bobbing technician, who mixed a granite chin with solid defence in order to get off his looping overhand shots. He came close to dethroning Roman in an excellent 12-round draw, before both men's tendency to cut inside their opponents shots with quick slips saw multiple head clashes in the rematch. Erroneously - at least to my eyes - ruled a TKO due to the referee's insistence that punches caused the multiple lacerations on Roman’s head and face, the rematch saw Laciar take the WBC super-flyweight title, his second in two divisions.
Roman would eventually win back his title, but it wouldn't be form his old foe Laciar.
Had Sugar Baby Rojas been Mexican, he may well have surpassed Roman in terms of popularity. Going into his title fight against Laciar, he was 27 years old, and had lost just one bout, matched perilously hard in just his seventh pro bout against Chilean banger Martin Vargas, then nearing a century of bouts. Never stopped in his long career, Rojas mixed his intimidating size of the weight with a textbook boxer-puncher style - with a dash of the Colombian wildness that so many fighters from that nation have - that saw 17 of his 28 victims fail to see the final bell.
Rojas’ youth and size was too much for Santos Laciar, and although the same age, Roman was much older in ring terms, and had needed a hundred stitches after a serious car accident that saw him thrown through the windscreen. He was up against more than just a dangerous puncher, he was past his physical best.
But as Rojas found out in two bouts, Roman’s great experience was too much to overcome. Losing a tough decision first time round, Rojas was completely befuddled in the rematch (held on the undercard of the incredible and long awaited rematch between ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns) and never replicated the destructive form that saw him win the title.
Roman was long in the tooth though, and the ease with which he reclaimed his title flattered to deceive. Ever the pro, he managed to craft some quality wins out of what he had left, travelling to Japan to beat undefeated challenger - and future WBC super-bantamweight champ - Kiyoshi Hatanaka, and proving his superiority over Santos Laciar once and for all via dominant decision.
Once Roman’s reflexes slipped, he was essentially done as a fighter. Unlike Salvador Sanchez, there is no 'what ifs' surrounding his career. It was all done with by 1990, as he fell victim to Nana Konadu and Sung-Kil Moon, two huge fighters who hit as hard as they looked.
So when a truck plowed into Roman's car, killing him at the age of 28 in eerily similar circumstances to compatriot Sanchez, he was already wisely retired, and had told his close friends as such. He is not put atop this list because of nostalgia, or by giving him the benefit of the doubt concerning his future potential and accomplishments. He was not cut down in his prime. He had already accomplished enough to be here in the number one spot.
Successful in twelve bouts for the true lineal super flyweight title, he displayed excellence at all ranges, demonstrating an advanced ring IQ that has not been seen since in the division. And, as if to prove his superiority over all those that have preceded him in this countdown, he mastered the second greatest super flyweight of all time, thus proving his dominance over the very best that super flyweight has to offer.
Both Juan Francisco Estrada and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai will have their chance to better Roman’s achievements. It all starts with their certified super fight on Saturday night.