‘We were all shocked’: Srisaket Sor Rungvisai topples Roman Gonzalez
Carson, California – It didn’t matter that the crowd had long fizzled out or that the turnbuckles were being loosened. There they were, still atop the ring, cavorting up and down and across the sweat-stained canvas with their arms raised like a mad Jack Kerouac on the Matterhorn, all of them donned in the same bright yellow-and-red track suits – colors that perhaps give the impression that the men were sales reps for DHL – all trying their mightiest to draw out the effects of their collective high. The dismantling of the ring, as far as these elated cornermen were concerned, could wait. It’s not every night when you get to celebrate on the grounds on which one of your own – in this case, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai – toppled a modern-day great.
What’s certain is the boxing world will have to get used to seeing these men in their jaunty yellow-and-red warm-up gear. What’s more, it may need to start learning how to say some of their names.
“We are ready to fight tomorrow the Thai guy – ” began an ebullient Fernando Beltran, the promoter for Juan Francisco Estrada, during the post-fight press conference for “El Gallo’s” well-earned decision victory over Carlos Cuadras. He turned to his business partner and said, “I don’t know how to pronounce his name…”
“Rung-vi-sai,” he whispered to Beltran.
“Rung-Sai,” Beltran said, smiling sheepishly before reverting back to the easier designation, “The guy who knocked out ‘Chocolatito.’” For now, that will do just fine.
On Saturday night, within the plein-air confines of the StubHub Center in Carson, California, WBC 115-pound beltholder Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, the once anonymous trash-scavenger from Si Sa Ket, Thailand, firmly secured a place for his name in the boxing constellation by defeating – again – the longtime lower-weight kingpin Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez. Unlike their first meeting in March at Madison Square Garden, in which many observers thought the headbutt-happy Sor Rungvisai was gifted a decision, the rematch left no such confusion hanging in the air: In the fourth round, the Thai fighter dry-gulched the Nicaraguan, already woozy from an earlier knockdown, with a thudding right hook that he never saw coming.
And just like that, one of this era’s most accomplished and durable prizefighters saw the black lights for the first time. The crowd, which roared with bloodthirsty approval during the war between Estrada and Cuadras, now emitted something closer to a gasp – shrill, panic-filled and informed by a tinge of horror – as it saw Gonzalez drop like a curtain. Everyone felt the same ghostly sensation stir their bones: The sense of an ending jammed mercilessly into the 30-year-old Nicaraguan’s stricken, diminutive body. On this night, there would be no mistaking the yellow-and-red color pattern with anything other than swift, unkind brutality.
“It was scary to see Chocolatito lying on the canvas for that long,” K2 Promotions Managing Director Tom Loeffler said solemnly after Gonzalez was carted away by an EMT. “I was shocked. We were all shocked.”
Shocked, though not necessarily surprised. Gonzalez’s struggles at 115 pounds were evident from the beginning of his super flyweight campaign, in September of last year, when he earned a unanimous decision over Cuadras. Afterward, Gonzalez’s face, a cluster of welts that peppered his cheeks and shut his eyes, told a slightly different story, suggesting that the four-division titlist had reached his physical limit. The hard proof then came last March. Despite the numerous clean shots he was able to land on Sor Rungvisai, Gonzalez could never truly hurt him or deaden his spirit – not a good sign for a fighter whose pressure style requires opponents to gradually buckle under his firepower in order to justify the close range. Extended time off and a full training camp usually does not bequeath a fighter-in-decline a better chin or a stronger punch but still, the fighter in question was Gonzalez. He would find a way, or so the thinking went. Instead, the rematch last Saturday night bore all the signs of diminished ability, with Gonzalez unable to adopt his usual frenetic pace against Rungvisai, a career super flyweight, who not only boasted a significant size (and, hence, power) advantage but also, most threateningly, looked like the quicker fighter.
“What can you say?” Loeffler asked. “Rungvisai rose to the occasion.” (He also trained plenty. As one of the English-speaking members from Sor Rungvisai’s team stated, perhaps exaggerating, “We sparred 299 rounds.”)
Gonzalez, too, tried to rise to the occasion – and failed, which, in the light of some ringside observers shaking their heads at Gonzalez (a “media hype-job,” as one ubiquitous insider put it), is as good a time to offer as a working definition of greatness. Great fighters are incarnations of Icarus and Prometheus, routine tempters of fate. In striving to subvert the sport’s unforgiving laws, their egos can seldom accommodate the idea of losing, which beget a natural inclination for risk-taking. This is why it made so much sense to see Gonzalez, as he started to step down from the ring, whisk off the consolation medal that WBC head Mauricio Sulaiman had, moments before, hung around his neck. Great fighters have no truck with emblems signifying their losses.
Only earlier last Spring, Sor Rungvisai was meant to lose in New York, collect a check and hightail it back to Bangkok to fight club-fare opposition. Instead, he won and was granted a rematch on a card that showcased the best 115-pounders in the world, on HBO, no less. With his newfound credibility in a deep class and the support of one of the most powerful media machines in the boxing world, the Thai fighter is in a unique position to craft a chapter unavailable to most prizefighters. Legacy-making fights await the dangerously sharp Estrada, herky-jerky Cuadras and – let’s hope – the explosive WBO beltholder Naoya Inoue. Not many who have fought for a living can be said to have enhanced the sport by opening up a new market but Gonzalez did it here.
This much was recognized by one of the English-speaking members from Sor Rungvisai’s team, who put his hands together and said, simply, “Roman is a legend. We thank Roman so much for giving us the opportunity.” Then the young man, in yellow and red, took off skipping into the dark hallways to join his friends, stopping along the way, no doubt, to help those wondering how to pronounce that Thai guy’s name.