Photos: Ed Mulholland/K2
By Nat Gottlieb
Throughout his much-heralded career, when unbeaten Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez stepped into the ring, fans expected only two results: either he would score another breathtaking knockout, or use his dazzling array of boxing skills to earn a unanimous decision by wide margin.
But that was Gonzalez’s boxing life before he stepped into the ring last year with super flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras, a naturally bigger fighter. In a sensational bout in which 1,822 punches were thrown, Cuadras not only gave Gonzalez the toughest fight of his career, but also left the Nicaraguan with a swollen face filled with bruises. Gonzalez won the fight to remain unbeaten, but his aura of invincibility was suddenly brought into question.
The Nicaraguan will get the chance to dispel any doubts about his spot atop the boxing world when he takes on Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, a rugged boxer with one-punch knockout power, on March 18 at Madison Square Garden on HBO PPV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Cuadras (35-1-1, 27 KOs) will join Gonzalez on the Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs undercard, taking on David Carmona (20-3-5, 8 KOs), a Mexican rival hungry to prove he belongs in the mix with the best of the super flyweight division. Although there’s been talk of a rematch with Gonzalez, Cuadras will have to not only beat Carmona, but do so impressively in order to get a second shot at the Nicaraguan.
In the hard-hitting Rungvisai (41-4-1, 38 KOs), Gonzalez will be tangling with a fighter who’s virtually unknown outside of Thailand. But that doesn’t mean he should be taken lightly by Gonzalez. Although Cuadras came into the ring with Gonzalez wearing a super flyweight world title, like Rungvisai, he was largely unknown outside of his native country of Mexico.
Can Rungvisai, a former world champion, duplicate what Cuadras did and give Gonzalez (46-0, 38 KOs) a run for his money? Tom Loeffler, the managing director of the Nicaraguan’s American promoter, K2 Promotions, wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
“Rungvisai is a very dangerous puncher that definitely earned his right to challenge for the championship,” Loeffler says. “This should be a tremendous matchup.”
This is not just promoter hype. There’s a good reason that Loeffler believes Rungvisai will be competitive against Gonzalez. The Thai boxer and Gonzalez share a common opponent in Cuadras. Rungvisai traveled from Thailand to fight on Cuadras’ home turf, and he battled the Mexican every bit as hard as Gonzalez did before losing a technical decision on an accidental head butt in the eighth round. Many observers felt that had the bout not been stopped, Rungvisai had a real chance to win.
The scorecards at the time were certainly close enough to suggest that. At the stoppage, the judges had it scored in favor of Cuadras, 78-74, 77-75 and 77-76. One can’t say what would have happened in the later rounds had the fight not been stopped, but the closeness of the scorecards legitimately raises the possibility that Rungvisai could’ve won. Since that fight, the southpaw has reeled off 14 straight stoppages, albeit against suspect opposition in Thailand.
Some might underestimate Rungvisai because the Thai has three other losses on his record, but that record is misleading. Rungvisai was thrown to the wolves early in his career. In his debut he was knocked out by a rising contender and future champion. In his second and fifth bouts, he was again overmatched against much more experienced boxers. Until proven otherwise, Rungvisai has a fighter’s chance to upset Gonzalez.
One reason for optimism in Rungvisai’s camp is that he has fought virtually all of his bouts in the super flyweight division. Gonzalez, on the other hand, will be boxing for just the second time in the weight class.
After Cuadras gave Gonzalez such a tough fight, some wondered if the Nicaraguan, who was competing and winning a title in his fourth weight division, was getting in too deep at super flyweight.
Loeffler, however, doesn’t give much currency to the notion that Gonzalez may not be able to duplicate his dominance over the naturally bigger fighters in the division.
“Anytime someone moves up four weight divisions after they are already in their prime, it makes it more challenging by fighting bigger guys,” Loeffler says. “But Chocolatito fights at such a high level, I think he could be competing at this world class for a long time. I have not heard Roman talk about retirement. He is still in the prime of his career and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.”
A big reason to believe Gonzalez will be able to handle Rungvisai more easily than he did Cuadras is the Thai’s style of boxing seems tailor-made for him. Whereas Cuadras moved around the ring with his superior footwork and made Gonzalez work hard to engage him, Rungvisai is a plodder who will be standing right in front of the champion trying to press the action.
Another difference between Rungvisai and Cuadras is how much each uses the jab. Cuadras has a terrific jab, and he fired it with abandon in Gonzalez’s face during the early rounds. Rungvisai rarely bothers to use the punch. Of course, the Thai boxer may very well have a top-notch jab, but simply didn’t need to use it against inferior opponents in his native country. Against Cuadras, Rungvisai did employ the jab several times, but he didn’t seem to throw it with much conviction.
Whatever the case, unless the knockout power Rungvisai displayed in Thailand is the real deal, it’s likely that Gonzalez, who has never tasted canvas, will outbox the challenger easily and use his own impressive power to test the Thai fighter’s chin.
Cuadras also faces something of an unknown commodity in Carmona, who has decent hand speed and likes to use his left hook to do most of his damage. Carmona also has championship experience, having fought and lost two title fights. In his last bout, he took on the undefeated and much-ballyhooed super flyweight champion, Naoya Inoue, in Japan. While Carmona didn’t win, he became the first boxer to take Inoue the distance, losing a unanimous decision by a wide margin.
For Cuadras, the stakes are clear. Based on his performance against Gonzalez, he looks like he belongs with the elite core of super flyweights. But that perception would quickly change if he either loses to Carmona, or doesn’t dominate him.
Also on the televised portion of the card is Ryan Martin (17-0, 8 KOs), a slick former Olympic hopeful who’s being touted as a future force to be reckoned with in the lightweight division. Martin will be facing Bryan Cruz (17-1, 8 KOs), an unheralded prospect from Port Chester, N.Y. Martin is an unusually tall lightweight at 5-foot-11, with a broad upper body, and appears to have the size potential to be a welterweight.
“Ryan Martin is a tremendous talent,” Loeffler says. “He’s in a tough matchup against a New York local favorite, who is looking to shine in front of his home town crowd.”
Martin is well thought of enough to have attracted the attention of trainer Abel Sanchez, who has conditioned many champions, including Golovkin. Martin worked with Sanchez at high altitude in Big Bear, Calif., for the first half of his fight preparation, before finishing up with his regular coach, Joe Delguyd, in Cleveland.