By Eric Raskin
Step aside, Jimmy Snuka and Curtis Mayfield. There’s a new “Super Fly” in town.
On Saturday, Sept. 9, at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, six fighters who compete in the 115-pound division — also known as super flyweight — will come together to create a tiny-titans boxing card for the ages. When was the last time the five best fighters in the world in any given weight class all fought on the same show? It’s all but unheard of, but that’s what we have here: Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Naoya Inoue, Carlos Cuadras, and Juan Francisco Estrada will all set foot in the same ring on the same night, offering a potent combination of immediate thrills and groundwork for division-consolidating must-see fights to come.
“I’m not sure I can think of a better top-to-bottom card around this weight ever, particularly in the U.S.,” says boxing writer and historian Cliff Rold, long noted for his expertise on smaller, foreign boxers with whom most domestic fans are less familiar. “There are two superb, main-event-level fights here to go with Inoue’s U.S. debut.”
While there are indeed two main-event-level fights on this tripleheader, the nominal main is an immediate rematch to one of the two or three best fights so far in 2017, Sor Rungvisai vs. Gonzalez. Four-division titlist Chocolatito was undefeated and clinging to a claim to the pound-for-pound throne entering his March 18 fight with the tough Thai southpaw at Madison Square Garden, but a first-round flash knockdown, streams of blood, and some highly questionable scorecards combined to give Sor Rungvisai the stunning upset majority decision win after 12 furious rounds of combat.
“I come here with a lot of hunger,” Gonzalez (46-1, 38 KOs) said at the press conference announcing the rematch, “a lot of hope to come back to Nicaragua with my championship. With my team, we’re going to work very hard and be ready to come back.” That team includes new trainer Sendai Tanaka of the Teiken Gym in Tokyo, replacing Arnulfo Obando, who passed away just prior to the first Sor Rungvisai fight.
Gonzalez (46-1, 38 KOs) is now 30 years old — the same age as his opponent, for what it’s worth — and the general belief is that, while he’s still an elite fighter, he’s not quite what he once was. Rold, however, hesitates to endorse that assessment too strongly.
“I don’t know that Gonzalez has slipped all that much,” Rold says. “He’s fought, dating to his HBO debut, nothing but guys rated top 10 in his class by TBRB [Transnational Boxing Rankings Board] and Ring. Everyone since Brian Viloria has brought their A-game to face him. When you fight good fighters, you get good fights. His age, style, and the history of the little guys says he’s likely to burn out a little earlier, but he may yet have a couple good years in him.” Rold’s stance is buttressed by the way Chocolatito finished the first Sor Rungvisai bout. “Gonzalez’s performance in the final round of that fight, the way he dug down and had Rungvisai on the run from him late,” Rold says, “was the stuff of legends.”
While Gonzalez is the headline attraction here and was perceived by most as deserving of the win in March, the threat and quality of Sor Rungivasai (43-4-1, 39 KOs) shouldn’t be minimized. He’s heavy-handed and physically strong, and after starting his career 1-3-1, his only defeat was an inconclusive technical decision to Cuadras. Conventional wisdom says the faster, more versatile Chocolatito should be able to outmaneuver him as long as he can avoid falling into another early hole, but there are real concerns that either the tough 12-rounders continue catching up with Gonzalez or that, if the Nicaraguan can’t get the knockout, Sor Rungvisai’s pressuring style will win over the judges again.
Though Gonzalez was the pound-for-pound king until recently and has, on the scorecards of most observers, already earned competitive wins over three other fighters on the card, there’s a legitimate case to be made that he’s not currently the top super flyweight on the show. Inoue, the 24-year-old Japanese mega-talent known by the nickname “Monster,” is already creeping onto P4P lists despite a thin resume. At 13-0 with 11 knockouts, he fights outside Asia for the first time against Antonio Nieves, a solid contender from Cleveland whose only defeat on a record of 17-1-2 with 9 KOs came by split decision to an unbeaten opponent.
“This is a great opportunity for me,” said the 30-year-old Nieves. “[Inoue] is a great fighter and everyone is ready to see him. But I’m going to shock the world.”
Nieves will assuredly try to do that, but it’s a tall task. What should fans less familiar with Inoue expect to see?
“The debut of Inoue,” Rold says, “is exciting for fans who have only read about him or seen him on YouTube. The thing to look for in full HD: the speed. Inoue has lethal speed to complement legitimate, one-shot knockout power.”
If Inoue is a prohibitive favorite in his fight and Gonzalez a slight favorite in his, the show-stealing potential of the opening bout on the card is underscored by the fact that there really is no favorite. Mexicans Cuadras (36-1-1, 27 KOs) and Estrada (35-2, 25 KOs) have the shared experience of losing by just a few points to Gonzalez, and both have been itching for a rematch with him. This bout moves one of them to the front of the line while derailing the hopes of the other.
“I know it’s a tough fight, but I got his medicine right here with my right hand,” said the colorful 29-year-old Cuadras. “When I heard I was going to fight ‘El Gallo’ Estrada, I got very excited because everyone knows I like to fight the best.”
“I consider myself a real true warrior,” Estrada responded. “A guy who comes to fight, a guy who can box, a guy that can do all things in the ring,” said Estrada, 27. “We know Carlos is one of the best. I hope he trains [hard], because he’s never seen someone like me.”
And boxing fans have never seen something quite like this card. In a division that the Hall-of-Fame likes of Khaosai Galaxy, Johnny Tapia, and Mark Johnson have called home, there are several men on this show with the potential to go down among the greatest fighters the 115-pound class has ever known.
At the very least, major strides will be taken on Saturday night toward determining who’s the best of this era. Gonzalez-Sor Rungvisai, Inoue-Nieves, and Cuadras-Estrada could give way to Gonzalez-Inoue, Inoue-Cuadras, Gonzalez-Estrada II, Sor Rungvisai-Inoue, or any other fascinating permutation of these diminutive warriors. A golden age of super flyweights rumbles forward on Saturday night with perhaps the best little-guy tripleheader in boxing history.
Both ends of that sentence may sound like hyperbole or overstatement. But they aren’t. Not if you understand just how talented and motivated these 690 combined pounds of super fly fury are.