“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” William Shakespeare reasoned in Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet. The Bard was not referring to boxers from Thailand when he penned that classic line, but he might have had he had knowledge of a certain proclivity. Thai fighters sometimes go by their legal names, the ones on their birth certificates, and sometimes they go by a nickname that references their particular fighting style or a moniker that calls attention to the gym in which they train or the city or province of their birth. Now and then it’s a mishmash of all those disparate elements.
Consider the curious case of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, the WBC super flyweight champion who is thesweetscience.com’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year for 2017. The 31-year-old southpaw from Sisaket, Thailand (a nod toward his home province) came into the world as Wisaksil Wangek, which is how several boxing entities still choose to identify him. Now that he is the two-time conqueror of the celebrated Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez of Nicaragua, who at the time of their first bout was widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, Sor Rungvisai has risen to the level of that which we call a rose but by any other name would smell as sweet. But ‘twas not always so.
A decade and a half ago, when he was living in almost incomprehensible poverty, rummaging through garbage cans in Bangkok, Thailand, for thrown-out scraps of food he might fashion into that day’s sustenance, the future boxing toast of his nation was that which we call trash but by any other name would smell … well, awful.
Although he came to America twice in 2017 for bouts that raised his recognition factor in the U.S. from near-zero to something akin to instant fame after twice defeating “Chocolatito,” Sor Rungvisai hasn’t taken on the trappings of wealth and privilege. Those lean days when he was fighting to stave off starvation instead of for a bejeweled belt are still too fresh in his mind.
“I have been so many things. Now that I am a successful boxer, more successful even than what I hoped for, I think of myself not as a world champion but as the guy that had no job, and was thankful to get work as a trash collector,” he said, through a translator, when informed of his award recognition by TSS.
So how bad was it when Sor Rungvisai – then known, of course, as Wisaksil Wangek – was a kid in Sisaket? And how much worse was it when he arrived in Bangkok, literally penniless, an unknown arrival from a rural area wandering the streets of a big city?
“As a child, I lived what we call `sustainable life,’” he explained. “People don’t spend much because they don’t have much. They make do with what they have.”
Except the hungry boy with an empty stomach and head full of dreams wanted more than a lifetime of mere sustainment. He used his last 20 baht, the equivalent of about 50 cents U.S., to take a bus to Bangkok where he hoped to find work. He crashed at his girlfriend Kae’s sister’s modest dwelling, sleeping on the floor and walking the streets, often up to 16 miles in a day, seeking employment. He finally found low-paying jobs as a security guard and then on a garbage truck, which offered him the opportunity to pick through other people’s edible scraps, buffet-style.
Punching for pay, and getting punched back, seemed a better way to keep body and soul together. He became a Muay Thai fighter, a kickboxer and, finally, a boxer. Of his first 47 professional fights – along the way, Wisaksil Wangek morphed into Srisaket Sor Rungvisai – 45 were in Thailand, one in Japan and one in Mexico. He became something of a household name, at least in his homeland, when he won the WBC super flyweight title by knocking out Yota Sato in eight rounds on May 3, 2013, in Sisaket. As far as a vast majority of U.S. fight fans were concerned, however, that bout could have been held on the dark side of the moon.
Sor Rungvisai brought a 42-4-1 (40) record into his March 18, 2017, challenge of Chocolatito Gonzalez, the then-WBC super flyweight champion, in Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of a show headlined by the Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs middleweight title showdown. Widely dismissed as a no-chance sacrificial offering, Sor Rungvisai floored Chocolatito in the first round and went on to win a controversial majority decision in a terrific back-and-forth action war that was rightly hailed as a Fight of the Year candidate. In recognition of his accomplishment, Sor Rungvisai was appointed a police officer in Sisaket Province and was enrolled in the Faculty of Political Science at Chalermkarnchana University.
Chocolatito demanded an immediate rematch and, not surprisingly, was again heavily favored. It took place on Sept. 9 at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., and Sor Rungvisai proved that the first time around was no fluke when he floored the Nicaraguan twice in the fourth round, referee Tom Taylor dispensing with a count following Chocolatito’s second trip to the canvas.
Sor Rungvisai earned $75,000 for the first fight with Chocolatito and $170,000 for the rematch, huge money in Thailand. Now a fixture on many experts’ top 10 pound-for-pound lists, he insists he hasn’t changed, nor will he.
“I will train harder and the results should be even better than in 2017,” he said of his outlook for the New Year. But always in his mind are the days of desperation.
“The only thing that has changed is that more people know me,” he said of his much higher profile in Thailand, and throughout boxing circles. “A lot of people ask to take pictures with me now. Apart from that I am basically the same.”
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