Srisaket Sor Rungvisai throws only two punches: a right hook and a straight left hand. His opponents needn't concern themselves with defending against a jab or an uppercut: there are just those two shots. Thus, facing a foe with such a limited offensive arsenal, Juan Estrada, one of the best counterpunchers in the sport and a supreme boxing technician, was the bookies' favorite and the pick of many boxing writers (including this one) to be victorious over Srisaket on Saturday.
In his past efforts against top opposition, Estrada has featured an impressive punch variety, offensive creativity, pinpoint accuracy and the ability to come on late in fights – the types of characteristics that could help nullify Srisaket's powerful but straight-line attack. However, by the end of the fight on Saturday, Srisaket was the one with his hands raised, winning a deserved majority decision over Estrada and retaining his junior bantamweight title. What explained his success?
|Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO
Let's go back to those two punches for a moment. What differentiates Srisaket from other fighters with a paltry offensive arsenal is his ability to use his limited shots in unpredictable ways. To initiate an exchange he can throw either the right hook or the straight left to any part of the body: the stomach, oblique, chest, shoulder, chin, or temple. In addition, he's always thinking in combinations. Often the first shot is a throwaway punch, not meant to land, but the second will hit pay dirt. He also varies the speed, power and trajectory of his shots, especially the hooks. Thus, even a well-schooled defensive fighter like Estrada had difficulty in anticipating where and how Srisaket would initiate offense.
In addition, Srisaket featured new wrinkles on Saturday. He wasn't the crude banger we saw against Roman Gonzalez. No, the slugger incorporated new-found elements of craft into his attack. Deftly using feints, both with his hands and upper body, Srisaket upset Estrada's ability to time him. Yes, he still attacked in a straight line, but his added layers of deception flummoxed Estrada throughout many portions of the fight. Furthermore, he didn't over-commit with his shots, as he had sometimes done against Gonzalez. Srisaket was patient and poised with his offense, which further minimized opportunities for Estrada.
Andre Ward, who provided enlightening commentary throughout the main event on HBO, quickly realized that Estrada needed to make tactical adjustments in the fight. If Estrada couldn't find sustained success from countering, then he needed to lead. Furthermore, why was Estrada insistent on fighting at range, where Rungvisai's straight left would be most damaging?
Yes, there were points where Estrada took the initiative in the fight. On the front foot, he had success. In addition, he was able to counter Srisaket deftly at times. He landed his share of impressive shots, but often he was crawling his way back into the round, or trying to steal it in the last 30 seconds. He allowed Srisaket to force the action, establish the flow, come forward and win the ring generalship battle.
Ward made another prescient observation about Estrada that stuck with me after the fight. Sometimes, an excellent boxer is going to have to fight. The very best do whatever it takes to win. Think about Ward taking the fight to Kovalev in the latter half of their first bout and then in the rematch. Or consider how Mayweather engaged in a shootout against Maidana to win their first match. These adjustments weren't necessarily their preferred choices, but the fights demanded that they make the switch. They put aside ego and were eventually victorious. Estrada didn't; unlike them afterward he cried foul.
Estrada needed to get in close against Srisaket, which would have disrupted his rhythm and perhaps nullified his straight left. But he wasn't willing to engage in that type of battle consistently. Sure he could tell himself that he won the match, but he fought in such a style that the judges were more than justified in selecting Srisaket's work in several close rounds.
As I pointed out in my column from the first Superfly card in September, Estrada, who had been out of the ring for long stretches of the past two years, didn't have the same type of mobility that he had featured earlier in his career. On Saturday, again, Estrada displayed very little lateral movement. Although he would turn Srisaket at points in the fight, more often he would try to use his gloves, arms and reflexes, instead of his legs, to evade shots. With Srisaket's ability to change the trajectories of his punches, a stationary target played into his hands.
Although Estrada is only 27, to my eyes he is an old 27. While many comparisons are made between him and Juan Manuel Marquez, those comparisons apply to the late-career version of Marquez – the one who sat in the pocket and countered, not the one who would use his legs and the ring to box.
Estrada is still an excellent fighter, perhaps top-ten in the sport. However, as Ward pointed out, he wasn't willing to do what was needed to win against Srisaket. If he's already in decline physically (which I think he is) and he lacks the intestinal fortitude to win at all costs, perhaps a rapid decline could be forthcoming. I'm not ready to write him off yet, but if he hopes to maintain his status in the sport, more, not less, will be needed from him in future fights. Super flyweight/junior bantamweight is a minefield of world-class boxers; it's probably the best division in the sport. If Estrada has designs on recapturing a championship belt, he's going to have to fight a certified badass to get it – not an easy task, and one which will require more than he was willing to provide on Saturday.
I certainly wouldn't be opposed to a rematch, but I also would understand if Srisaket wants to go in another direction. With three high-profile road fights in succession, I'm sure he'd love to make a home title defense in front of his burgeoning Thai fan base. There are also other exciting matchups in the division, including those against Jerwin Ancajas, Naoya Inoue (if he doesn't move to bantamweight) Kal Yafai, or even Donnie Nietes, the current flyweight champ who might move up to 115 lbs. for a bigger opportunity (Nietes had an impressive knockout win on Saturday's undercard).
Opportunities now abound for Srisaket. HBO would love to get him back on their airwaves as soon as possible. Offers for big fights could arrive from Thailand, the U.S., England and Japan. It will be fascinating to see if the former garbage man, who used to eat rats in order to survive, will fall prey to self-satisfaction. His $250,000 purse represents big money in Thailand. He could go the Marcos Maidana route and blow up to 200 lbs. Of course, he could also be one of those self-driven, high-performing athletes who won't be distracted by money or publicity.
Srisaket lost three out of his first five professional fights. He was thrown to the wolves. He was just another expendable Thai boxer. But nine years later, he's headlining halfway around the world, making good money and kicking some serious ass. Nothing was expected of him, yet he never accepted that narrative. He continues to improve, refine his craft and slay dragons. Just two years ago he wasn't even a boxing afterthought; he was irrelevant. Now he might just be among the best fighters in the world.