By Cliff Rold
This Saturday, we get the fifth consecutive same-day pairing of WBA/WBC/IBF/IBO unified middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin and now-Jr. bantamweight Roman Gonzalez. It will be the fourth time in those five pairings that they’ve been paired on the same card. The larger Golovkin sells the tickets. On many of these days, it’s been Gonzalez who sells the hardcore fans.
Consider it part of the wealth of options that have been available in a unique era around Gonzalez’s divisions. In four HBO or HBO pay-per-view appearances to date, the least of Gonzalez’s foes was an aged Edgar Sosa who he obliterated in two rounds. The same Sosa was still able to last the distance and compete with the excellent Donnie Nietes a year later. He hasn’t had to settle for a mis-mandatory like Dominic Wade. One could make the case that Gonzalez has been the tougher matched of the two on each of their four shared dates.
This Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 PM EST/6 PM PST), it’s a tougher call.
Golovkin is facing the man many regard as the best available foe in the class without red hair in Danny Jacobs. Jacobs has won twelve straight, and a fight against cancer, since a lone career loss to Dmitry Pirog in 2010. A first round knockout of Peter Quillin in December 2015 gave Jacobs a career-best win and enhanced bona fides. While questions remain about his chin, Jacobs appears on paper to be potentially the best professional opponent of Golovkin’s career.
The same can’t be said for Gonzalez (46-0, 38 KO), who now holds the WBC belt at 115 lbs. That doesn’t mean he isn’t in tough. Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (41-4-1, 38 KO) is the former WBC beltholder and has lost only once since starting his career 1-3-1 with two stoppage losses. Like a lot of Thai fighters, his activity level inflates his resume but he knocked out a solid titlist for his title in 2013 (Yota Sato) and, while clearly behind, was still well in a competitive fight with Carlos Cuadras when a cut sent them to the cards early.
The Cuadras loss is the only setback for Sor Rungvisai since those early stumbles. We at least know he hangs well with the top of the class. He’s got power, stamina, and has waited almost three years for a chance to regain the title. He is also the elder statesman in terms of the top of the current Jr. Bantamweight class, even at only 30 years of age.
It’s part of what makes it such an attractive field.
Most of its top talents are in their prime and not yet 30 right now. Cuadras, who will also fight on the Golovkin undercard, is 28. Former unified flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada is 26, WBO titlist Naoya Inoue is 23, IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas is 25, and WBA titlist Khalid Yafai is 27.
The four beltholders in the class, which has no lineal king as yet, are a combined 105-1-1 with 79 knockouts. The most current TBRB top ten for the division is 285-21-7 with 209 knockouts, features 8 current or former titlists, and does not have enough room left over for former flyweight titlist Johnriel Casimero (23-3, 15 KO), former Jr. bantamweight titlist McJoe Arroyo (17-1, 8 KO), or a promising rising talent like Rex Tso (21-0, 13 KO).
There is too much talent around for the division not to ignite and the Gonzalez-Cuadras war last September was a hint of what’s possible. For fans of the lower weight divisions, or any division in boxing generally, the thrill of the possibilities and permutations available is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen all that often.
It hasn’t kicked into full gear yet. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of what usually happens in boxing. Guys are jockeying for position, waiting for chances to secure mandatories, and not taking a ton of risks while they wait. When four belts are around, the economic incentive lies in patience over panache.
And more than belts, there is a single eye of the storm that many in the class are pointed towards. Gonzalez isn’t just the top name in the class and its most accomplished competitor, a titlist in four weight classes who has already secured a spot in the Hall of Fame one day. He’s also seen in many corners as the pound-for-pound king. In the game of perception, a win over Gonzalez right now is bigger than any win in the lowest weight classes in at least a generation if not more.
For Gonzalez, that narrows the needle he will have to thread if he hopes to extend his undefeated mark. There appear few easy nights on his horizon and he’s got a tougher road than most of his potential challengers. Sor Rungvisai is a legitimate mandatory, a fighter with a chance to win this weekend. He probably won’t, but this wouldn’t be any sort of Douglas-Tyson sort of upset.
If he wins, and elects to remain at Jr. bantamweight, the WBC has already said that the victor Saturday must fight a rematch with Cuadras. After that, Estrada has now secured a minor WBC belt that likely makes him the next mandatory after that.
While Gonzalez could be looking at a string of Cuadras, Sor Rungvisai, Cuadras, and Estrada, all assuming he doesn’t request an exception to unify with someone like Inoue in between, the field isn’t facing nearly the same obstacles.
Sor Rungvisai enters with fourteen straight wins but many have come against fighters with losing records and none were remotely contenders in the class. Cuadras is active this weekend with veteran David Carmona (20-3-5, 8 KO), a durable guy without much power who lasted the rout with Inoue but has still been mostly routed against better foes. Estrada, recovering from an injury for over a year and through most of 2016, hasn’t faced a TBRB or Ring rated contender in any class since defeating Giovani Segura in September 2014. Inoue, who has also dealt with injuries, has been matched judiciously since a Fighter of the Year worthy 2014.
As Gonzalez faces these foes with the progressive mileage of his encounters added to his odometer, they all get the benefit of what can be a challenger’s advantage when a division is genuinely stacked in the modern era. The champion, or at least most sought after name in the case where others hold belts, takes the lumps while they stay as fresh as they can and lie in wait.
There is nothing wrong if that’s how it unfolds. When you’re the guy asking for top dollar, the guy with the audience’s attention, the guy with the big network backing you, the burden is higher. It’s always been like that for the rainmaker in a given class.
Fans might have been interested in how a Hector Camacho-Pernell Whitaker fight would have gone down, but they would have been far more disappointed if neither had ever fought Julio Cesar Chavez. Oscar De La Hoya fought Shane Mosley, Ike Quartey, and Felix Trinidad when they were all undefeated. We never saw what they looked against each other. Fans will live without a possibly good fight more so than they will live without seeing the top threats face the biggest star.
Fans will be fine if they see Gonzalez against many of the men named here even if that means they see less of everyone else against each other. It will stay that way as long as Gonzalez is undefeated and in the division. If Gonzalez tries to take lesser lights and avoid the names, the outcry will be loud (relative to his weight class anyways).
Could that mean the best thing that could happen for this era at Jr. bantamweight is a Gonzalez loss in the near future? We may find that out. Cuadras pushed Gonzalez to the edge last year and it’s not going to get easier. Even if he wins this weekend, and that is no guarantee, he could still lose a rematch to a Cuadras or Estrada. He could lose a showdown with Inoue.
If, or when, that happens, the heat could really turn up. When the bullseye expands, the burdens will shift. Fights like Cuadras-Estrada or Gonzalez pursuing revenge become the evolution of the narrative. Suddenly it will be the man who beat Gonzalez holding back the tide.
This cast won’t stay contained to 115 lbs. either. Cuadras and Inoue are both likely to be at bantamweight sooner than later. Gonzalez could always move up in search of a fifth title before someone hangs that first loss on him. That could add someone like undefeated WBC bantamweight champion Shinsuke Yamanaka to the mix.
So enjoy this Saturday for what it is but don’t be afraid to think about what might be around the corner. The fun might just be getting started.
Fun for everyone except the one with the target on their back.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]