By Alexey Sukachev
When a lion is dying, jackals and hyenas are already here, waiting for a fallen king to finally perish in pain. They are too scared to get in, and they are steadily waiting for an inevitable end to come as soon as possible.
A mixed reaction from boxing aficionados about the loss suffered by long-time flyweight ruler Pognsaklek Wonjongkam at a resort province of Chonburi, Thailand implores me to think of hyenas and other scavengers, who are happy about the end of the road for the Lord of the flies.
It is explainable.
People, mostly devoted Pinoy supporters and some hardcore boxing fans around the globe, got tired of Wonjongkam’s reign, filled with questionable level of opposition and some barely legal tune-ups against unknown cannon fodder. The majority in the industry grew tired of this reign. The upset gave us what we have been waiting for so long.
But are we now satisfied? I’m not so sure…
BROWSING THE FIGHT
As it is often the case, the end of the kingship was sudden, and the certain heir to the throne came out of nowhere. Few considered Filipino contender Sonny Boy Jaro to be a serious threat to the champion, even less so could even think of becoming the division’s new leader.
The truth is that Jaro should have never been given the chance to fight Wonjongkam. He has lost ten fights, including a lopsided loss last year to Japanese novice Hirofumi Mukai; a blowout at the hands of super flyweight Oscar Ibarra in ‘10; and one-round blitzing suffered against Giovanni Segura in ‘09.
Jaro has beaten four trialhorses (all by knockout) since back-to-back losses to Mukai and Ibarra. Yet it was enough to get the shot against Wonjongkam – such subpar standards in line with many of the champ’s past opposition – and Jaro made the most of it.
Jaro, ranked #8 by the WBC going into the fight, and his camp treated the fight as if the deck was stacked against them. Aljoe Jaro - Sonny Boy (though no blood relation despite the same surname) told BoxingScene’s Ronnie Nathanielsz: “Our only chance is to win by a knockout”. The same words were heard from the challenger himself before he sat on board for March 2 fight night, which turned out to be the best night of his life so far.
Jaro obviously trained hard and diligently for this chance, including his manager taking over training duties and attempting to improve his problematic defense. Still, Jaro stayed true to form and came out slugging from the opening bell.
Wonjongkam, a tight, stylistically sound southpaw with excellent boxing skills and underestimated timing and sense of urgency, is usually a slow starter. On this night, it played against him and very much in favor of the 29-year old Jaro, who stalked the champ from the opening bell.
The key weapon for Jaro was his right hand, which seemingly couldn’t miss Wonjongkam’s jaw and easily penetrated his guard while fighting out of a crouching guard to present a minimal target in return. The mentality going in was to make Virat Vachirarattanawong – Wonjongkam’s manager and promoter – regret the day he handpicked the Pinoy as an opponent.
Still, some fighting had to be done.
Of his first seven wins, Jaro has six decisions but of his last seven victories all came by the way of knockout, including four in the first round. That speaks for itself – later in his career Jaro evolved into a full-scaled knockout artist. He certainly looked the part early on versus Wonjongkam.
The first knockdown was a courtesy of a left hook. At first glance, it was just a flash knockdown, appearing to be pushed more so than punched. After a brief hesitation, Japanese referee Yuji Fukuchi ruled it a knockdown, much to the chagrin of an already frustrated champion.
Overall, Wonjongkam was largely inactive in the round, although remnants of his past sharpness were still visible as he landed a couple of very nice left hands. The champion slightly turned things around in the second, digging deep to offer some semblance of success and carrying that momentum into a third round that saw him land several combinations and pepper Jaro with his jab.
Still, something was missing.
Jaro never showed any signs of frustration, even laughing at the punches he took flush. It was clear that the challenger was not going to be intimidated, even in the presence of a Hall of Fame-bound champion. Instead, it was Jaro resorting to veteran (read: dirty) tricks, landing low blows that ironically swung the bout back in his favor.
Fans often speak of how things would play out “in a perfect world,” but the truth is Thailand has historically provided such a utopia for its champions. So it came with great surprise that Wonjongkam wasn’t being given the star treatment but instead was forced to contend with the world of pain he was suddenly enduring.
It was no fluke, as the native of Silay City proved in the fourth, attacking Wonjongkam first rather than waiting on the champion to make the first move. The decision was a wise one, as Jaro scored a knockdown courtesy of a combination to the body and head. Wonjongkam rose to his feet but struggled to maintain pace as Jaro continued to land power shots.
Scores of 38-36 in favor of Jaro through four were fair, as was the fifth round going to the defending champion, who offered shades of Wladimir Klitschko rising from repeat knockdowns to otherwise control the action in his first fight with Samuel Peter. Wonjongkam was clearly in command whenever he was able to play defense. It was the moments when he got nailed where he wound up in trouble, as evidenced by two 10-8 round scored against him.
Jaro saw his lead further disintegrate after losing one point in the sixth for what was a borderline low blow. It can be argued that Wonjongkam won the round and thus regained the lead on the scorecards through six, but guess what? It didn’t matter one bit.
Wonjongkam was here for taking and Jaro lived up to his pre-fight promise of a knockout, scoring several telling blows before a final right hand that floored the champ for the third time in the fight. The end was upon us, but the referee failed to recognize as he let the fight continue despite the Thai southpaw being out on his feet.
His blood pumping, Jaro showed the longtime flyweight king no respect, relentlessly wailing away until sending him back to the canvas. This time the referee was wise to the scene, finally stepping into rescue a battered Wonjongkam, who ate too many punches for his own good but survived as long as he did on sheer will.
BROWSING THE WINNER AND NEW CHAMPION…
The new champion should be respected as such but reality is harsh. His record tells us all: 34-10-5 (24KO), which at his age is a record of a journeyman who had his lucky day against the legendary titleholder.
But was it a fluke? Not by any means.
On this particular night, Sonny Boy Jaro was just a better boxer, a better brawler and, at the end of the day, a better fighter than the Thai icon.
It’s a common misconception that a legend can only be taken out by a comparable foe or a young lion he next generation of stars. Jaro is neither of them but it was he and not Koki Kameda or Edgar Sosa who put an end to Pongsaklek’s magical run.
The secret to his success is a simple formula: desire mixed with an attitude of a man in utter despair sometimes leads to a mystical overachievement even for bitter losers and underachievers. Like a wounded tiger deep in jungles, Jaro sensed he has little chance to win something big after losing in one-sided fashion to Mexican champions in a lighter weight class.
At 29, he had little room left for maneuvers but he used the existing space to a max effect. He should be praised for that. An unusual fire in his eyes, determination during the training camp - which included a risky tune-up - and bulldog pressure collectively helped Jaro get the job done.
So, the end of the road for Wonjongkam’s championship reign is a loss to a journeyman. Next in line for Jaro is Toshiyuki Igarashi (15-1-1, 10 KOs) from Japan, a strong southpaw challenger and a former two-time national titleholder. The Filipino’s run can end there, most probably in Tokyo, where Sonny Boy will surely have a hard time dealing with the local-based and domestically supported challenger. But even if successful against Igarashi, Jaro’s vulnerabilities will make him the target of aspiring challengers and fellow titlists, including the aforementioned veteran Sosa, who schooled him to a wide UD in 2008, or fellow countrymen Rocky Fuentes (a hard-nosed veteran with respectable power) and Milan Melindo (a tiny technician with some power too).
It’s hard to imagine Jaro lasting very long on top. Like Leon Spinks, Hasim Rahman or even Barry McGuigan before him, Sonny Boy Jaro stands a greater shot as a one-hit wonder. He is well advised to enjoy his present status and improbable run for as long as it lasts, because it can be very short-lived.
BROWSING THE BOXING HALL OF FAME
Despite the knockout loss, Wonjongkam remains the hero of these reflections.
For many years, the diminutive and modest champion was never given his full props. It was only recently that the hidden Asian treasure received his just due by the boxing community.
Surely, Wonjongkam’s career as a whole is a worthy subject for debate as to whether or not he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Some will snicker at such a thought, while those who’ve followed the entire ride will argue that he’s worthy of a first ballot entry.
The latter is an unrealistic scenario given his location and weight class but in a perfect world…
Imagine a middleweight or a welterweight champion with his credentials, and you will be hard pressed to find anyone to not recognize that same fighter as an all-time great.
Numbers only begin to tell the full story. Wonjongkam first title reign lasted more six years. The only other flyweight to reign longer was Jimmy Wilde, a one-in-a-lifetime product of Welsh boxing.
Wonjongkam managed to surpass the reigns of such honorable champions as Miguel Canto, Pascual Perez, Sot Chitalada and Yuri Arbachakov. All but Chitalada (and including Wilde) either retired or slowly decayed into obscurity and mediocrity following the end of their respective reigns.
Rather than fade into the sunset following his title losing effort to Daisuke Naito in July ‘07, Wonjongkam instead resurrected his career and reclaiming his championship status.
It began with an interim title win over Julio Cesar Miranda in April ’09, but the Thai’s championship credentials were cemented with a majority decision over Koki Kameda nearly one year later. Even dating back to Miranda, the second title reign didn’t even last half as long as Wonjongkam’s first tour as flyweight king, but was every bit as memorable.
All in all, Wonjongkman reigned as a champion for 9 ½ years in an 11-year span from March 2001 to March ’12, averaging four wins per year over that stretch, a rate of activity unheard of in today’s boxing world where its best are lucky to fight twice per year.
During his record-breaking title reign, Wonjongkam set the standard for generations of flyweights to come. His 17 consecutive lineal title defenses is three more than the final result of Canto, adding four more since beating Kameda on the road in Japan, making him one of the most accomplished titleholders in history.
Overall, Wonjongkam was known more as a methodical stylist with uncanny physical abilities and Shoaling-like preservation. That’s not to say he lacked power. His first fight with Naito ended coldly in just 34 seconds in ’02, one the many records Wonjongkam set in a decade-long run at the top, which began with a first-round blowout of the respected champion Malcolm Tunacao.
No one can assess Wonjongkam’s achievements without also responding to two types of controversy, which marred his title runs.
First was the absence of unification bouts. The mid 00’s saw something of a golden age for the flyweight division. Eric Morel, Lorenzo Parra, Vic Darchinyan, Nonito Donaire and Omar Narvaez could have made for a fascinating tournament between boxing’s best little big men.
None of these fights took place, save for Donaire-Darchinyan and Parra-Morel.
Giovanni Segura unified against Ivan Calderon at light flyweight. Darchinyan went onto conquer the super flyweight division. Donaire blitzed a respected champion in Montiel to get ties to the bantams. Yet despite the overflow of talent, the division never managed even a partially unified champion over that stretch. In fact, flyweight remains the only weight class failing to produce a single unified champion for almost fifty years since Salvatorre Burruni was stripped of his title.
The truth is that in the flyweight division, unification bouts aren’t lucrative enough to entice titlists to take such a risk. To unify the belts, several facts should coincide – you should be a marquee fighter, you should possess a crowd-pleasing style of boxing (just remember Carbajal versus Gonzalez trilogy), you need a powerful promoter, and you should be possibly either from the States or Mexico or you must have a strong fan base there.
To add more controversy, Japan, which is a world center of flyweight/bantamweight boxing, recognizes just two of four major sanctioning bodies thus excluding all IBF and WBO possibilities, Fernando Montiel – Hozumi Hasegawa fight being a rare exclusion.
Also adding to the problem, Thailand is one of the most remote outposts of prizefighting. A mixture of local culture and national approach to boxing results in Thai champions being mostly locked inside their own country. Thais are ready to travel at the start of their title reigns, which are often long-lasting. After getting a few defenses under their shields, almost the only way abroad leads to Tokyo.
Otherwise, it’s safer for their handlers to fight mostly nobodies at home for relatively moderate revenue than it is to risk their cash cows against dangerous opposition beyond its borders.
The only Thai champion who dared to risk his regalia in unification outside of his own land was all-time great Khaosai Galaxy, who stopped Elyas Pical to make a virtual link between the WBA and the IBF. However, Pical is Indonesian, the fight taking place in very familiar surroundings of the neighboring country.
One can wonder if a champion really wants to unify. This doesn’t work well with Thais. Local culture was recalled for a reason here. Local combatants, raised in hardships, mostly being from very poor families, don’t usually enjoy the same life as their Western or Japanese counterparts do. What’s more important, they will never rise against their own managers and promoters.
It’s almost impossible for a Thai to come out with a public challenge of the other fighter. Their lot is to train diligently and to bring small money to them and their managers/promoters, not to think about possible challenges or to manage their own careers. Thus even to think about a proven legend like Wonjongkam challenging other fighters and unifying his belt is purely imaginative.
The same plague affected careers of many prominent Thai boxers – Veeraphol Sahaprom, Sot Chitalada, Muangchai Kittikassem, Oleydong Sithsamerchai, Chatchai Sasakul and many others have never ever tried to achieve something bigger than their single titles, despite being talented enough to have presented a strong challenge for any of their respective peers.
The second setback is Pongsaklek’s level of opposition. The reason is the same: Mr. Virat was more about making his small money against safe opponents than to risk his golden egg.
Meanwhile, the level of opposition has much to do with WBC’s questionable approach as a whole. Licensing such human punching bags as Randy Mangubat, Everardo Morales or Luis Angel Martinez to fight for the title is almost a crime screaming to be investigated by certain authorities.
But then there were other challengers, of which the last two years served as a curious sample of their underestimated skills.
Five of Wonjongkam’s previous victims – Luis Alberto Lazarte, Gilberto Keb Baas, Suriyan Sor ungvisai, Tomonobu Shimizu and Julio Cesar Miranda - all became titlists in 2010 and in 201. Kameda, whose only current loss served as the start of the Thai legend’s second title reign, went on to capture the bantamweight title, becoming the only Japanese to win belts in three separate weight classes.
Add to the list the likes of Tunacao, Sosa and Naito, and you have 10 wins for Wonjongkam against past, present or future title holders.
There were also those, who have never become titleholders but who were quite accomplished fighters in their prime when challenging Wonjongkam: Alex Baba, Hidenobu Honda and unbeaten Australian contender Hussein Hussein, who went life and death in his first fight with Jorge Arce in March ’05.
Moreover, Wonjongkam had his defining victories.
One, which separates him from good fighters and makes him at least an outstanding one, is his win over Koki Kameda. The bout was a rare occasion where Wonjongkam was a clear underdog, taking on a bigger, stronger and younger two-division champion on the road, but able to force the action at his own pace while in hostile surroundings.
Another point, which marks him as a bona-fide Hall-of-Famer, is his four-fight rivalry with Naito. The Japanese star was almost completely dominated in their first two fights (his only two losses at the time) but came back very strong later to deal Wonjogkam his only loss and his only draw in a 15-year stretch prior to 2012.
Overall, though, Wonjongkam finished the series at 2-1-1, over a proven capable champion with five title defenses in his 2 ½ title reign.
In the spirit of legends like Bernard Hopkins and Eusebio Pedroza, Wonjongkam isn’t fun to watch but at the end of the day finds a way to win. Whether it was marginal or dominant, by technical decision or with a scary kayo, he won time and time again.
But don’t write him off just yet. In the tradition of past famed Thai champions like Sahaprom and Saman Sorjaturong, Wonjongkam has vowed to fight on. He has already expressed his desire to take a rematch with Jaro.
Where did he go wrong? Maybe his pedestrian level of opposition as of late lulled him into a state of complacency. It’s also entirely possible that he grew old overnight. A fighter’s decline can be as gradual as it is sudden. The writing was on the wall that Wonjongkam was creeping towards the twilight, yet still remained a shock to watch him fall prey to Father Time.
Still, there exists the chance that the Jaro debacle was simply an off night. Like every other champion, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam - still boasting one of the best records in boxing nowadays at 83-4-2 (44KO) - has one more great night of boxing in him.
If he shows one before his retirement, we would be fools to continue to ignore him and his Hall of Fame-worthy achievements.