By Cliff Rold
More name and reputation than reality for many of the fight fans taking their boxing news in English, it was still jarring to read the result. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam had been the most consistent force in the Flyweight division for more than a decade. He wasn’t supposed to lose to journeyman Sonny Boy Jaro.
But he did. Badly.
Eventually, they all lose badly to someone if they stick around long enough. The most accomplished Thai battler of his generation, Wonjongkam was pushed into the dark part of his career twilight. The shadow of defeat looms large and debate begins about how to regard the overall picture of his ring tenure even with the, probably slim, possibility that there may yet be more chapters written.
In the wake of the brutal end of his second reign, the question is posed:
How good is Wonjongkam, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: August 11, 1977
Hailed From: Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Turned Professional: December 21, 1994 (KO3 Bernardo Jun Davalos)
Record: 83-4-2, 45 KO, 2 KOBY (to date)
Record in Major Title Fights (Including Lineal Title Fights): 22-2-2, 7 KO, 1 KOBY; 24-2-2, 8 KO, 1 KOBY including interim title fights
Titles: Lineal World/WBC Flyweight (2001-07, 17 Defenses; 2010-12, 4 Defenses)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 3 (Malcolm Tunacao TKO1, Daisuke Naito KO1/Tech. Dec. 7, Koki Kameda MD12)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 2
(Daisuke Naitio UD12/D12, Sonny Boy Jaro TKO6)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 6 (Luis Lazarte TKO2, Gilberto Keb Baas UD12, Tomonobu Shimizu RTD7, Julio Cesar Miranda UD12, Suriyan Sur Rungvisai UD12, Edgar Sosa UD12)
After losing two of his first eleven contests, the second by knockout in 1996, Wonjongkam began a streak of 29 straight victories to earn his first major title shot. With three blazing knockdowns, Wonjongkam captured the WBC belt and lineal World Flyweight Championship honors against Malcolm Tunacao on March 2, 2001.
In his fourth title defense, he scored the fastest knockout ever in a Flyweight title fight. A single left hand against challenger Daisuke Naito ended the night just 34 seconds into the fight.
By 2006, he was hot on the heels of Hall of Famer and former lineal king Miguel Canto. During a WBC title reign that stretched from 1975-79, Canto made a record 14 consecutive defenses of the crown. Wonjongkam tied the mark on May 1, 2006, with unanimous decision over Daigo Nakahiro. He surpassed it on June 30 of the same year with a fourth round stoppage of Everado Morales.
Ultimately, Wonjongkam would set the record at seventeen defenses.
A then-shocking upset loss to Naito on July 18, 2007, ended the record run. A fourth battle between the two on March 8, 2008, ended in a draw. When no fifth fight came to fruition, it appeared Wonjongkam’s time as a champion was closed.
He stayed active and racked up seven wins to get another crack at the crown. Naito lost the crown to Koki Kameda. On March 27, 2010, Wonjongkam regained the crown from Kameda via majority decision.
Wonjongkam made four defenses in his second reign before falling to Jaro on March 2, 2012, eleven years to the day after his first title win.
Given the large number of non-title fights Wonjongkam has taken to date in his career, there has been healthy criticism of the competition he faced. The volume of paycheck wins and glorified exhibitions can be misunderstood. Not all champions make high six and seven figures for every appearance. There is more than his fair share of quality in what stands at 83 wins to date even if the record is padded.
While coming up the ranks, Wonjongkam handed then-undefeated future multiple time Jr. Flyweight title challenger Juanito Rubillar his first loss with a fourth round stoppage in 1996. He also scored an impressive first round stoppage of future title challenger Mzukisi Sikali in 1997. Sikali would later twice defeat the tough “Hawk” Makepula before falling short in a title attempt against Vic Darchinyan. Both of Wonjongkam’s early losses came at the hands of Filipino journeyman Jerry Pahayahay, finally avenged with a decision in 1998.
His first title win, against Tunacao, came two fights after Tunacao had defeated Medgoen Singsurat for the crown. Singsurat is most famous for winning his crown from a young Manny Pacquiao. Tunacao has lost only once in the years since and is competing today at Bantamweight.
Wonjongkam’s reign started strong with knockouts in three of his first four defenses. He stopped future Jr. Flyweight titlist Luis Lazarte in two rounds in December 2001, a stiff single shot dropping the Argentine and rocking him hard enough that, despite beating the count, his corner threw in the towel. He was the only man to stop Lazarte until 2012. The previously noted knockout of Naito came in 2002; Wonjongkam added a lopsided technical decision win in seven rounds in October 2005.
Dominant decisions over quality contenders Hidenobu Honda (2002) and a then-undefeated Hussein Hussein (2003) built his credentials as a titlist. Hussein is best remembered by U.S. fans for an epic, if losing, war with Jorge Arce on the undercard of Erik Morales-Manny Pacquiao I. Trash Nakanuma (2004) split fights in his career with future titlist Takefumi Sakata. Nakanuma also split fights with eventual Wonjongkam challenger Noriyuki Komatsu. Wonjongkam stopped Komatsu in five in 2005.
In 2006, he scored a decision over future Jr. Flyweight titlist Gilberto Keb Baas. In his final successful defense of the first reign in 2007, Wonjongkam stopped future Jr. Bantamweight titlist Tomonobu Shimizu.
Naito proved his worth over the course of their full series and gave Wonjongkam a thrilling rival in their third and fourth fights. On the road to regaining the crown, Wonjongkam scored a 2009 decision over a Julio Cesar Miranda. Miranda went on to capture the WBO Flyweight belt the following year.
Kameda was undefeated when Wonjongkam defeated him for his second crown, and had previously held a WBA belt at 108 lbs. Kameda has since gone on to win a WBA belt at Bantamweight. Wonjongkam defended successfully against Suriyan Sur Rungvisai in October 2010. Sur Rungvisai gave Wonjongkam a tough fight and went on to win the WBC title at 115 lbs. in 2011.
Wonjongakm’s last notable win, as of this writing, came in an eagerly anticipated showdown with WBC mandatory and former longtime Jr. Flyweight titlist Edgar Sosa. Wonjongkam won a classy decision over Sosa on October 21, 2011.
Altogether, he defeated nine men who had or would hold belts from Jr. Flyweight to Bantamweight.
Competition Not Faced
As is always pointed out in this series, this section is concerned solely with who was not faced. Why is not the issue. For Wonjongkam, the ‘who’ is a doozy.
Beginning on March 02, 2001, the day Wonjongkam won his first Flyweight title, and continuing on to March 02, 2012, the day he lost his second, the following are the 112 lb. titlists Wonjongkam did not face:
• Irene Pacheco (IBF, 4/10/99-12/16/04)
• Eric Morel (WBA, 8/5/00-12/06/2003)
• Fernando Montiel (WBO, 12/15/00-09/18/01; vacated)
• Adonis Rivas (WBO, 5/4/02-7/13/02)
• Omar Narvaez (WBO, 07/13/02-05/2010; vacated)
• Lorenzo Parra (WBA, 12/6/03-3/18/07)
• Vic Darchinyan (IBF, 12/16/04-7/7/07)
• Takefumi Sakata (WBA, 03/19/07-12/31/08)
• Nonito Donaire (IBF, 7/7/07-Vacated in 2009)
• Moruti Mthalane (IBF, 11/20/09-Present)
• Denkaosan Kaovichit (WBA, 02/07/10-01/04/11)
• Daiki Kameda (WBA, 2/7/10-1/4/11; vacated)
• Luis Concepcion (WBA, 1/4/11-4/2/11)
• Hernan Marquez (WBA, 4/2/11-Present)
• Brian Viloria (WBO, 07/16/11-Present)
Some of these names can be dismissed due to timing. Morel, Rivas, Daiki Kameda, and Concepcion had cups of coffee in the title picture. Marquez and Viloria emerged in his shorter second reign and never had a chance to develop into genuine misses.
They can be replaced with a man who never officially held a title in the class. During a lengthy stretch of Wonjongkam’s first reign, Jorge Arce was the ‘interim’ WBC beltholder. The WBC never forced to two to face off, seemingly content with the double dip of sanctioning fees. There were occasions where the two were rumored to be on course for a fight. It never happened.
The real meat of misses comes in the form of Pacheco, Narvaez, Parra, Darchinyan, and Donaire. Pacheco was already reigning when Wonjongkam arrived and remained in the title picture until 2004. While Wonjongkam’s 17 titles defenses were impressive, Narvaez managed 16 of his own in parallel.
At various times, Parra, Darchinyan, and Donaire all had a strong case for being the best fighter in the division despite Wonjongkam’s consistency. Parra was in the midst of an increasingly impressive run before injuries, weight problems, and long layoffs, sent him off the rails. Darchinyan built a following in the U.S. with a string of beatings and Donaire’s win over Darchinyan gave him the look of a Flyweight beast.
It is fair to say none of these men fought Wonjongkam either. That is a point of evaluation in each of their careers. This examination focuses on the Thai champion and, as a group, they stand as a stinging question mark over all his accomplishments.
Reaction to Adversity
Wonjongkam proved over the years to be a versatile fighter, capable of scoring the big knockout, the brutal prolonged beating, and the skilled decision. While most of his fights were in Thailand, he wasn’t unwilling to fight on the road. Eight of his title fights so far occurred in Japan, six of them title defenses (including three of four fights with Naito). Three of his seven title fight stoppages came on the road.
Wonjongkam was game when challenged. His third fight with Naito was a thriller and he didn’t fade when faced with a challenge few expected him to receive after two previous wins. It took a monumental effort from Naito to lift the crown. Past his best, he boxed beautifully and never let the pressure get to him on the road against Kameda to regain the crown.
While stopped twice in his career, almost sixteen years lapsed between knockout losses. His chin was an asset at his best. In the Jaro loss, he came off the floor early and fought hard in spots, letting his hands go and trying to hang on. The final combination of blows in the upset loss was brutal, Wonjongkam’s legs trying to hold him up. He showed the heart of a champion when called upon and went out like a champion when heart was not enough.
What’s Left to Prove
Now 34 years of age, Wonjongkam has nothing to prove at Flyweight. Those things he could have proved against some of names he missed have already slipped away. He’s past the sell by date for most of the better men in the division’s history.
Could he defeat Jaro in a rematch and add one more accolade to his career? It’s possible. Veterans sometimes summon one last stand before the inevitable becomes permanently unavoidable. 1980s Bantamweight great Jeff Chandler, at a younger age and held in higher esteem than Wonjongkam has ever been, lost a shocking non-title decision to Oscar Muniz in 1983 only to bounce back with a knockout revenge win two fights later. Vengeance against Muniz would ultimately provide Chandler his last victory.
When the little men slip, the fall is often precipitous. Muniz was the beginning of Chandler’s end. Jaro’s win was so violent, so complete, that it wore the look of a stern completion to Wonjongkam’s era at 112 lbs.
Measured Against History
And so it comes around again to the question at the heart of this assessment: how good is Wonjongkam, measured against all time? Is he a certain Hall of Famer? Does his name belong among the genuine greats in Flyweight history?
For the first question, the answer is at least really good. In the ring, Wonjongkam was of quality. At his best, the southpaw boxer-puncher had elite, underrated handspeed, exceptional punching accuracy, and educated feet. A lesser man would have slipped earlier than he did. His consistency was laudable. Given the record for consecutive title defenses in his class, and his regaining the title in his 30s, it’s fair to say Wonjongkam had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Worthy is not the same as certain.
After Kameda, many (including this scribe) began referring to Wonjongkam as a future Hall of Famer. It may eventually be true, but the proclamations might have been premature. Wonjongkam may have been willing to travel but his career was still contested entirely away from U.S. audiences. That matters, even in the age of YouTube, because voting for the modern category of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) is dominated by Americans.
And those voters have been reluctant at times to recognize smaller fighters in general and fighters competing in Asia in particular.
Mark Johnson got into the IBHOF recently without a lot of marquee wins, but he fought in the U.S. Accomplished Jr. Flyweight champions Yoko Gushiken and Myung Wuh Yuh have lingered on the ballot for years without induction. Pone Kingpetch won the Flyweight title three times in the sixties, beating Hall of Fame inductees Pascual Perez and Fighting Harada for his first two titles. He has not been enshrined. Japanese Flyweight Masao Ohba is a regular in historical ratings of the top 10-20 Flyweights of all time.
Ohba is not in the IBHOF.
Possible voting biases are only part of the struggle for long-term recognition Wonjongkam faces. There is also fault to be found in the results of his career. Those faults weigh heavily in judging him against other Flyweight stalwarts and contemporaries across the scale that stuck around at one weight class.
Compare him to another little man who stuck most of his career to a single division. Strawweight great Ricardo Lopez, like Wonjongkam, suffered from lesser competition at times. However, Lopez added WBA and WBO belts late in a lengthy run as WBC champion at 105 lbs. to round out his domination of 105 lbs. In a brief stint at 108 lbs. he added a knockout win over a Ratanapol Sor Vorapin who racked up 20 IBF title defenses at Strawweight in parallel to Lopez.
Unification isn’t the end all, but it says a lot when the men who held belts in parallel to a long reigning titlist strongly outweigh the men he faced as champion. Wonjongkam may have beaten better fighters than he sometimes gets credit for but none were as good as Darchinyan, Parra, and Donaire were during their reigns. Narvaez may also fit that description.
It’s hard to be rated with the best your division has ever had to offer when one doesn’t face the very best of their time and beat them. None of those men were at Flyweight as long as Wonjongkam but, particularly in the case of Darchinyan and Donaire, they went on to accomplish things in other divisions that made missing them at Flyweight even more glaring.
If a fighter is to prove greatness with a career contested in one division, the standard has to be that, at least eventually, he proved to be the true man in his field. Wonjongkam created an assumption at times but never the firm proof that comes through competition. Had he fought in a weaker decade at Flyweight, it might be easier to ignore. The 00’s were not a weak decade and were actually quite deep at 112 lbs.
Maybe he could have defeated some or all of them.
Wonjongkam never got a chance to try, not even once. It’s reasonable to make arguments about the separation of markets, the smaller scale of Flyweight economics, the volume of titles that keeps quality opponents spread thin, and the two generations of Flyweights that haven’t engaged in unification fights at all.
It’s unfair to grant a mulligan when compared to fighters who did find ways to face more of their best peers. The man whose records he bested, Miguel Canto, may have only held one of what were then two major titles. He set his records while missing a significant potential foe during his run in notable WBA titlist Guty Espadas. If Canto had missed Shoji Oguma and Betulio Gonzalez as well as Espadas, he would rightly be downgraded for that in historical measure.
It doesn’t mean Wonjongkam didn’t have a great career. It does mean much more could have been accomplished in defining his place in history. For now he stands at two title reigns, over 20 wins in title fights, and outside the upper pantheon at Flyweight.
That could, someday, be enough for a welcome into Canastota. It’s not enough to be considered an all-time great.
Verdict on Pongsaklek Wonjongkam: Not An All-Time Great but Worthy of Hall Consideration
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series that will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]