By Cliff Rold
Competition can be contagious.
It takes the right circumstances.
A truly loaded division is often the right circumstance. When a division has only one or two avenues to a payday, or holding a single belt is the only way to get paid, matters slow to a crawl. Supporting casts can get risk averse waiting for a chance to cash in or playing for a sole mandatory. That can be boxing at its least fun.
When things are bursting at the seams, when there is almost too much talent to go around, we see fighters daring each other and creating a rising tide of excitement and purses.
In the lowest weight divisions, even a depth of talent doesn’t promise consistent matchmaking. It boils down as much to geography as money. For instance, for well over a year between 2005 and 2006 the WBC had Thailand’s Pongsaklek Wonjongkam as its titlist and Mexico’s Jorge Arce as their interim titlist.
They never fought.
Part of that could be chalked up to the WBC being happy to collect two sanctioning fees in a division where typically fees, like the fighters, are smaller. Part of it could be chalked up to fans in Thailand and Mexico not really caring if they saw the match. It’s part of the culture of a flyweight division that went some four decades without a unification bout after the titles started to splinter.
Jr. bantamweight or, in keeping with this weekend’s big HBO card at 115 lbs., super flyweight, has had more fortune in that regard. The first unification bout was supposed to pit Japan’s Jiro Watanabe (WBA) against Thailand’s Payao Poontarat (WBC) in 1984. It was announced, before and after the fight in the ring, as if unification was taking place but that didn’t really occur. The WBA refused sanction.
Unification officially happened 13 years later when Johnny Tapia (WBO) and Danny Romero (IBF) aligned their shared local market (New Mexico) with the possibility of high dollars and an HBO main event. In between, a lot of excellent fighters came and went. The men with belts never squared off. That meant while Thailand’s Khaosai Galaxy was building a Hall of Fame reign with the WBA strap from 1984-92, he never faced off against the WBC beltholders like Watanabe, Gilberto Roman, Santos Laciar.
For aficionados of the lower weight divisions, that’s a tragedy. There weren’t enough of them in the right places to make anyone else care at the time.
It took the right alignment of the stars to bring most of the division together a decade ago. That was the last time we saw this much activity and excitement concentrated at 115 lbs. In the first decade of the 2000s, a collection that included Martin Castillo, Katsushige Kawashima, Alexander Munoz, Cristian Mijares, Arce, and Vic Darchinyan had a series of intersections ultimately leading to a unification of the WBC, WBA, and IBF belts when Darchinyan knocked out Mijares in 2008.
What we’re seeing unfold right now at super flyweight may or may not see that many belts end up on one man. Ultimately, we may get an even better era out of the weight class. This Saturday on HBO (10:15 PM EST), we’ll see two title fights and three critical matches in the division.
In the televised opener, 27-year old former unified WBA/WBO flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada (35-2, 25 KO) will face former WBC super flyweight titlist Carlos Cuadras (36-1-1, 27 KO).
In the semi-main, 24-year old WBO titlist and former WBC light flyweight titlist Naoya Inoue (13-0, 11 KO), already 8-0 in title fights with seven stops and wins in his career over four current or former champions, makes his US debut against 30-year old Antonio Nieves (17-1-2, 9 KO).
Finally, in the main event, 30-year old former four-division and lineal flyweight champion Roman Gonzalez (46-1, 38 KO) will try to avenge his first loss and regain the WBC super flyweight crown from 30-year old two-time title holder Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (43-4-1, 39 KO).
It’s a lot to look forward to in one night and a clear sign of just how contagious competition is getting. Not only have the stars and dollars aligned. The map has as well. Thailand (Sor Rungvisai), Japan (Inoue), Nicaragua (Gonzalez), Mexico (Estrada and Cuadras), and the United States (Nieves) all have a stake in the game this weekend. With the investment HBO is making in this card, and in Gonzalez since 2015, the game extends farther than a single Saturday.
“Superfly” isn’t just a great card. It is the climax of the first wave in what could be a round robin on par with the series of wars at 122 lbs. HBO’s Boxing After Dark set off in the mid-1990s. This cast of characters has already begun building a treasure trove fights in recent years.
Gonzalez defeated Estrada at 108 lbs. in 2012, defeated Cuadras last year, and lost a controversial call to Sor Rungvisai earlier this year. Cuadras won the WBC belt he ultimately lost to Gonzalez in 2014. He won it from Sor Rungvisai in a fight heating up when a cut sent it to the cards early.
All of the fights mentioned featuring Gonzalez were fight of the year contenders. Cuadras-Sor Rungvisai was plenty good in its own right. Both Gonzalez-Sor Rungvisai II and Cuadras-Estrada are expected to deliver more quality violence this weekend and will be the fifth and sixth fights in this growing multi-man rivalry.
Consider this: all the names that could be discussed in this weight class aren’t in action this weekend. The top four, and including an Estrada arguably five though he’s proved less in the division, are and that’s a hell of a place to start.
115 lbs. is one of the few classes in boxing that has a top ten that really runs ten deep.
Until Saturday, most of the attention of fans will be on who will win the fights at hand. Here, the fun is had in wondering about some of the potential possibilities when the SuperFly dust settles.
What are those possibilities?
Gonzalez-Sor Rungvisai III: Let’s say Gonzalez wins but in a fashion that leaves the sort of debate his loss to Sor Rungvisai did earlier this year. In other words, what if Gonzalez were to benefit from a controversial decision? Could the WBC push for a third fight between the two to settle matters once and for all? If the sequel were as good as the original, would anyone mind seeing it again? Considering the classic quality of their first fight, this isn’t an impossible outcome.
Conversely, Gonzalez could defeat Sor Rungvisai in a way that affirms the feeling most had about the first decision. If he does, he’ll be a once beaten fighter who still carries an undefeated air and maintain central position as the straw stirring the drink. Then he’ll have a decision to make. The WBC says he must face the winner of Cuadras-Estrada. Either way, we would get a rematch.
Gonzalez-Cuadras/Estrada II: For years, hardcore fights fans wanted to see Gonzalez-Estrada II. Their first fight was fantastic and Estrada was the only man to really push Gonzalez…until Cuadras came along in 2016. Cuadras came up a little short but did even better against Gonzalez than Estrada had in 2012. Gonzalez fought through swelling eyes to outwill Cuadras in a classic. No matter who wins Cuadras-Estrada, rematches with both remain compelling for Gonzalez. It’s a matter of finding out who can get there first.
Could someone blow by them in line?
Gonzalez-Inoue: If there were someone, it would be Inoue. Since Inoue burst on the scene winning titles in two divisions in 2014, a showdown with Gonzalez has felt to some like the destination of their time. For this fight to happen next, a victorious Gonzalez would likely either have to pay a step aside fee to the Cuadras-Estrada winner or give up the WBC belt to make the fight happen. There is a feeling Inoue could outgrow the division sooner than later so the urge to go straight to Gonzalez-Inoue might be a factor after Saturday.
This fight could get easier to make if Cuadras-Estrada doesn’t produce a winner. In the off chance of a draw, could we be staring at Inoue-Gonzalez paired with a Cuadras-Estrada rematch?
SuperFly II: SuperFlyer!
A fight with Inoue could even happen if Gonzalez lost again this weekend. A Gonzalez loss would also open the door for…
Sor Rungvisai-Cuadras II, Sor Rungvisai-Estrada, or Sor Rungvisai-Inoue: Any of these would be compelling matches and the first two could happen if Sor Rungivsai wins or draws with Gonzalez this weekend. Sor Rungvisai was losing to Cuadras in their fight but he hurt the Mexican badly to the body at one point and was in pursuit. Cuadras probably had enough to box his way to the finish with just four rounds to go but we’ll never know. A rematch would be a bigger affair than the first for sure. Estrada against Sor Rungvisai would be a chance at revenge by proxy. Estrada has yet to get Gonzalez in the ring again. What if he could beat the man who beat him instead?
Turning again to a draw between Cuadras and Estrada, if that happens could we see Inoue-Sor Rungvisai as the first unification bout of this super flyweight wave? It would be a fascinating match of powerful punchers.
In a scenario where Cuadras-Estrada has a winner who fulfills the WBC mandate, Inoue might also find competition from another name on the card this weekend.
Inoue-Viloria: Former 36-year old Jr. flyweight and unified flyweight titlist Brian Viloria (37-5, 22 KO) of Hawaii is making his second start since a loss to Gonzalez in 2015 on the untelevised undercard. Inoue-Viloria is the sort of young lion/old name showdown that could help build the Inoue brand no matter what else happens this weekend. If he can’t get a unification match with the WBC title winner right away, and both of the defeated men in the other fights are licking their wounds, Inoue-Viloria might make a nice doubleheader with the pairing of the other two winners this Saturday.
What if Inoue found a different road to unification after Saturday while waiting for the WBC title situation to shake out? For fans, that could be the best-case scenario. While not on the card this weekend, two more tigers in the 115 lb. jungle bear mention. 28-year old WBA titlist Khalid Yafai (22-0, 14 KO) of the UK and 25-year old IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas (27-1-1, 18 KO) of the Philippines are talented, fresh, and exciting.
If the contagion of competition continues to spread, it’s only a matter of time before one or the other starts demanding to be inserted into this mix. There’s too much action, and potential cash, to be ignored.
Could that be as soon as Inoue’s next fight?
What if the least considered possibility occurs this weekend?
What if Nieves upsets Inoue?
Well, if that happens one can almost guarantee we’re going to see the Sor Rungvisai-Gonzalez II winner against the Cuadras-Estrada winner, maybe a Nieves-Inoue rematch, and still plenty of options to consider. To be sure, some variation of matches coming out of this Saturday has been missed.
Somewhere down the road, this can all be done again as we piece out where next the action might lead. For now all avenues lead to this Saturday in Southern California.
It’s nice to know it’s not a final stop and there is no cure for this contagion in sight.
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]