He didn’t protest; what little resistance he managed through the previous half-hour—even that was beyond him now. For seven rounds his body betrayed him, whipped mercilessly along the way by an attendant tormentor, one whose youthful physicality made starker the contrast between what the older fighter had been and what he had become. Those thirty-five years, so many made longer by a cruel profession. Here, with the ring shrinking around him, before a crowd emptying its lungs in an anticipatory roar, he was reduced to histrionics. Here he revealed something new, something uncharacteristically human, as out of place in his bearing as it is in defeat: relief. No more abuse, no more futility, not against this opponent, not before this crowd, not on this night at least. No more. So went the Rat King.
Where you end, I begin
The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison
Where you end, I begin
Where you end, I begin
Where you end, I begin again
I begin again
—“Sans Soleil,” Alexisonfire
Some of what transpired in the super flyweight fight between Jesse Rodriguez and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai is attributable to youth (and the lack thereof). Not enough to diminish what Rodriguez, who stopped Sor Rungvisai in eight rounds at the Tech Port Arena in San Antonio Saturday, accomplished, but enough that ignoring its role would be dishonest. Youth manifested most strikingly in something best understood as freshness. Rodriguez, twenty-two years old, with only fifteen fights before last night, fought with an emboldening ignorance. He does not yet appreciate the price of a lifetime in a blood sport. Oh, he has given everything in his young life to boxing—obvious talent aside, no one achieves the precocity Rodriguez displayed against Sor Rungvisai without sacrificing all for a dream. Boxing has repaid Rodriguez in kind. It has yet to collect, however: it has yet to take more of the young fighter than he has willfully, earnestly given it. But it will. Fighting may be his bliss for Rodriguez; nevertheless, a time will come when today’s passion becomes tomorrow’s labor when the rituals of preparation become burdensome, when the outlay of his career spoils just enough of the regimen that once brought joy in and of itself. Then work will make Rodriguez weary, his freshness will evaporate, and he will understand both Sor Rungvisai and his domination of him in a new way.
This rancor of the lower divisions, a concussionista whose intentions reflect his disdain for the jab—what did he tell himself in those minute reprieves from a protracted beating? Could Sor Rungvisai identify flashes of success, punches that didn’t just land but altered the behavior, the resolve, and bearing of his opponent? Because such signs were almost imperceptible at a vantage point beyond the ropes. Rodriguez did what no one has done to Sor Rungivsai: he made him look small, even weak. A win over Sor Rungvisai, who had shown increasing wear of late? That was certainly possible, especially for Rodriguez, a Texan fighting in his hometown. But a one-sided drubbing? Who envisioned that?
World-class fighters can make Sor Rungvisai appear rudimentary—until his punches start landing, and the craft underlying his boorish assault becomes undeniable. But “Bam” did more than that. He might have kept Sor Rungvisai at the end of his jab and hammered him with left hands—that alone would have been a winning strategy for a fighter with his advantages. Instead, he used remarkable footwork to find angles on the plodding Sor Rungvisai and blasted him with the unexpected and unseen. You can beat Sor Rungvisai by boxing him, but you cannot discourage him that way. Rodriguez didn’t just discourage this fading bully: he broke him, reducing Sor Rungivsai’s preternatural toughness from means to victory to requirement for survival. By the eighth round, it was neither.
In recent years, what separated the best super flyweights in the world could be tallied (correctly or otherwise) on a handful of scorecards. Juan Francisco Estrada, Roman Gonzalez, and Sor Rungvisai ruled as a triumvirate. Estrada managed what Gonzalez could not: a win over Sor Rungvisai. The victim of bogus losses to Estrada and Sor Rungvisai, Gonzalez was indeed iced by the latter in their 2017 rematch. Sor Rungvisai cemented his claim to the throne by beating Estrada after stopping Gonzalez, only to lose a rematch to Estrada fourteen months later. Amongst the three, style seemed the determining factor: the puncher could handle the pressure fighter but not the boxer, who struggled with the pressure fighter.
With Rodriguez’s arrival, what matters is not who once reigned supreme but what each fighter sacrificed in pursuing that distinction. Estrada is thirty-two years old, with forty-five fights; he tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this year. Gonzalez is thirty-five, fifty-four fights into a seventeen-year career. And Sor Rungvisai, the most fearsome of the three, Rodriguez handed him the kind of beating that prompts talk of retirement. If the old guard intended to get to Rodriguez before he was ready, that time has passed: it never existed, so quickly did Rodriguez jump into the title mix. Rodriguez, whose brother, Joshua Franco, could face Estrada in August, has hinted at a return to flyweight, a baffling move in the aftermath of Saturday. Fraternal considerations aside, Rodriguez represents the reckoning for an aging division, and that reckoning always comes.
Whatever ill will Sor Rungivisai garnered in handing Gonzalez his first defeat, what animosity was born of that baffling decision was erased in the rematch. Because there was no disputing the victor that night, not with Gonzalez folded peacefully on the canvas, brought belligerently to a still silence. That night overproof violence—not faulty math—made mortal the Nicaraguan legend. There has been no finer victory since. Likewise, Rodriguez, who may scalp an icon or three before he finishes at super flyweight could meet some hostility for destroying the past. But if Saturday portended more than results, if it revealed how Rodriguez will ratify himself at the expense of his elders, everyone will embrace the future.