In the 1980's and early 1990's we had some legendary Super Flyweights including Jiro Watanabe, Gilberto Roman, Khaosai Galaxy and Sung Kil Moon. Sadly when Galaxy retired the WBA title was left vacant and a new champion needed to be crowned. To find a new champion the WBA matched up two of the best fighters in the division in what turned out to be a hugely controversial bout on April 1992. It was controversial but a truly fantastic bout, that now, almost 30 years later, is often forgotten.
Katsuya Onizuka (18-0, 16) vs Thanomsak Sithbaobay (37-2, 21) I
To crown the new champion, the man to replace the legendary Khaosai Galaxy, the WBA matched up experienced Thai Thanomsak Sithbaobay, the then #2 ranked WBA fighter, with Japan's Katsuya Onizuka, the then #1 ranked fighter. The bout made sense, it looked great on paper and was another chapter in the long running Japan Vs Thailand rivalry.
Although not well remembered now Thanomsak was a legitimately brilliant Super Flyweight. Heading into this bout he had lost only twice, a split decision in Japan to Kenji Matsumura, in 1987, in an OPBF Flyweight title bout and a thin decision in a WBA Bantamweight title bout to Luisito Espinosa in 1990. He had been a former OPBF Flyweight champion, and had beaten the likes of Soon Jung Kang, Frank Cedeno, Torsak Pongsupa and Choo Woon Park. He was a talented all rounder, who could box, bang, fight and brawl, and a man who had earned Onizuka's respect when Onizuka had gone to Thailand and seen him training. He was regarded as the Thai successor to Khaosai Galaxy, and their next champion.
As for Onizuka he was a former Japanese champion who had ended the lengthy domestic reign of Shunichi Nakajima but was stepping up beyond domestic class for the first time. He had impressed, mightily, on the Japanese scene, whilst building a huge fan following. He was fun to watch, a very heavy handed boxer-puncher, with charisma and good looks, able to attract more than just the boxing fans to his fights. He was an anointed one, who was regarded as Japan's next big thing, and their first champion at the weight since the legendary Jiro Watanabe back in the mid-1980's. Onizuka was to Watanabe what Thanomsak was to Khaosai Galaxy, making this a proxy version of the bout we never got.
For those in South East Asia this was something to get excited about. Really excited about.
From the opening seconds it was clear that both men felt confident of their abilities and both began behind their jabs, looking for control of center ring and the ability to guide their opponents where they wanted them. The winner of the battle of the jabs was Thanomsak who's jab seemed stiffer than Onizuka's and it seemed he was also landing it cleaner, backing Onizuka on to the ropes mid way through the round. To his credit Onizuka fought well off the ropes, but he took some solid body shots from the Thai whilst there. The second round was much like the first, with both men battling for center ring, and the Thai getting the advantage, despite some good moments from Onizuka. By the mid way point of round 2 it was clear we were getting something a little bit special, with each guy responding to being hit with combinations of their own. Despite some amazing back and forth action it seemed, once again, like the Thai did more than enough to take it, especially with his stellar combinations and more consistent offensive work.
Realising that Thanomsak was stronger than her was Onizuka seemed to change tactics in round 3. He had given up trying to take center ring and was instead going to use the outside of the ring, fighting off the ropes. He did need to change things but it wasn't a tactic that had immediate success, instead it seemed to allow the Thai to walk in and unleash with him on the ropes. Although the success for Onizuka wasn't immediate he did have some great moments fighting off the ropes, and tucked up well when the Thai was unloading. By the end of the round Onizuka was bloodied from the nose and, seemingly, down on all 3 cards. He had had moments but was being out worked.
The pace and tempo continued to be red hot in round 4 as Thanomsak continued pressing the pace and forcing Onizuka on to the ropes. This time around however Onizuka began to have consistent success off the ropes, moving well, and landing clean. Thanomsak on the other hand seemed to slow, he still had moments of great success, but they were less consistent than they had been in the first 3 rounds. The Thai was certainly slowing down, though it was unclear if it was due to his work rate or a choice, as he still seemed to be controlling things and stepping up the pace in exciting bursts.
In round 5 we again saw Thanomsak slowing slightly. He continued to pick moments to strike, and when he let his hands go he looked sensational, but the tempo was dropping from him. Then again we weren't seeing Onizuka make him pay, instead we were seeing the Japanese local have his face smeared with his own blood, backing off, and moving without letting his hands go. It was hard, if not impossible, to have given Onizuka any of the first 5 rounds, putting him in a hole, bloodied and looking like a man who had to turn things around, and quickly.
Sadly for Onizuka things didn't really seem to improve much in round 6, at least not early in the round. He did however have some good success in the middle of the round, when he began to get off the ropes and work with some space. It wasn't a clear round for him, or anything like that, but it seemed, at last, that he was starting to put some moments together, landing some solid shots and getting Thanomsak's respect. That continued in round 7, as the Thai continued to slow, feeling the pace of his brilliant start, and Onizuka began to back him up. The tables were beginning to turn and Onizuka was on the charge at last, though he was still in a deep, deep hole.
After a very good round for Onizuka he seemed to fail to build his success, and round 8 was a much closer one. Thanomsak didn't seem to suddenly have a second wind, but it seemed like Onizuka just failed to keep his foot on the gas. The local may have done enough to take the round, but it certainly wasn't a clear cut one, and it was far too close for comfort, given how clearly he had lost the first half of the bout. Round 9 was another where it seemed like Onizuka should have put his foot hard on the gas, but he couldn't and Thanomsak managed to have enough moments to keep things very close through the round. The aggression, pressure and combinations were gone from the Thai's work, but he was boxing smartly, jabbing, moving, making Onizuka miss and relying on the basics of the sport. It was a round that the Thai seemed to win, but simply keeping things simple, and re-opening a cut on Onizuka's left eye.
By now it seemed like Onizuka had 3 rounds to at least drop the Thai. Sadly for him he was looking too tired to press forward, and despite some fantastic flashes he was consistently out boxed through the round by an exhausted looking Thanomsak, who again kept things very simply, using his jab and his footwork to keep Onizuka at range.
After a few quieter rounds we saw Onizuka rush off his stool to begin round 11. The penny seemed to drop, at last, that he had to turn it on, put his foot on the gas and go for it. This lead to a truly brilliant round as both men sucked it up, dug deep and let their shots go. This was much more like the action from the early rounds, though it was Onizuka who was beginning to hammer away at his foe. Thanomsak came back but overall it was a round for the local, a clear round for him, and one he seriously needed.
With Onizuka having had a very good round 11 it seemed like he was going to end the bout hot, coming out hot for round 12. That however didn't really happen, and it was Thanomsak out worked his man in the final round, letting his shots go, catching Onizuka clean with head shots, unleashing flashy combinations. Onizuka certainly had moments, but nowhere near the amount we had expected from him, or the amount he needed. Going in to the round it seemed he was quite some distance behind, winning the round wouldn't have changed things, he needed to go out and try to stop the Thai.
After the bell Thanomsak celebrated, raising his hands. It seemed he was going to reclaim the title for Thailand, and take back the belt Khaosai Galaxy had vacated, Onizuka on the other hand walked back to his corner looking dejected. Like a beaten man. He seemed resigned to knowing his unbeaten record was gone, his title shot had ended with disappointment and that he had a lot of work to do to become a champion.
Then the result came in, and to everyone's surprise Onizuka was announced as the winner. Whilst his team, and the crowd celebrated he looked unhappy, as if he knew he hadn't won. The Thai looked genuinely disgusted at the result.
Whilst many of the fans had cheered the result, and Onizuka, there was a solid number who were angry about the outcome, describing it as a "Kyoei decision", blaming Onizuka's promoter. With scores of 115-114, twice, and 116-114 all in his favour the Japanese fighter had gotten the win courtesy of a 10-10 round on two cards, and two of them on the third.
Some of those in the venue told Thanomsak what they had thought, telling him that he should have been the champion. That he should have got the decision.
Around 19 months later the two men rematched, and once against Onizuka got a close decision. He would go unbeaten until September 1994, when he was finally dethroned by Hyung Chul Lee, and then retired due to an eye issue. As for Thanomsak he became a member of the "who needs him club?" after the second bout with Onizuka. He fought through to 1996, losing to Sirimongkol Singwancha, before a 1 fight return to the ring in 1998, which he lost. In the end Thanomsak would retire having never won a world title, and is regarded as one of the best Thai's to have never claimed a belt at the very highest level of the sport.
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features