I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about Thai professional boxing. The only combat athletes from Thailand that I was aware of growing up were Sagat, the scarred upper-cutting master in Street Fighter, and Tung-Po, the murderous villain in Jean Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer. A man so fearsome and ugly he haunted my dreams as a child. My ignorance changed, of course, in 2017 when Sor Rungvisai outpointed and then knocked out future hall-of-famer Roman Gonzalez in back-to-back world title bouts. Srisaket brought the WBC belt and tremendous pride back to his homeland.
Apinun Khongsong, a 24 year old boxer undefeated in 16 contests, will be aiming to replicate that success as he challenges Josh Taylor for unified junior welterweight world titles. It’s an opportunity to transform his life in quite favourable conditions. The challenger is highly motivated with little pressure or expectation. The champion is completely unfamiliar of the opponent’s style, history and character, has an eye on the future while also wrestling recent professional upheaval and social disruption with the pandemic.
Khongsong is a virtual unknown to British, European and North American fans. He’s probably not even a household name, at least not yet, in Thailand. But he’s steadily built momentum knocking out low level fighters in small venues in Bangkok and Chang Mai, amassing a superior stoppage record to Taylor, albeit against limited opposition. The only notable victim on Khongsong’s record is Japan’s Akihiro Kondo, an experienced world title challenger. Kondo was a home favourite but was knocked, almost comically, up in the air and smashed to the floor with a thunderous uppercut in the fifth. Khongsong announced himself in the regional boxing scene and was later generously awarded the IBF mandatory shot for Taylor. The man from Thailand has done everything asked of him; bulldozed through journeymen, grasped a step up in class and demolished the opponent, displayed a willingness to travel and upset, and he clearly possesses power. Will that be enough to overcome Josh Taylor, a decorated amateur and unified world champion in only 16 fights?
Well, without sounding like a patronising westerner, absolutely not. A preview article that gives Khongsong a meaningful chance to win on Saturday would be entering the territory of fiction. Taylor has faced unknown opposition throughout his amateur career, learning to adapt and overcome their unique styles without notice. Khongsong appears awkward, an unorthodox orthodox fighter with tricky movement, and there’s an ever present threat of knockout power. But, upon further scrutiny, he’s no where near ready for world level and has only went the championship distance once, three years ago. The only real challenge to Taylor’s victory on Saturday comes from the man himself.
There would be doubts for the average fighter if they had experienced what Taylor has over the last year. A surprising and disappointing brush with the law. A seemingly bitter end to his relationship with his long-time trainer as well as promotional company. An entire stable that his guided him throughout his pro career vanished quickly, as new faces and opinions entered his life. And a global pandemic that has presented professional challenges – disruption to events, training and sparring – and some personal frustration as Taylor has been repeatedly critical about COVID-19’s societal restrictions.
But, notwithstanding that, you don’t get the sense that it has significantly impacted the Edinburgh man. Taylor is now on a platform befitting of an international champion and potential star, his relationship with Ben Davison as trainer appears solid and trusting, and lockdown has offered the new team further time to gel and understand one another.
Watching Taylor during fight week, he presents like a true Scotsman; friendly and engaging with a real whiff of underlying menace. But, unlike Scottish fighters, at least for several years, he is elite, teetering on the verge of becoming a complete boxer; mentally strong, technically skilled, adaptable with a high ring IQ, and he also excels at toe-to-toe violence. If Taylor has prepared well, and the allure of future undisputed glory has not been too distracting, then Saturday’s contest should be a clear victory.