On the other side of the world, a young man is waiting for a global pandemic to pass and a fresh day of destiny.
Apinun Khongsong, the IBF’s No.1 contender at 140lbs, was homing in on a mandatory engagement with unified champion Josh Taylor on May 2 when Covid-19 intervened and placed his world title dreams on hold.
While the UK was among the countries worst hit by the Coronavirus, Thailand was quick to respond; with awareness heightened by the events in nearby China and face masks already prevalent in its society. After a swift lockdown, good health has been preserved in the ‘Land of Smiles’ though tourism and trade have suffered badly.
But the doors to the KiatKreerin Gym in the Samut Prakan suburb of Bangkok remain locked under government guidance and Apinun, 23, must stay fit in body and mind until the premises reopen in mid-June.
Yet Apinun’s focus is unwavering, defeating Josh Taylor is the only thing in his head despite a clear underdog status. Long shots do come in from time to time and a ruthless KO of former IBF title challenger Akihiro Kondo in Tokyo suggests we should not underestimate the Thai banger. The fighter from Trang province in Southern Thailand has the proverbial puncher’s chance.
“I am staying ready to fight Josh Taylor, even with no [fixed] date, but I feel sad because I had been training a long time for this fight,” Apinun (16-0, 13 KOs) told Boxing Social through a translator. “Josh Taylor is good boxer. He is very quick. But I am stronger than Taylor. I hit harder than Taylor. I can beat Taylor.”
Three years ago, recent recruit Apinun (fighting under the sponsored name of Downua Ruaviking) was touted as a possible future star when this writer visited the KiatKreerin premises in stifling heat to interview stablemate Komgrich Nantapech ahead of his IBF flyweight title clash with Filipino Donnie Nietes.
Promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang was already fast-tracking the new arrival with an eye on a championship run. Irish middleweight John Hutchinson, ‘The Buncrana Banger’, had been drafted in for sparring as the tall and rangy Thai sought education in a weight class alien to most of his countrymen. After only eight months at the Samut Prakan facility, Apinun was already being groomed for stardom.
“I first met him when he was an amateur who wanted to start professional boxing. He joined my boxing program ‘Aspire to be champion,’” recalled promoter Chaichotchuang. “Apinun is disciplined and humble. [Despite the cancellation], he continues to focus on his world title fight. I tell him every day that this is very important and can change the direction of his boxing career and life.
“Taylor is a great champion. He has a high amateur background, great footwork, great body punching. It is a hard fight for Apinun, but he can shock the world as many Thais did before him – [Srisaket Sor] Rungvisai beat Roman Gonzalez, Amnat [Rueroeng] beat Zou Shiming [and, even more impressively, four-weight world champion Kazuto Ioka].”
While some may be quick to dismiss Apinun’s chances, especially on away soil, his shock victory over Kondo at Tokyo’s famed Korakuen Hall in February 2019 should serve as a warning. Kondo had stood 12 rounds with the stiff-punching Sergey Lipinets in an IBF title shot in Brooklyn 15 months previously and never been stopped otherwise, but Apinun despatched him in the fifth with a brutal right uppercut.
“[Japan] was my first time fighting abroad,” said Apinun, who was inspired by the great super-flyweight Khaosai Galaxy. “But I felt comfortable; training well, sleeping well and eating well. The Japanese did not realise [the strength of] my power punch. I remember the knockout vividly. I knew he could not stand up properly after the knockdown. It was the perfect uppercut and a very, very hard punch.”
That breakthrough fifth round knockout resonated with his nation’s boxing fans and hinted that Apinun can perhaps join the likes of recently deposed WBC super-flyweight king Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and reigning champions Wanheng Menayothin (WBC 105lbs) and Knockout CP Freshmart (WBA 105lbs) in Thai boxing’s current constellation of stars.
“Apinun shocked the Japanese fans by knocking out Kondo in Japan. He is the only Thai boxer in 14 years to win a world title eliminator at Korakuen Hall, which is their Madison Square Garden,” added Chaichotchuang. “It was a big win in the history of Thailand’s boxing and now the Thai boxing fans [regard] Apinun as a future world champion.”
Apinun’s second trip out of Thailand took him to Glasgow where he served as a stand-by opponent for the World Boxing Super Series semi-final should either Taylor or foe Ivan Baranchyk be forced to withdraw.
“It was a great trip to Scotland. I prepared good to standby and was ready to fight either Taylor or Baranchyk,” said Apinun. “On the night, Taylor was quicker than Baranchyk. I thought he controlled the fight and won easily.
“Boxing is continuous training. I need to improve in every fight to win. I cannot stop learning and training every day. A boxer will improve if he spends every day in the gym. I enjoy it and am happy to train every day for my moment.
“I am very confident I will knock out Taylor. He is quick, speedy, moving fast, but he cannot tolerate my power punch.”
Boxing is set to resume in Thailand in July and there is a possibility that the Taylor fight will land in a different destination than its original home of Glasgow. Promoter Chaichotchuang says discussions will start soon regarding the fight’s revised date and location.
“Thailand is [currently] one of the safest places in the world,” said Chaichotchuang. “The country has been under lockdown since March 9. Covid-19 has stopped many businesses in the world and we cannot promote boxing in Thailand during this pandemic. Boxers can’t fight, promoters have no jobs. We understand we must stay home to stay alive. We should stay safe first.
“The Thai government plans to open our lockdown in mid-June. After that, all the boxers and trainers will come back to the KiatKreerin Gym and resume training. We hope to promote boxing fights here from July. The new normal pattern is to protect our boxers and boxing fans. We will return with limited seating, social distancing, pre-testing and post-testing [either side of] the competition.
“We are ready to fight anywhere in the world. I hope to discuss [a new date] with [Taylor’s promoters Top Rank] soon.”
Apinun will be ready.