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10: Notable flyweight title fights

02
Sep

May 18, 1991 – Muangchai Kittikasem KO 12 Jung Koo Chang, Olympic Gymnastic Gymnasium, Seoul, South Korea

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George Foreman once said that boxing is the sport to which all others aspire and one reason that statement rings true is because of fights like Kittikasem vs. Chang. This WBC title fight had everything a movie scriptwriter could want: First, the match pitted young lion against a future Hall of Famer seeking to regain old glories in a new weight class. Second, the bout featured massive shifts in fortune in the form of multiple knockdowns on both sides. Third, with the result still hanging in the balance, the fight ends with a knockout that barely beats the clock and snatches victory away from a sentimental favorite. Finally, each man’s extraordinary effort serves to elevate the reputations of victor as well as vanquished.



The 22-year-old Kittikasem, 14-1 (10), had already achieved a lot in his brief pro career. He captured his first major title in just his seventh pro fight after winning a split decision from defending IBF junior flyweight king Tacy Macalos in May 1989 and cemented that victory with a crushing seventh round TKO in the rematch five months later. Following two more defenses against Jeung Jae Lee (KO 3) and Abdi Pohan (W 12) before his home fans in Bangkok, Kittikasem took a giant leap of faith – as well as a giant pay check – by traveling to Phoenix and taking on rising star (and hometown hero) Michael Carbajal, a 1988 U.S. Olympian hailed by promoter Bob Arum as a future million-dollar flyweight.

On paper the matchup was highly attractive but in reality the fight was over long before the first punch was thrown. Because Kittikasem had outgrown the weight class, it took him six tries before he finally squeezed down to the 108-pound championship limit. The harrowing process left Kittikasem a shell of his former self and though he tried mightily to pull off the miracle the pumped-up and exquisitely conditioned American seized the belt with a powerful four-knockdown performance that ended in round seven.

Kittikasem immediately jumped to 112 and earned instant success with knockouts over Vic Galme (KO 1) and Welgie Leonora (KO 3). Those tune-ups set the stage for a highly attractive turf war with longtime WBC champion Sot Chitalada, who had reigned for all but an 11-month period the last six years. Kittikasem-Chitalada turned out to be Carbajal-Kittikasem in reverse as a weight-weakened Chitalada endured a brutal beating from the young strong challenger before being stopped in round six.

With one legend in the rear view mirror, the new WBC flyweight king set his sights on another when he signed to meet Chang.

“The Korean Hawk” was the ultimate bird of prey during his five year reign as WBC junior flyweight champion. He racked up a then-division record 15 defenses against, among others, Chitalada, German Torres (three times), Hideyuki Ohashi (twice) and Katsuo Tokashiki, all of whom either won or would win titles. Following the second victory over Ohashi, the man considered by many the greatest fighter his boxing-rich country ever produced chose to retire on top.

Severe financial problems forced Chang to return 14 months later. Following a 10-round points win over Armando Velasco, Chang fought rising star Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez for his old belt. The 25-0 Gonzalez proved too young and too good for the battle-worn veteran, who lost a lopsided decision. Despite the defeat Chang remained a huge attraction. Ten months after losing to Gonzalez, Chang fought at flyweight for the first time since crushing Tito Abella in two rounds seven-and-a-half years earlier and knocked out Filipino Ric Siodora in eight. That victory – and his considerable star power – was enough to secure a crack at the WBC belt against Chitalada, who Chang decisioned in a surprisingly demanding 108-pound title defense six-and-a-half years ago. The rematch was just as good as the first bout but this time Chitalada came away with the majority decision win. Nearly six months after the Chitalada loss Chang was granted another chance to win a second divisional belt, and this time it was against Kittikasem, the man who conquered Chitalada.

The two men felt each other out with Chang, 111¾, surveying the scene behind a bob-and-weave while Kittikasem, 111¾, landed singular jabs. Midway through the round Chang landed his first effective blows – a lead, lopping overhand right to the head and a left to the solar plexus – before Kittikasem forced a clinch. While in close quarters, usually a dangerous place to be with the rugged Chang, Kittikasem landed an overhand right to the ear that caused Change to stumble forward and push the Thai toward the ropes.

Over the years Chang had forged a reputation as a dirty fighter with his mauling tactics but here it was Kittikasem who initiated the rough stuff by hitting Chang with an uppercut on the break, raking the challenger’s face with an open glove and popping him with a jab to the face a full second after the bell.

This version of Chang wasn’t the whirlwind of years past; instead he circled and picked his spots wisely. In round two Chang landed a jab to the body, a stinging left-right to the chin and a hook to the body that got a roar from the highly pro-Chang crowd. Kittikasem’s frequent jabs raised a slight swelling over Chang’s right eye but the veteran punctuated an effective round with a hard hook to the jaw.

The pace gradually accelerated and when it did it became clear that Chang had the quicker fists while Kittikasem fists produced the harder blows. In round four a tremendous counter hook by Kittikasem staggered Chang, after which the champ landed a right-left to the body and an uppercut to the pit of the stomach. Another wicked counter hook had Chang hanging on and Kittikasem wrapped up his best round to date with a lead right and three thudding jabs to the face.

Round five saw a massive change in momentum and that shift happened quickly. A missed right lead by Chang as he moved in positioned the challenger to fire a short hook to the jaw that dumped Kittikasem on his behind. Up immediately, Kittikasem tried to convince referee Tony Perez he had slipped, but the veteran referee knew better and continued the mandatory eight. With the crowd roaring for Kittikasem’s hide, the cagey Chang opted to take his time and strike only when the openings presented themselves.

It didn’t take long for that opening to emerge. After landing a lead uppercut to the chin, Chang leaped in with a right to the body and a hook to the jaw that decked Kittikasem a second time. By the time the champ arose at three, Chang had 98 seconds to score the third knockdown that would give him his second divisional championship. This time Chang gunned for the kill by landing a right-left to the body, two uppercuts to the jaw and several flurries to the body. Despite being belted from all angles, the naturally stronger Kittikasem slowly began to recover. A right off the ear caused Chang to fall forward into a clinch and by round’s end he was encouraged enough with his progress to lift his arms skyward as he walked toward his corner.

Still, Chang had managed to turn back the clock enough to remind veteran observers of the dynamic boxer-puncher who quickly rose through the ranks in the early 1980s. At one point late in round seven Chang connected with two lefts and a right hook to the body, nipped out to long range, then jumped back in behind an accurate overhand right. Kittikasem, meanwhile, invested considerable capital into his body attack.

The longest toe-to-toe exchanges occurred in the thrilling eighth, whose second half produced the next plot twist. With a minute-and-a-half left Chang suddenly slipped to the floor and when he arose he exhibited a sudden and inexplicable loss in energy. Fighting with his mouth open, Chang winged wide and inaccurate shots while Kittikasem, sensing Chang’s weakness, dug hard to the body and bullied Chang in the clinches. It was as if Chang’s greatness had been sucked out of him and all that was left was an empty shell.

Kittikasem dominated rounds nine and 10 to cut deeply into Chang’s early lead. By this point Chang was fighting on guts and memory and for all the world it looked like the old war horse’s valiant effort would fall short.

But then came Round 11.

The Korean began the stanza by exhibiting improbable energy, and moments later he shocked the crowd, Kittikasem, and perhaps himself by what he did next. A lightning-quick one-two sent Kittikasem to his haunches, marking Chang’s third knockdown of the fight and re-igniting hopes for a dramatic victory. A deeply chagrined Kittikasem gritted his teeth as he arose and extended his arms toward Perez to have his gloves cleaned.

Riding a massive wave of momentum Chang dug hard at Kittikasem’s body and bulldogged him toward the ropes like the brawler of old. Kittikasem shook off the blows and connected with spearing jabs and rippling power shots to the head and body.

Confident he was going to win the 11th by a 10-8 score, Chang unexpectedly invoked boxing’s version of the old four-corners offense in basketball that North Carolina’s Dean Smith perfected in the pre-shot clock era. Chang initiated a series of clock-melting and energy-saving clinches and the crowd, savvy enough to know what Chang was doing and why, cheered every time their hero tied up the champion. As time ran down, Chang punctuated the round by landing a decent overhand right to the jaw.

Entering the final round it was anyone’s fight. Tom Kaczmarek had Kittikasem in front 104-102 while Rudy Jordan favored Chang 104-103. Chuck Giampa’s card read 103-103. Both men needed the last round, but given the knockdown he suffered in the 11th Kittikasem sensed he needed a huge effort to save his championship, especially in Chang’s hometown.

Kittikasem began the final stanza by viciously attacking Chang’s body while the South Korean adopted a flurry-clinch-flurry rhythm to melt off even more time. With a minute to go it looked as if Chang would beat the clock and take the fight to the judges but Kittikasem had other ideas.

After Chang landed a good overhand right he made a fatal mistake. He remained in a crouch for a split-second too long, which gave Kittikasem just enough time to line up a rising hook to the jaw that left Chang’s body frozen in the crouched position. A follow-up hook missed but his next overhand right didn’t. The exhausted Chang fell spread-eagled on the canvas, and only 51 seconds remained in the fight.

Up at five, Chang staggered into the ropes but managed to convince Perez he was fit to continue by nodding his head. A short inside hook to the jaw floored Chang a second time, his head striking the second rope. Chang was on all fours, shaking his head and trying to summon the courage to rise again. Which he did.

His legs, however, were gone. He staggered forward into Perez, who grabbed Chang’s body and waved off the fight with just 24 seconds left.

It was a most dramatic end to a most dramatic fight. As he was lifted into the air by his handlers Kittikasem’s wide smile radiated profound joy and immense relief while Chang was left to ponder his future in the sport. Kittikasem fought on for eight more years, going 10-3 (6) in the process while Chang never again entered the professional boxing ring. His story, however, had a happy ending as he was enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010.

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