The smallest boxers were once seen as an afterthought to their bigger, stronger counterparts. But now, these fighters are being showered with riches and national heroes have emerged from the lightest of the weight classes.
Boxing promoter Tom Loeffler's "SuperFly" boxing shows, which will return to the Southland in a Feb. 24 Forum card, offers such strong competition among a rich group of 115-pound fighters that the possibility of four cards a year has been raised.
"We love big fights and these guys are always exciting," HBO Sports Vice President Tony Walker said. "They're always going to make a good show because there's so many of them — championship-level fighters — and they've longed for opportunities."
The concept began innocently enough at the Forum in September 2016 when unbeaten Nicaraguan Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez affirmed his standing as the sport's No. 1-ranked pound-for-pound fighter by edging Mexico's Carlos Cuadras in a fiercely fought decision.
Gonzalez was assigned a mandatory title defense in March against Thailand's Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, who shockingly knocked down Gonzalez in the first round at Madison Square Garden and gained the upset by split-decision.
Sor Rungvisai, a former garbageman in Thailand, returned to the U.S. to headline the inaugural "SuperFly" card on Sept. 9 and viciously knocked out Gonzalez in the fourth round, which netted him a personal meeting with Thailand's king and the kind of worship for a boxer last seen in the Philippines' love for Manny Pacquiao.
The organically grown competition has bred an example that all deep divisions in boxing can learn from, instead of being bogged down by details such as promotional and network alignments.
On the "SuperFly 2" card, Sor Rungvisai (44-4-1, 40 knockouts) defends his World Boxing Council belt against Mexico's Juan Francisco Estrada (36-2, 25 KOs), a former flyweight world champion.
In his Sept. 9 bout, Estrada needed a 10th-round knockdown of former 115-pound champion Cuadras (36-2-1, 27 KOs) to claim a victory by three scores of 114-113.
"All these guys are willing to fight each other and with the spotlight on these small guys from HBO, they know they have to perform for the fans. This is a winning formula," said Loeffler, who expects the impressive crowd of 7,000 at StubHub Center in September to be eclipsed at the Forum based on the rate of ticket sales.
Cuadras switched trainers to align with Abel Sanchez, the cornerman of unbeaten middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and unbeaten cruiserweight champion Murat Gassiev, for his co-main event bout against Puerto Rico's former title challenger McWilliams Arroyo (16-3, 14 KOs).
"More power in my punches. … It's a very talented, stacked division and people have been turned on to the lighter weights. We can do it every four months," Cuadras said through a Spanish interpreter. "This division provides more bang for the fans' buck, and it's providing better pay days for us."
Estrada said his purse, which he didn't disclose, is his most lucrative yet as the highly skilled boxer with a warrior fighting style attempts to solve the Thai champion.
"When you see how great [Sor Rungvisai] looked against Gonzalez, you might think he'll have an easy time with me, but we all have different styles and I know how to fight this guy," Estrada said. "I have to be smart."
While Japan's unbeaten World Boxing Organization super-flyweight champion Naoya Inoue balked at joining this card after fighting late last month and mulling a move to bantamweight, a likely World Boxing Assn. 115-pound title fight will be placed on the card soon, along with a flyweight bout headed by former champion Brian Viloria.