From eating garbage to wearing gold, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai found his calling in boxing

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Juan Francisco Estrada will headline "Superfly 2" in Los Angeles. Tom Hogan - Hoganphotos/360 Promotions

LOS ANGELES - Thailand's Srisaket Sor Rungvisai used to work as a trash collector and because he was so desperately poor there were times when he picked through that garbage for food to eat.

But after scoring the two biggest victories in Thai boxing history, his life has changed. He is acclaimed as one of the best boxers in the world. He is earning six-figure paydays as the headliner on major televised cards in the United States and has become a national hero at home, even being invited to meet the prime minister. Twice.

It has been a meteoric rise from such humble beginnings, but that's what two wins over Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez in 2017 did for Sor Rungvisai.

Their first fight last March, on the big stage of the Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs card at Madison Square Garden in New York, ended in a storm of controversy with most believing that Gonzalez, then the undefeated junior bantamweight world champion and pound-for-pound king, deserved the decision after the action-packed fight of the year contender. However, the decision and the world title went to Sor Rungvisai and was such a big deal in Thailand that he was feted upon his return and honored by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Then came the rematch in September, and whatever doubts there might have been about the decision six months earlier were erased when Sor Rungvisai shockingly annihilated Gonzalez in a fourth-round knockout victory that earned 2017 ESPN.com knockout of the year honors. That made Sor Rungvisai an even bigger star in Thailand and earned him a second audience with the Prime Minister.

"I was extremely proud and honored," Sor Rungvisai said through Nakornluang Promotions' Bank Pisitwuttinan. "It was an honor for me and my family and I am very happy that I could do my part in building a good reputation for Thailand. I'm really proud that I can be an inspiration for the Thai people, especially the Thai youth, and Thai boxers."

Sor Rungvisai, who won his first world title in 2013 but didn't garner nearly as much acclaim, has certainly come a long way from his days of eating food from the garbage. Now the powerful southpaw is back in the United States ready for life after Gonzalez. He's the headliner of "Superfly 2" -- super flyweight is the alternate name for the junior bantamweight division -- on which he will defend his 115-pound world title against mandatory challenger and former unified flyweight world titleholder Juan Francisco Estrada on Saturday night (HBO, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) at The Forum in Inglewood, California.

Estrada (36-2, 25 KOs), 27, of Mexico, earned the title shot with a close decision win over former titlist Carlos Cuadras on the undercard of the first "Superfly" card in September, which was headlined by Sor Rungvisai- Gonzalez II.

To think that Sor Rungvisai (43-4-1, 39 KOs), 31, could reach the top of boxing from where he had come from is almost unfathomable. In many ways his rise from abject poverty to win a world title in one of boxing's smallest weight classes and then to come to the United States and hit it big is reminiscent of the incredible rise of Manny Pacquiao.

"I think this is the classic example of what sports, and particularly boxing, can do for someone who comes from very humble means, that they can become a national hero and, frankly, one of the best in the world," said 360 Promotions' Tom Loeffler, who is promoting his third consecutive Sor Rungvisai fight. "When you can beat the pound-for-pound champion twice, that rocketed Srisaket to the top of the division. He is one of the outstanding champions in the sport of boxing.

"But Srisaket came from very humble beginnings like Pacquiao did. Manny had some losses early in his career like Srisaket did and went on to become one of the best after growing up in poverty. He became a national hero in the Philippines and Srisaket has been on the same kind of trajectory with his two big wins last year. I think there are a lot of parallels."

Sor Rungvisai, who born in a rural area outside of Bangkok, followed in his father's footsteps by participating in Muay Thai, which is Thai kickboxing. Sor Rungvisai started in Muay Thai when he was 13 and decided to try to make a go of it professionally when he and his girlfriend, whom he has been with since they were teens and plans to marry later this year, moved to Bangkok. They arrived there essentially broke. With his Muay Thai career going nowhere, "He walked more than 60 miles trying to get a job in Bangkok, but no one took him except one place that got him as a security guard, so he worked as a security guard and he also changed his job to work as a trash collector," Pisitwuttinan said.

Those were tough times, which Sor Rungvisai recounted.

"On some difficult days I had to collect the food from trash to cook with my girlfriend and eat to survive, because we did not have enough money," he said.

An acquaintance asked Sor Rungvisai if he was interested in going to Japan to box. He needed the money very badly, so he accepted the fight even though he didn't have much time to prepare and didn't really know how to box, even though there are similarities to Muay Thai.

Sor Rungvisai traveled to Japan in 2009 to make his pro debut against Akira Yaegashi (who would go on to win world titles in three weight classes) and got knocked out in the third round. Then he got knocked out again in the third round in his second fight.

Sor Rungvisai was at a crossroads. He was a flop in Muay Thai. He'd suffered two knockout losses in a row in his first two boxing matches. And he and his girlfriend had no money. Things, obviously, did not look good.

"I discussed my future with my girlfriend and we decided there were only two paths to choose," Sor Rungvisai said. "One is to become a boxer and the other one is to keep on working as a trash collector, and I chose the path to become a boxer because there's more hope at least, there's some hope in this career."

In his third fight, Sor Rungvisai earned a six-round draw, which was a lot better than another knockout loss, and it gave him a glimmer of hope.

"Before that fight I was thinking that if I lost again I would not fight again, because I was asking myself, 'Should I keep on fighting when I cannot even win?' But then it ended up in a draw, so I decided to keep on fighting."

His goals were modest. He aspired to win any sort of regional title and maybe get on television. If he could, he said he would be happy with his career.

Sor Rungvisai wound up doing so much more. He's won two world titles, beaten a legend in Gonzalez, his fights are must-see TV in Thailand and he's an inspiration to his people.

Considering the lowest times that forced him to eat from the garbage to the heights he has reached, Sor Rungvisai has a hard time believing it happened. "I never thought that I would come this far," he said. "Or even get to be a world champion."