2017 wasn’t just about numerous terrific fights, big events and a new generation of stars establishing themselves, it was also a year where we saw a spate of high profile retirements from the sport with fighters such as Wladimir Klitschko, Juan Manuel Marquez and Andre Ward calling it a day.
Japan also had its fair share of retirements with the likes of Katsunari Takayama, Takashi Uchiyama and Takashi Miura calling it quits but arguably the most notable pugilist to hang up the gloves was Kazuto Ioka with an official announcement coming on New Year’s Eve. With rumours swirling for a while of a vehement disagreement with his father which led to the relinquishment of his flyweight world title the announcement wasn’t a huge surprise to those who follow the Japanese scene.
In this piece we take a look back at the career of one of Japans most recognizable figures of recent times and review the impact he had in the land of the rising sun and on the sport of boxing.
Ioka was aiming to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Hiroki who was a world champion at 105 and 108 lbs. After running up an amateur record of 95-10 64 KOs Ioka turned pro in April 2009 at just 20 year’s old. His early bouts saw him claim a victory over former world title contender Takashi Kunishige and survive an early knockdown to outpoint Heri Amol. 18 months in and the buzz surrounding Ioka was growing and a 10th round stoppage over Masayoshi Segawa to claim the Japanese light flyweight strap in October 2010 only enhanced his reputation.
4 months later Ioka took part in his first world title fight as he went up against WBC strawweight champion Oleydong Sithsamerchai. The Thai was undefeated in 36 outings but was no match for Ioka who dropped him in round 2 and finished the job in round 5 to announce himself as a serious talent. The Osakan had made himself the quickest Japanese fighter to win a world title with the victory over Oleydong coming in just his 7th contest. A unanimous decision over Juan Hernandez followed in August before an opening round blow out of Yodgoen Tor Chalermchai on New Year’s Eve completed his 2011 campaign.
Next up was the first ever all Japanese unification clash against fellow 105 lb belt holder Akira Yaegashi in June 2012. Ioka jumped out to an early lead but was pegged back by the relentless Yaegashi and after 12 pulsating rounds we had a really close fight on our hands. Ioka claimed a narrow unanimous decision and had unified 2 belts in just his 10th fight. A move up in weight then followed as Ioka won a secondary belt at light flyweight on the last day of 2012 with a 6th round stoppage of Jose Alfredo Rodriguez.
Knockout wins over Kwanthai Sithmorseng and Wisamu Kokietgym along with a unanimous point’s victory over hard hitting Felix Alvarado completed Ioka’s 2013 schedule but a refusal to take on Roman Gonzalez who was the full champion at the weight left many feeling disappointed. Ioka then attempted to join the thriving flyweight division when he squared off against IBF titlist Amnat Ruenroeng in May 2014 however, he suffered his first defeat via split decision and although the man from Japan could have got the decision he never really got to grips with the tricky and awkward Thai.
Non-title victories over Pablo Carillo and Jean Piero Perez weren’t totally convincing and there were major question marks of Ioka’s ability to hang with the elite at 112 lb. A majority points win over regular flyweight belt holder Juan Carlos Reveco in April 2015 didn’t silence all the doubters and a rematch was ordered. Before the second encounter with Reveco which took place on New Year’s Eve Ioka squeezed in a straight forward defense against Roberto Domingo Sosa in September 2013 as he scored a wide unanimous decision. The rematch saw Ioka produce his best performance for some considerable time as he stopped the Argentinian in 11 rounds and it now looked as if he had fully grown into the flyweight division.
After an 11th round stoppage over the plucky Keyvin Lara in July 2016 a bout between Ioka and full champion Juan Francisco Estrada was ordered but the Mexican instead moved up 3 pounds north and yet another potential big fight had disappeared. Instead a mandatory defense against Stamp Kiatniwat was ordered and after flooring his man early on the Thai challenger was eventually stopped in the 7th round on the last day of 2016. A unanimous decision over Noknoi Sitthiprasert last April turned out to be the 28-year-old’s last contest and he finishes with a record of 22-1 13 KOs.
There’s no doubting Ioka’s status as a quality champion at strawweight with excellent wins over Oleydong, Hernandez and Yaegashi and the scrap with his fellow countrymen will always be a special part of Japanese boxing history. With the complete muddle created by the WBA with their super/regular/interim nonsense the legitimacy of Ioka’s titles at light flyweight and flyweight can be left to your own personal discretion but a sharp decline in quality of opposition when moving up in weight is undeniable with Reveco and Alvarado easily being the best victories above 105 pounds.
A clash with Roman Gonzalez is definitely the biggest miss and despite the best efforts of the Nicaraguan’s team at the Teiken Gym, you never got the sense that the Ioka Gym had the belief that their man could defeat Gonzalez. The failure of his team to secure big named opponents after 2012 could also have been a contributing factor that led Ioka to retirement with a lack of motivation a distinct possibility.
Ioka was a genuine draw especially at the EDION Arena in Osaka and pulled in sizable audiences on TV with numbers of over 6 million achieved more than once on free to air channel TBS. He was also a pioneer along with Takashi Uchiyama as both began the now annual trend of headlining major cards on New Year’s Eve. So all in all after a fine start to his career which hinted at something really special things tailed off somewhat and ended in disappointing circumstances and at just 28 a comeback is possible but seems unlikely given the personal issues that exist.