Back in 2011 a young 21 year old upstart called Kazuto Ioka scored a hugely impressive victory over the then unbeaten WBC Minimumweight champion Oleydong Sithsamerchai. The victory boosted Ioka from exciting prospect to world champion and with in an instant fans around the world were sitting up and taking notice of the youngster.
At the time many predicted Ioka to be a "once in a generation" fighter, a fighter whose impressive race to a world title had taken just 7 fights and less than 2 years. As it turns out however Ioka probably isn't a once in a generation fighter but instead the start of a new generation, the generation of hyper-talented Japanese youngsters who are, between them, racing towards world titles from their professional debut. A generation so ridiculously talented that we are almost certainly at genesis of a golden era in Japanese boxing and era that could well see Japan become the leading national in global boxing.
If Kazuto Ioka was the lead figure in this possible golden era then the second man in line was Naoya Inoue. The touted Inoue is a man who was fast tracked to a Japanese title in just his 4rd fight and an OPBF title in just his 5th bout. He was widely viewed, on debut, as being the most naturally talented and most promising young fighter in world boxing. This wasn't just a youngster who tipped for big things but was tipped to be a major star.
The belief in Inoue has come from every angle. The Japanese press love him, fans love him, fellow fighters have spoken highly of him and from just watching him you know you're watching a special fighter.
When we think of amazing prospects we tend to think of guys who pad their records but Inoue's 5 opponents to date have had a combined record of 78-20-9, with a single opponent, Ngaoprajan Chuwatana, accounting for 50% of those total loses. Ioka's opponents at the same time in his career had a combined record of 85-39-13.
What makes Naoya Inoue even more impressive is that he's not even 21 yet. The youngster, who turns 21 in March, is already ranked in the top 10 by 3 of the 4 major bodies and the stories come out of his camp are that he will be fighting for a world title this year, with the hope being that he gets to fight for one in his very next fight.
If we realise that Ioka and Naoya Inoue are both Light Flyweights then it may make sense to rule out other Light Flyweights. Unfortunately for the 108lb division Japan really is just churning out amazingly talented guys at the weigh class with both Kosei Tanaka and Takuma Inoue, both just 18 years old, tipped to become world champions. If we suggest Japan has a gold generation of fighters then it's impossible not to regard their 4 promising guys at Light Flyweight as the best group of youngsters any country has in a single division. Of these two fighters however it's hard to not to imagine Tanaka as having the most upside with his near future almost certainly being at Minimumweight where he may find some more openings.
The Super Flyweight division has a number of interesting Japanese fighters in it. Recognisable fighters like Koki Kameda, Daiki Kameda, Kohei Kono and Nobuo Nashiro have all been fighting at the world level. Below those 4 fighters is former Japanese national champion Teiru Kinoshita.
For me however the name to keep an close eye on is actually 22 year old Sho Ishida. Ishida, a stable mate of Kazuto Ioka's, is a name that many may not recognise but the unbeaten man is already forging his way in to the world rankings and notching up impressive victories.
Rangy with a lovely jab, fantastic hand speed, wonderful variety in shots and brilliant size Ishida looks every bit of a world champion in the making. Though for now that's all he is, a fighter in the making. He has still flaws to sort out, he still has skills to develop and he still needs to step up, though he looks more than capable. Unfortunately with Ioka and Inoue on the scene he's likely to be over-looked for a little while but I have no doubt on this kid becoming a world champion in the next 2-4 years. Hopefully before then we'll see him fighting at least one top domestic rival later this year before his moves into OPBF class and then world class.
Another fighter to keep an eye on at Super Flyweight, or possibly Bantamweight, is 20 year old Ryo Matsumoto. Whilst Ishida is the Ioka fighter here Matsumoto is the Ohahsi gym fighter, sharing a camp with Naoya Inoue and appears to be a fighter with a serious whack on him having stopped 8 of his first 9 opponents, with 7 of them not seeing out 2 rounds. At 5'8" I expect Matsumoto to be making his name at Bantamweight though I believe at the moment he could still make Super Flyweight if an opportunity was there to be had.
If Matsumoto attempts to make his name in the Bantamweight division has an immediate rival in the form of the 20 year old Shohei Omori who, like Matsumoto, is a solid punching fighter who stands at 5'8".
Omori's power, like that of Sho Ishida, wasn't immediately visible with Omori stopping just 2 of his first 5 opponents. Since then however he has blown 4 of 5 opponents out inside 2 rounds including a notable victory over Kiron Omura. With talent, power, size and growing maturity it wouldn't be a shock if Omori was singled out to be the successor to Shinsuke Yamanaka as the big Japanese hope at Bantamweight. He's still, obviously, a long way from that but the building blocks are there for this 20 year old to be a real star.
Fortunately for Omori he's probably young enough to make a charge for a title when the the likes of Yamanaka, Ryosuke Iwasa and Tomoki Kameda have either out grown the division or, in Yamanaka's case, retired from the sport. There's no rush at all for Omori at this point who is a mere baby in the Bantamweight division yet already seems like a champion of the future.
When we discuss the best divisions in Japan it's hard not to think that Super Featherweight is the strongest. Not only do Japanese fighters hold the WBC and WBA titles but Japan also has a nailed on future champion in Daiki Kaneko who looks like he'll claim a world title sooner rather than later.
Outside of the top 3 there is still strength in numbers with the likes of Satoshi Hosono and Hiroshige Osawa both of whom are very capable fighters. For me though the guy to keep a close eye on is the unbeaten Rikki Naito.
Naito, who fights for a Japanese national title in his very next fight is a very talented 22 year southpaw who seems capable of moving through the levels given time. He's no where near as polished as Ioka, Naoya Inoue or Sho Ishida but yet he still has a lot to like about him, including his skills and confidence.
To date Naito has only really faced 1 tough test. That came in his most recent fight, a majority decision over Keiichi Izumi in the Strongest Korakuen last year. That bout was a worry for Naito though if given time to develop his skillset I can see him at least challenging for a world title somewhere down the line.
At Lightweight, though certainly expected to move up to Light Welterweight in the near future, we have Masayoshi Nakatani. Nakatani, the OPBF Lightweight champion, is only 24 though has a perfect 7-0 (5) record including a huge win over Yoshitaka Kato last time out and an impressive stoppage of Shuhei Tsuchiya. Those two wins are what should bring Nakatani to any fight fans attention.
Blessed with power, speed and a very tall rangy body Nakatani looks like the sort of fighter who will be able to pick his fights between Lightweight and Light Middleweight if not Middleweight. He's a smidge under 6" and like Ioka and Ishida, he's being brought along in the Ioka gym being given a high quality gym environment to train his skills and hone his craft.
Our biggest worry about Nakatani is his weight. His frame is huge and he'd probably be better off fighting at 140lbs sooner rather than later. We saw Ryo Miyazaki, another Ioka gym member, struggle with weight and hopefully Nakatani will have learned from Miyazaki's mistakes.
Staying with 24 year olds I really like the look of the unbeaten Hiroki Okada. Okada, who sports a perfect KO record of 7 fights, 7 wins, 7 KO's is a Light Welterweight powerhouse who scored a noteworthy stoppage over Indonesia's Heri Andriyanto last year. Expected to fight for the national Light Welterweight title later this year Okada could be the dark horse to become the next Japanese banger even though he's a hugely different style of fighter to current KO sensation Takashi Uchiyama at Super Featherweight.
With so many exciting youngsters coming through the Japanese ranks right now, I won't be surprised if Japanese boxing really does entertain a genuine golden age. And lets not forget, I've only been looking at a handful of talented unbeaten youngsters. Throw in a few guys with a loss or two and you really do have an amazing depth of promising fighters which, to take Fuji TV's line, leaves us on the verge of an "Exciting Time".
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features