World class fighters from the land of the rising sun have been few and far between above 130 lb but one man who really stepped up to the mark in 2015 was light welterweight Keita Obara who if it were not for John Rupert and Mark Streisand’s ridiculous scorecards would have been guaranteed a shot at the IBF champion Eduard Troyanovsky. Having won the national and OPBF crowns at 140 lb Obara embarked on his first trip to the US to face tough Nicaraguan Walter Castillo in an IBF eliminator in Miami on a PBC card in November 2015. Coming in to the bout with Castillo 14 of his 15 victories had come inside the distance (ED's note-15 had come inside the distance, one being a technical decision) but the 29 year old showed he had far more dimensions to his game than just power, utilising an excellent jab, demonstrating excellent movement and boxing skills and also the ability to maintain a good pace over 12 rounds against a very durable foe. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and he had to settle for a majority draw but a deal for a rematch is imminent and Obara should be highly confident of securing a crack at the Russian champion for some time this year.
Takahiro Ao will be hoping for better luck in 2016 having been stopped in 2 rounds by Raymundo Beltran in May 2015 for the vacant WBO lightweight title. Not only did the Mexican miss weight but he was caught for doping after the bout so the result was changed to a no contest. A planned rematch with Gamaliel Diaz was cancelled due to Ao suffering an ankle injury.
Takashi Uchiyama sits right at the top of the super featherweight tree but Japan has an insane amount of depth in this division with genuine quality fighters ready to move to world level.
Whilst Takashi Miura may have been relieved of his WBC title the 32-year-old made many new fans with his 9 round war versus Francisco Vargas being voted by many publications as their fight of 2015. Miura looked to be on the way to ending proceedings in the 8th round but Vargas showed phenomenal heart to stop the champion in the 9th and let’s just hope a rematch takes place in 2016.
Kenichi Ogawa went 4-0 3 KOs in 2015 and very well could be the man to break through the ranks and capture a world belt this year. Another bull like hard hitting super featherweight from Japan, Ogawa scored a 10th round KO over Deivi Julio Bassa to gain a world ranking and 3 months later he became national champion winning a 5th round technical decision over Rikki Naito. The 27 year old bullied Naito and dropped the unbeaten southpaw in the opening stanza and if a rematch takes place he will want to settle things once and for all. Backed by the highly experienced and influential Teiken, all options are viable and the rather worn WBO belt holder Roman Martinez could be targeted if he comes through his mandatory defence against Miguel Berchelt. A first defence of his national strap on April second against the untested Satoru Sugita should see Ogawa get the year off to a good start.
For Naito, the loss to Ogawa is certainly not the end of his career and lessons can be learned in a second encounter if it were to happen. The 24 year old has already proved his credentials with wins over Masayuki Ito and Nihito Arakawa in 2015 and a move up to lightweight could be an option for the talented boxer. Naito could do worse than look at former victim Ito who has shown a defeat isn’t the end of the world and has actually gained from the experience. The 24-year-old has rebounded superbly after the razor thin loss to Naito in February 2015 to capture the OPBF crown with a 10th round stoppage of Dai Iwai 6 months later and record his first defence, a unanimous points win over Shingo Eto in December 2015. If he continues to improve and progress he should be in line for a crack at a world strap or a final eliminator by the end of 2016.
Neither Daiki Kaneko or Masao Nakamura are likely to win a world title but their largely ignored August 2015 10 round scrap is more than worthy of a mention and Nakamura, who prevailed via split decision is a dangerous opponent for anyone in the division with his knockout or get knocked out approach. For Kaneko, a former world title challenger, it seems as if making super featherweight has finally taken its toll and he returns on March 11th in an 8 round contest versus Kazuya Soma.
Satoshi Hosono was kept busy in 2015 scoring 4 defences of his Japanese featherweight strap all via decision over Rikiya Fukuhara, Tatsuya Otsubo, Takuya Watanabe and Akifumi Shimoda. The bout with Shimoda which took place on December 29 2015 was extremely close and could have gone either way. As part of the 2016 Champions Carnival Hosono will face Fukuhara for a third time on March 28. The pair met for the first time back in October 2012 with Hosono scoring a 7th round stoppage. At 32 if the Ohashi featherweight has any aspirations of capturing a world title he really needs to make a move this year. With 3 of the titlists being under the PBC umbrella fights with those champions look unlikely but with a solid WBO ranking and a paucity of opponents for Vasyl Lomachenko Hosono might very well get the call to face the highly skilled Ukrainian.
After suffering a savage beating at the hands of Guillermo Rigondeaux it was a case of rebuilding for Hisashi Amagasa with a 10 round decision over Patomsith Pathompothong and a 7th round stoppage over Nathan Bolcio being his 2 contests in 2015, His handlers could go down the IBF avenue otherwise Amagasa’s tough rugged all action style could make him a possible voluntary defence for one of the champions at 126 lb.
It looks to be the end for the massively popular Hozumi Hasegawa who climbed off the floor to overcome Carlos Andres Ruiz Machuca by the skin of his teeth last December. A vintage boxing display over Horacio Garcia suggested a renaissance but the wear and tear has seemingly finally caught up on the 35-year-old and hopefully he calls it a day on what has been a fantastic career.
For Shingo Wake it really is a case of wait and see until after the Carl Frampton Scott Quigg encounter which takes place in Manchester on February 27th. With Guillermo Rigondeaux also a mandatory challenger there are a number of feasible scenarios and a crack at the vacant IBF super bantamweight belt is a definite possibility. Whatever happens the 28-year-old will get a deserved shot at a world title and a 10 round warm-up bout against Waldo Sabu on Feb 17 should keep off any ring rust.
It was a disastrous 12 months for Japanese bantamweights with a world champion losing his crown and a number of contenders falling by the wayside in significant fights.
Tomoki Kameda was forced to relinquish his WBO bauble due to the organisation rightly not recognising his clash with regular belt holder Jamie McDonnell as a unification. Despite scoring an early knockdown Kameda was outworked in the second half of the contest and lost a narrow point’s decision but the fight could have easily gone either way. Kameda exercised a rematch clause and the pair met again in September 2015 with McDonnell leaving no doubt this time taking a well-deserved points victory to do the double over the touted Japanese boxer. It was a dismal year for the Kameda’s with their journey to the US to fight under the Al Haymon banner becoming a damp squid resulting in Koki and Daiki announcing their retirement from the sport. At just 24 Tomoki has plenty of time on his side but he has many questions to answer with a move up to 122 lb probable.
Ryo Akaho came up woefully short in his first world title attempt, being knocked out in 2 rounds by Pungluang Sor Singyu in Thailand for the vacant WBO strap. A comeback bout was scratched due to health reasons (ED's Note-Akaho failed weight for the bout) and no news of any new fight date for Akaho has materialised just yet.
Ryosuke Iwasa was extremely confident going in to his IBF interim contest with Lee Haskins despite having to fight on the road in their June 2015 scrap. Haskins took the early rounds but Iwasa had gained some momentum before in the 6th round he was caught with a peach of a left hand and subsequently stopped. The tall southpaw returned 5 months later taking a 5th round technical decision over Marlon Arcilla. Iwasa takes on Dennis Tubieron, a familiar name to British fight fans on Feb 6 and it will be interesting to see whether the move up in weight proves to be fruitful.
Shohei Omori was riding the crest of a wave having blitzed Kentaro Masuda in 3 rounds to claim the vacant Japanese bantamweight title and having dispatched Hirofumi Mukai in 6 rounds in his only defence. The big hard hitting southpaw was lined up for a final WBO eliminator against Marlon Tapales in what on paper looked a tough but winnable contest. Unfortunately for the Kyoto crowd the Filipino banger tore up the script and bludgeoned the home town man in 2 rounds to secure himself a crack at the 118 lb title currently held by Pungluang Sor Singyu. After any bad knockout defeat the psychological scars are arguably more difficult to recover from than the physical ones however, Omori is just 22 so he has bundles of time to come again.
You could very well say that Ryo Matsumoto is the last man standing when it comes to bantamweight hopefuls from Japan. Another member of the sensational Ohashi Gym the 20-year-old when 4-0 4 KOs in 2015 and although the level of opposition wasn’t great he is in prime position for a big fight. A lofty WBO ranking at bantamweight could be the route he chooses but it’s doubtful that any champion at 118 or 122 lb would be jumping at the chance to face a young, talented powerful southpaw such as Matsumoto.
A possible encounter between Matsumoto and current OPBF titlist Takahiro Yamamoto would be mouth-watering. Yamamoto grabbed the regional belt stopping Yu Kawaguchi in 7 rounds in a real war back in August 2015. The pair met 4 months earlier with Kawaguchi taking a split decision. Yamamoto easily stopped Yuki Strong Kobayashi on the last day of 2015 and his aggressive nature between the ropes would make for brilliant entertainment against any of the bantamweight elite.
Being over shadowed by a sibling is something many people experience in all aspects of life and Takuma Inoue is probably well used to the feeling by now. He may not possess the thudding power of his elder brother but the 20-year-old went 12 rounds twice in 2015, gaining the OPBF 115 lb trinket in the process with victories over Mark Anthony Geraldo and Rene Dacquel. Of course whether Takuma vies for a world title this year will depend on the plans for Naoya but anyone who underestimates the younger brother could come unstuck.
Even though he was soundly beaten by WBC super flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras Koki Eto is a worthy adversary for anyone at 112 or 115 lb and on the domestic and regional circuit he is still someone who will give fabulous entertainment and is must watch TV.
Kazuto Ioka enjoyed his best career year since 2012, scoring 3 excellent wins and finally growing in to a world class fully fledged flyweight. He took a majority 12 round decision over Juan Carlos Reveco in April 2015 but was ordered to rematch the Argentinian. This didn’t occur until New Year’s Eve and Ioka slotted in a bout against Roberto Domingo Sosa 4 months later which he duly won pitching a near shut out on the scorecards. The 26-year-old left no doubt in the second encounter with Reveco stopping him in 11 rounds to send a message to the top dogs of the division. Rumours are rife about his next opponent but let’s just hope we see Ioka in with the cream of the crop such as Juan Estrada, Roman Gonzalez and even a rematch with Amnat Ruenroeng would tell us how far he has really come.
Quite frankly Ryo Miyazaki needs to fight someone with a pulse having not been tested since his shock KO loss to Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr on the last day of 2013. A bout with newly minted IBF 108 lb belt holder Akira Yaegashi has been mooted but taking on a battle hardened quality world champion coming off of only 4 fights against men with losing records isn’t at all good preparation and would be a big gamble.
There are a number of Japanese youngsters bursting through the ranks and one of the youngest is Riku Kano. The 18-year-old passed his biggest test to date defeating former world title challenger Pigmy Kokietgym over 8 rounds last December. He is aiming to become the youngest ever world champion from the land of the rising sun and with the minimumweight division seemingly depleting, there is a real chance he could achieve such a feat.
Last but definitely not least it was a rollercoaster 2015 for Katsunari Takayama which is fitting with his whole career which has provided boxing fans thrills and spills and so many great memories. The 32-year-old won a controversial technical decision over Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr with it looking like the bout should have been awarded to the Thai by TKO. By this time murmurings were that Takayama could be near the end but these were erased with an impressive 8th round stoppage of the talented Ryuji Hara. Unfortunately his luck ran out as Jose Argumedo travelled to Osaka on New Year’s Eve and grabbed the IBF strawweight strap taking a 9th round technical decision. There is no news of Takayama’s future plans but whatever he chooses to do he has been a wonderful servant to Japanese boxing and the lower weights and should be commended for his willingness to face the best possible opposition both at home and on the road.
In the finale of this series we will look at the numerous exciting prospects from Japan.
Article thanks to Marcus Bellinger who can be found on twitter @marcusknockout
(Image of Obara courtesy of Misako Gym)