Boxing is full of remarkable stories, ranging from fighters turning their lives around from a criminal past to fighters proving they can fight at the top level at a very advanced age. One such older fighter is WBO Atomweight champion Nao Ikeyama (17-3-1, 4) who returns to the ring next week in an attempt to record her 4th defense, despite being 46 years old. Standing in her way will be the criminally under-rated Saemi Hanagata (12-6-2, 6), who really is a handful despite her record suggesting otherwise.
Ikeyama, who fought in her professional debut way back in 2003, really made a name for herself just over 2 years ago, when she won the inaugural WBO Atomweight title bout, at the age of 44. The win saw her becoming the oldest Japanese world champion and subsequent defenses have seen her extend that record, though she has began to show her age at times, notably in her last two bouts.
Whilst Ikeyama is the champion it's fair to describe Hanagata as a world class fighter herself. In fact Hanagata was very unlucky last year not to claim the IBF female Light Flyweight title and holds a win over current world champion Yuko Kuroki. She has also given Momo Koseki one of her toughest bouts.
At her best Ikeyama was a busy fighter. She wasn't the strongest or most powerful but she was like the duracell bunny and kept unloading shots at an impressive rate. It was that work rate,and speed, that has helped her become a world champion at such a late stage in her career.
Like the champion Hanagata is also a high output fighter, she's a naturally more powerful fighter and one who is significantly lower than the champion. She has been found flagging in the later rounds of bouts but with her youth and fast starting mentality she could be a real problem for Ikeyama.
This bout looks almost certain to be a fast paced war from the off, though unfortunately for Ikeyama she is the naturally smaller, weaker and older fighting, suggesting that she may well be overwhelmed by the challenger, we we suspect will claim the title here.
Every so often female boxing gives us a bout that looks like a genuine treat. One such bout is set to take place this coming week when WBO female Bantamweight champion Naoko Fujioka (14-1,6) battles against heavy handed compatriot Shindo Go (16-3, 11), in what could potentially be a female FOTY contender.
Aged 40 Fujioka is a true veteran but also a top pound-for-pound fighter who can box, brawl and simply have a fight. Her abilities have seen her claim world titles in 3 divisions, from Minimumweight to Bantamweight, and whilst she is small for a female fighter at 118lbs she is a dangerous and highly skilled fighter.
Whilst Fujioka has only fought 15 times as a professional she has been in an incredible 7 world title bouts and holds notable wins over the likes of Naoko Shibata, Anabel Ortiz, Victoria Argueta, Naoko Yamaguchi and Mariana Juarez, whilst her only loss has been in Germany to the great Susi Kentikian. That type of resume is outstanding to say the least and sees Fujioka holding one of the most impressive records of any active female fighter in the sport.
For the challenger the bout is an incredibly important and likely emotional one, with Go announcing that it would be her final bout before she under-goes sexual realignment surgery, and will become a man. Potentially the bout could see Go become a 2-time world champion, having previously been the WBC female Flyweight champion and end life as a woman as a world champion.
Like Fujioka Go is an incredible warrior. The fighter has had to battle sexual identification issues throughout life and is looking to make a major move in life after this bout. In the ring that battling spirit has often been a key with Go always battling back from setbacks, including a debut defeat to Masae Akitaya back in 2008. Those set back shave however made the hard hitting Go a better fighter, a very hungry fighter.
When the two fighters get in the ring next week both will be looking for a career defining victory. For Fujioka the win would cement her legacy, whilst for Go the bout could serve as the perfect ending to life as a woman.
Our prediction on the fight is that Fujioka comes out on top, as she is the more skilled fighter. However given that Go is significantly younger, and is incredibly hungry to prove a point, the bout will be a very gruelling one for both fighters, with Fujioka needing one of her best performances to retain her title.
Over the last 2 years or so we've seen several fighters emerge, improve and become credible fighters at various levels in the sport. One of the most remarkable developments during that time has been that of Japanese fighter Yuko Kuroki (15-4-1, 7). Back in April 2014 Kuroki was 10-4-1 and had gone 1-2-1 in her previous 4 bouts, in fact it seemed like she was going to toil on the fringes of the OPBF title scene. Since then however she has gone 5-0, claimed the WBC female Minimumweight title and scored notable wins over Mari Ando, Katia Gutierrerz, Masae Akitaya and Nancy Franco.
This coming Monday Kuroki looks to continue her reign as a world champion as she takes on Filipino title challenger Norj Guro (7-5-1, 4), who is challenging for a world title for the second time.
The champion is a fighter who has improved significantly. She's skilled, hard working, tough and knows that every fight can be a stepping stone towards becoming a better fighter. Although she has got losses on her record they have typically come to good fighters, like Naoko Shibata, Saemi Hanagata and Etsuko Tada. Those losses were set backs but they were also developmental fights allowing her to work on things, push herself and gain valuable experience in her young boxing career.
The challenger hasn't yet proven herself as being a fringe world class fighter, despite this being her second world title bout. Going through her record we see no wins of note, in fact 6 of her 7 wins have been against debutants. Notably she has been fighting at higher weights than Minimumweight but has lost to every opponent with any value, such as Riyo Togo, Hee Jung Yuh, Buakaew OnesongchaiGym, Nao Ikeyama and Jessica Chavez. Although Guro has lost every time she's fought someone with a win, she has shown her toughness and has only been stopped once, by the big punching Riyo Togo.
Coming into this one it's impossible to think that the title will be changing hands, this is a huge step backwards for the champion but should work as a launch pad to bigger and better fights. What will be interesting however will be the manner of the win. Kuroki could take a shut out win without any problems, but if she's looking to a chase a stoppage she could make a statement, doing what the brilliant Jessica Chavez couldn't do. That really has to be the target for the champion.
Here we preview the key female title bouts involving an Asian fighter.