Domestically the division is also red hot with fighters like Shun Kubo, Kazuki Tanaka, Daisuke Watanabe, Sho Nakazawa and Shohei Kawashima all breaking through the ranks. At the top of the domestic table is veteran Yasutaka Ishimoto (29-8, 8), who won the title in late 2015 and has recorded two defenses of the title so far. On February 4th he will take on the man he originally beat to claim that title, Yusaku Kuga (13-2-1, 9), in a highly anticipated rematch.
Of the two men Ishimoto is the better known fighter, both domestically and internationally. On the international scene he is best known for defeating Wilfredo Vazquez Jr in Macao in 2013 and then losing, in the same venue, to Chris Avalos in 2014. In Japan however he is long serving veteran of the sport, who debuted back in 2002 and fought a number of top domestic fighters. His career on the domestic scene saw him fight for the Japanese title in 2012 and 2014, losing to Masaaki Serie and Yukinori Oguni, before finally winning the title against Kuga in 2014.
Promoted by Teiken Ishimoto has long been a staple of the Tokyo scene, with 34 fights at the Korakuen Hall. Those fans have been given some real treats thanks to Ishimoto, with his two bouts against Gakuya Furuhashi being particularly fun to watch. In the ring Ishimoto is technically well schooled, has a great engine, a gritty determination and a very fun style. He's not a big punch, as is clear from his record, but he's a consistently active fighter who fighters well both at range and up close.
At his best Ishimoto is a handful, and a fringe world class fighter. He has notable victories over the likes of Shingo Wake, Yu Kawaguchi, the aforementioned Vazquez and Furuhashi, He has also suffered razor thin losses to current world champion Oguni and a then rising Yota Sato, who would claim his title around 4 years after beating Ishimoto. At 35 years old and with 37 bouts, 237 rounds, under his belt Ishimoto is likely on the slide, and given his style he's certainly taken punishment through his career. Despite being on the slide he is still a fantastic fighter and is on a good run having won his last 5.
The challenger, the 26 year old Kuga, has been a professional since late 2010 and impressed early. In 2012 he took part in the Rookie of the Year, though was defeated early in the competition by Nobuhiro Hisano. Despite the set back against Hisano it was clear that Kuga's team didn't feel they had to protect him and he was quickly put in against decent opponents, beating both Takumi Takahashi and former amateur stand out Yusuke Suzuki. Kuga was unfortunate not to follow up the win over Suzuki with another win over an amateur standout as he was controversially held to a draw against Naoto Uebayashi.
Following the draw over Uebayashi we saw Kuga score a series of good domestic wins,beating the likes of Taishio Torimoto, Yuki Iwasaki and Koji Aoki as he moved towards his first title bout. Sadly for Kuga that title bout would come against Ishimoto and he would come up narrowly short, losing 96-94 and 96-95, twice. That loss was a heart breaking one for the youngster but one that seemed to fire him up, and since then he has been a wrecking ball smashing Sukkasem Kietyongyuth in 5 rounds and flattening Jonathan Baat in 4 rounds, in a Strongest Korakuen contest. The win over Baat saw the Filipino veteran suffer just his third loss and put Kuga's name along side Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym and Rodrigo Guerrero.
In the ring Kuga is a “rough around the edges” puncher. He is flawed, a bit open and a bit defensively naive, but he's also a nasty puncher with a physical style. His punches all hurt and although not the most naturally smooth fighter his boxing ability can't be over-looked. At 26 he is coming into his prime and is still clearly improving fight after fight. With his power he's a huge danger man at the domestic level, and potentially has the power to go much further.
Although Ishimoto won the first clash we actually favour Kuga here. Since the first fight Ishimoto has had 20 really hard rounds and turned 35 whilst Kuga has developed into an even hungrier fighter and the win over Baat was incredibly impressive. We wouldn't be massively surprised if Ishimoto scored a repeat, but we do favour Kuga to win here in a genuinely thrilling contest.