On February 11th fight fans in Hiroshima will get the chance to see a popular local fighter challenger for an OPBF title, in what is a real must win for the local, and the next stepping stone in the career of the champion.
The champion in question is 26 year old Filipino Edward Heno (13-0-5, 5), the current OPBF Light Flyweight champion who will be taking on 35 year old challenger Koji Itagaki (18-13-3, 7). Another loss for Itagaki almost certainly ends his career, which began in 2005, whilst a win would be his defining achievement, and a huge upset. A win for Heno however would enhance his reputation and move him one more step towards a world title fight, in one of the sports most packed divisions.
Heno won the title in September 2017, travelling to Japan and stopping Seita Ogido. Prior to winning the belt he had stopped the then 12-0 Cris Ganoza and been held to a very controversial draw with Ogido, having originally been announced as the winner before a scoring error was discovered. Since winning the title he has defended it against Merlito Sabillo and Jesse Espinas.
In recent years Heno has proven to be a very talented boxer, with underrated power, a lot of confidence and a willingness to travel to prove himself, having travelled for both the bouts with Ogido and the bout with Sabillo. In the ring he's an accurate, sharp puncher, with smart defense and the ability to pick some fantastic counters. There's definitely areas to improve and work, but on the whole he's a fantastic young fighter who is hungry to prove himself, before getting a world title fight. It's clear he doesn't just expect a title shot, but feels the need to earn it.
Itagaki has had a number of notable chances in the last few years. In 2017 he lost to Kenichi Horikawa, in a bout for the WBO Asia Pacific Light Flyweight title, and in 2018 he lost to the then Japanese champion Tetsuya Hisada, before at the end of the year to Horikawa in a Japanese title eliminator. In fact coming into this bout he is 2-4-1 in his last 7, going back more than 3 years. Unfortunately for Itagaki his record is reflective of his career, and he is a "win some lose some" fighter, who has mixed with good fighters, losing to the likes of Horikawa, Hisada, Rey Loreto, Suguru Munraka, and Warlito Parrenas, but unfortunately come up short against almost everyone of note.
Despite his failings against decent fighters Itagaki isn't actually a bad fighter. For an older fighter he's light on his feet and has good a lovely quick jab. Sadly though he's a light puncher, he has to work incredibly hard for success and struggles to get respect from opponents. He certainly has the skills to make life difficult for opponents, but if a fighter can cut the ring off, they can really get to him. Likewise against a young, talented fighter, like Heno, we suspect that Itagaki's lack of physicality will be his down fall.
We rate Heno incredibly highly and we're expecting him to show why he is so well regarded in the sport. We're expecting to see him show his speed,timing and variety to neutralise the movement of Itagaki, and force a late stoppage over the veteran. Yes Itagaki will be awkward early on, but as the pressure comes from Heno he'll slow down, and eventually be broken down.
We don't expect to see Heno just look win, but instead we expect him to win in a way that makes a statement and begins to open the door to potential world title fights in Japan against WBA "super" champion Hiroto Kyoguchi or WBC champion Kenshiro.
The Japanese scene today is very much one focused on young fighters and prospects, with many of the old guard having retired. The are however some of the old guard continuing their careers, two of whom are set to face off on October 12th in a Japanese Light Flyweight title eliminator, with the winner to get a shot at the title next year.
The fighters in question are 38 year old Kenichi Horikawa (37-15-1, 11) and 35 year old Koji Itagaki (18-12-3, 7). Between them they are 73 years old with a combined record of 55-27-4 (18) and 566 career rounds, and both know that this really could be their last notable bout if they lose. If they win however they open up the door to another big fight in the first half of 2019. Not only are they experienced but they know each other, having had a great battle against each other in early 2017.
Of the two men Horikawa is the older, more experienced man and the one who has hit the higher highs. He is a former Japanese Light Flyweight champion, having won the title in September 2015 when he beat Shin Ono, and actually beat Itagaki in February 2017 to claim the WBO Asia Pacific title. As well those wins he has mixed against great competition, losing to the likes of Akira Yaegashi, Florante Condes, Edgar Sosa, Kenshiro, Noknoi Sitthiprasert and Tetsuya Hisada, who he is 2-1 against.
In the ring Horikawa is a rough around the edge fighter who can box but often elects to fight, biting down on the gum shield and going toe-to-toe. This can make his bouts exciting, but they can also become sloppy and messy, and his third bout with Hisada became a bit of a bloody mess after several hard head clashes.
Itagaki's record looks dire, he has won just over 50% of his bouts and at 35 is getting no better. The reality however is that he too has been matched hard. He would fight to a draw with future world champions Yu Kimura and Tatsuya Fukuhara and suffer losses to Suguru Muranaka, Warlito Parrenas, Rey Loreto, Horikawa and the aforementioned Hisada, in a Japanese title fight earlier this year. It's worth noting that he has also scored some notable wins, including a stoppage over a then debuting Rangsan Chayanram, aka Palangpol CP Freshmart, and wins over Benezer Alolod and Koki Ono.
Like Horikawa we tend to see Itagaki getting dragged into brawls. He's a better boxer than Horikawa, has good foot work and speed, even at his age, and uses a busy jab whilst on the move. He showed against Hisada that even in his mid-30's he's a bundle of energy. However he can be made to stand his ground and fight fire with fire. It makes for great action but his lack of power is an issue when that happens.
When these two get in the ring on Thursday we suspect we'll see an energetic display from Itagaki, who will use his movement and try to avoid getting involved up close with Horikawa. Eventually however the fresh feet of Itagaki will slow and allow Horikawa his inside fight. When that happens the crowd will be given some thrilling action. The real question however is how long can Itagaki bounce around the ring. If he can do it for more than 4 rounds he should take the decision, but if Horikawa can cause a fire fight early on then he has a real chance of doing enough to take decision.
We suspect Itagaki should be able to take the decision, and avenge his previous defeat to Horikawa, but he will have to work incredibly hard for it.
*Please note this super early preview is due to the fact that the October 12th card has a staggering 6 different Japanese title eliminators so we are posting them a little earlier than usual.
The depth at Light Flyweight is really impressive right now, with so many world class fighters plying their trade at 108lbs. The depth is so extreme that a number of very good fighters get totally over-looked, one of whom is Japanese national champion Tetsuya Hisada (30-9-2, 19) who is having a great few years and really proving at the age of 33 that he deserves to be in the mix for a world title fight. To keep his dreams of getting that shot a reality however he will have to extend his domestic reign and on April 14th he'll be defending his title in a mandatory title fight against Koji Itagaki (18-11-3, 7).
The champion won the belt last year, defeating fellow veteran Kenichi Horikawa for the title which had been vacated by Ken Shiro. He went on to defend the title twice last year, beating former world title challenger Atsushi and youngster Takeru Kamikubo. In all 3 of his title victories Hisada has shown an amazing engine, getting better as the fights get one, consistent power and a real desire to prove himself. That desire has also seen him totally turn his career around, and just 3 years ago he was 21-9-2 and floundering as a professional.
The reason for a lot of Hisada's problems, before his current 9 fight winning run, was the fact he kept fighting at different weights. He regularly fought at Flyweight and even fought a few times at Super Flyweight. At those higher weights he has really struggled but at Light Flyweight his record is genuinely impressive at 8-2 (7), with those losses coming to Ryoichi Taguchi and Kenichi Horikawa, with the loss to Horikawa being avenged. Above Light Flyweight he is 22-7-2 (12). Even if the winning %'s aren't starkly different, 80% and 71%, the difference in his power at the lower weight is telling.
On paper Itagaki has the record of a journeyman, losing in 11 of 32 bouts. He has however been matched incredibly hard on the domestic and regional scene facing the likes of Yu Kimura, Suguru Muranaka, Palangpol CP Freshmart, Warlito Parrenas, Tatsuya Fukuhara, Rey Loreto and Kenichi Horikawa among others. Given that level of competition there is little surprise to see him having losses pile up, though unfortunately he has also come up short against weaker opponents, and at 34 it's unlikely he'll manage to turn things around and score a career best victory.
In the ring Itagaki is a tough battler. He's not much of a puncher, he's not quick and he's not a defensive master. He is however a gutsy fighter. He will take the fight to Hisada and refuse to give anything but his all. Sadly for him that won't be enough here and despite his determination and effort we can't see past a late stoppage for Hisada, who will make Itagaki look his 34 years.
It is worth noting Itagaki comes into this on the back of one of his best wins, a decision over Koki Ono, but he won't have enough to over-come Hisada here.
Having canned the old "Full Schedule" of Asianboxing we have instead decided to concentrate more on the major bouts. This section, the "Preview" section will look at major bouts involving OPBF and national titles. Hopefully leading to a more informative style for, you the reader.