The Minimumweight division is a really strange one right now, that despite not being red hot has a lot of really interesting match ups that could be made, and a lot of interesting style match ups. One of the rising stars of the division is unbeaten Japanese fighter Tsubasa Koura (14-0, 9), the currnet OPBF champion and someone expected to be a future world champion. On March 31st he will make his 4th defense of the title as he takes on under-rated Filipino challenger Lito Dante (15-10-4, 7). On paper this looks a total mismatch, though in reality we suspect it will be a better than it looks on paper.
Looking at the records of the two men Dante will, clearly, be the under-dog. He's only won 15 bouts from 29 but the 29 year old should certainly shouldn't be ignored only because of his record. Since 2010 he has fought between Minimumweight and Flyweight and taken on a relative who's who of the lower weights. sharing the ring with the likes of Lester Abutan, Siyabonga Siyo, Vic Saludar, Takumi Sakai, Jessie Espinas, Simpiwe Konkco and Tibo Monabesa. No one has managed to stop Dante, who has proven to be tough and intelligent. He has also been able to score the occasional upsets, upsetting the likes of Lester Abutan, Jaysever Abcede, Jay Loto and Naoya Haruguchi.
As with most fighters who have got 30 fights under their belt Dante is a crafty fighter. He's not the sort of fighter who wow with flashy skills, but he will find holes, slip shots, and make things messy when he needs to. He lacks power but is accurate, intelligent and makes the most of what he has. His record might be that of a journeyman but he's not turning up to bouts to lose. He has taken rounds from the likes of Saludar, Espinas and Siyo through ring craft. He knows how to use the ropes to ride shots, knows how get his head involved when he needs to and really is a lot more frustrating than his record would suggest.
Of course the 24 year old Koura is expected to win, and we'd pick him despite feeling like Dante is being massively over-looked. We do however expect to see Koura being required to answer some questions that haven't been full answered yet. The champion, who is not only the OPBF champion but also a former Rookie of the Year win, is a fantastic fighter. Early in his career he looked to be a punch, but he has certainly developed into a more rounded boxer-puncher. He has started to realise he can't blast fighters out, and has instead gone 12 rounds twice, scoring wins over Masataka Taniguchi and Daiki Tomita, and showing real growth between those bouts. He's gone from being very aggressive early in his career to showing a sense of patience, countering, and adding more strings to his bow.
Through 14 fights Koura has beaten Jaffrey Galero, Masataka Taniguchi, Norihito Tanaka and Daiki Tomita and has really developed into a brilliant fighter, and is one of the leading contenders in the division. The fact he is still showing pretty clear improvements in fights is really exciting and a sign that he isn't sitting on his laurels, but is instead looking to fully prepare himself for a world title fight.
We don't expect the upset, it's not impossible but it would be a huge surprise. What we are expecting however is for Koura to show more than he's shown before. Dante is a frustrating fighter, he's an awkward fighter, he's a fighter who looks after himself. Koura will have to continue to show his patience, his mentality in the ring will be tested and how he breaks Dante down will be interesting. We're expecting a clear, and wide, decision to Koura, but he will have to work for it. Dante isn't unbeatable, but he is no walk in the park, despite his 10 losses.
The Minimumweight division recently saw a new IBF champion being crowned, as DeeJay Kriel scored a sensational last round KO win over Carlos Licona. Kriel will likely get the chance to make a voluntary defense next time out, though there are fighters sniffing around for a shot, and on March 23rd we'll get an eliminator between Filipino fighters Samuel Salva (16-0, 10) and Rene Mark Cuarto (16-1-1, 9). On paper this looks a really good bout, and with many of these all-Filipino eliminator level bouts it's worth a lot more attention that it will likely get.
On paper the more promising of the two fighters is the unbeaten Salva. He's unbeaten, appears to be the bigger puncher and has notable wins over Donny Mabao, twice, and Marco John Rementizo. Things however aren't that simple and overall it's Cuarto who has faced better competition, with his win over Clyde Azarcon being the best win either man has, and he also has a win over Ian Ligutan. It's also worth noting that Cuarto loss, and draw, both came to Jerald Paclar, who Cuarto stopped in their third and final meeting.
Footage of both men is available and Salva looks a powerful fighter, who throws nice, sharp hooks, good uppercuts and loads up on shots. Although Salva looks powerful he does seem somewhat inaccurate and there's an openness to his offensive work that could see him being countered right down the pipe but a skilled and confident fighter who sess the gaping holes when Salva throws. He's exciting but rough around the edges. The best quality footage of Cuarto is relatively old, but he does look a sharper, cleaner, more rounded fighter than Salva. There's less intensity to his work, but there is a more clean look to things from him and he certainly appears to set shots up better and have the more controlled footwork.
Both are young fighters, both are 22 years old, and whilst Minimumweights do mature quickly, often making their mark earlier than fighters in higher weight classes, both are very clearly developing as fighters and both have got years left of their careers.
A loss here isn't the end for either man. Cuarto knows that already, having gone 13-0-1 since losing more than 4 years ago, when he was just 18. Salva has never tasted defeat, but he is certainly not unbeatable and this will be a serious test for him. Cuarto has passed tough tests, he has built back from his loss, and we think that could be the key here. Salva has, for the most part, had things his own way, Cuarto has had to over-come a nemesis and we think that will have mentally solidified how Cuarto will deal with Salvo here, and he'll just do enough to take the decision and earn himself a future world title fight.
On March 8th we'll see a long awaited WBO Minimumweight world title eliminator, with the winner taking a huge step towards facing current world champion Vic Saludar. The men involved in that eliminator are Robert Paradero (17-0, 11), of the Philippines, and Wilfredo Mendez (11-1, 4), of Puerto Rico. On paper it's a brilliant matched bout with the Filipino holding the edge in experience and power whilst Mendez will be the man with the home advantage.
Note-Originally this bout had been arranged for December but various issues have seen it being delayed and rescheduled.
The 22 year old Filipino made his debut the month after his 18th birthday and has been progressed through the Filipino domestic scene. Sadly his biggest win to date was a domestic fight against Ronie Tanallon in 2016 to claim the WBO Asia Pacific Youth Minimumweight title, which he defended earlier this year against Royder Lloyd Borbon. If we're being honest there is very little about Paradero's record that stands out with his most experienced opponent being domestic loser Rodel Tejares and only a small number of his wins coming against fighters with winning records.
The footage of Paradero isn't the best, but from what there is he looks like a pretty exciting and aggressive fighter, with a slight crudeness to his punches but a lot of power and a lot of energy. He appears to have very solid power in both hands and be willing to engage in a brawl when he needs to. Sadly the big issue is really how much he can force the action against a better calibre of opposition.
Mendez, also 22, turned professional at the age of 19 and fought not only in his native Puerto Rico but also the Dominican Republic and Colombia, in fact most of his bouts have been in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic rather than his home land. As with Paradero his competition has also been somewhat lacking, in terms of quality.His best wins have come against coming against Juan Guzman, who has a padded record and has come up short every time he has stepped up, and Alex Aragon Vega, whilst he has also lost to Leyman Benavides, a man who is a long way from a world beater.
In his fight against Benevides it seemed like Mendez spent a lot of time spoiling and wrestling, in what was an awfully messy fight with neither man really showing anything of real quality. Mendez at times looked scared, wild, sloppy and offensively terrible. Sadly it's hard to find prolonged footage of him other than that bout, but if that's his usual style then it's hard to see what he really brings to the table.
With home advantage Mendez should be favoured, but on what we've seen of the two fighters neither really looks ready for a world title fight, or an eliminator. What we've seen suggests that Peradero should be the favourite. He's the bigger puncher and the more accurate of the two. But we suspect that Mendez gets the nod if both men are still standing at the final bell.
The Minimumweight division in Japan is really interesting right now, with great fighters across every level, from domestic Youth right up to world level. At the moment the domestic champion is Shin Ono (23-9-3, 6) and on January 12th he'll make a mandatory title defense, as he takes on veteran Norihito Tanaka (17-7, 9) in a very good match up that could well launch the winner into a world title fight later in the year.
Aged 36 Ono doesn't have long left in his career, in fact the Southpaw from the Watanabe gym has already had a career that is almost 18 years long. During his career he has faced a who's who including Xiong Zhao Zhong, Tatsuya Fukuhara, Masayuki Kuroda, Yu Kimura, Katsunari Takuyama, Knockout CP Freshmart, Reiya Konishi and Riku Kano, with wins against a number of those men. Through his career he has proven to be a gutsy fighter, with a good work rate, a real hunger and, even in his mid 30's, he's pulling out good results.
This is set to be Ono's second defense of the title, following his title win last year against Ryoki Hirai and his maiden defense against Riku Kano. Whilst he has proven to be a fantastic servant to Japanese boxing he has had a very hard career, his lack of power has made things even tougher and he has already had over 221 rounds of professional boxing. Those rounds have often been tough, with Ono getting embroiled in battles of attrition, rather than battles of skill, and that's despite being a pretty skilled fighter.
Tanaka is the slightly younger man at 33, though he turned 34 in February, but has also had a long career that began in 2005. Notable though Tanaka's career hasn't been as active as that of Ono, in fact Tanaka took a break of more than 5 years, between 2011 and 2017, and that gave his body time to rest. Since beginning his comeback he has gone 3-2 (2) and earned this shot on merit with an upset win over Takumi Sakae in late 2018, earning a mandatory title shot. Whiilst that's his biggest win of the comeback he did manage to give the touted Tsubasa Koura real problems in an OPBF title fight, before being stopped.
Through his career Tanaka has proven to be tough, smart and tricky. He has given problems to the likes of Koura, Takashi Kunishige and managed to go 10 rounds with Akira Yaegashi in a Japanese title fight, way back in 2011. Tanaka has under-rated power, a veteran's patience and a good ring IQ. Sadly he's not the quickest, his work rate isn't amazing and despite being skilled there are holes in his work that a quicker fighter can take advantage of.
We expect to see Ono being the one who comes forward, bringing the pressure and forcing Tanaka to respond. Strangely that'll actually be something that works in favour of Tanaka, who will be hoping to be able to counter Ono, bring his under-rated straight right hand into play. Despite Tanaka having the edge in power we suspect that Ono's work rate and toughness will see him over the line, albeit narrowly, in a very competitive contest. We do see Ono being rocked, at least once, but gutting it out for the win.
One of the most exciting things to come out of Japan over the last couple of years has been the Japanese Youth titles. The titles were brought in to give young prospects a chance to gain a title before progressing onto senior titles, and as a domestic alternative to the WBC Youth titles. The belts haven't really got much attention since they were brought in, on what was essentially a trial period. Recently the JBC began to recognise them, and their potential positives effects on the domestic scene, and we'll be honest we genuinely do like them. They don't thin the talent pool like some of the other titles, as their market is so niche, but they do provide some very interesting match ups.
One such bout is a Japanese Youth Minimumweight title bout between 2017 All Japan Rookie of the Year Yuga Inoue (7-0-1, 1) and the big punching Kai Ishizawa (4-0, 4), set for November 10th. Had their been no Japanese youth title we don't think we'd be getting this bout, as both fighters would likely prefer to build towards a national or regional title bout, but with the Youth title up for grabs we're expecting a genuine treat.
Inoue, no relation to Naoya Inoue, made his debut in August 2016 as a 17 year old, scraping a decision over Kisei Takada. He would secure another win before the year, over Riki Kakazu before coming into his own in 2017. In November 2017 he won the West Japan Rookie of the Year, despite only earning a draw with the then 6-0 Tatsuro Nakashima in the final before winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year in December with a victory over fellow teenager Retsu Akbane. The win over Akbane was the one that really caught the eye with Inoue genuinely impressing through the bout. Since his big Rookie of the Year victory he has fought just once, scoring a stoppage win over Daisuke Sudo this past May, sadly failing to build on the Rookie triumph though would make up for lost time if he was to claim the Youth title.
In the ring Inoue is a very sharp puncher and educated fighter who can fight either on the front foot or the back foot. At his best he seems to be a very sharp counter puncher, and finds gaps where we wouldn't typically expect such a novice to see them. His body punching is crisp, and he looks to be a fighter who enjoys countering inside the pocket, showing real composure. The one major issue is his lack of power, having only scored a single stoppage, and he has been cut before, making us wonder about how his skin will hold up against a puncher.
Ishizawa on the other hand made his debut in June 2017, as a 20 year old, and was put into a 6 round bout straight away, beating an over-match Thai foe in the second round. He would follow that up with another second win over Yoshimitsu Kushibe and then an opening round win over another visiting Thai. It was however in his 4th bout that he really impressed, stopping the aforementioned Tatsuro Nakashima who had held Inoue to a draw last year. Sadly he was unable to build on that win when he had to pull out of a Japanese Youth title bout against Daiki Tomita due to a nose injury. That was a set back, but something he has recovered from, and like Inoue he will be wanting to make up for lost time as he looks to win his first title.
It was clear from the first minute of Ishizawa's debut that he was a very exciting fighter, who loved to bring the heat and put opponents under intense pressure straight away. He's a very powerfully built fighter and has serious belief in his power and physicality. There is a little bit of a crudeness to him, as we tend to expect in such a novice, but he looks calm, throws really spiteful body shots and looks to behead opponents. Given his physicality he's going to be a monster in the years to come, as he develops the know how to go with his power.
We believe that Inoue is the better boxer, he's technically better, sharper and more accurate. Sadly for him however his lack of power won't discourage Ishizawa who will apply his pressure and look to break down his foe. We suspect that pressure will pay off, and Ishizawa will grind down Inoue in 4 or 5 rounds of a great action fight. Inoue will certainly have moments, but the physical traits of Ishizawa will simply be too much for him to deal with.
The Japanese eliminators for the 2019 Champion Carnival continue this coming Sunday with two more bouts to decide the mandatory challengers for the new year. One of those challenges will be in the Minimumweight division, where Takumi Sakae (19-2-1, 13) and Norihito Tanaka (16-7, 9) will battle for mandatory status. In theory they will be challenging Shin Ono, though rumours persist that Ono will vacate before the end of 2018 to fight for a world title.
Of the two men there isn't really a standout favourite. Sakae was a young prodigy who won the Rookie of the Year in 2013 as a 20 year old, but has failed to kick on since then. Tanaka on the other hand is a grizzled veteran who debuted in 2005 and has shared the ring with Kenichi Horikara, Ryoichi Taguchi, Akira Yaegashi, Takashi Kunishige and Tsubasa Koura. They are very different fighters but neither is to be strongly favoured over the other.
At 25 years old Sakae is likely edging towards his physical peak and if we're being honest he's had a genuine interesting career. As mentioned he won the Rookie of the Year back in 2013, just over 2 years after his debut, but failed to really use that as a launch pad. His 2014 was a relative waste of a year and in 2015 he claimed his first title, the IBF Youth Light Flyweight title, whilst also making his international debut. In 2016 he would lose a Japanese title fight to Tatsuya Fukuhara, before fighting to a technical draw with Lito Dante and ending the year with a loss to Ryoki Hirai in a Japanese title eliminator. In the space of just 12 months Sakae's record had gone from 13-0 (8) to 14-2-1 (9) and he had rebuilding to do.
Sadly Sakae's rebuilding has seen him stopping 4 very limited opponents and then taking a decision win, last time out, against Akihiro Toya. The only win of note is the one over Toya, which was a close decision, and strangely Toya's next fight will be a Japanese title fight in November.
In the ring Sakae is a pretty decent fighter. He's got nice speed, nice straight shots and respectable power. Sadly however he often finds himself in brawls as opposed to really using his skills. He's a pretty exciting fighter but tactically a naïve one who will always struggle against fighters who are strong enough to push him back and drag him into a war.
When we talk about an interesting career Tanaka has certainly had one of those. The 33 year olf from Tokyo debuted in 2005 and won his first 9 bouts before going 1-3 in his next 4, including a DQ loss to Ryoichi Taguchi and a decision loss to Kenichi Horikawa. A 3 fight winning run was snapped by a loss to Akira Yaegashi in a Japanese title fight in 2011 and after going 1-1 following that bout he took a 5 year break from the ring before returning last year. Since returning he has gone 2-2, suffering a stoppage loss last time out to Tsubasa Koura in an OPBF title fight.
Through his career Tanaka has proven to be tough, strong and a nightmare for fighters we would deem as being better. He was clearly beaten by Yaegashi but was actually in front against Koura prior to the stoppage, and had dropped the young Oriental champion prior to being finished himself. He's rugged, a bit clumsy but knows his way around the ring, and is very good inside the pocket. He can often find the sneaky shots up close that novices don't see coming and he counters very well, as we saw when he put Koura down. Sadly though at 33 he's very old for a Minimumweight and he has taken a fair bit of punishment through his career.
We see Sakae as the more technically solid fighter, but Tanaka is the smarter man, the man with the better ring IQ and the fighter who will be able to dictate things a touch better. We think the ring IQ of Tanaka could will see him landing solid counters when Sakae gets over excited and attacks up close. Those clever counters will be enough to hurt Sakae, but the younger man does have home advantage and that could well end up helping him on the cards. We see that home advantage as being the difference maker here, with Sakae likely to take a narrow decision win.
This coming Saturday we'll see a really looking OPBF Minimumweight title bout, as the hard hitting Tsubasa Koura (13-0, 9) takes on Daiki Tomita (12-0, 4), with Koura looking to make his third defense of the title and Tomita fighting for his first title. Of the two fighters it's the champion who is the more well and more touted, but the challenger is a touted 20 year old with a point to prove and opportunity to make a name for himself against a very highly regarded fighter.
Aged 23 Koura is a real wild card in the Minmumweight division, and someone who has eyes on world title fighters. He debuted at the age of 19 in August 2014 and the following year he was crowned the All-Japan Rookie of the Year. The following year he showed his explosiveness and scored a notable win against Jeffrey Galero before defeating Jaysevera Abcede in 2017 for the OPBF title. Since winning the belt Koura has been tested, narrowly over-coming Masataka Taniguchi in his first defense then pulling himself off the canvas to defeat Norihito Tanaka in his second defense.
In the early stages of his career Koura showed his explosiveness. It was a exciting yet dangerous and sometimes crude. Since then however he has shown he can box, holding his own in a boxing contest with Taniguchi. He's still showed he was heavy handed, but also that he wasn't a one-trick pony, instead being more of a boxer-puncher. The boxing skills were on show again when he defeated Tanaka, showing lovely speed, nice movement and a good jab and some lovely counter shots. There was however a moment in the opening round when he went for the finish and was dropped from a big counter shot. That didn't really leave question marks about his chin, but more about the risks he takes, and he did bounce up almost immediately. If he takes too many risks there is a chance it will come back to bite him. Though we suspect as he matures he'll become less risky and know when to unload and when to be patient.
At 20 years old Tomita is a bit of a boxing baby though has also won the Rookie of the Year, claiming the crown in 2016. Sadly since claiming the Rookie of the Year his career hasn't really developed significantly, and his best win was a decision over the tough but limited Desierto Nagaike. Despite Nagaike being limited the bout did serve as a chance for Tomita to prove his stamina, and he did so by winning 10 round decision. Through his career he has proven to be technically solid, with smart movement, quick on his feet and sharp with his punches. Notably he also looks big for the weight and looks like he will probably out grow the division sooner rather than later.
Although not as well known as the champion Tomita does look like a real prospect with a lot of potential. His body shots are particularly good and although there is a long way for him to go he looks like someone who will step up in terms of his performances when he faces stiffer competition. His style could well give Koura real problems, and it seems like if he can establish his jab, and control the distance. If he can manage that he really could see more questions being asked of Koura than ever before.
We're expecting to see Koura look to use his speed and power and Tomita boxing smartly on the back foot. The style of Tomita could give Koura problems, but we fancy Koura's power to be the difference and to bail him out in the middle rounds of the contest. Possibly with Tomita leading on the score cards. Hopefully a win here will lead to Koura getting a world title fight, though it does feel like we've been talking about that for a while and yet he is still defending the OPBF title against domestic challengers, no the regional elite.
This coming Friday fight fans at the Korakuen Hall will get a pretty interesting domestic title fight at 105lbs in a bout that neither man can really afford to lose. In one corner we will have 35 year old Japanese champion Shin Ono (22-9-3, 5), making his first defense of the title and looking to move towards one more world title shot. In the other corner will be 20 year old Riku Kano (13-3-1, 7), a once highly touted prospect who appears to be struggling no and has lost 2 of his last 5 bouts.
Ono, from the esteemed Watanabe gym, has been a professional since 2001. His early career was pretty low key, with a couple of early career losses whilst moving to 8-2 (2). Sadly though after those first 10 bouts Ono took a 3 year break from the ring, not fighting between January 2005 and February 2008. In 2008 however he returned, picking up a notable win over a then unbeaten Yu Kimura before being stopped by Masayuki Kuroda. The loss Kuroda began a real dip in form for Ono who went 1-2-2 in his following 5 fights. He quickly fell from 8-2 to 11-5-2 (2).
It was then that Ono had one of the best runs of his career, defeating Xiong Zhao Zhong in an 8 round bout, taking a very controversial win over Omari Kimweri to gain the OPBF Light Flyweight title and working his way up to an IBF title fight with Katsunari Takayama. He lost to Takayama, but didn't shame himself, losing 115-111 on two cards and 117-109 on the other, with two knockdowns late costing him hard. He would then suffer a number of set backs, coming up short in Japanese title fights to Kenichi Horikawa, Tatsuya Fukuhara and Reiya Konishi as well as a world title fight with Wanheng Menayothin.
With his career on the line Ono claimed the Japanese title earlier this year at the champion carnival, defeating Ryoki Hirai with a close unanimous decision. The win saw Ono really grit his teeth, fall back on his experience and fight like a man who knew couldn't afford a loss. He used a busy southpaw jab, managed to get in and work when he needed to and exposed all sorts of flaws with Hirai.
Kano made his his professional debut as a boxing baby in 2013, as a fresh faced 16 year old. Due to Japanese licensing rules his first 7 fights all took place in Thailand and the Philippines, with teenager going 5-1-1 (3) in those bouts and claiming the WBA Asia Minimumweight title, with a win over Madit Sada. It wasn't until June 2015 that Kano would make his Japanese debut, and the following year he claimed the OPBF “interim” Minimumweight title, defeating Merlito Sabillo. Just months later Kano would get his biggest fight, facing off with Katsunari Takayama for the WBO world title. Sadly for Kano he wasn't strong enough, busier enough, experienced enough or powerful enough to over-come Takayama, who took a clear technical decision, and destroyed Kano's hopes of becoming the youngest ever Japanese world champion.
Since the loss Takayama we've not really seen Kano look all that good. He's stopped a couple of limited Thai visitors, suffered a stoppage loss to Jerry Tomogdan in a regional title fight and struggled past domestic foe Naoya Hariguchi.
In the ring Kano is a skilled boxer, he has nice speed and good movement. Sadly though he really does lack power, he's somewhat physically immature, being more of a boy than a man, has a pretty weak work rate and as shown in the bout with Tomogdan he really dislikes taking body shots. His lack of work rate and issues with tempo could be a major problem here.
We'd love to see Kano click and put it all together, live up to the early potential he showed and become a world champion. Sadly though we don't see that happening any time soon and we don't see him really holding his own with Ono. Ono's activity and ability to create a fight up close and personal will be the key. The champion will cut the distance and work away at the body of Kano. We don't think will stop Kano, but we do think he'll out work him to a clear decision victory.
Next Sunday we'll see a new Japanese champion being crowned as Ryoki Hirai (10-4-1, 4) takes on Shin Ono (21-9-3, 5) in a bout for the vacant Japanese Minimumweight crown, which was vacated earlier this year by Reiya Konishi. The bout is a make or break bout for the relatively unknown Hirai whilst Ono is essentially fighting to keep his career after recent set backs in 4 other title bouts.
Of the two men it's Ono who is the more well known. He's a former OPBF Light Flyweight champion, having won that title back in 2013, he has twice fought for world titles, losing to Katsunari Takayama and Knockout CP Freshmart, and come up short in 3 Japanese title bouts, losing to Kenichi Horikawa and Reiya Konishi and fighting to a draw with Tatsuya Fukuhara.
At his best Ono was a skilled boxer-mover, and he holds notable wins over Yu Kimura, Xiong Zhao Zhong and Omari Kimweri. Sadly however he is now 35 years old, ancient for a Minimumweight, and with 203 rounds under his belt he has taken a lot of punishment. That has included 3 stoppage losses, with the most recent coming in 2015 to Kenichi Horikawa, and a lot of other accumulative damage from tough fights with Konishi, Knockout and Takayama. What hasn't helped has been his lack of power and despite scoring stoppages in his last 3 wins they have come against frankly terrible opposition.
We know Ono will be hungry, with this almost certainly being his final chance to claim a Japanese title but he has a lot of things going against him here, including his age, wear and tear and generally lacking the power he'd need to get the respect of any decent domestic opponent.
Whilst Ono has been fighting at title level for years the same can't be said of Hirai, who will be fighting in his first title fight here. The 27 year old from Kobe made his professional debut in late 2011 and struggled to find his groove, going 3-3-1 in his first 7 bouts as he bounced from Minimumweight to Super Flyweight. Following 3 successive losses he returned to Minimumweight and rebuilt his career by winning 7 of 8 bout. Those wins have shot Hirai up the Japanese rankings and have included recent victories over Takimi Sakae and Ryoya Ikema, which have helped him break into the WBO top 15 and earn this title fight.
Although relatively unknown we have been impressed by what we've managed to see of Hirai. That included his win over Ikema in which Hirai showed good composure when Ikema looked to him out early, smart movement, a good judgement of distance, lovely speed and some very sharp punching, especially to the body. Those are tools that he will be looking to use against Ono, who like Ikema is a southpaw.
Whilst this is a slight step up in class for Hirai, following his wins over Sakae and Ikema, it's hard to imagine his current 5 fight winning streak coming to and end to Ono, who has looked like a man on his way down for a while. Ono won't be there to lose, but we suspect Hirai will have a bit too much of everything for the veteran, and will score a late stoppage of Ono to send the Watanabe man into retirement.
On April 17th fight fans at the Korakuen Hall will see OPBF Minimumweight champion Tsubasa Koura (12-0, 8) return to the ring the make the second defense of his title, as he goes up against veteran Norihito Tanaka (16-6, 9). For Koura the bout will act as his next step towards a potential world title fight, a chance to shine on the global stage, whilst Tanaka will be looking to claim his first professional title more than 13 years after his debut!
Aged 23 Koura is one of the rising stars of Japanese boxing. He made his debut in August 2014 in a low key 4 rounder but the following year he announced himself as a key prospect in Japanese boxing by being crowned the Minimumweight Rookie of the Year. That Rookie of the year win, which saw him defeat Ryusei Kitamura in the final, saw Koura catch the attention of a number of fans going into 2016.
In 2016 we saw the youngster go from strength to strength, adding 3 more wins to his record including an excellent 2nd round TKO win over former world title challenger Jeffrey Galero, who had gone the championship distance with Wanheng Menayothin. In 2017 he further enhanced his reputation by stopping Jaysever Abcede in 4 rounds for the OPBF title, which he defended with a razor thin win against the talented Masataka Taniguchi.
In the ring Koura is an aggressive, hard hitting youngster who has impressed fight after fight. He's only got 48 rounds under his belt though has already gone 12 rounds at a high pace and shown his grit and determination to over-come Taniguchi. Despite being a puncher he does have under-rated skills, and those skills will have been kept in check by the Taniguchi fight, which will have done Koura the world of good, especially given that he had stopped his previous 6 opponents in a combined 14 rounds. He's far from flawless, and certainly has some rough edges, particularly defensively, but he's young, talented and improving fight on fight.
Most fight fans won't be familiar at all with Norihito Tanaka, despite the 33 year old being a genuine veteran of the Japanese scene. As previously mentioned he debuted back in 2005 and had a good winning run to begin his career, winning his first 9 fights and being crowned the East Japan Rookie of the Year in 2006. Sadly though that great start was followed by 3 losses in 4 fights, including defeats to Kenichi Horikawa and Ryoichi Taguchi, which seriously slowed his rise. A short winning run saw him claim the Strongest Korakuen in 2010 before losing in a Japanese title fight to Akira Yaegashi back in 2011, a loss that was then followed by defeat to Takashi Kunishige.
With a record of 14-5 (7) Tanaka stepped away from the ring for over 5 years, before returning in 2017, and since then he has gone 2-1 (2), with the only loss being a razor thin one to Naoya Hariguchi. It's worth noting that given his long break from the ring Tanaka is a very young 33, and his only loss not to have gone the distance was a DQ loss to Taguchi, who he hit on the break. He has never been stopped, and went the distance with two future world champions and a former world title challenger. His toughness really can't be questioned.
Whilst it's clear that Tanaka is tough he does lack experience against real punchers, like Koura, and at 33 the question really is whether or not his body can handle not only the power but the high energy offense of Koura. When Koura has a man hurt he doesn't really let off and instead lets the punches fly, which will be a major problem if Tanaka can't get his respect. Taniguchi could get Koura's respect, and had the skills to really push Koura, we don't think that'll be the case here with Tanaka who we see being stopped in the middle rounds as Koura takes a huge step towards getting a shot at a world title.
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.