In one corner you have the OPBF Minimumweight champion Ryuji Hara (18-0, 10), a man who really is on the verge of a world title fight. Hara is ranked in the top 5 by all 4 world title bodies and could easily have got a shot with any of the champions had he been willing to just wait for his opportunity. Instead of doing that he has chosen to defend his OPBF title against the fastest rising young fighter in the division, if not in the whole of boxing, Kosei Tanaka (3-0, 1).
We'll get on to Tanaka in a few moments, and we have a lot to say about him, but for now Hara.
Hara has been a professional since 2010 and since then he has gone through the the ranks the "traditional way". Firstly he won the Rookie of the Year, in 2010, in 2012 he went on to claim the Japanese title before winning the OPBF title earlier this year. As well as the climbing up the ranks he has also scored a number of notable wins including perennial national title challenger Kenichi Horikawa, former world title challenger Takashi Kunishige, and the tough and testing Donny Mabao. It was the win over Mabao that won Hara the OPBF title and although he was pushed hard it does need to be noted that Mabao was essentially a Flyweight.
As a boxer Hara is a technically solid fighter with respectable power and nice speed. He has a nice variety of shots though does have real weaknesses in defense, which is often open, his movement is very bouncey at times and energy consuming, and most worryingly he's been down numerous times in his career leading some to question his durability, especially considering he has yet to fight an actual puncher.
At 24 years old Hara should be a physically mature fighter, especially for someone in the lower weights, however stood at just 5'1" he's small, even for a Minimumweight and doesn't appear to be a strong looking fighter like some other smaller fighters in the division. He looks weak in some ways and even with his skills it's hard to see him surviving an onslaught of someone like Francisco Rodriguez Jr or Oswaldo Novoa. He's good with out a doubt, but should be matched with similar fighters if he hopes to become a champion and right now the only similar champion is Hekkie Budler, another skilled but small and light hitting guy in the division.
Another notable thing to consider with Hara is his stoppage rate. On paper he scores a KO every other fight. In reality however he's gone the distance in his last 6 bouts and is without a stoppage in over 2 years. That has seen him go from 12-0 (10) to 18-0 (10) and we suspect it will drop lower over the coming years as more fighters fall to topple over at his power and he needs to revert to winning bouts with his boxing skills as opposed to his power. Those skills are good, but he has to use them if he's ever going to fulfill his early potential.
So now Tanaka, a man who looks like a novice on paper but in reality is more talented them other fighters with a lot more experience. In fact in many ways Tanaka looks as close to the real deal as anyone at 105lbs, and we include Francisco Rodriguez Jr in that assessment. Blessed with lightning speed, an innate sense of timing, freakish maturity for a teenager, very light and educated movement and the confidence to go in against anyone. As well all those gifts you see when he steps in the ring he also has under-rated power and his 1 stoppage from 3 bouts really doesn't tell you the whole story about how hard Tanaka hits. The proof of that is the way he dismantled Crison Omayao in his most recent bout needing less than a round to see off the Filipino.
A former amateur standout the Japanese domestic circuit there is little doubt that, with fair judging, Tanaka could have been an Olympic hopeful for either 2016 in Rio or 2020 in Tokyo. Instead however he turned professional in his teens under the guidance of former WBA Flyweight champion Susumu Hanagata. If you think we've been complimentary about Tanaka then Hanagata has been flattering his young charge and seemed to indicate that Tanaka had the ability to match the achievement of Saensak Muangsurin in winning a world title in just his 3rd bout. The last time we heard something like that about a Japanese youngster it was Hideyuki Ohashi talking about Naoya Inoue, who set a Japanese record by winning a world title in fight #6. Inoue's record may well be under some serious threat if Tanaka can show off his ability here against Hara.
The big question about Tanaka going into this bout, and the one he will need to answer, is how does he cope with a 12 round fight. He managed to do 8 rounds easily against Ronelle Ferreras, even spending the final round blowing off energy and fighting toe-to-toe out of choice to try and excite the fans rather than stop Ferreras, who hadn't been stopped in over 5 years. If Tanaka decides to box for 12 rounds, which we suspect he can, and takes a decision it will be impressive and proof that he is ready for a world title fight. If instead he tries to make a statement and stop Hara we think fans will be even more excited and the youngster may well find himself with fans getting behind him in a big way, in fact a stoppage win could see even western fans sit up and take note.
At just 19 years old and stood at 5'4" Tanaka has the young to develop and the size to go up the weights. We don't think he has any issues at 105lbs for now but we'd be shocked if he didn't make a mark at 108lbs, 112lbs and even 115lbs at some point when he matures. He may not be Naoya Inoue, but to us Kosei Tanaka is just as good as Inoue.
We can't say that this is a forgone conclusion. Hara is the more proven fighter, he has shown his skills and toughness and managed to 12 rounds but he is, in our eyes, a very big under-dog against a man set to be one of the stars of the boxing world over the next decade.
(Image courtesy of Kadoebi.com)