On May 18th we'll see Japanese star Naoya Inoue (17-0, 15) attempt to progress to the WBSS Final, as he takes on Emmanuel Rodriguez (19-0, 12). The bout, for the IBF, WBA "regular" and the Ring Magazine Bantamweight title is really highly anticipated though is strangely regarded as a mismatch with the bookies.
At the time of writing the book makers in the UK have Inoue priced at 1/7 to win with Rodriguez priced as high as 25/4.
This isn't going to be one of our looks into the odds however, and is instead a bit of a history piece, suggesting that those odds really are remarkable, and that a win for Inoue would actually be an historic milestone for Japanese boxing. In fact it would end a 51 year barren run for Japanese fighters travelling to Europe in world title fights. It would be a first in a number of ways and could be a real turning point in the way Japanese fighters figure in Europe.
It's long been accepted that Japanese fighters don't do well on their travels. They have had notoriously bad form in nearby Thailand, as well as the US and Mexico. What is often over looked however is that they are 0-20 in world title fights in Europe. A figure that is incredible given the talent Japan has given us. Worryingly it's not just been lesser challengers who have come up short when they have travelled continent but some really good fighters as well. And their misfortune runs across Europe, from Russia to the UK.
So lets roll back the clock. The first loss by a Japanese fighter in a world title fight in Europe came way back in 1968, when Mitsunori Seki fought Howard Winstone for the WBC Featherweight title. Both men had been leading contenders, essentially unable to over-come the legendary Vincente Saldivar, who beat Winstone 3 times and beat Seki twice. When Saldivar retired the two fought for the title he vacated with Winstone stopping Seki in the 9th round, retiring the Japanese fighter.
The difference between then and now is huge. Back then there was only 2 titles, the WBC and WBA titles. Despite both fighters being top contenders they were both in their mid 20's, with Seki being the younger man at 26 and Winstone being 28. Despite that Winstone was figthing for the 65th time whilst Seki was in his 73rd bout. We don't often see careers like that any more. Interestingly neither man would fight beyond the year, with Seki retiring after this loss and Winstone retiring following his title loss 6 months later.
It would take 6 years before another Japanese fighter travelled over for a shot at glory, with that being Lion Furuyama in 1974. The Japanese fighter had a win some-lose some record but would come close to upsetting Perico Fernandez in a bout for the then vacant WBC Light Welterweight title. The bout took place on neutral soil, in Italy, and was decided by Ronald Dakin's card of 148-147 to Fernandez. Yes the bout was decided by a single round of the scoring referee's card. This is as close as a Japanese fighter has come to clinching a world title in Europe.
Interestingly both Furuyama and Fernandez would go on to suffer 2 losses to Thai legend Saensak Muangsurin, with Fernandez being the man Muangsurin beat for the title in his third bout, and Furuyama being the man he beat in his second bout.
The third occasion, at least the third one we could find, was 13 years later, taking place in 1987 in the UK and comes from a peculiar time in Japanese boxing history. This bout saw Akio Kameda travel to face Terry Marsh for the IBF Light Welterweight. At the time the JBC didn't recognise the IBF at all, holding that stance until very recently. As a result Japanese fighters who wanted to fight for IBF titles fought under the alternative IBF Japan. A number of fighters did this, including Satoshi Shingaki. Kameda became the first, and only, IBF Japan fighter to travel to the UK to fight for a world title.
Marsh broke down Kameda until the Japanese visitor's team stopped the bout between rounds 6 and 7 in what was the final bout for both men.
Despite the long break between Furuyama and Kameda getting shots there wasn't a long wait for the next one, with Akinobu Hiranaka travelling to Italy to face Argentinian Juan Martin Coggi for the WBA Light Welterweight title. Although Coggi was an Argentinian the Italian had adopted him following his 1987 title win over Patrizio Oliva, and this was his 4th bout in the country.
Hiranaka knew he would need a KO to win and did all he could to get it, dropping Coggi hard in round 3 and having him in all sorts of trouble. Coggi would grit it out though, dropping Hiranaka later in the bout to help secure a wide decision on the cards. Hiranaka would later claim the title, ripping it from Edwin Rosario in 1992, in just 92 seconds.
Bizarrely there wasn't a single Japanese title challenger travelling to Europe in the 1990's, from what we found, but since 2004 there has been 16, more than 1 a year. They've all come up short, but they have had mixed performances with some certainly putting up better effort than others.
In 2004 we saw both Nobuaki Naka and Yoshinori Nishizawa come up short in firsts. Naka was the first to fight in Denmark, losing in a WBA Super Bantamweight title fight to Johnny Bredahl via a wide decision. Just 9 months after Naka's loss Nishizawa travelled to Germany to challenge WBA Super Middleweight champion Markus Beyer, becoming the first Japanese fighter to challenger for a Super Middleweight title and the first to challenge in Germany. Surprisingly Nishizawa, then aged 38, dropped Beyer before losing a wide decision to the German.
The following year Shigeru Nakazato travelled to France, marking the first time a Japanese fighter had challenged in the country, where he was stopped in 6 rounds by the exciting Mahyar Monshipour. Interestingly this card did feature a notable win for Japan, as Toshiaki Nishioka picked up a win against Mustapha Abahraouhi, which was the only win we stumbled on in a none-title fight during our research.
It was a return to France in 2006 when Takefumi Sakata battled Robert Vasquez for the WBA "interim" Flyweight title. This was the lowest we found and was another where the Japanese fighter gave a great account, losing a split decision to Vasquez in the first meeting between the two. Despite the loss Sakata would get a shot at the regular title just 3 months later, beating Lorenzo Parra in a third bout between the two men. In his first defense Sakata avenged his loss to Vasquez, winning a decision in Tokyo over the Panamanian.
Although there was a rise in activity of Japanese challengers in Europe there wasn't one in 2007. Instead we had to wait until 2008 when Norio Kimura challenged Andriy Kotelnik in Ukraine for the WBA Light Welterweight title. Kimura had come into the bout with a lot of momentum, but was no match for the skills and craft of Kotelnik, who took a wide and clear win over Kimura to make his first defense.
In 2009 we were back in Europe twice. The first of those bouts saw hard hitting Middleweight Koji Sato take on WBA Middleweight king Felix Sturm. The dangerous Sato was nullified by Sturms excellent jab and stopped in round 7, suffering the first loss of his career. Sato, who recently revealed that he wanted to competed in the 2020 Olympics, would suffer only 1 other defeat, losing to Makoto Fuchigami in 2011 and we'll speak about him a little bit later.
The second bout was another in Ukraine as Motoki Sasaki challenged the then WBA Welterweight champion Vyacheslav Senchenko. Sasaki's technical limitations were a massive obsctable here against the technically sound, though rather uninspiring, Senchenko. The Ukrainian was cut but a clear winner, with Sasaki being deducted points for a headclash in round 6.
After a few years where Japanese fighters stayed at home there was a pair of bouts in 2012, and strangely both were at Middleweight and took place within a matter of days. The first of those was in Russia, where Nobuhiro Ishida challenged Dmitry Pirog for the WBO Middleweight title. Despite putting up a solid effort Ishida would lose a wide decision to the excellent Russian, in what would turn out to be his last fight before injury forced him out of the ring. Just days later Makoto Fuchigami, who ended the career of Koji Sato, would face Gennady Golovkin in Ukraine. Sadly for Fuchigami he was totally out of his depth and was stopped in 3 rounds by the Kazakh great, who retained his WBA title.
An aside, is that Pirog and Golovkin were meant to meet in the US after this bout, but plans were scuppered by Pirog's injury, meaning Golovkin made his US debut against Grzegorz Proksa, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ishida marked an historic first in 2013 when he challenged Golovkin himself, and like Fuchigami he was stopped in 3 rounds. This bout, in Monaco, saw Ishida become the first Japanese fighter to challenge for a world title in Europe twice, and the first to lose twice. He would however remain a popular figure and twice fight for the Japanese Heavyweight title afterwards.
The bout between Ishida and Golovkin wasn't the only time a Japanese fighter world travel in 2013. The other saw Yuzo Kiyota challenge Robert Stieglitz for the WBO Super Middleweight title, Kiyota was a deducted a point early against the German champion and later stopped on cuts. Originally the result was announced as a technical decision win for Stieglitz, himself a very poor champion, though was later reviewed and changed to a TKO win.
At the time of writing Boxrec incorrectly lists, in the wikipedia for the fight, that this was the first time a Japanese fighter had challenged for a world title at 168lbs or higher. That was, however, Yoshinori Nishizawa back in 2004 who did it twice, first against Anthony Mundine in Australia then again against Markus Beyer in Germany.
In recent years the UK has seen Japanese challengers coming over on a pretty regular basis, about 1 a year. The first of those was in 2014 when Hidenori Otake travelled to challenger Scott Quigg, the then WBA Super Bantamweight champion. Otake put up a brave effort, and showed incredible toughness, but struggled to have any great success against the much sharper Quigg. The following year Ryosuke Iwasa travelled to face Lee Haskins for the vacant IBF Bantamweight title. This was regarded as a 50-50 match up, though unfortunately Iwasa was stopped in round 5, following a peach a shot from Haskins.
Iwasa, like Hiranaka, would later go on to win a world title, moving up in weight to take the IBF Super Bantamweight title.
In 2016 Keita Obara travelled to Russia to challenge the then IBF Light Welterweight champion Eduard Troyanovsky. Obara had moments in this bout, and seemed to wobble Troyanovsky at one point, but was knocked out of the ring in round 2 before later being stopped the same round. At the time of writing this is the last time a Japanese fighter challenged in Europe, but not in the UK.
We saw two Japanese fighters travel to the UK challenge for world titles in 2017, both challenging WBA Super Flyweight champion Kal Yafai. The first of those was Suguru Muranaka, who proved to be incredibly tough and gutsy, but lost a clear decision to Yafai in Birmingham. Following Muranaka was the more skilled Sho Ishida, who asked questions of Yafai but fought far too tamely to take the decision. Despite the wins over the Japanese pairing Yafai did little to enhance his reputation with the wins and has failed to shine since.
With a 20 fight losing streak in world title bouts in Europe Japanese supporters may need to be a little cautious of Inoue ahead of the fight with Rodriguez. It's not a gimme for Inoue, as the betting suggests, and although he's, easily, the best Japanese fighter to have fought in Europe he is going to be well aware that history is not on his side.
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).