Boxing is one of the most international of sports. Whether you fight in Tokyo or Texas the sport is the same with two fighters and a referee in a ring with the fighters trying to win the majority of the rounds or score a knockout to win. At it's core it's a very simple sport to understand. Sadly whilst it's simple to follow in the ring the out of the ring part of the sport seems to be a mess all too often with little being done to stop mismatches and next to nothing being done to stop fighters padding out their records for years.
At the moment there are fighters around various parts of the globe with records that fail to suggest how talented, or limited, they are. For example after 31 fights we have no idea how good Deontay Wilder is, or after 17 fights how good Chris Eubank Jr is.
Lets be honest when a fighter in Japan gets to 17 fights we tend to have some sort of an idea as to how good, or bad, he is. So what exactly can the west learn from Japan to stop massive record padding, mismatches and and even improve the quality of it's fights and fighters.
Every fighter who turns professional in Japan needs to earn a license. This done with a 2-part test. Part of that test is a written test to prove they know the rules and understand the sport, like any fighter should. The other part is a practical test where a fighter takes part in a public sparring bout with headgear on. This is to prove that they can box and they can take the skills into the ring.
It might seem like a lot to get a license but it also allows the Japanese Boxing Commission (JBC) to "grade" fighters. A normal guy who wants to take up the sport would, if they past the tests, usually earn a C grade ranking, that of a novice with out much in terms of an amateur background. A C grade license allows a fighter to fight in 4 round bouts against other C grade fighters. This keeps the fighters on a similar level to each other so we can't have mismatches between two domestic fighters.
If a fighter if a former stand out amateur they will usually go for a B grade license before they turn professional. This means that they have to spar, and at least hold their own, with a decent fighter in their public test and they usually have to have proven their ability. Recent fighters who have began their careers with B licenses have included Naoya Inoue and Ryota Murata both of whom were exceptional amateurs. A B license not only allows you to fight against other B license fighters but also permits you to fight in 6 round bouts
After you've proven yourself you can obviously move up through the license system to claim an A license and be eligible for title fights and any bouts of the 8 round distance. If you're good enough you can progress very quickly, as we've seen from Kosei Tanaka for example who looks set to fight for a title in his 4th professional contest.
Stepping Stones to a World Title
Not only do the JBC enforce their licensing to get fighters to prove their ability but they also have a domestic rule where by a Japanese licensed fighter cannot fight, in Japan, for a world title before winning either the Japanese title or the Oriental (OPBF) title.
This perhaps an odd rule in the eyes of some but it does make sense. If you can't prove your the best in the country or the regional area why do you think you're the best in the world?
There are ways around this however and if you're willing to fight for a world title outside of the jurisdiction of the JBC you are welcome to fight for a world title. We've seen Tomoki Kameda do this, winning his WBO title in the Philippines, and Atsushi Kakutani did it when he came up short in Mexico against Adrian Hernandez.
It seems that for the JBC the idea to step up through the levels and this also legitimises the OPBF and Japanese titles which, in recent years, have had almost every Japanese world champion holding one, if not both, of them.
Banning Poor Imports
As well as ruling on domestic fighters they also have rules about imported fighters fighting on shows that they sanction. Unlike almost any other country they want to have a high level of competition and if an important gives a "lethargic effort" they are banned from fighting in the country.
It might seem harsh at times but it's something that certainly helps make visitors give their all. As a result Japanese fans get international journeymen like Marjohn Yap who come to win as opposed to just making up the numbers. It's actually in the visitors best interest to give a good effort rather than turn up for the pay day, after all if they get invited back due to being a good test they get paid solidly again.
With many journeyman coming from places like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand the purses they get for fighting in Japan are very handsome when compared to what they would get fighting a domestic level contest. Unlike Britain and the US a journeyman winning in Japan doesn't suggest the journeyman did their job wrong, in fact it means the man they beat usually isn't as good as they think and the journeyman can act as a measuring stick.
This way to minimise mismatches would see fewer fighters coming just to lose, especially in the UK where the purse for a journeyman fighting in the UK dwarfs what a fighter would get in Latvia or Hungary for example.
As well as the "lethargic effort" ban the JBC do also ban for failing to meet a contracted weight, a lack of skills and in some very rare cases things like "full body tattoo", "name spoofing" and being "immature". It's also worth noting that it's not just journeymen who have been banned but also so pretty big names like Sonny Boy Jaro, pictured, and Liborio Solis, who were both given a year long ban for coming in over-weight.
For those interested a full list of banned fighters can be found here, in English.
Fights being on free to air TV isn't a rule of the JBC but it has helped keeping boxing a relevant sport in Japan. It helped fighters like Shinsuke Yamanaka and Koki Kameda become household names and it has helped the sport remain in the spot light. Interestingly it has also been a success with the likes of TBS, Tokyo TV, NTV and Fuji TV all showing free-to-air boxing. Not only that but they also have some lesser cards on pay TV to help televise more fighters and help those fighters develop an audience before going on to free TV.
In many ways this is the opposite of how it works in the US. In the US a fighter often transitions from subscription TV, for example ESPN, to PPV and in the end their audience shrinks whilst their purses grow. It helps the fighters bank account in the US and that's obviously their aim in the sport but it takes away from the people and helps to really minimise the audience.
In Japan Sky A Sports often get the rights to lesser bouts whilst Fuji TV's paid sister channels show regular fights as part of their "Diamond Glove" series which often feature OPBF or Japanese title fights. When it comes to world title fights the fighters generally progress from the pay TV circuit to the free TV market. Notably their have been exceptions to this trend but it's a general trend.
Desire to get to the Top
In Japan if a prospect is touted highly they tend to want to live up to that hype quickly. Ryota Murata for example is expected to fight for a world title within 15 fights, and fought an OPBF champion on debut, Naoya Inoue won a world title in his 6th fight and Kosei Tanaka called out the Asian champion after his third fight.
In the west so many fighters are happy to pad their record whilst developing slowly, or even stagnating, due to a poor level of competition.
Going back to Chris Eubank Jr, for example, his 17th fight came against someone who had been stopped by one of his previous victims. The bout made little sense other than to get Eubank a quick victory when he would have been served much better to have fought a British fighter such as Adam Etches, Nick Blackwell, John Ryder or Danny Butler.
Of course if Eubank Jr fought one of those 4 aforementioned domestic rivals his risk of losing would have been higher but his development, win or lose, would have been much more important and, if he won, he'd have proven himself ready to challenge for the national title. Instead by beating a very poor important he proved nothing.
In Japan and in the Philippines the commissions publish domestic rankings every month. This allows fighters to see how close they are to earning a national title fight and also helps them see who is above them. For fans however things are even more telling as we can see what level of competition fighters are really fighting at. For example if the #10 and #9 fight each other then the winner is surely deserving of consideration of the next opportunity in their weight.
By Publishing rankings the JBC and GAB show real transparency and we, as fans, can follow the moves month after month. We can criticise the changes that don't make sense, we can see who is deserving of a title fight and we can see who doesn't belong in a title fight.
It seems very odd that the BBBofC don't publish these and adds to the feeling that British Board are secretive. It's a shame that the sport isn't more transparent but of course the more transparent it is the more the boards, commissions and authorities leave themselves open for criticism, something they tend not to like.
As well as the 6 issues outlined above there are numerous others that some other countries should perhaps take note of, such as the importance of a "home" for boxing like the Korakuen Hall, or even the Gym system. Though they would both take a lot of change to be implemented, and we'd never expect such a drastic set of changes to be made, they really would help the sport in some countries, especially those were promotional cold wars are threatening the sport.
(Images thanks to Boxrec.com, TBS and Boxingnews.jp)
As boxing fans we are always talking about the matches we want to see. Whether the bouts are possible or not there are 100's of match ups that we'd like to see ranging from international super fights such as Adonis Stevenson Vs Sergey Kovalev or Floyd Mayweather Vs Manny Pacquiao to fights that we want for selfish purposes such as Kosei Tanaka Vs Takuma Inoue or Ryo Matsumoto Vs Sho Ishida.
One bout emerged this past weekend and became a real talking point in both the Japanese press and the online community, including the English speaking boxing forums. Naoya Inoue against Kazuto Ioka.
We know some fans in Japan have mentioned this bout for a while and fans in the west have also thought about it, but since this past Sunday the bout seems to have almost become the "Super Fight of Japan" and it's already become more spoken about than a Takashi Uchiyama Vs Takashi Miura rematch or a Shinsuke Yamanaka Vs Tomoki Kameda bout. It has become the most wanted fight in Asian boxing.
Interestingly we've spend the past few days thinking about the contest, staying quiet and just thinking about it.
Like everyone else we're insanely excited about the prospect of the bout though for now we think the talk is premature. It's a bout that has us licking our lips but we're not likely to get it for at least a year, if not two.
The reasons for why we'd have to wait are numerous but lets look at the key ones.
Inoue is signed to Fuji TV who have helped him become a sensation. The broadcast of his fight with Adrian Hernandez this past weekend got a high of 10% TV share and with the work they've put into help him become a star it's unlikely they'll be in a rush to let him go. We're unsure on how many fights he's got left with Fuji TV but we'd imagine they are more than happy in their working relationship.
With only Inoue and Ryota Murata currently signed to deals with Fuji TV we can't imagine the channel handing over any rights to televise Inoue's fights.
On the other hand Ioka is signed with TBS who have been broadcasting most of his career so far and are likely to show however many fights Ioka wants as long as the multi-weight world champion continues to remain a big TV draw and an unbeaten fighter.
For TBS Ioka is their only current star. They do televise Kameda fights and will show the next Takayama fight, though with the Kameda's not being able to fight in Japan the channel's live coverage is certainly limited right now and they'd refuse to let Ioka go just as Fuji would refuse to let Inoue go.
Secondly we have the issue of weight.
We all know that Ioka has moved to Flyweight for his next bout, a challenge for the IBF title against Thailand's Amnat Ruenroeng. The strong reports are that Ioka will then immediately vacate to move up to Super Flyweight. The idea seems to be that Ioka wants to become the first Japanese fighter to become a 4 weight world champion. If he can't become the first he'll instead "just" become the fastest.
Of course Ioka's plans depend a lot on Koki Kameda and what Kameda does next. If Koki, as expected, can get a fight with Kohei Kono for the WBA Super Flyweight title we'd expect Ioka to do all he can to get the winner. Koki, by then, could have become the first 4-weight world champion in Japanese history but Ioka will still look towards become the fastest whether he needs to beat Koki or Kono.
For Inoue the rumours are that he'll also be at Super Flyweight by the end of the year.
For some that's a sign that they'll be negotiating for a Super Flyweight title fight by the start of 2015 though the reality is that Inoue is unlikely to stay at 115 for long if he's already taking a lot out of his body to make 108. The likely outcome is that Inoue ends up at 118 in the next 2 to 3 years as he himself attempts to win more world titles, almost chasing Ioka's records as they get created.
It's an interesting question of which weight the bout would be at, though it does appear to make sense that it will be at 115 or 118 with Ioka stating in the past that he wants to be a 5 weight world champion, Bantamweight would be the probable 5th division.
If we take what we know about both men and their current plans and expected plans there could be a serious issue of timing. We know Ioka is fighting in May and we expect him to fight on New Years Eve. We also expect him to move to 115 either in the summer or the winter.
For Inoue the plans seem to be rest and then move to 115 by December. Their is no plans, from what we are aware, for Inoue to attempt to grab a slice a slice of the Flyweight crown, though if Ioka does vacate we could see Inoue's plans changing and he could well make a quick stop at Flyweight to pick up a second divisional title.
If Ioka dumps off the Flyweight title as expected and moves on to 115 his first fight there would need to be a big one. Fights with Koki and Kono are of course the obvious options though possibilities do lie in Omar Andres Narvaez, or a fight for the IBF title against the winner Zolani Tete/Suguru Muranaka. If Ioka doesn't dump the Flyweight title then those options are open for Inoue if he feels ready for them. Those options would be hugely appealing for both fighters and likely make a lot of sense for them to becoming champions at another weight.
We're not trying to be offensive to Tete, Narvaez, Koki, Kono or Muranaka but we'd imagine either Inoue or Ioka would beat them, especially if Inoue and Ioka got another fight of experience at 115 before fighting one of the championship fighters.
What we're effectively saying is that they won't meet whilst there other options out there and unless one of them holds a title at 115 the fight wouldn't make a great deal of sense. Why fight a non-title fight when you could face your nemesis for the gold? Better yet, why fight in just a title fight when you could fight in a unification contest? The timing does need to be considered.
Finally the promoters
Unlike in the US and the UK promoters in Japan have to work together. The "Cold War" between Top Rank and Golden Boy or the refusal between Matchroom and Frank Warren to really work together isn't possible in Japan. That means promotionally this bout would be easier to make than, for example, Pacquiao Vs Mayweather.
Two the promoters involved here would by Hiroki Ioka of Ioka Gym, the promotional outfit that promoters Kazuto Ioka, and Hideyuki Ohashi, the chairman of Ohashi gym. Interestingly the two promoters have had a long rivalry which almost saw them fighting each other back in the 1990's in what would have been a fight similar to this, a huge domestic fight that would have been something special at the time.
The last time the promoters worked together on a big fight, similar to this, was back in June 2010 was Ioka promoted the Minimumweight unification bout between Kazuto Ioka and Akira Yaegashi. That bout was brilliant though some, including ourselves, felt Ioka got the decision because he was still unbeaten and because he was the promoters fighter, in fact he was the promoters nephew.
Would Ohashi be willing to send his newest star into an Ioka promoted show? Would Kazuto Ioka be willing to fight on an Ohashi show? Would the fight only happen with a neutral promoter, say Teiken or Top Rank?
It may seem silly due to the way Japanese promoters have to work together but yet we could still have the promoters making life difficult as they protect their interests.
When it comes to the actual fighters we don't imagine either man has a problem fighting the other. We think that, Roman Gonzalez aside, they'd happily fight anyone between 108lbs and 115lbs and aside from the odd exception we'd think they'd be favourites against most in those weight classes, perhaps only Juan Francisco Estrada and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai would be too much at the moment. They'd not mind fighting each other but at the moment it's a case of neither being in the position where the other is the obvious opponent. It's a bout we all want but not one we're expecting in the next 12-18 months.
Top-Inoue courtesy of Ohashi Gym
Second from Top-Fuji TV Logo, courtesy of Fuji TV
Middle-Ioka v Ruenroeng poster, courtesy of Ioka Gym
Second from Bottom-Kohei Kono, courtesy of Watanabe Gym
Bottom-Ioka v Yaegashi poster, courtesy of Ioka Gym)
It's widely accepted that Japan is the 10th most populated country on the planet. It's got around 128,000,000 people living on it and this places it between Russia with around 144,000,000 and Mexico 118,000,000.
In terms of comparing it with some other boxing countries, the US is the 3rd most populated country with around 317,000,000, the Philippines is the 11th most populated with 99,000,000, Germany is the 16th most populated with around 81,000,000, the UK is the 22nd most populated with around 64,000,000 and Argentina is 32nd with 40,000,000.
This means that Japan has less than half as many people as the US, marginally more than Mexico, 50% more than Germany, twice as many as the UK and thrice as many as Argentina. Despite the population being what it is, there seems to be so many more top youngsters coming from Japan than anywhere else.
The big question then, is how come so many Japanese youngsters look so talented, so young?
At the moment Japan has a wealth of young talent under the age of 25. This includes world champions such as Tomoki Kameda, 22 and Kazuto Ioka, 24, OPBF champions Ryosuke Iwasa, 24 and Masayoshi Nakatani, also 24, up coming world title challenger Naoya Inoue, 20 and more outstanding prospects than I can possibly list such as Kosei Tanaka, 18, Takuma Inoue, 18, Sho Ishida, 22 and Ryo Matsumoto, 20.
Maybe, as we've said in the past, Japanese boxing is on the verge of a Golden Age of young talent, a once in a life time boom of youngsters who are all breaking through at the same time. Something tells me this isn't really the case though as 6 is years is a notably long time between the oldest of these guys and the youngest. Personally I think the the real answer lies in the amateur boxing system of Japan and the match making of Japanese fighters .
It may be a surprising to mentioned the amateur scene considering that Japanese amateur boxers haven't been a key fixture at world meets. We rarely see Japanese fighters taking home medals from either the World Amateur Championships or the Olympics, however what we do tend to see is that the top Japanese amateurs don't tend to remain amateur for much longer than they need to. There are, of course, counter examples such as Satoshi Shimizu who has announced plans to compete at the 2016 Olympics, though these are rare.
What we have instead are youngsters who have come through the Japanese amateur ranks by fighting regularly in high school and then turning professional at a young age before bad habits and amateur traits are engrained in their style.
As well as turning professional at a young age these youngsters also seem to have adapted more professional styles than fighters from around the world. In many countries top amateurs take a number of bouts to learn to adapt. They are basically retrained in how to walk again against a much lower calibre of opponent than they were beating in the amateurs. In Japan however their styles are often fairly professional and they aren't taking huge steps back in their early professional outings.
What is the point in going from fighting the elite, either domestically or on the world stage, as an amateur to then fighting domestic level journeymen as a professional? Are we really suggesting that top amateurs, such as Luke Campbell in the UK or Rau'shee Warren in the US need to learn by taking 10 steps backwards?
If we look, for example, at Ryo Matsumoto. He did start like a typical "western" prospect fighting a string of weak opponents though by fight #5 he was facing a decent opponent in the form of John Bajawa and in fight #10 Matsumoto will be fighting a multi-time title challenger. As for Luke Campbell's 5th fight he's fighting Scott Moises, a guy who holds an 8-8-1 record. Still Campbell did do better than Warren who faced Jiovany Fuentes, a blown up Flyweight who had been inactive for 2 years.
Warren, who now sports a record of 10-0, fought his 10th professional contest earlier this year and faced the very experienced German Meraz who at the time sported a decent looking 46-28-1 record. Unfortunately Meraz hadn't beaten a fighter with a winning record since late 2009 and had only beaten a handful in total. Meraz was the proverbial can crusher with a boosted record that allowed other fighters to look impressive though in reality served as little more than a record padder himself.
So as well as having more professional styles the Japanese youngsters are also matched better. They are matched progressively on the whole and take steps up. There is no point in wasting time in this sport as one good shot could finish your career and if you're good enough you're good enough.
Possibly the biggest reason for the boom in Japanese youngsters however is that promoters are willing to take a risk or two. They aren't hiding their talented youngsters in the shallow end of a swimming pool with water wings but are willing to let them swim with sharks. If they get bitten early then it's a rebuilding process and they can cycle things down a gear, as seen in the career of Keita Obara who lost on debut though is now fighting for an OPBF title just a few years later.
If a youngster doesn't get bitten however then let them swim with more sharks. Kazuto Ioka is probably the best example right now. In fight #6 he faced an experienced domestic level campaigner, then in fight #7 he faced a highly experienced and unbeaten world champion then in fight #10 he faced a fellow world champion in a world title unification. These were risky fights but Ioka believed in himself, his team believed in him and he showed his worth.
In so many places keeping a fighters unbeaten record is actually more important than developing their skills and legacy. You develop by fighting better fighters, you develop by fighting in competitive matches and you develop by needing to prove yourself. Taking a loss along the way is just part of a fighters development.
In the US fans are already starting to turn on Gary Russell Jr who has had 24 fights but no risks, Deontay Wilder is similar though has 33 wins with no risk and Sean Monaghan is 20-0 though has again had no risks. Between them these three fighters have had 77 fights yet we have no idea how good they are. Between Ioka, Tomoki, and Naoya Inoue there is a combined 48 fights and already there 2 world champions and a future title contender.
US promoters might want to protect their investment and that makes sense, but do you really think Japanese promoters aren't doing the same? The difference is Japanese promoters don't tell you they have a wonder talent then protect him, instead they tell you they have a super talent and they prove it. They don't use smoke and mirrors to sell us a prospect they let the prospect talk with their actions.
So why does Japan have so many good, talented youngsters?
Well their amateur system seems to promote a more professional style to boxing at a young age, they don't waste time staying in the unpaid ranks for too long, they are developed quickly as professionals and they are allowed to prove their talent rather than merely defeat over-matched foes for years. This is a combination of "ignoring" the amateur scoring system that has plagued amateur boxing for so long, great training, great desire of the individual fighters to prove themselves and brave promoting.
This isn't a golden age of Japanese boxing, but the start of a revolution which I feel will continue for a long time.
(Pictures-Top is courtesy of Boxrec.com and is Tomoki Kameda, middle is from Ohashi Gym and features Naoya Ioue and bottom is from Kosei Tanaka courtesy of Boxingnews.jp)
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).