By - George Delis (@Delisketo)
On June 19, at the Makuhari Messe arena in Japan, a national hero returns home, as Kazuto Ioka goes one on one with Aston Palicte for the vacant WBO Super Flyweight World Championship.
Kazuto Ioka (23-2 / 13 KOs) is without a doubt one of the best Japanese boxers of the last decade. He proved his worth quite early, back in his amateur days, amassing an impressive record of 95 wins in 105 bouts, including two All Japan championships, two Inter-High School titles and four National Sports Festival honors.
Turned pro in 2009, he showcased his amateur pedigree as he dispatched world title contender Takashi Kunishige, in just his third fight. Ioka then went on to win the vacant Japanese Light Flyweight title after he TKOed Masayoshi Segawa, only 18 months after his debut.
On February of 2011, Ioka’s first major test arrived when he challenged the unbeaten Kittipong Jaigrajang (35-0 at the time) for the WBC Strawweight World championship. Jaigrajang was champion for 4 years and had 6 title defenses under his belt. The Japanese hopeful went toe to toe with the veteran Thai champion, even knocking him down as early as in the second round and then once more in the fifth, with a lethal left body blow, sealing the deal and becoming the world champion at only 21 years of age. Ioka defended his championship twice the same year, against Juan Hernandez Navarrete and Veerawut Yuthimitr.
On June 20 of 2012, he was involved in a unification bout with the WBA champion and fellow rising Japanese star, Akira Yaegashi. Their careers shared many similarities. Yaegashi was also an accomplished amateur, with a record of 56-14, and had also won the National Sports Festival, back in 2002. Both men brought their A game that night, knowing what was at stake. An epic back and forth affair, that brought the fans to their feet, ended with Ioka earning the unanimous decision and leaving Osaka with two world championships.
Having conquered the Strawweight division, Ioka decided to move up a weight class and faced Jose Alfredo Rodriguez for the vacant WBA Light Flyweight World title (Regular version). Rodriguez was the former interim WBA champion, with 28 wins and only 1 decision loss. The Japanese prodigy systematically picked him apart with body shots and hooks, dropping him thrice, for the win as well as for his second divisional world title reign.
Ioka enjoyed another long run with the belt, marking 3 successful defenses over Phissanu Chimsunthom, former world champion Ekkawit Songnui and Felix Alvarado (current IBF Light Flyweight World Champion). Since the Roman Gonzalez fight never took place (WBA Super champion) Ioka vacated his title and debuted in the Flyweight division, where he tasted defeat for the first time as a pro, as he failed to capture the IBF title from Amnat Ruenroeng, in a very evenly contested bout. Ironically, Ioka had lost again to Amnat in the past, back in their amateur days, when they met at the semi-finals of the 2008 King's Cup, an annual boxing tournament held in Thailand.
The 2 division world champion came back even more determined, beating Pablo Carrillo and knocking out former interim world champion Jean Piero Perez with a thunderous right straight, within the span of three months, thus earning another opportunity at a Flyweight World Title, this time against the WBA Regular champion, Juan Carlos Reveco. After 12 action packed rounds, the Japanese superstar finally became a 3 division champion. Since the fight was very close on the judges’ scorecards, a rematch was set on New Year’s Eve of 2015. As usual, Ioka’s body work was the key factor, stopping Reveco in the eleventh round, in what otherwise was once again a close call.
As WBA Flyweight World champion, he made five successful title defenses, over the likes of Roberto Domingo Sosa, Juan Carlos Reveco (as mentioned above), Keyvin Lara, Yutthana Kaensa and Nare Yianleang. His toughest one had to be against Kaensa. The interim WBA champion, with a perfect record of 16-0, shocked everyone when he knocked Ioka down, with a fast right counter hook, in the second round. Ioka had never been dropped before in his pro career. Kaensa kept the pressure on for the majority of the fight, giving the champion a bigger challenge than he expected. The tables turned however as Ioka put the Thai boxer down with a liver shot in the seventh round and proceeded to finish him off by punishing his body even further.
His sixth defense was scheduled to take place on December 31st of 2017 but due to getting married and reportedly falling out with his father and promoter, Kazunori Ioka, he chose to retire and vacate his belt.
Almost 17 months later, Ioka returned to active competition, this time at Super Flyweight and with a new goal in mind: to become a 4 division world champion. He immediately challenged McWilliams Arroyo for the WBC Silver Super Flyweight title. Arroyo, much like Ioka, also had an extensive amateur career, winning the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games, the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2009 AIBA World Boxing Championships, including victories over 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist Yan Bartelemí and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Nyambayaryn Togstsogt. With no signs of ring-rust, the former multiple time world champion took control of the fight from the opening round and never let up. After 10 rounds and one knockdown in the third, the Japanese superstar was back on track. It’s worth mentioning that this was Ioka’s first fight in the U.S. as well as his first fight outside of Japan, as a pro.
Controversy struck on December 31st of last year, when he met fellow 3 division champion Donnie Nietes for the vacant WBO Super Flyweight title. After 12 rounds of incredible action, the (split) decision was given to the Filipino fighter, while most fans who watched the match, believed Ioka should have been the victor that night. With Nietes vacating the belt, Ioka gets a second chance to claim that was supposed to be his, but he first has to go through another boxer from the Philippines.
Aston Palicte (25-2-1 / 21 KOs) despite being around almost the same amount of time as Ioka, and even though he has more fights as a pro, a deeper look at his competition suggests that he’s not yet at the same level. He is however a very fast fighter, who knows how to throw good combinations and move around the ring with grace. Palicte likes to keep his distance, creating space with jabs, and then strike with the right. Most of his victories are a result of this strategy. His biggest one thus far has been against former interim WBA Light Flyweight World champion Jose Alfredo Rodriguez in 2017, which was basically a one sided affair. It’s worth mentioning that he also throws strong uppercuts.
On the other hand, he tends to receive a lot of hits throughout his matches, while he finds himself in trouble when his opponent gets too close, which was the case in his encounter with Nietes. The fight itself was declared a draw, but Nietes was the one that landed and connected with way more punches as well as the more accurate ones. Now Palicte has earned himself another opportunity at the gold, after he stopped Jose Martinez (20-0 at the time), to become the #1 contender for the WBO title.
It’s safe to assume Ioka is the clear favorite in this one. Considering that he’s an expert at closing the distance and punishing the body, Palicte will have a tough time defending against him, or even putting any significant offense of his own. This might not end with a KO, as the Filipino is quite resilient, but in case that it does, it will be in the later rounds, probably after the 8th.
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