It's fair to say that 2021 has been a year where under-dogs picked up wins and where great performances seemed to come much against the grain. We all remember Mauricio Lara battering Josh Warrington, Oleksandr Usyk out boxing, and almost stopping, Anthony Joshua, and Kiko Martinez blasting the form book, and Kid Galahad, in some of the many shocks of 2021.
Sadly with so little Asian action taking place through the year, it's been harder to think of great performances from Asian fighters, though there was a few notable ones, including Masataka Taniguchi at the end of the year.
For us however one man did stand out for particular credit here, and that was Kenichi Ogawa who put in the performance of his career to out box, out punch, out bang and out skill the incredibly tricky Azinga Fuzile.
Going in to the bout we thought Fuzile would have the tools to make Ogawa look silly. We thought Fuzile had all the advantages, the speed, the youth, the slippery style, and was going to be able to take the aggression of Ogawa and make the Japanese fighter look crude and clumsy. Instead we saw Ogawa put in a near punch perfect display to drop Fuzile several times en route to a wide and clear decision.
This was the performance that Ogawa's career needed, especially in his second bout in the US. He neutralised the slick movement of Fuzile, he didn't give the South African chances to counter, instead he found a home for his right hand, he was patient, he was relaxed, calm and near punch perfect through much of the bout. This was a stark difference to the man who had fought Tevin Farmer the last time he had fought in the US, and was also massively difference to the man who had been stopped 13 months earlier by Kazuhiro Nishitani, or had been involved in a head clash marred technical draw with Joe Noynay.
On the subject of Joe Noynay he also deserves an honourable mention here for his excellent performance in July against Liam Wilson. A performance that saw him dropping the much fancied Wilson numerous times in away in Australia. Sadly for this bout we were some what expecting a big performance from Noynay who delivered, whilst we weren't expecting what we got from Ogawa.
It's fair to say that not many fighters shined in 2021. The various issues of Covid, lockdowns and countries shutting their borders has cost us more fights than we care to even think about. Thankfully we did still get plenty of action and when we look through the wreck of the year, there is still some positives we can take from 2021, and with that in mind we're going to take a look at our Fighter of the Year.
Sadly many of the top names in Asian boxing had a year to forget. We either saw them out of the ring for the full year, such as Gennady Golovkin and Ryota Murata, or we saw them having just a single bout of real note, if that, such as Masataka Taniguchi. We had others have a big performance before something cost them a late year fighter, we're looking at you John Riel Casimero.
Thankfully however there was one man who showed what he could do with 2 wins this year, both against unbeaten men and both at world level. That was Nonito Donaire, who returned to the ring after 18 months out of action to stop Nordine Oubaali in May, becoming the oldest man to win a world Bantamweight title in the process. He didn't just beat Oubaali however, but he dropped him numerous times, and ripped the WBC title from the unbeaten French-Moroccan. This was a win that showed his performance against Naoya Inoue in late 2019 wasn't a fluke, but a legitimate sign that Donaire was a top Bantamweight.
After that win the talk was of unification bouts for the Filipino Flash, but sadly he ended up needing to face the then 24-0 Reymart Gaballo in a mandatory. A decent match up, and much better than any other Asian fighter's "lesser" bout for the year, and one that saw Donaire stop Gaballo in 4 rounder to retain the title.
It's hard to know how much longer Donaire has at the top, but wins against a 17-0 world champion and a 24-0 "interim" champion aren't a bad way to spend the year as he heads towards his 40th birthday. Fingers crossed 2022 will see him take on Johnriel Casimero or Naoya Inoue, but if not we dare say Donaire, of all fighters, has the right to pick and choose how he spends his last years in the sport. He has certainly etched his name into the Boxing Hall of Fame when he retires, and were it not for Manny Pacquiao, we'd be talking about Donaire as the generational Filipino talent.
Lets be honest, 2021 has been a year to forget. It has been a year where little of note has happened with Asian boxing due to the covid Pandemic, and although there were some green shoots, the bouts we all wanted to see simply didn't happen. Instead the major Asian countries seemed to either shut down the sport for long stretches of the year, or shut the rest of the world out, making for some long, dull, stretches.
Despite that there was still plenty that did happen, just unfortunately it was very stretches out, and the highlights were few and far between. Thankfully though we do still get to talk about those highlights and with that in mind lets start our 2021 Awards off with our Fight of the Year.
For this we need to go all the way back to January 22nd, for what was an amazing Japanese Super Bantamweight title bout between Yusaku Kuga and Gakuya Furuhashi.
Going in to the bout Kuga was the defending champion and was seeking his second defense of the title he won in May 2019, with his second win over Ryoichi Tamura. We all knew going in that he was the favourite, he had the edge in power, he was younger and he despite losing via a brutal KO to Jhunriel Ramonal at the end of 2019, he had had over a year to recover. Furuhashi on the other hand was fighting in his third title fight, ans knew it was now or never for him and his career. He was a well liked and well supported fighter, but he had come up short in two other Japanese title fights and he didn't seem like he had the fire power to live with Kuga.
Whilst we all expected something exciting when these two got in the ring, nothing could have prepared us for the sensational war we ended up getting. It was toe to toe action through large portions of the bout, with both men taking lumps out of each other. Kuga showed the better boxing skills, and the heavy hands, taking an early lead, but sometimes it's the fight in the dog that matter, and Furuhashi was simply not going to be denied. Not this time. He ended up fighting through the hell fire thrown his wat and in round 9 he finally broke down an exhausted Kuga, who had ran out of steam against a man who was obsessed with victory.
From round 1 to the start of round 9 this was brutal, it was thrilling, it was all action, and now, as we head in to 2022, we can look forward to more of this, as the two men will rematch on January 25th.
Earlier today news broke from Japan that Japanese Flyweight champion Seigo Yuri Akui (16-2-1, 11) [阿久井政悟] would be returning on February 27th to make his third defense of the Japanese title, as he takes on popular veteran Takuya Kogawa (32-6-1, 14) [粉川拓也].
The bout will take place at the Suntopia, in Soja, Okayama, a venue that Akui will see as his boxing home, having fought 5 times in the venue. Notably however this will be his first defense in the venue, and his first bout there since blasting Yoshiki Minato back in 2019. The hard hitting champion won the title just 6 months later, and since then has notched defenses against Seiya Fujikita and Taku Kuwahara, whilst moving towards a potential world title fight.
As for Kogawa, the 36 year old is a proper veteran of the sport, and someone who has been around at the top level numerous times, but someone who is looking like father time, and a hard career, is catching up with him. In his prime he was a definite top 10 in the Flyweight division, but that prime was around a decade ago. Now a days he looks like a man who is only a single clean shot away from being taken out, as we saw in 2019 when he faced Jayr Raquinel. At his best he would have been a handful for Akui, but the Kogawa of the last few years hasn't looked the same, and in fact he's been on a bit of a downfall since suffering a 2016, which was a huge year for him, but one that certainly seemed to take it's toll.
A win for Akui is expected to move him to within touching distance of a world title fight, and potentially end Kogawa's career. As for Kogawa, a win would be massive at this point of his career and potentially give him one last run on top of the domestic scene.
Tomorrow we'll see WBO Super Flyweight champion Kazuto Ioka (27-2, 15) [井岡一翔] defending his title against fellow Japanese fighter Ryoji Fukunaga (15-4, 14) [福永亮次] in the final major bout of 2021. Today, ahead of their bout, the two men took part in a number of formalities.
One of the most notable of those formalities was the weigh in, which saw both men make weight with no issues at all.
Ioka was bang on the limit, at 115lbs whilst Fukunaga was under the limit, with a little bit of room to spare, coming in at 114.8lbs. Interestingly both men looked in good shape, but not sensational shape. Ioka looked like he was carrying just a touch of extra weight whilst Fukunaga looked like he may have drained down a little bit more than he needed to. Neither looked bad, but we've certainly seen both men look better.
There was also a press conference that saw both men talk about the bout, with Ioka explaining that he wanted to deliver an exciting match and that he was nervous, though he seemed alarmingly calm through out the entire event. As for Fukunaga he seemed amazed to be getting a shot at Ioka, who explained that it was "amazing" to fight such a person.
We also saw the two fighters pick their gloves. Both men will be wearing black, with Ioka wearing Everlast and Fukunaga wearing Reyes.
One other thing they both did was go through a number of medical checks. Interestingly these shows Fukunaga having all the physical advantages.
According to the numbers from the physical, the challenger is 5.2cm taller, has a 0.2cm reach advantage, a thicker chest and a thicker neck. Oddly Ioka's pulse rate was 120 BPM which was twice as quick as Fukunaga's, at 57BPM, both had similar body temperatures, though Ioka's was slightly highly higher.
For fans wanting to watch the bout, it will be aired from 18:30 local time on TBS.
Related - Ioka faces Fukunaga to end 2021
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