When we look at the history of boxing we see a number of fighters pencilled in to be stars, but never reach the heights expected of them. They tend to be stand out amateurs, tipped for the top due to their showcases performances in the unpaid ranks, which suggest they are stars in the making. Then we also get the fighters that had no buzz, battle hard to get to the top and don't ever seem to get the respect for their hardwork, despite seriously deserving it. Today have one such bout as we dip our arm deep into the Closet to bring you another Closet Classic.
Hideki Todaka (15-2-1, 7) vs Akihiko Nago (15-0, 11)
This bout really was seen as something a battle between obscure Japanese champion and an elite tier prospect. It was a man few believed could ever become a champion and someone who seemed groomed for the highest stages in the sport.
Hideki Todaka was never regarded as a special fighter by anyone other than Mack Kurihara, who had spotted something in Todaka very early in his career. He was essentially just another guy. He worked hard in the ring, had something about him, but nothing that suggested world champion. In fact technically he was very basic, easy to hit, but was tough, gritty, determined and had a fantastic will to win. He knew hot to dig deep, and encouraged by a strong, but very local, fan base in Aichi he had become a world champion. He had done so by dethroning Jesus Rojas in 1999, winning a hotly contested decision in a second bout between the two men. It was a genuine upset and a real surprise to most fans in Japan, who saw Todaka as more of a local boxer in Central Japan than a top level fighter capable of beating the best. It was, however a win that helped set up an interestingly all Japanese bout with Akihiko Nago.
Outside of Japan Akihiko Nago's name will not ring any bells. Even in Japan a modern day fan is unlikely to be too familiar with him, though in the late 1990's he was seen as an elite prospect with the ability to be moved quickly, and to be a star. He was 23 years old at this point in his career, being guided by Yoko Gushiken, and the next big thing from Japan. As an amateur he had gone 48-6 (27), he had won two major national titles, turned professional young and was moved quickly, winning a Japanese title in just his 11th bout. He had also defended the national title against former world champion Keiji Yamaguchi and many had anticipated his career to be one of the best in Japan for the 00's. He had power, skills, speed, amateur pedigree, a strong backing and he was building up a good following in Tokyo, the powerhouse of the Japanese boxing scene.
Notably for this bout Nago was essentially in his boxing home, in Tokyo. He had been a regular in Tokyo, fighting at Korakuen Hall on numerous occasions. For Todaka however this was his first bout in the capital, and he had regularly been fighting in Aichi. This was also his first defense. In the eyes of many it was going to be his final defense, and he was going to be handing the title over to the ordained star of the future. We were going to see a star being born.
Straight from the off the natural, well polished boxing skills of Nago were on show as he glided around the ring and looked to set control the distance behind his footwork and southpaw jab. Todaka, who wanted to get inside and get to work was being blunted and was unable to close the distance. Nago wasn't landing much himself through the first round but was frustrating the champion, making him look clumsy and landed some very clean jabs whilst also landing a good left hand late in the round. Todaka tried to close the distance, and had the odd success, but this was not the type of fight he wanted, and he was unable to get combinations off.
Round 2 was somewhat similar, but it seemed like Todaka was getting closer, his pressure paying off just a little bit more, and Nago's seemed to be needing to hold and spoil more to neutralise the forward march of the champion. By the end of round 2 it was clear that Nago really wasn't wanting to engage in Todaka's fight and was instead looking to frustrate the champion as much as possible.
Nago's tactics weren't fan friendly, but they were working. He was taking the steam from Todaka, making the champion take risks and forcing rests frequently. It wasn't fan friendly, but it was working and seemed to be a very clear gameplan from the challenger. Make the champion look bad, tire him out, and land the cleaner shots, taking control later on.
After having had Nago hold and spoil through much of the first 3 rounds Todaka seemed to change tact in round 4. Rather than letting Nago blunt his attack straight away, he was going to let his hands go more, raise the tempo, and let combinations go. He was going to fight, regardless of Nago's tactics, and he was going to win the rounds, or force a fighting response from Nago, this was seen throughout round 4, as Nago took shots before managing to tie up the champion. It was messy and at times frustrating to watch but the style of fight was changing, and Armando Garcia seemed to getting fed up with Nago's holding, allowing Todaka to fire off in the clinch more often.
Round 4 was the first round that seemed exciting, but it was then followed by another fun round as Todaka's determination to make a fight of things shone through again, and Nago had to respond. He had never faced someone so willing to barrel forward like Todaka, who just kept coming forward. Nago landed some solid shots of his own, but by now it seemed clear he had to move through the gears otherwise Todaka was simply going to break him down. As a result we saw the two men trading shots early in round 6 as the pace again slowly crept up, and the crowd started to sense that something special could break out at any moment. It was clear that Todaka had less respect for Nago by the round, and that Nago had to do more, much more, to take the title away.
Through round 7 we saw touches of brilliance from Nago, glimpses of the talent that he in his arsenal. The tools that saw so many fawning over him. Sadly though they were little more than glimpses, with Todaka able to make things ugly, bullying Nago later in the round before being shaken himself in the final seconds. Todaka continued the rough stuff in round 8 and finally seemed to drag the best from Nago in a round that finally caught fire in the way we had hoped to see much earlier on. From here on the bout took on a new identity as it became more and more a fight, with both men looking to do what was needed to have their arm raised come the final bell. Both managed to land some clean head shots and both seemed to realise they needed to do more. This lead us to some amazing action in the championship rounds.
We'll leave the bout here for you to enjoy with some suspense and without ruining the result.
Although not a true war, especially not given how the bout started, it was a great example of will vs skill. Nago's boxing ability was on a different level to Todaka's but his gameplan was not a fan friendly one, and he was unable to stop Todaka from forcing his style on the fight. It's a fight with an amazing atmosphere, a genuine tension through the bout, and a feeling that we were always on the edge of something big breaking out. It was a strange one in many ways and seemed to show Nago's inexperience in tough fights but also the ability he could box at.
This isn't tidy, it's not beautiful, but in many ways it's the perfect example of a fighting blunting a defensive strategy through bloodymindedness, and forcing a negative fighter to fight more aggressively. When that happened the bout really did pick up
Note - At the time of writing Boxrec are missing a win off Nago's record, he was 15-0 (11) coming in to this bout, not 14-0 (10) as Boxrec have incorrectly listed him.
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features