Over the last decade or so boxing in Korea has struggled to make any sort of dent on the international stage. There have been flashes of potential, most notably Min Wook Kim, and fighters who have made a dent at the regional level, like Sa Myung Noh and Jung Kyoung Lee, but they have had very short term success.
The one exception right appears to be the enigmatic Ye Joon Kim (18-1-2, 10). Kim really is the only fringe world level Korean out there right now, but Injuries and inconsistent performances have limited his success and he's not really progressed beyond "fringe contender" over the last 3 or so years. Kim is well beyond being a prospect but he's really only a single good year away from moving from "contender" to "title challenger".
Today we look at the fighters following Kim through the ranks, and take a look at 5 of the top Korean prospects making their mark on the sport today. These are the fighters we see as leading the wave of Koreans looking to put the sport on the map in the country that gave us so many greats in the 1970's and 80's.
Jong Seon Kang (10-0-2, 6)
Exciting 18 year old old battler Jong Seon Kang made his debut in November 2017, only a month after his 16 birthday, and has quickly emerged as one of the nations shining hopefuls. The exciting Featherweight began his career 8-0 (5) in low level bouts in Korea. The most notable of his early wins was over Uzbek Ravshanbek Shermatov, and that put him on our radar. Since then he has gone 2-0-2, whilst notching notable wins on the road in China and Vietnam.
Although not the most polished fighter out there Kang is a very hard working fighter who has shown a great engine, incredible will to win and the desire to shine. There is a talented young kid here who needs real work, but has things you just can't teach a fighter, and his ability to bite down and fight through adversity is incredibly impressive. His win in China over Qixiu Zhang was good but his November win over Tomjune Mangubat was excellent.
Min Jang (10-0-2, 2)
Unbeaten 19 year old Min Jang might have 2 draws against his name in just 12 fights but don't let that suggest that the talented Southpaw isn't a prospect with real potential. The light footed, sharp punching boxer-moved is a real one to watch and has impressed since making his debut at the age of 17 back in 2017. He was unfortunate to mark up his record with a technical draw on debut but followed it up with 3 before another draw in 2018. Since the he has gone on a 7 fighter winning run, winning a South Korean Super Flyweight title and more recently the WBA Asia Super Bantamweight title.
Unlike many Korean fighters Jang isn't someone we would describe as a warrior or a work rate fighter. Instead he fights at range, boxes off the back foot and fights smartly. He fights to his strengths, using his speed and long, wiry arms, and as we saw against Junhui Zhao recently, he can deal with pressure pretty well.
Given his age Jang should certainly be given time to mature, develop and fill into the Super Bantamweight division. When he does that we wouldn't be surprised to see him fighting at OPBF level down the line. If his team are smart they will give him time, let him mature, and develop his power. He'll never by a KO artist, but with a bit more sting on his shots he could be a dark horse for the future.
Woo Hyun Kim (9-1, 1)
At 22 years old Woo Hyun Kim is one of the older prospects on this list, though also the one with strongest achievements. He made his debut back in 2014, at the age of 16, and won a Korean Super Flyweight title back in just his 4th pro bout, back in 2014. In 2015 he suffered his first, and so far only, loss as he came up short to Yo Han Bae. Despite the loss he bounced back quickly and won the interim PABA title in his very next fight. A single defense of that PABA title followed before Kim vanished from the ring for almost 3 years.
Kim returned to the ring last June, taking a 6 round decision win over Chinese foe Junhui Zhao, and built on that win recently with a victory over former OPBF Flyweight champion Keisuke Nakayama, for the WBA Asia Super Flyweight title.
With bouts against international fighters, including Nakayama and Michael Barnor, we've seen Kim fighting above domestic level and genuinely impressing. He's an outside fighter who looks relaxed in the ring, sets a decent tempo and moves around the ring very easily. Sadly he does lack power, and that will likely hold him back more than anything else, but he has the scales to make a mark at the upper echelons of the regional scene.
Da Won Gang (4-0, 2)
Debuting in May 2019 Da Won Gang has raced into the conversation as the best Korean prospect out there right now. The 19 year won the "Battle Royal", the KBM answer to the Rookie of the Year, last year and has already set himself up for a KBM title fight this year. The 140lb fighter looks like a brilliant, yet raw, talent with aggression, skills and power. It took Gang less than 6 months to go from debut to Battle Royal triumph, dominant the older Yoon Ki Kim in the final, and kicked off 2020 with an impressive blow out against Jin Su Kim.
Gang appears to still be a rather raw fighter, who certainly needs some polishing, but with natural ability, an aggressive mentality, and solid power, he is certainly someone worthy of making a note of. The real thing to note is that Gang has time on his side and he should be seen a major hope for Korean boxing in the longer term.
So far he's yet to fight someone willing to make a fight and try to actually beat him, and we suspect that when that happens we'll see the best of him. Sadly his two biggest wins have come against rather negative opponents, and they have made him look a touch cruder than he really is.
Sung Min Yuh (4-0)
Arguably the most naturally gifted fighter on this list is 154lb fighter Sung Min Yuh, who looks to be incredibly well schooled. Yuh won the KBM "Battle Royal", like Gang, last year and looked a natural in the ring with his sharp punching, slick defensive skills and surprisingly solid work on the inside. He's a big, tall fighter who uses his size well and lands crunching body shots, and is a real talent. Sadly Yuh has several major issues. His work rate doesn't match his ability, and he is very much a fighter in the "talented but lazy" mould, he is also someone who seems to want to amuse a very small number of fans, his family and friends, rather than put in dominant displays in the ring.
Later this year the 18 year old Yuh will be fighting for the KBM Light Middleweight title, where he will face former foe Do Ha Kim for the second time. He'll be expected to win, having already beaten Kim, but the issue for us is more his performance. If he can put it all together he won't just beat Kim, but will do so with ease. Sadly that's a huge "if" and we wouldn't be surprised by Yuh's laziness costing him at some point, which would hopefully serve as a wake up call.
In all honesty we're being harsh on the teenager, who only debuted in March 2019, but that's because he is such a natural pure talent. Other fighters would kill to have his gifts.
(Image courtesy of BoxingM)
In December we are going to be sharing our "20 for 20", a list of 20 fighters to keep an eye on for the new year. Ahead of that we will be looking at a number of fighters who just missed out on that list.
These are the fighters who perhaps won't be ready for a world title by the end of next year, but we feel will make a mark in the year, and go on to do big things in the following year or two. Typically they are the prospects who perhaps need a little more time to develop, or who are still a bit too young for the big fights, or maybe just don't seem like they are quite there yet. These are our "Honourable mentions - 20 for 20" fighters and these will be posted daily until the start of December!
Dave Apolinario (12-0, 7)
The Philippines is full of promising fighters, it always and always has been, but the number of those who go from being promising fighters to world champions is disappointingly low. The lack off financial backing Filipino fighters have often makes like hard for even the most talented of prospects and that issue is not likely to change any time soon, and may perhaps worsen. Thankfully those the country does still have break out success, and we suspect that Dave Apolinario will be one of those success. The incredibly skilled boxer-puncher has had a solid 2019, with 3 wins and 19 combined rounds. As long as his team continue to develop and push him in 2020 we have no issue about his development, and feel that by 2022 he will be on the verge of something very big
Expectations for 2020?
Long term we see Apolinario becoming a world champion, and reaching the very top. For 2020 though we need to be much, much more realistic and we'd expect him to be kept ticking over in more and more interesting assignments. By the end of the year we'd like to see him consistently fighting in 10 rounders, maybe even his first 12 rounder, and taking on fringe regional level fighters, as opposed to facing more domestic foes. He's an incredible talent, and should be given the chance to see more styles in 2020, as he builds on his in ring experiences.
For fans who haven't seen Apolinario before we've included his 2019 bout with countryman Adrian Lerasan, which was aired on ESPN 5 in the Philippines.
With 2015 quickly approaching we've decided to do out look at the 15 prospects to watch in 2015. Here we bring you the first selection of those prospects, ranked from 15 to 11. Hopefully you'll put them on your radar for the test of the year.
15-Eaktawan Mor Krungthepthonburi
Although WBA Asia Flyweight champion Eaktawan Mor Krungthepthonburi (7-0, 6) has just began to be seen on the WBA world rankings we really wouldn't be surprised to see him race through those rankings throughout the next year. Talented, powerful, fast and with a lovely variety of punches Eaktawan has the ability to be fast tracked and he also hase a powerful Thai team behind him, the type of team that could open up “interim” world title doors for the youngster.
We've liked Eaktawan since we first managed to see him and although we know there is a lot of improvements to be made we also acknowledge that he is young and that improvements will be made over time. We don't see any point in rushing him and instead his development will be key, especially if he comes up against opponents who try to beat him, as Ichal Tobida tried to do. There is a lot to like about him and we suspect more will come with time, even if he is a bit of a “sleeper prospect” for now.
It would seem likely that Eaktawan's team will try to use the WBA Asia belt to move him towards a WBA “world”, or more likely “interim” title fight. He's not ready for that yet but the odds are that by the middle of 2016 he will be ready, as long as he is developed properly with rounds against varying opponents and fights that do, eventually, see him being pushed against foes looking to beat him.
Thai teenager Stamp Kiatniwat (11-0, 5) has gone 6-0 (3) in 2014 and scored a statement win with a decision over former world champion Kwanthai Sithmorseng. The win over Kwanthai was a major eye opener though he's not been pushed too hard since then and has not faced another notable foe. On paper that sounds bad though on the other side it's clear there is no need to rush Stamp, his team know he is a very good prospect and that giving him time to develop is the key. At the moment it's a development process for Stamp and that's the right attitude to take.
Although young Stamp has shown a real understanding in the ring, has shown real boxing ability, movement, speed and intelligence. We won't pretend he's the best pure boxer in Thailand but he's a man with the potential to be a star and with his age it's clear he's going to build up his power and strengthm, the two flaws in his game.
Stamp is the current PABA interim Flyweight champion, as per the PABA website, and although going for the full title is a possibility we suspect it's not an option he will be looking to follow through with, instead he'll be out there to develop. Development has to be the key word with Stamp for the next year and we suspect he'll be kept busy as part of that development. For Stamp that activity begins in January and we suspect will continue through the year with another 6 if not 7 fights before the year is over. All of those fights will be designed for Stamp to get some rounds under his belt not to move forward.
Aged 25 it may be hard to call Super Bantamweight prospect Hikaru Marugame (3-0, 2) one of the best prospects in Asia but, in all honesty, he is that good with all the tools anyone could wish in a prospect. Unlike many Japanese prospects he has high level amateur experience, competing at major international tournaments, and that is partly why he is so old yet so inexperienced as a professional. Sadly he has also only fought once this past year and has struggled in some ways to generate career momentum.
Fast, powerful, highly skilled and with a good team behind him we think Marugame has all the ingredients to be a major player on the world scene in the coming years. He does have some things sat in his way, for example he's competing in what looks likely to be a packed Super Bantamweight division domestically, however we can't see past the fact he's a sensational talent and his wins so far have been at a very solid level for such a novice.
If Marguame has another year like he's had he's going to be struggling through the domestic rankings, thankfully however we expect he'll be having a much better year in 2015 than he had in 2014 and by the end of next year we suspect he'll be banging on the door for an OPBF or Japanese title fight. We don't think he'll have a belt around his waste but we'd not be shocked to see him win the Strong Korakuen or be fighting an what amounts to an OPBF eliminator.
The highest Thai entry on this list is Kongputorn CPFreshmart (5-0, 4) who has looked special since he made his debut earlier this year. He's shown heavy and fast hands, lovely combinations, nice movement and a wonderful variety of shots through his first 5 bouts.
Yes, we said 5 bouts because, at the time of writing, boxrec doesn't recognise 2 of Kongputorn's 5 contests however footage we've managed to collect has shown him fighting 5 times and it's hard not to have been impressed by the footage which has made him look like one to watch despite a lack of experience in the boxing ring. We have however been told that he was a very good Muay Thai fighter and that may explain why he looks so natural so early in his career.
Thai's typically ignore the OPBF route to the top and we suspect Kongputorn will be no different there with the odds favouring him to go either the PABA route to a WBA title fight or follow in the footsteps of many other Thai's who have gone the WBC route via various WBC regional and lesser titles. Having already won the WBC Youth Flyweight title we suspect Kongputorn will progress to regional WBC titles in 2015 and maybe make an appearance on some world rankings by the end of the year.
One man who hasn't yet made his debut though we're expecting very big things of is Japanese teenager Hintata Maruta (0-0) who we have been told is the next on the production line of super talented Japanese kids set to rise quickly through the ranks. Unlike both Naoya Inoue and Kosei Tanaka we're expecting to see Maruta competing at a more palatable division for western fans, either Bantamweight or Super Bantamweight, though like Inoue and Tanaka he is expected to rise just as quickly.
Maruta isn't set to debut until the second half of 2015 but the talented teenage is expected to spar with some notable fighters in the US as he looks to develop his teenage frame into that of a professional and, most amazingly, he is said to be eyeing up a world ranked foe for his debut. We're taking a punt on this kid but, if what we hear is true, Maruta will end 2015 as a world ranked fighter and may well end up winning titles in 2016 despite having not even made his debut at the time of writing.
It's clear he won't be winning world titles this coming year but if everything we read about him is true then 2016 will see him winning some sort of title, being world ranked and looking like a man on the extreme fast track to the top. Do not sleep on this fighter even if he is yet to debut.
We hope to get part 2 of this up short though hope that these 5 men will be added to your lists of fighters who names you will remember for the coming year.
(Image of Maruta courtesy of boxingnews.jp)
Back in 2011 a young 21 year old upstart called Kazuto Ioka scored a hugely impressive victory over the then unbeaten WBC Minimumweight champion Oleydong Sithsamerchai. The victory boosted Ioka from exciting prospect to world champion and with in an instant fans around the world were sitting up and taking notice of the youngster.
At the time many predicted Ioka to be a "once in a generation" fighter, a fighter whose impressive race to a world title had taken just 7 fights and less than 2 years. As it turns out however Ioka probably isn't a once in a generation fighter but instead the start of a new generation, the generation of hyper-talented Japanese youngsters who are, between them, racing towards world titles from their professional debut. A generation so ridiculously talented that we are almost certainly at genesis of a golden era in Japanese boxing and era that could well see Japan become the leading national in global boxing.
If Kazuto Ioka was the lead figure in this possible golden era then the second man in line was Naoya Inoue. The touted Inoue is a man who was fast tracked to a Japanese title in just his 4rd fight and an OPBF title in just his 5th bout. He was widely viewed, on debut, as being the most naturally talented and most promising young fighter in world boxing. This wasn't just a youngster who tipped for big things but was tipped to be a major star.
The belief in Inoue has come from every angle. The Japanese press love him, fans love him, fellow fighters have spoken highly of him and from just watching him you know you're watching a special fighter.
When we think of amazing prospects we tend to think of guys who pad their records but Inoue's 5 opponents to date have had a combined record of 78-20-9, with a single opponent, Ngaoprajan Chuwatana, accounting for 50% of those total loses. Ioka's opponents at the same time in his career had a combined record of 85-39-13.
What makes Naoya Inoue even more impressive is that he's not even 21 yet. The youngster, who turns 21 in March, is already ranked in the top 10 by 3 of the 4 major bodies and the stories come out of his camp are that he will be fighting for a world title this year, with the hope being that he gets to fight for one in his very next fight.
If we realise that Ioka and Naoya Inoue are both Light Flyweights then it may make sense to rule out other Light Flyweights. Unfortunately for the 108lb division Japan really is just churning out amazingly talented guys at the weigh class with both Kosei Tanaka and Takuma Inoue, both just 18 years old, tipped to become world champions. If we suggest Japan has a gold generation of fighters then it's impossible not to regard their 4 promising guys at Light Flyweight as the best group of youngsters any country has in a single division. Of these two fighters however it's hard to not to imagine Tanaka as having the most upside with his near future almost certainly being at Minimumweight where he may find some more openings.
The Super Flyweight division has a number of interesting Japanese fighters in it. Recognisable fighters like Koki Kameda, Daiki Kameda, Kohei Kono and Nobuo Nashiro have all been fighting at the world level. Below those 4 fighters is former Japanese national champion Teiru Kinoshita.
For me however the name to keep an close eye on is actually 22 year old Sho Ishida. Ishida, a stable mate of Kazuto Ioka's, is a name that many may not recognise but the unbeaten man is already forging his way in to the world rankings and notching up impressive victories.
Rangy with a lovely jab, fantastic hand speed, wonderful variety in shots and brilliant size Ishida looks every bit of a world champion in the making. Though for now that's all he is, a fighter in the making. He has still flaws to sort out, he still has skills to develop and he still needs to step up, though he looks more than capable. Unfortunately with Ioka and Inoue on the scene he's likely to be over-looked for a little while but I have no doubt on this kid becoming a world champion in the next 2-4 years. Hopefully before then we'll see him fighting at least one top domestic rival later this year before his moves into OPBF class and then world class.
Another fighter to keep an eye on at Super Flyweight, or possibly Bantamweight, is 20 year old Ryo Matsumoto. Whilst Ishida is the Ioka fighter here Matsumoto is the Ohahsi gym fighter, sharing a camp with Naoya Inoue and appears to be a fighter with a serious whack on him having stopped 8 of his first 9 opponents, with 7 of them not seeing out 2 rounds. At 5'8" I expect Matsumoto to be making his name at Bantamweight though I believe at the moment he could still make Super Flyweight if an opportunity was there to be had.
If Matsumoto attempts to make his name in the Bantamweight division has an immediate rival in the form of the 20 year old Shohei Omori who, like Matsumoto, is a solid punching fighter who stands at 5'8".
Omori's power, like that of Sho Ishida, wasn't immediately visible with Omori stopping just 2 of his first 5 opponents. Since then however he has blown 4 of 5 opponents out inside 2 rounds including a notable victory over Kiron Omura. With talent, power, size and growing maturity it wouldn't be a shock if Omori was singled out to be the successor to Shinsuke Yamanaka as the big Japanese hope at Bantamweight. He's still, obviously, a long way from that but the building blocks are there for this 20 year old to be a real star.
Fortunately for Omori he's probably young enough to make a charge for a title when the the likes of Yamanaka, Ryosuke Iwasa and Tomoki Kameda have either out grown the division or, in Yamanaka's case, retired from the sport. There's no rush at all for Omori at this point who is a mere baby in the Bantamweight division yet already seems like a champion of the future.
When we discuss the best divisions in Japan it's hard not to think that Super Featherweight is the strongest. Not only do Japanese fighters hold the WBC and WBA titles but Japan also has a nailed on future champion in Daiki Kaneko who looks like he'll claim a world title sooner rather than later.
Outside of the top 3 there is still strength in numbers with the likes of Satoshi Hosono and Hiroshige Osawa both of whom are very capable fighters. For me though the guy to keep a close eye on is the unbeaten Rikki Naito.
Naito, who fights for a Japanese national title in his very next fight is a very talented 22 year southpaw who seems capable of moving through the levels given time. He's no where near as polished as Ioka, Naoya Inoue or Sho Ishida but yet he still has a lot to like about him, including his skills and confidence.
To date Naito has only really faced 1 tough test. That came in his most recent fight, a majority decision over Keiichi Izumi in the Strongest Korakuen last year. That bout was a worry for Naito though if given time to develop his skillset I can see him at least challenging for a world title somewhere down the line.
At Lightweight, though certainly expected to move up to Light Welterweight in the near future, we have Masayoshi Nakatani. Nakatani, the OPBF Lightweight champion, is only 24 though has a perfect 7-0 (5) record including a huge win over Yoshitaka Kato last time out and an impressive stoppage of Shuhei Tsuchiya. Those two wins are what should bring Nakatani to any fight fans attention.
Blessed with power, speed and a very tall rangy body Nakatani looks like the sort of fighter who will be able to pick his fights between Lightweight and Light Middleweight if not Middleweight. He's a smidge under 6" and like Ioka and Ishida, he's being brought along in the Ioka gym being given a high quality gym environment to train his skills and hone his craft.
Our biggest worry about Nakatani is his weight. His frame is huge and he'd probably be better off fighting at 140lbs sooner rather than later. We saw Ryo Miyazaki, another Ioka gym member, struggle with weight and hopefully Nakatani will have learned from Miyazaki's mistakes.
Staying with 24 year olds I really like the look of the unbeaten Hiroki Okada. Okada, who sports a perfect KO record of 7 fights, 7 wins, 7 KO's is a Light Welterweight powerhouse who scored a noteworthy stoppage over Indonesia's Heri Andriyanto last year. Expected to fight for the national Light Welterweight title later this year Okada could be the dark horse to become the next Japanese banger even though he's a hugely different style of fighter to current KO sensation Takashi Uchiyama at Super Featherweight.
With so many exciting youngsters coming through the Japanese ranks right now, I won't be surprised if Japanese boxing really does entertain a genuine golden age. And lets not forget, I've only been looking at a handful of talented unbeaten youngsters. Throw in a few guys with a loss or two and you really do have an amazing depth of promising fighters which, to take Fuji TV's line, leaves us on the verge of an "Exciting Time".
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