As we header into 2021 we decided to make 2 lists for fighters under a “21 for 2021” banner. One of those will include the big names, the contenders and the champions, the ones you might be a little bit familiar with. The ones that are either already stars, or are on the verge of it.
This one however will see us looking at prospects and novices who we expect will leave a mark on 2021, and be on the verge of something big by the end of the year.
Due to this being a prospects list we’ve put two rules on the list. One is that a fighter cannot have more than 10 professional bouts, and the other is that a fighter cannot be world ranked, as they are, by definition, a contender.
With that second rule in mind we will not include fighters such as Ginjiro Shigeoka, Bektemir Melikuziev, Israil Madrimov, Shakhram Giyasov and Rustam Tulaganov in this list. After all, they are all, already, world ranked and should be regarded as contenders.
Jin Sasaki (10-0, 9)
One of the real emerging stars of 2020 was Japanese Light Welterweight Jin Sasaki, who went 3-0 (3) in this year, and announced himself in a big way with a dominating win over Aso Ishiwaki for the Japanese Youth title. We expect him to be fighting for a Japanese or regional title in the near future, and 2021 will be based around taking huge strides to such a fight.
Phoobadin Yoohanngoh (10-0, 5)
Another youngster at 140lbs, in fact the youngest man on this list by far, is Phoobadin Yoohanngoh who is just 16 and already making waves in a very impressive fashion. In 2020 he claimed, and defended, a regional WBA belt and really made a mark with his biggest wins to date. We suspect 2021 might see him facing a step up in class, but he’s likely to be a long term project.
Bakhodir Jalolov (7-0, 7)
Uzbek Heavyweight giant Bakhodir Jalolov has had a weird year. As a profession he fought just once, in December, but he mixed that with some amateur fights at the start of the year and booked his place at the Tokyo Olympics, winning the Asia/Oceania qualifying event. We suspect he’ll be a major threat at the Olympics, and then, finally be let off the leash to chase big professional bouts later in the year.
Taku Kuwahara (7-0, 4)
If there is one Japanese youngster who will feel that 2020 was a year where lost momentum, that would probably be Flyweight hopeful Taku Kuwahara. In 2019 he picked up 4 wins but in 2019 he was out of the ring for the entire year, barring a small exhibition, and then suffered an injury late in the year. We expect him to try and make up for lost time in 2021 and move towards a Japanese title fight by the end of the year.
Elnur Abduraimov (6-0, 6)
Jalolov wasn’t the only Uzbek who lacked activity in the professional ranks this year, in fact many top Uzbek’s were sadly inactive, with another being Elnur Abduraimov. The 26 year old southpaw fought just a single professional bout and a handful of amateur bouts, but like Jalolov has qualified for the Olympics and we expect really big things from him when the Tokyo games comes around. After Tokyo we’d hope he gets the chance to rip through the Lightweight division, something he has the ability to do.
Jinki Maeda (6-0, 4)
The Featherweight division in Japan is one of the most interesting domestic divisions in the sport right now, anywhere on the planet. The division is stacked to the nines. With that said however we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that 24 year old Jinki Maeda ends up in the mix in 2021. The talented boxer-mover won Rookie of the Year in 2019 and impressed with 2 fantastic domestic wins in 2020. He’s one to watch, and could be a future contender at 126lbs or 130lbs.
Seiya Tsutsumi (5-0-2, 4)
The most unlucky man in Japan in 2020, by far, was Seiya Tsutsumi who was twice denied victory by somewhat questionable score-cards, resulting in his two draws. The first of those came against Kazuki Nakajima in the God’s Left Bantamweight tournament and the second came against Daigo Higa. Had he got either of those wins we suspect he could have been fighting for a title very early in 2021. Instead 2021 will be a year of pursuit for him, and we suspect he’ll eventually get a big fight, and get the nod. Do not write him off for those draws!
Mikito Nakano (5-0, 4)
Teiken hopeful Mikito Nakano will enter 2021 with the hope of landing a big domestic bout, and in reality there’s a genuine chance he ends the year world ranked and with a regional title. The talented youngster appears to have it all. He’s skilled, he’s quick, sharp, powerful with a good boxing brain. There are areas to work on, but he looks like he could be just a few fights away from something big. With that in mind 2021 could well be his big break out year, if he can 2 or even 3 solid wins during the year.
Shokichi Iwata (5-0, 4)
Japanese Light Flyweight hopeful Shokichi Iwata is another fighter from Teiken that we expect big things from in 2021. The talented youngster made his debut in the US but has since been building his record back in Japan and is slowly closing in on a title bout of some kind. During this coming year the exciting boxer-puncher will likely fight for the Japanese title or one of the regional belts, and then look to kick on properly towards world level in 2022.
Rentaro Kimura (3-0, 3)
The sensationally talented Rentaro Kimura only debut in July 2020 but has quickly become one to watch, and has shown a lot in just 3 fights. He’s insanely skilled, has every punch in the book, and has some of the best footwork in Japan. However in 3 bouts he has looked like a man focused on entertaining rather than really showing what he can do and we suspect 2021 will see him stepping up to Japanese title level, and needing to prove that he has the tools when the going gets tough. He looks sensational at times, but has faced very over-matched opponents who haven’t yet been able to get the best from him.
Talgat Shayken (3-0, 2)
Kazakh youngster Talgat Shayken is an exciting, physically strong, aggressive fighter who looks like he’s going to be a longer term project than some on this list, but will be very much a fan man to follow. Aged just 20 he’s a long term prospect who looks likely to be built in Kazakhstan, by Tukeshov Promotions, but we suspect US bouts will come down the line. Although he started his career at Light Middleweight it seems he’s going to be competing at Welterweight going forward, which could be a very smart move for the next few years.
Theeraphan Polsongkarm (3-0, 2)
Thai 23 year old Theeraphan Polsongkarm, also known by the much more memorable Oscar Mastertoddygym, made his professional debut in March 2019 and in just his second fight he impressed, stopping former world title challenger Inthanon Sithchamuang in 7 rounds. Sadly after his third win in December 2019 he was unable to fight in 2020, just as it seemed momentum was building for him. Fingers crossed he’ll be in action in 2021 as he looked like a Thai who was being fast tracked to the top and fighting in 12 rounders in just his third bout!
Bek Nurmaganbet (3-0, 2)
Sensational Kazakh Bek Nurmaganbet has impressed in the amateurs, impressed in World Series Boxing and is now impressing in the professional ranks. The 22 year old Light Heavyweight looks like he has almost everything needed to be a star, the one doubt, perhaps, is his power, but he has the skills to make up for that. He’s a very efficient, accurate fighter who has been matched well and has a couple of 6 rounders under his belt already. Fingers crossed Suleimen promotions continue to test him and in 2021 moves into 8 and even 10 rounders. He’s good enough and has the experience to be in longer bouts already.
Ryosuke Nishida (3-0, 1)
Lots of prospects scored good wins in 2020 but probably the best win scored by a Japanese prospect last year was Ryosuke Nishida’s excellent win over Shohei Omori. The talented Nishida, who has been hyped since before his 2019 debut, stepped up massively and out boxed Omori through out, hurting him late and came close to stopping the former Japanese Bantamweight champion. The young Bantamweight appears to have it all and we suspect 2021 will be a year where he races through the domestic rankings towards a title fight.
Hasanboy Dusmatov (2-0, 2)
Incredibly Uzbek amateur standout Hasanboy Dusmatov is in a weird position. Technically he’s among the very best fighters at 105lbs or 108lbs, but isn’t currently world ranked and had a 2020 to forget, fighting just once against a short notice replacement opponent. The 2016 Olympic gold medal winner is an incredible fighter, with the tools to go a very long way, very quickly. Sadly though he is 28 this year and needs to make big moves before it’s too late. With that in mind mark him down as one too keep a very close eye on this year!
Kamshybek Kunkabayev (2-0, 2)
Talented Kazakh Cruiserweight Kamshybek Kunkabayev is 29, so like Dusmatov needs to make a big mark this year. Unlike Dusmatov however Kunkabayev is already notable opponents in the professional ranks, with his debut coming against the then 20-1 Issa Akberbayev and his second bout coming against a very solid journeyman. Sadly 2021 might not be the year where Kunkabayev ends up fighting for a world title, but we do expect him to earn some silverware as he is focusing on the Tokyo Olympics. After the Olympics expect his team to chase professional world titles in 2022 or 2023.
Tursynbay Kulakhmet (2-0, 1)
Another top Kazakh prospect with strong amateur pedigree is Tursynbay Kulakhmet, who looked amazing on debut, but did have some questions raised over his ability in his second bout, a decision in the UK against Macaulay McGowan. The 26 year old 154lb’der has proven to have impressive stamina, movement and power, but needs to add more variety to his work before stepping up too much. He looks like he has the tools in his arsenal to go a very long way, but getting experience will be a key for him in 2021. Expect him to face some noteworthy names to get rounds, and to get some solid seasoning in 2021 in a series of 10 round bouts against very decent competition.
Yudai Shigeoka (2-0, 1)
Yudai Shigeoka, the older brother of the world ranked Ginjiro Shigeoka, has had a frustrating 2020, sitting out of the ring for the entire year, but will be looking to come back with a splash in February when he fights for the Japanese Youth Light Flyweight title. He made his debut in a low key affair, but showed his ability in December 2019 when he outpointed OPBF Minimumweight champion Lito Dante with no issues at all. He has the ability, the amateur background and the team to take him all the way, and we suspect he’ll pick up a lot of silverware in the next 24 months or so. A really special talent.
Nonthasith Petchnamthong (2-0)
Nonthasith Petchnamthong, also known as Prachanchay PK Saenchaimuaythai, only made his debut in August 2020 but is already one of the Thai hopefuls who we suspect people will be raving about in a year or two. Unlike many prospects he was thrown straight into title action and 10 rounders, winning the WBA Asia South Featherweight title on debut and then later beating former world champion Kompayak Porpramook in his second bout, both wins coming by 10 round decision. Although not a big puncher Nonthasith is a very talented fighter who already has 20 rounds of professional experience and the 26 year old, who has moved down to Bantamweight, could end up being a bit of a hidden gem.
Thitisak Hoitong (1-0)
Last, but certainly not least, is professional novice Thitisak Hoitong. The 24 year old Hoitong made his debut in November, on a Tan Telecom Promotions show, and was matched with former 2-time world title challenger Samartlek Kokietgym. Despite being thrown in at the relatively deep end Hoitong dominated Samartlek, winning pretty much every minute of the fight against his tough and stubborn foe. Fighting at Flyweight we suspect Hoitong will be moved towards regional title bouts in 2021 and potentially a world title bout in the next 3 years. A genuine talent with real swagger and confidence, he could be a major player at 112lbs very quickly.
In November we counted down a number of honourable mentions for our 20 for 20. Now it's time to look at the 20 fighters who have managed to make it into the list properly, and they come from all over Asia and all over the weight classes. Some of these you may already be aware of, some are perhaps less well known, but either way these 20 men are going to be well worth following in the new year as they look to push forward in their career and move towards major success.
For these fighters we will look at the the reason why you should follow them, our expectations for them in the coming year and the issues they may face going forward. The one rule with all of these fighters is that they can't have fought for a world title at the time of writing.
Some of these are world ranked, and some of these may well be set for world title fights in the near future, but so far they have not had that top level bout.
Without any further ado, lets take a look at the man we have ranked #12 in our list of Ones to watch in 2020, and began our count down to the man we rank #1
Taku Kuwahara (7-0, 4)
The Ohashi gym have proven they know how to handle talent, taking Naoya Inoue, Katsushige Kawashima, Ayaka Miyao and Akira Yaegashi to world titles. The head of the gym, the fantastic Hideyuki Ohashi, is himself a former world champion as well and the gym has enough brains to really know how to guide talented fighter to the top. With that in mind we start this by saying that Taku Kuwahara is probably the best Ohashi Gym fighter to have not won a title, of any kind, but that's likely to change in 2020.
The talented 24 year old has been frequently compared to Kazuto Ioka, with the Japanese press regularly referring to him as "Ioka II" and although he's not quite on Ioka's level you can see they do have things in common. Not only did they both attend the same educational facility but they are both talented fighters who have crisp punching, fight with smart pressure, though lovely combinations and have particularly good body shots, a trade mark for both men.
Kuwahara has lot of reasons to follow him. Not only is the Ohashi gym pushing him as a future star, and not only is his an exceptional talent, but 2020 is expected to be the year where he goes out there and begins to collect gold. As we've seen with Ohashi gym fighters in the past when they are ready for titles Ohashi pushes them for titles, rather than wasting time with talk and bluster, and Kuwahara is certainly at the point where he's ready for serious tests.
What do we expect?
With 7 fights under his belt, a couple of completed 8 rounder and 4 fights in 2019, including a massive step up in class, it's clear that the fighter is wanting to go places, his team know he has the talent and together they have the drive. The minimum expectation we have of Taku Kuwahara in 2020 is for him to win his first title, which we expect to be a regional belt. With that belt we expect to see the youngster breaking into the world rankings and fighting against a fellow ranked fighter by the end of the year.
Kuwahara certainly needs more fights before fighting for a world title, his relative lack of experience and limited opposition make it clear that he needs more ring time before thinking about world titles. However an OPBF champion in these lower weights to tend to be fringe world class, and a bout against a world ranked opponent after that will certainly be 2 solid fights that will help Kuwahara develop his experience.
One other thing we would expect from Kuwahara is to face off with a Western opponent of some kind. To date all of his opponents have been from Asia, so it would be good to see him in with a tough Mexican or a Puerto Rican later in 2020.
Whist we have no real concerns over Kuwahara the fighter, he looks like a complete package even if he has now gone the distance in back to back fights, there are still question marks regarding how his career will go from here, and how well it can be managed.
Whilst we do think the Ohashi is great, and the way they've developed fighters over the years has certainly been more exciting than we've seen from many other promoters, there is a worry they are spreading themselves a bit thin. The company, who maintain an interest in Naoya Inoue and Andy Hiraoka, will see their focus split between East and West and it may mean that a fighter like Kuwahara doesn't get the time they deserve. It's not happened yet, but might in 2020.
On the flipside of that the links up with Top Rank from some of the more marketable stars in the gym may well turn out to be a positive for fighters like Kuwahara who could be fighting on US soil on an Inoue undercard, if things fall in place. So there is a worry he could be over-looked, but on the other hand that worry could be alleviated and quickly become a positive, if things go well for his US based stablemates.
Unfortunately we don't have much professional footage of Kuwahara so we've included an amateur bout of him below from 2014, in a tournament in Taiwan.
(Image courtesy of Boxkob.jp)
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