Last year in our "Introducing" series we spoke about a lot of promising fighters, among those was Ren Sasaki (10-0, 6) who was at the time, 8-0 (5). As a follow up to our "Introducing" articles we're taking a dive back into the fighters we looked at last year and revisiting them, looking at how their careers have progressed and where they stand now.
When we spoke about Sasaki last year he had been out of the ring for 8 months. His previous bout had been a narrow win over Kanehiro Nakagawa and he had real questions to answer to see whether or not he really was a prospect, or just a pretender.
Around 2 weeks after we spoke about Sasaki last year he returned to the ring and fought his international bout, travelling to Hong Kong to face unbeaten Chinese fighter Ge An Ma. Ma was 6-0-0-1 (1) but had a very weak record, with his only win of any note being a decision over experienced Filipino Diarh Gabutan.
Despite travelling away from Japan to take on Ma we actually saw Sasaki put on a very, very, good performance. Sasaki countered the aggressive Ma, regularly. He covered up when he needed to, and picked holes in Ma's defenses time and time again. Although Ma was there to win, he was genuinely the perfect foil for the talented Sasaki, who showed great composure under some pretty intense pressure and scored a 6th round TKO of the previously unbeaten Chinese fighter.
Sadly Sasaki took 5 months to return to the ring, but did so as part of the Knock Out DynamitePrize Match tournament in October. The 4 man tournament saw Sasaki fighting in the 56KG weight class, where he faced Morihisa Iju in the first round, with the other side of the bracket seeing Yuki Yamauchi defeat Ryuta Wakamatsu.
Sasaki, along with Yamauchi, would have been the favourite and was expected to easily over-come Iju. Surprisingly however Sasaki was outboxed at times by the over-looked Iju, who put on one of the best performances of his career. After 5 rounds Sasaki took a a highly dubios split decision over Iju to progress to the final. The bout was much like Sasaki's win over Nakagawa, where he was expected to win, but seemed to over-look his opponent and really struggled to find his rhythm as a result.
Having taken the win over Iju, albeit controversially, Sasaki was then meant to face off with Yamauchi, who had stopped Wakamatsu in the other semi-final. Sadly that bout, which was to take place in January, ended up being cancelled when Yamauchi was unable to compete. This resulted in Sasaki winning the tournament by default, in what was a real disappointment. Not only was it disappointing to see Sasaki win the tournament after his controversial win over Iju but to then see the mouth watering match up between Sasaki and Yamauchi fall apart as well left the tournament feeling very underwhelming.
Although Sasaki is clearly a talented fighter, and has already won the All Japan Rookie of the Year, Dangan B Class Tournament and Knockout Out Dynamite tournaments he has looked less than spectacular at times. We suspect he over-looks opponents, and that is something that will need to be addressed. He has genuine skill, solid power, nice movement and timing, and speed, but needs to maintain a level of consistency, no matter who he is up against.
If Sasaki can fight to his best every time he should still be regarded as a top prospect, but we're not sure if that's really something he can do. So far questionable wins against Kanehiro Nakagawa and Morihisa Iju have left us unconvinced on his ability to reach the top. Thankfully however he is just 25 and has time on his side. If he uses that time wisely there's a real chance he will develop and be a contender on the regional title in the future. He will however really need to buck up his performances and show us what he can do, before he suffers a shock loss to someone he has the skills to beat.
It's fair to suggest that February has been a slow month for fight fans in Asia, in fact at times it's felt down right glacial, with little happening, especially in the middle of the month. We had a good start, and a good end but then we had almost 2 weeks with nothing much happening. Thankfully March is set to be a whole different kettle of fish with interesting bouts right through the month.
With that said lets take a look at what to expect in the first part of March!
Daiki Tomita (14-1, 5) vs Kenichi Horikawa (40-16-1, 13)
A new Month kicks off with OPBF Light Flyweight title action as Daiki Tomita and Kenichi Horikawa clash for the vacant title. For Tomita this is a second shot at an OPBF belt, having come up short against Tsubasa Koura in 2018, whilst Horikawa will be lookin to bounce back from the loss of the Japanese national title to Yuto Takahashi. Although neither man is a huge name this is a very interesting looking bout, and could either send Horikawa into one final title run, or into retirement.
Dennapa Kiatniwat (21-2, 16) Vs Jeny Boy Boca (13-6, 11) -
Former world title challenger Dennapa Kiatniwat defends his WBA Asia Flyweight title against heavy handed, but very much out of form, Filipino Jeny Boy Buca. The Thai local got a world title fight last year and looked second rate against WBA king Artem Dalakian, but should have too much at this level. Buca was once regarded as a promising puncher, but then went 4-5 (2) and lost pretty much all of the momentum he had built in his first 10 bouts.
Nakhon Sawan, Thailand
Knockout CP Freshmart (20-0, 7) Vs Norihito Tanaka (19-7, 10)
Unbeaten WBA Minimumweight champion Knockout CP Freshmart seeks his 8th defense as he takes on Japanese challenger Norihito Tanaka. The once highly regarded, and still unbeaten, champion has failed to inspire in recent bouts, and with 5 decision wins in a row his name has become rather a joke. Although talented Knockout has certainly not enthralled. Sadly however it's hard to imagine the 35 year old Tanaka having the energy and power needed to defeat the local fighter, and become the first Japanese man to ever claim a world title in Thailand.
Hironobu Matsunaga (16-1, 10) Vs Yuto Shimizu (14-4-2, 5)
In the main event of the monthly "Dynamic Glove" show we'll see Japanese Light Middleweight champion Hironobu Matsunaga defending his title against mandatory challenger Yuto Shimizu as part of the 2020 edition of the Champion Carnival. Matsunaga has looked mightily impressive in recent outings and will be looking to make his second defense. Although Shimizu is less exciting and aggressive than Matsunaga he is a big, awkward lump and give the champion fits with his size alone. A very interesting match up.
Keita Kurihara (15-5, 13) Vs Joe Tanooka (15-7-5, 1)
On the same Japanese show world ranked slugger Keita Kurihara takes on the talented, but feather fisted, Joe Tanooka in a bout that really does give us very different styles. Kurihara is a genuinely dynamite puncher who has gone 12-1 (10) in his last 13 bouts and will be looking to show he can box a but, before taking apart Tanooka. Tanooka on the other hand is a quick, technically capable fighter who will be looking to lure Kurihara into a mistake and countering. A very interesting contest, even if it lacks in terms of big name intrigue.
Reiya Abe (19-3-1, 9) vs Ren Sasaki (10-0, 6)
Former 2-time Japanese national title challenger Reiya Abe looks to move towards a third potential title bout when he takes on unbeaten southpaw Ren Sasaki. The talented Abe had a 2019 to forget, fighting to a draw with Taiki Minamoto and losing to Ryo Sagawa, and needs to rebuild his moment. In terms of achievement he should be seen as a big favourite here, however he doesn't get a gimme. The unbeaten Sasaki is no push over, and is a very decent boxer himself, having won the All Japan Rookie of the Year in 2017. Expect this to be a compelling 8 rounder.
Jacob Ng (13-0, 10) vs Valentine Hosokawa (25-7-3, 12)
In a potential hidden gem Australian Jacob Ng will be defending his IBF International and WBO Oriental Lightweight titles against the under-rated Valentine Hosokawa. On paper Ng should be regarded as a big favourite. He's the bigger, younger, hard hitting, unbeaten champion. And he's at home. But Hosokawa can't be over-looked at this level and the Japanese fighter is a very strong, aggressive fighter who throws a lot of leather and can take a lot of punishment. Don't be surprised if this one is one of the real highlights of March.
Akzhol Sulaimanbek Uulu (15-0, 8) vs Mark Urvanov (17-2-1, 9)
Unbeaten 29 year old Kyrgyzstan born Akzhol Sulaimanbek Uulu will be looking to continue his rise through the ranks, and take a huge step towards a potential world title fight as he takes on Russian fighter Mark Urvanov. This will be Uulu's first 12 round bout and we dare say if he wins here his team will begin hunting a world title eliminator for him, for later in the year. Although no world beater Urvanov is a good test at this level and comes in on the back of a career best result, stopping former world title challenger Evgeny Chuprakov back in November. Hard not to like this one....a lot!
Muhammadkhuja Yaqubov (15-0, 9) Vs Tomas Rojas (51-18-1-1, 34)
Unbeaten Tajik hopeful Muhammadkhuja Yaqubov looks to take his next step forward as he faces former world title holder Tomas Rojas. On paper this looks like a step up against a grizzled old veteran, but with the fight taking place up at Super Featherweight we do wonder whether Rojas, who was a Super Flyweight at his best, will simply be over-powered and out manned by Yaqubov. At the age of 39 and with a 2-4 record in the last 3 years we really do wonder what Rojas has left, other than his name.
Seigo Yuri Akui (14-2-1, 10) Vs Seiya Fujikita (13-4, 6) -
Hard hitting Seigo Yuri Akui looks to make his first defense of the Japanese Flyweight title as he takes on mandatory challenger Seiya Fujikita. The explosive punching Akui has proven to be scarily dangerous early on, with 9 opening round T/KO's, and will be looking to make it #10 here. Fujikita has never been stopped stopped but with only a single, low key, win in the since June 2018 it's hard to know what he has to offer. Fujikita could be the type of durable test who can see out the Akui storm, or could be the next early victim for the destroyer from Okayama.
Rey Caitom (9-0-1, 4) vs ArAr Andales (10-2, 2)
Former world title challenger ArAr Andales is going to be in rebuilding mode this year after back to back losses in 2019, losing to Knockout CP Freshmart and Joel Lino. Rather than having an easy bout to kick off 2020 the 20 year old will be up against the unbeaten Rey Caitom, in a tough looking bout. Andales will be favoured, and has impressed at a higher level, but with those losses we do wonder about how he is mentally. Caitom has fought at a much lower level will clearly be in the ring knowing a win pushes him to within touching distance of a world title shot.
Shingo Wake (26-6-2, 18) Vs Toshiya Yokogawa (11-12-2, 10)
Former world title challenger Shingo Wake was shockingly upset last year, by Jhunriel Ramonal, and now looks to begin rebuilding. He's being matched easily here, as he takes on 34 year old domestic foe Toshiya Yokogawa. Given the loss to Ramonal, and how brutal it was, we can't complain about Wake getting an easy bout here, but he really can't spend too long fighting at this level, and we suspect this will be a tune up to a much bigger bout in the summer as Wakes begins his climb, again, to a second world title fight.
Toshiya Ishii (3-0, 2) Vs Issei Ochiai (2-0, 1)
On the same card we'll also see Japanese Youth Bantamweight champion Toshiya Ishii make his first defense, as he takes on the touted Issei Ochiai. Ishii has impressed since turning professional and his title win, back in December over Haruki Ishikawa, was a sensational bout. The challenger hasn't quite impressed like the champion, but this is certainly a chance for him to shine. We expect big things from both men going forward, but the winner should be put on the fast track to more notable honours.
Yuto Takahashi (11-4, 5) vs Masamichi Yabuki (10-3, 10)
Another Japanese title fight will see Japanese Light Flyweight champion Yuto Takahashi make his first defense, as he goes up against his mandatory Masamichi Yabuki. Takahashi scored a surprise title win last October, when he over-came veteran Kenichi Horikawa, and will be looking to prove that he can over-come a prime puncher like Yabuki, as well as a faded veteran like Horikawa. For Yabuki this is his first title fight and he'll be looking to prove he really is destructive at Light Flyweight, having move down to the division last year.
As we've mentioned a number of times in these "Introducing..." articles, the Watanabe gym is rich with young and emerging talent. It's a gym that is so deep in talent that it may well be the strongest gym in Japan right now, and is certainly up there with Kadoebi and Ohashi in terms of overall depth. One of the many fighters at the gym making their mark is 24 year old southpaw Ren Sasaki (8-0, 5), a promising young southpaw.
Born in Morioka City in 1995 Sasaki didn't really have much of an amateur career, in fact our sources suggest he was 1-0 (1) as an amateur before beginning his professional career in late 2016, under the Tokyo based Watanabe Gym.
As with many fighters who lack a strong amateur background Sasaki was involved in 4 round bouts to begin his career, making his debut in October 2016. On his debut he quickly saw off Kyota Shinya, scoring an opening round TKO win over his opponent. It would then be 6 months before he returned to the ring, fighting in an East Japan Rookie of the Year preliminary bout against Yuichi Wakita. Wakita would himself be stopped in round 3 by Sasaki.
Having won his first Rookie of the Year bout in April 2017 Sasaki would go on to have an excellent 2017. He would go on to beat Masaaki Shiraishi in his second bout from East Japan Rookie and then defeat Yoshiki Nakamura in the competition's semi-final bout. Those wins lead Sasaki to the East Japan Rookie of the Year final in November, where Sasaki met Toru Kiyota. Kiyota came into the bout with a 7-1 (5) record, a reputation as a talented puncher and a man in good form. He would however be worn out and then stopped by Sasaki, with an official time of 3:09 in round 4.
The win over Kiyota wasn't pretty, it wasn't an attractive win, but it was a huge win for Sasaki who earned himself a place in the 2017 All Japan Rookie of the Year. In the All Japan final he would face another unbeaten fighter, Shuto Takase, the West Japan representative. Sasaki entered the bout 5-0 (3) whilst Takase was 4-0-1 (1). The bout, like Sasaki's bout with Kiyota, was another messy one, though it was clear that Sasaki had developed a style that was effective for him, and it often involved Sasaki pressing the action, breaking his opponent down, and that again happened here, stopping Takase in the 4th round.
With the Rookie of the Year crown won 2018 had the potential to be a huge year for Sasaki. His first bout of the year saw him stop Thai novice Somphot Seesa, in the 2nd of a scheduled 6 rounder. This bout may not have been a very notable one, though did come on a big show featuring two world title fights and did give Sasaki the experience of fighting on a big show.
Sasaki's second bout of 2018 saw him take on Kanehiro Nakagawa in a B Class tournament final. The bout looked like a mismatch on paper, with Nakagawa having a 5-5 record against the 7-0 record of Sasaki, in the end however this was actually a really competitive and tough bout, with Nakagawa holding his own with Sasaki. The toughness of Nakagawa forced Sasaki to go 6 rounds for the first time, and just narrowly sneak the win with a majority decision.
Sadly Sasaki wouldn't fight again in 2018 and now we have to wait until this coming May to see to see him again, with his next bout now set for May 12th. That will be a landmark bout for Sasaki as he travels to Hong Kong to take on Ge An Ma in an 8 round contest.
Unlike many featured in our "Introducing..." section we're not expecting Sasaki to get a title fight any time soon, but he is certainly one to make a note of going forward.
This is just an opinion, maaaan! It's easy to share our opinions, and that's what you'll find here, some random opinion pieces