The Japanese domestic title scene is an interesting one, with a mix of fighters ranging from emerging hopefuls like Shuichiro Yoshino and Koki Inoue to a former world title challenger, such as in the case of Keita Obara. Others are less well known, and some are very unlikely to ever make their name on the international stage. One such fighter is today's subject of our "Who are you?" series.
The Japanese Light Middleweight champion Hironobu Matsunaga (16-1, 10), who defends his title this coming weekend, is not someone we expect many fans to know much about, but in fairness he is someone who deserves a lot more attention than he gets. During his 17 fight career he has proven to be fun to watch, aggressive, strong, powerful and a tough guy to beat. Sadly though he's now 32 and unlikely to reach a higher level, however we are going to enjoy every fight he has going forward.
Matsunaga debuted in July 2012 as a Welterweight fighting out of the Yokohama Hikari gym, the gym he has remained with right through his career. On debut he took an opening round win over Takumi Matsuda on a Dangan card. It would be almost 5 months until he returned to the ring and scored his second win, taking out Mamoru Takeuchi in 3 rounds.
Sadly Matsunaga's career during these early bouts was frustrating, and full of lengthy gaps. His third bout came 7 months after his second, and saw him defeat future Japanese Welterweight challenger Makoto Kawasaki. Then he was out for a year.
Thankfully in June 2014, when Matsunaga returned, he was put in the Rookie of the Year, and was able to be active, with 4 bouts in 6 months, the type of activity his career really needed. His first bout of the year was a blow out win against Kenichi Kamada, that was followed by a second decision win over Makoto Kawasaki before a decision over Masaya Tamayama in the East Japan Rookie of the Year final. That run of wins lead him to the All Japan final where he clashed with the destructive Yuki Beppu.
Sadly for Matsunaga the power and aggression of Beppu proved to be too much at that stage, and Beppu would stop Matsunaga in the second round, ending Matsunaga's 6 fight unbeaten run to begin his career. Given that Beppu has since gone on to win the WBO Asia Pacific title this is a really interesting bout from an historical stand point, with both Beppu and Matsunaga later going on to bigger and better things, and shows that even fighters who fail to win Rookie of the Year can go on be successes.
Around 5 month after losing to Beppu we saw Matsunaga move up to Light Middleweight for the first time, and defeat Middleweight Rookie of the Year winner Hisao Narita. That win was followed 7 months later with Matsunaga moving down in weight and scoring a stoppage win over Shiro Saito, in what was Matsunaga's last bout as a Welterweight.
After repeated lengthy breaks 2016 seemed to be a potential break out year for Matsunaga. He kicked the year off by moving back to Light Middleweight and beating Hiroshi Ohashi over 8 rounds in March. This was followed up just 2 months later with a win over former Japanese Middleweight champion Sanosuke Sasaki. Then came a huge fight for Matsunaga as he travelled over to South Korea and beat Je Ni Ma for the WBO Asia Pacific Light Middleweight title.
The bout with Ma was a notable one in a number of ways for Matsunaga. It was his first bout outside of Japan, it was his first bout scheduled for 12, his first title bout and the first time he fought in an outdoor ring. He dropped Ma in round 3, and seemed like the clear winner, though one judge some how had Ma winning 115-112.
Sadly with 3 wins in 2016, a title under around his waist and momentum building Matsunaga was then out of the ring for 13 months! Part of that was, sadly, a bout with Ryota Yada falling through in May 2017 when Matsunaga had to pull out of the scheduled bout. On his eventual return he faced Thai foe Suchat Chaiyaporn and made light work of the Thai, stopping him in 3 rounds, on a live televised Japanese show. Given the long break we understand the low level opponent, but this was frustrating, to see a fighter winning a regional title then being in a bout like this.
A visit to Thailand 5 months later saw Matsunaga stop Patomsuk Pathompothong, aka Komsan Polsan, in 4 rounds to take his second win on foreign soil. This was a much better test than the one over Chaiyaporn, which was clearly done to shake some ring rust from the Japanese fighter after the inactivity. To end the year we saw Matsunaga finally get the big break out win he needed, stopping perennial Japanese title challenger Koshinmaru Saito to earn a Japanese title fight at the 2019 version of the Champion Carnival. This loss sent Saito into retirement and put Matsunaga in position for a Japanese title fight in 2019.
On July 10th 2019, almost 7 months after earning his Japanese title shot, Matsunaga finally got a crack at the title as he took on Japanese Light Middleweight champion Nobuyuki Shindo. Shindo, a tall, rangy and awkward southpaw, was under pressure from Matsunaga almost from the off, and retired in his corner after the 6th round, as he had began to take a bit of a battering from the challenger. Matsunaga had had trouble at times with the size difference, but when he started to cut the distance Shindo had no answer to his aggression, his pressure and his strength.
Aroudn 6 months after winning the belt Matsunaga made his first defense, stopping Koki Koshikawa in an exciting 4 rounder. Koshikawa, a former amateur standout, had moments but was broken down and then battered in rounds 3 and 4 before being saved by the referee.
Matsunaga was pencilled in to defend his title on March 7th against mandatory challenger Yuto Shimizu, though that bout has now been postponed indefinitely due to the JBC's suspension on boxing in regards to Coronavirus. Despite the postponement, we do expect the bout to take place later in the year.
As is usually the case Matsunaga will be giving away height, but the aggressive little southpaw warrior will be the favourite against the tough and awkward Shimizu. A win there will potentially open up a unification bout with regional title holds Takeshi Inoue and Akinori Watanabe, both of which would be really exciting match ups.
Although not a big name Matsunaga is an exciting fighter, and someone who deserves a lot more attention than he gets. His reign isn't likely to be a long one, given he's 33 in September, but it will certainly be an exciting one.
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