Over the last few years female boxing has gone from strength to strength and no longer is female boxing only for the hardcore fight fans, who watch anything they can. Whilst it's not fully crossed over into the main stream, there are certain fighters who have connected with a wider audience than ever before, such as Katie Taylor, and we are seeing more and more hints towards getting all-female cards in the UK and the US.
Whilst it's great to see more countries embracing female boxing it's worth noting that a number of countries have been putting on notable female bouts for years, such as Mexico, Argentina and Japan. That looks to continue for the foreseeable future, including this coming Thursday, when Japanese fans at Korakuen Hall get an interesting IBF Atomweight title fight.
The first in question will pit defending champion Saemi Hanagata (16-7-4, 7) against novice Eri Matsuda (4-0, 1) in a really intriguing bout. For Hanagata the bout will be her second defense, following her title win in 2018 against Yuko Kuroki, whilst Matsuda will be getting her first crack at a world title. For Hanagata the bout is a chance to prove she is the Japanese queen of the division whilst Matsuda is looking to force a generational shift in the division, and prove the new women of Japanese boxing are just as good at the legends that put Japanese female boxing on the map over the last 15 years or so.
Fans who have followed Japanese female boxing will be familiar with Hanagata and her career. The 36 year old debuted way back in 2008 and has been bouncing around the world title picture since 2012, when she challenged the legendary Momo Koseki for the WBC Atomweight title. Whilst Hanagata managed to establish herself as a world class fighter rather early on, it wasn't long until she became a fighter with a reputation of not being able to get it done at the top level. By the end of 2017 she had gone 0-2-2 in world title bouts, and it seemed like she was never going to get over the line. She already won the OPBF title but couldn't get over the line at world level. Thankfully for Hanagata it was fifth time lucky in 2018 when she scored a split decision win over Yuko Kuroki for the IBF title, and a year later she recorded her first defense, defeating Nao Ikeyama. Now she's looking to continue her reign as a champion, and return to action 18 months after her last bout.
One of the things that made Hanagata such a popular fighter was her incredible desire to win. After failing to win in her first 4 world title bouts she had still desire and hunger to climb towards another shot. That wasn't just hunger for a shot though, it was hunger every time she stepped in the ring. It didn't matter who she was against she was a rampaging monster in between the ropes. She pressed forward almost constantly, she threw a lot of leather, and never stopped coming forward. Her desire to become a champion was just an extension of the desire shown in her in ring style and tenacity. She was an aggressive, pressure fighter who made for fan friendly bouts. For those with Boxing Raise we really suggest giving her bouts a watch, they are almost always thoroughly entertaining wars.
The 26 year old Matsuda debuted back in 2018 and was moved quickly through the ranks after a solid amateur career. In her debut Matsuda beat recent world title challenger Sana Hazuki before winning her first title, in just her second bout, as she beat Minayo Kei for the OPBF Atomweight title. Soon after that she unified the OPBF and Japanese titles, with a win over Nanae Suzuki, and would defend the Japanese title once, with a TKO win over Mont Blanc Miki.
Despite her lack of experience Matsuda has already got 27 professional rounds under her belt, shown she can do 8 rounds at a good pace and has faced a number of aggressive pressure fighters, and has shown the tools to go a long way, though obviously still has a lot of work to do. In the ring her style is very much an amateur style, with her focus being on straight punches, maintaining distance and a lot of footwork. It's a style that looks very taxing on the legs and really is a safety first one. Sadly, due to her movement, she doesn't really sit on her punches and seems feather fisted, but she's very skilled and her competition so far has been incredibly advanced for someone with so little experience. It has also been the perfect type of competition to prepare her for a fighter like Hanagata, with Hazuki, Suzuki and Miki all bringing a lot of heat to Matsuda, who had to maintain her focus and her composure.
Coming in to this it's worth noting that neither fighter fought in 2020. In fact both fighters last fought on September 12th 2019, on the same show at Korakuen Hall. Neither fighter is likely to look their sharpest from the opening bell and instead we expect to see both need a round or two to find their groove. That could prove vital here given how different their styles are.
If Hanagata settles first, and manages to force her fight from the opening round, we suspect she can take an early lead and force Matsuda to chase the fight. If that happens we're not sure Matsuda has it in her arsenal to turn the tide. However if Matsuda settles first, creates space, and tags Hanagata coming in we could easily imagine the younger, fresher, fighter racking up the early rounds then holding and spoiling late on to take a decision. It really is going to be key for both women to find their rhythm as soon as they can.
Coming in to this one we see it as a very, very well match bout, and the difference in styles, age and experience leave it as a compelling match up. We suspect that Matsuda will get off to a good start, and take the early lead, but as the rounds go by, and as Hanagata's pressure cranks up she'll come back into the bout. The real question is whether Matsuda can get a big enough lead to take the win, or whether Hanagata's pressure will be enough for her to take a narrow, and hotly contested, victory.
Prediction - Matsuda SD10
In August American fans saw Joshua Franco and Oscar Negrete end their trilogy with their second draw. The two men had next to nothing to separate them over a thrilling 3 fight series, with Franco taking a split decision in the only bout to end with a winner. This coming Thursdays Japanese fans get the end to a similar trilogy, as Saemi Hanagata (15-7-4, 7) and Nao Ikeyama (18-5-4, 5) battle for the third time. Their first two bout have both been split decision draws and both will be hoping to take a victory over their nemesis in what will likely be the final clash between the two.
Interestingly the dynamic entering this third bout is different to their earlier bouts. In their first 2 bouts it was Ikeyama entering as a champion, defending the WBO Atomweight title, with Hanagata being the hungry challenger. This time the tables are turned, with Hanagata entering as the IBF Atomweight queen and the soon to be 50 year old Ikeyama fighting as the challenge. Whether that makes a difference is yet to be seen, though it is an interesting shift in the narrative as we enter the third chapter of rivalry.
Ikeyama is one of the more interesting stories in female boxing, and proof that if you keep trying, keep improving, and don't quit you can achieve notable success. She turned professional way back in 2003, at the very advanced age of 34.
Ikeyama's debut was so long ago the JBC hadn't even began to recognise female boxing in the early stages of her career she would win the WIBA Minimumweight title and the JWBC title, but was still essentially fighting without the JBC backing until 2008. When the JBC recognised female boxing Ikeyama would get a shot at the WBC Atomweight title, facing Momo Koseki in 2009, and lose a clear decision. At that point she was 39 and after just 3 more fights it seemed like her career was over, following a win over Mika Oda in December 2010.
Amazingly Ikeyama resurfaced 3 years after her win over Oda. This come back lead to her biggest success, with a 2014 win over Jessebelle Pagaduan netting her the WBO Atomweight title, at the age of 44! She would would defend the title 6 times, score notable wins over Jujeath Nagaowa and Ayaka Miyaao, as well as two defenses against Hanagata, both coming by way of draws, before losing the belt in 2018 to Mika Iwakawa. She would hint at retirement following her title loss, but then continue on and lose in a third bout with Miyao. Again talk of retirement was ended when Ikeyama returned and earned a draw with Yuko Kuroki, in what was really credible performance and one that showed there was still life left in Ikeyama's career
In the ring Ikeyama is a bundle of energy, despite her age. She's ultra busy in the ring, throws a lot of leather, and whilst she's not light on her feet or a big puncher, she's still a nightmare to fight. Here fitness levels are incredible and she can take a good shot. In recent years she has come un-done against faster, smart fighters, but few will look to go punch for punch with her if they hope to win. It was the movement from Miyao that played a huge factor in their third bout and showed the tactics to beat Ikeyama at this stage.
At 34 years old Hanagata is a relative spring chicken, though she too is a veteran having debuted more than 11 years ago. She has adopted the surname of promoter Susumu Hanagata, and has been one of the biggest success stories of the Hanagata Gym, along with recent Japanese champion Yuta Saito and former world title challenger Go Odaira. She lost on her debut and remained at a lot lower level for around the first 2 years of her career, losing in her first step up against Jujeath Nagaowa. She would get a second step up in class in 2012 and earn a draw against Masae Akitaya before getting a world title fight with the then WBC Momo Koseki, losing a competitive decision.
Having proven she could have with better fighters Hanagata's team started to match her more aggressively. That back fired early, with a loss to future world champion Kumiko Seeser Ikehara, and a win and draw against Yuko Kuroki, but in 2014 she would claim her first title, the OPBF female Minimumweight title. Her reign was short lived, losing the belt just 6 months after winning it. Despite the loss she would move up in weight and get her second world title shot, losing a close a decision to Naoko Shibata. Since the loss to Shibata we've seen Hanagata go on a bit of a tear, whilst dropping back down in weight. She would reclaim the OPBF female Minimumweight title, have her two ultra close bouts with Ikeyama and then, last September, claim the IBF world title, winning the big one in her 5th world title bout.
We've not seen Hanagata in the ring since her title winning performance, so whether she still has that hunger is a big question, though it's clear she will want to pick up a win against Ikeyama after their first 2 bouts were so close and hotly contested. At her best she's a rugged punching machine, with a real will to win. She walks through shots with her pressure and looks to work her hard shots on the inside. Although not an out and out puncher she does have heavy hands, as we saw when she dropped Yuko Kuroki last time out.
As with their first two bout we're expecting a thrill a minute bout. It's not going to be the prettiest of the smoothest fight we'll ever see, but it is going to be a thrilling bout, with both looking to control the pace, both throwing a lot and both engaging in close combat. The big questions are whether Hanagata still has the fire she had before winning the title and whether Ikeyama can still go with her 50th birthday coming up just days after the fight.
We think Hanagata's "youth" will play a part here and will be the difference. Ikeyama has such an amazing gas tank, but it will have to break at some point and we expect that to be here. She's not looked her best recently and is 0-2-2 over the last 2 years, though has fought at a high level. Hanagata on the other hand will not to throw away the biggest achievement of her career and will be desperate to keep the belt, doing just enough, and being that touch busier, to retain the title.
Prediction - SD10 Hanagata
Over the last few weeks we've seen a lot of talk about a potential third bout between Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, after the two men competed in two razor thin bouts. Those two bouts have seen Canelo take a 1-0-1 lead over the Kazakh but the reality that neither man really out did the other during their two fights. This coming Saturday we get to see the end of a very similar trilogy, between two fighters who have had two razor thin bouts, with one resulting in a draw and one being a really narrow win.
The trilogy in question is a trilogy between Yuko Kuroki (18-5-1, 8) and Saemi Hanagata (14-7-4, 7), who fight for the IBF Atomweight title. Their first bout took place in June 2013, with Hanagata taking a hotly contested unanimous decision before the two fought to a draw just 6 months later, with the two women fighting for the OPBF female Minimumweight title.
Since their bouts both fighters have established themselves as genuine class fighters. Kuroki has gone to win the WBC Female Minimumweight title, which she won in 2014 and defended 5 times until losing it to Momo Koseki in late 2017. Hanagata on the other hand has had 3 world title challenges, losing the first by majority decision before twice fighting to split decision draws. Both are world class fighters, both have history with each other and both will be looking to score a win when they face off this coming weekend. The big question however, is what are we expecting?
Of the two it's Kuroki who arguably has more to prove. She's going in having failed to win either of the previous bouts between these two fighters and having been a world champion already. She's the younger woman, the more established fighter and the one who is moving down in weight.
In the ring Kuroki is a pretty technical but busy fighter. She's quick, busy and applies pressure at a tempo of her choosing. She's not the most accurate but is happy to throw a number of shots to land one, whilst handcuffing her opponent. She has good movement, nice quick hands work and very intelligent foot work. Her lack of power is a glaring flaw, but she is technically a good very sharp and sharp shots will get the respect of her opponents, even if she does struggle to score stoppages. Where she perhaps struggles the most is when an opponent can cut the ring off and go to work on the inside, and that will be something she'll look to avoid here against the aggressive Hanagata.
At 33 years old, and in her 5th career world title bout, Hanagata will probably know it's now or never, however she will know that could have had a world title with just a small bit of luck. She was very unlucky against Naoko Shibata in 2015 and against Naok Ikeyama, in 2016 and 2017. She is a world class fighter and an absolute nightmare to fight. Sadly though she is a fighter who has had next to no fortune.
In the ring Hanagata is a fearsome fighter, who fights with a pressure fighter style, getting in her opponents face and really going to work with heavy, hard shots thrown in volume. Despite only having 7 stoppages in 25 bouts she hits hard enough to get the respect of everyone she fights. Her biggest issue is her technical ability, and despite being a busy pressure fighter she's not the most accurate and instead can be made to look wasteful, ineffective and crude. She cuts the ring off well, but can be made to miss up close.
Where expecting to see Hanagata get on the front foot and Kuroki to box and move. It's a fight that is stylistically perfect, with pressure against movement. Over 10 rounds Hanagata's pressure does tend to get to fighters, but Kuroki is a real talent the 27 year old has a great engine. We're expecting some fantastic exchange between the two. We however tip the younger, faster, more technically capable fighter here. We suspect she will be pushed all the way, but will come out on top with a razor decision, the equal the series 1-1-1.
Here we preview the key female title bouts involving an Asian fighter.