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.
Boxing is full of remarkable stories, ranging from fighters turning their lives around from a criminal past to fighters proving they can fight at the top level at a very advanced age. One such older fighter is WBO Atomweight champion Nao Ikeyama (17-3-1, 4) who returns to the ring next week in an attempt to record her 4th defense, despite being 46 years old. Standing in her way will be the criminally under-rated Saemi Hanagata (12-6-2, 6), who really is a handful despite her record suggesting otherwise.
Ikeyama, who fought in her professional debut way back in 2003, really made a name for herself just over 2 years ago, when she won the inaugural WBO Atomweight title bout, at the age of 44. The win saw her becoming the oldest Japanese world champion and subsequent defenses have seen her extend that record, though she has began to show her age at times, notably in her last two bouts.
Whilst Ikeyama is the champion it's fair to describe Hanagata as a world class fighter herself. In fact Hanagata was very unlucky last year not to claim the IBF female Light Flyweight title and holds a win over current world champion Yuko Kuroki. She has also given Momo Koseki one of her toughest bouts.
At her best Ikeyama was a busy fighter. She wasn't the strongest or most powerful but she was like the duracell bunny and kept unloading shots at an impressive rate. It was that work rate,and speed, that has helped her become a world champion at such a late stage in her career.
Like the champion Hanagata is also a high output fighter, she's a naturally more powerful fighter and one who is significantly lower than the champion. She has been found flagging in the later rounds of bouts but with her youth and fast starting mentality she could be a real problem for Ikeyama.
This bout looks almost certain to be a fast paced war from the off, though unfortunately for Ikeyama she is the naturally smaller, weaker and older fighting, suggesting that she may well be overwhelmed by the challenger, we we suspect will claim the title here.
On February 19th Japanese fans get to see two of their female world champions defending their titles. One of those bouts is a revolting mismatch for the WBC Atomweight title as the brilliant Momo Koseki defends her belt against Aisah Alico. Thankfully however the other bout is a much more interesting contest as IBF female Light Flyweight champion Naoko Shibata (13-3, 4) defends her belt for the 3rd time and battles against fellow Japanese fighter Saemi Hanagata (9-5-2, 4). We won't pretend this is an amazing match up however it's an intriguing one against a weak but improving champion and an under-rated challenger who is much better than her records suggests.
The 33 year old Shibata has been mixing with top fighters for much of her career. Early on she beat both Yuko Kuroki and Ayaka Miyao, both current world champion, and although she did collect some losses they all came to top tier fighter in the form of Naoko Fujioka, Etsuko Tada and Ibeth Zamora Silva.
Despite being in her 30's Shibata has gotten better as she's gotten older and right now she seems to be in her prime as she's developed not only her boxing but also her confidence. That's really all come together since she won the IBF world title back in November 2013 when she beat Alondra Garcia in a very competitive test. In her first defence she easily over-came the tough but limited Guadalupe Martinez and most recent she stopped Ana Arrazola in a genuinely outstanding result.
Aged 30 Hanagata will be fighting in her first world title bout however she is better than her record indicates and has faced top tied competition thus far. Among her former opponents are Momo Koseki, the current WBC Atomweight champion, Kumiko Seeser Ikehara, the WBA female Minimumweight champion and Yuko Kuroki, the current WBC Minimumweight champion.
As well as her tough match ups Hanagata is also a former OPBF Minimumweight champion and a fighter moving up in weight, shaking off the shackles of the 105lb division in the hope of becoming a better 3lbs north of where she has been competing so far. It could well be that that additional 3lbs allows Hanagata to hit harder or to fight at a higher pace.
Coming into the bout Shibata has to be the favourite. She has the edge in experience, level of experience and also the champions advantage which bring her into the bout full of confidence. Hanagata however will not be a walk over. She will feel this is her big opportunity, her chance to shine and her chance to become a world champion.
With that said we're expecting a battle of wills here with a lot of leather being exchanged. The differences between two women however are stylistic and Shibata is certainly the better pure boxer which we suspect will allow her to disrupt and and eventually out point Hanagata, who we think will start fast but fall away down the stretch to lose a very competitive decision.
(Image courtesy of http://boxmob.jp)
The Minimumweight division in female boxing seems to be widely dominated by Asian fighters. We recently saw Mako Yamada announce herself on the world stage by winning the WBO female world title, we also saw Mari Ando win the WBC title late last year and in the past fighters like Naoko Fujioka and Etsuka Tada have dominated the division.
With that in mind the division is an important one to Asian fighters, especially those form Japan who appear to have a genuine desire to become the best female fighters at 105lbs.
With that in mind we feel that there is more to the upcoming contest between Saemi Hanagata (8-4-2, 3) and Satomi Nishimura (6-0, 1) than just the OPBF Minimumweight title that both women will be trying to claim. We feel that this bout is more about the winner planting themselves as a top contender in the division and making a claim for being a future world title contender.
Of the two fighters it's Hanagata who probably has more to lose. She has the more damaged record already and will know that one more set back could well send her well back down the rankings and she would likely lose her #5 WBC ranking with a loss, whilst a win would certainly boost her place from #13 with the WBA.
The reason Hanagata has got a somewhat muddied record is down to the fact she has faced several good fighters. These have included former world title challengers such as Jujeath Nagaowa, Masae Akitaya and Yuko Kuroki as well as current world champion Momo Koseki. Those fighters, between them, would mess up anyone's record in the lowest weight divisions.
Whilst Hanagata has lost to the likes of Koseki and drawn with Kuroki and Akitaya she has also experienced what it's like to fight some top fighters. Those fights will have done more good in terms of her development and helping her improve than 14 fights against complete novices who lined up to lose. They will also have instilled a real grit and confidence in her that she will, one day, become a champion herself despite failing in previous title fights.
With an unbeaten record Nishimura looks better on paper than Hanagata though unfortunately when you look beneath the surface of Nishimura's record you see how deceiving it is. Her 6 bouts so far haven't come against anyone of note and in fact 4 of her 6 opponents have been debutants. Between all 6 their combined record has been 11-10-1 with Thai journey woman Nongbua Lookprai-aree accounting for 8 of the wins and 9 of the losses.
Unfortunately for Nishimura she hasn't been given any sort of experience building fights. Instead she's been given record padding fights. That's all well and good when you're young but at 33 years old that lack of development tends to come back and bite you.
With the difference in experience levels it's hard to pick against Hanagata who may have won just 1 of her last 5 but she has been very competitive in those she didn't win, including the Koseki fight, one of Koseki's toughest. Nishimura will likely start well but Hanagata's experience will see her figure out Nishimura early on and beat her down the stretch with Nishimura wondering why Hanagata is hitting her back unlike her previous 6 opponents.
The winner will likely only be a win or two away from a world title fight so we'd keep a serious eye on the result of this one.
Here we preview the key female title bouts involving an Asian fighter.