Every so often we get a bout at domestic or regional level that looks a little bit special, and like it could be something rather amazing. This Sunday we get one such bout as Japanese Featherweight champion Hinata Maruta (12-1-1, 9) takes on mandatory challenger Reiya Abe (22-3-1, 10), for both the Japanese and WBO Asia Pacific Featherweight titles. The bout screams high level, intense, high speed chess match, and looks likely to be one of the very best Japanese domestic bouts of the year, as the two men look to prove that not only are they the best in Japan, and arguably the best in Asia along with Satoshi Shimizu and Can Xu, but also suitable for a world title bout later in the year, something both men are known to want sooner rather than later.
Of the two men, the more highly regarded is Maruta, who turned professional in 2015 with a lot of fanfare from those at the Morioka Gym. His debut saw him defeat hard hitting Filipino Jason Canoy, and he soon won the WBC Youth Bantamweight title, beating Wilbert Berondo to win the belt. After 2 defense he stepped up massively and lost a clear, but competitive, decision to the then OPBF Super Bantamweight champion Hidenori Otake. The loss served as a wake up call in some ways, and made Maruta that he needed to do more than just have exceptional skills, but also needed to apply them. After the loss his team looked to get him some international experience, with bouts in Thailand and the Philippines, though the bout in the Philippines ended with a terrible draw marking his record for second time. Since that draw however he has been in the form of his career, scoring 5 straight wins including notable domestic victories over Tsuyoshi Tameda, Coach Hiroto, Takenori Ohashi, Ryo Sagawa and Ryo Hino. Of those victories the one over Sagawa won Maruta the Japanese title, whilst his win over Hino served as his first defense.
In the ring Maruta is genuinely fantastic. He's a tall, rangy, long fighter who we've seen grow from a very slender and slim looking kid at Bantamweight, where he debuted aged 18, into a young man at the age of 25. He has gone from looking like someone who really needed to fill out their frame to someone who is slowly maturing into a bit of a beast in the ring. He's ultra sharp, incredibly quick, and fights to his strengths, keeping range behind his quick and clean jab, and uses good footwork to keep space, and draw mistakes. His early career saw him going through the motions a lot, and not really putting his foot on the gas as much as we'd like, but in recent years he has shown that third gear, whilst still looking like he has a lot still to give. He's a fighter who manages to exert pressure, despite fighting at range, due to his physical features, but he also has exceptional awareness, and is incredibly slippery, with very smooth defensive moves, which allows him to fight as counter puncher, whilst pressing behind his long jab. Unlike some Japanese fighters he's also willing to tie opponents up when they get too close, something that seems to have been developed from American training camps, as we really don't see it from many Japanese fighters. Notably Maruta might, still, look like he's not fully developed his frame, but he has solid power, to go with his accuracy, timing and speed and looks like he is always comfortable in the ring. Like many exceptional fighters he seems to have that amazing calm, confident composure, that separates brilliant fighters from the very good ones, and that makes he so relaxed in the ring as if he sees everything before it happens. The scariest thing about him however is that he seems to be light years ahead, in terms of skills, than many other fighters, and as a result only seems to need to show glimpses of what he can do. Fingers crossed when he steps up to facing global names we really see what he's been keeping in the locker.
Whilst we talking glowing of Maruta we also need to mention the challenger, who is certainly not a bad fighter himself. In fact Abe has been dubbed a boxing genius in Japan, and is a very high level, intelligent fighter himself, and sadly for him he also suffers with a similar issue to Maruta, a difficulty in showing everything he's capable of. He turned professional in 2013 aged 20 and lost his second professional bout, to Koki Kobayashi, before bouncing back and winning the 2014 All Japan Rookie of the Year. In 2015 he lost for the second time, to Shingo Kusano, before reeling off a brilliant 11 fight winning run. That winning run saw him over-come the likes of Ryo Hino, Hikaru Marugame, avenge the loss to Shingo Kusano, Tsuyoshi Tameda, Joe Noynay, Satoshi Hosono an Daisuke Sugita. A brilliant run that saw him fight for the Japanese title in 2019, and fight to a draw with Japanese Featherweight champion Taiki Minamoto. He would also come up short 4 months later when he lost a razor close decision to Ryo Sagawa for the vacant title, which Minamoto gave up when he moved up in weigh. Since that draw he has rebuilt well with wins against Ren Sasaki, Koshin Takeshima and Daisuke Watanabe to earn a third shot at the Japanese throne.
In the ring Abe is a very, very intelligent fighter. He fights out of the southpaw stance and love to control the range and tempo behind his his footwork, creating space to land counter left hands. At times he neglects his jab, which is an excellent weapon, but does let opponents be their own downfall a lot of the time. He's a fighter who loves to feint, get a read on opponents, and condition them to expect one thing before changing things up. His footwork is a job to watch and his ability to dictate the range of a bout is brilliant, especially as he often does it without really letting his hands go. For people wanting to study footwork, Abe's is some of the best in the sport. Sadly his lack of actual output is frustrating at times, and has been one of his major downfalls in his losses, as he is too patient at times, and tries too hard to draw a mistake rather than reverting to Plan B and becoming more offensive, though credit to him he has had notable success fighting his way. Whilst it's his footwork and distance control that shines, he does do a lot of things "wrong" in an attempt to draw leads. His hands are very low and whilst he's not an easy target, he can be dropped when caught clean, as Minamoto did twice. His style is also unlikely to win friends in the west, if he ever ends up challenging a top American or British fighter.
Whilst we are big fans of both men, we can't help but feel that Abe, in some ways, is made to order for Maruta. The boxing brain of Abe is incredible, and if you could put his brain in to almost any other fighter it would improve them. But his style, and his laziness at times, won't serve well against a fighter with the speed, timing, and reach of Maruta. Maruta will take a few rounds to work out the distance, but then we suspect he will use his own feints to draw bites from Abe, and counter those, whilst also controlling behind his own jab. The question marks about Abe's chin, raised by the Minamoto fight, will also rear their head here and we wouldn't be surprised to see Abe on the canvas at some point due to the power and speed of Maruta.
As the bout goes into the later rounds we expect to see Abe try to turn it around, and look to let his hands go more, but that will result in him taking more and we wouldn't be surprised at all by a late stoppage by Maruta, due to accumulation of shots.
Prediction - TKO11 Maruta
This coming Sunday fight fans in Sumida City are set for a festival of boxing, with Dangan at the helm. Not only does the day involve an actual festival of the sport, with special events being held in the city to help promote and celebrate the sport, but there will also be a stacked card at the Sumida City Gymnasium, with 3 title bouts on the show.
One of those 3 title bouts will see Masanori Rikiishi (10-1, 6) clash with Takuya Watanabe (38-10-1, 22), in a bout for the vacant OPBF Super Featherweight title. The bout really is a must win for both men with the 33 year old Watanabe fighting in his 50th professional bout, and the clock is ticking on his career, and Rikiishi knowing another set back at this point could leave him in the "who needs him?" Club.
Of the two men the well known is Watanabe, who debuted in 2007 and has been a fixture on the Oriental scene for years. He is one of the few Japanese fighters to regularly travel for fights, and has notched up bouts in South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, as well as Japan. He has also faced legitimate who's who of the Japanese scene, with bouts against the likes of Masayuki Ito, Hisashi Amagasa, Satoshi Hosono, Hironori Mishiro, Kosuke Saka and Taiki Minamoto. Whilst he has lost the bigger bouts of his career, he has repeatedly shown good technical fundamentals, an incredible will to win, under-rated boxing IQ and a sturdy chin, with the monstrously hard hitting Saka being the only man to stop him in 49 bouts. Sadly though Watanabe has shown himself to not be the hardest man to hit, nor quickest, nor a particularly heavy handed fighter, especially at 130lbs. He hits hard enough to get respect, and throws enough to keep that respect, but there is a feeling that a bit more pop in his punches or a slightly higher work rate would have resulted in a lot more success over his career.
In the ring Watanabe is a well schooled, though some what basic, fighter. He comes forward behind a tight guard, likes to set things up behind the jab and apply pressure, wanting to keep opponents on the back foot and establish a fight at mid-range at his tempo. Sadly he has struggled against fighters who are crisper, sharper and faster than he is, as we saw against the likes of Ito and Mishiro, and as we saw against Saka, he does seem to be slowly showing some cracks in his incredibly toughness. Also given his age and long career, one of the longest in terms of fights of any active Japanese fighter, it's little wonder that he is starting to show the signs of slowdown.
Aged 27 Rikiishi is coming in to his prime, but is still a fighter lacking a break out win, and is the second most famous fighter in his family, behind his brother and former world champion Masamichi Yabuki. Despite that he is a fighter who has the potential to leave a big mark on the Japanese and Oriental scene over the coming years. He's talented, he's big and strong at the weight, has a good boxing brain and a good team behind him. He is also a fighter who has tasted a defeat early in his career, been humbled somewhat by that loss, and developed as a fighter since then. He has learned from his defeat to become a better, more rounded, fighter. Also despite his loss, he's not been wasting time padding his record, instead he had a single easy comeback fight, before climbing his way through the rankings and moving to this title fight, with good wins against the likes of Freddy Fonseca, Yuichiro Kasuya and Soreike Tacihi.
In the ring Rikiishi is a talented boxer-mover, who keeps things long when he's getting himself set, but steps in when he's confident, and has solid sting in his shots, a lovely smooth style, and he fights to his physical advantages, of being a well sized Southpaw. He fight looked set to make a mark at 135lbs, but dropped down a few fights ago, and looks even stronger at Super Featherweight, where his long and rangy frame makes him an incredibly tough guy to get close to, especially with his clean straight punches and intelligent footwork. The big worry, remains, his chin and he was taken out early in his career by Kosuke Saka, but we suspect he knows how to protect his chin better now, and Saka, for all his flaws, is a huge puncher on the Japanese scene.
In many ways this bout contains two similar fighters in terms of styles. Both like to get their jabs out, use straight punches, and keep bouts at mid range until they feel their opponent wearing down. For us however it just feels like Rikiishi is the more polished fighter, the more natural boxer, and the more intelligent, with a smoothness to him that Watanabe doesn't have. At mid range Rikiishi will have notable success. For Watanabe the key is to mix up the fight, close the distance and grind down Rikiishi. That has to be his focus, but we're not sure he'll manage it. Instead we see Rikiishi getting a large lead early on, and surviving a late charge to take a clear but competitive decision win.
Prediction - UD12 Rikiishi
On May 10th Japanese fight fans at Korakuen Hall will get a compelling Japanese Youth Minimumweight title fight, as defending champion Shunsuke Isa (9-3-1, 1) makes his first defense, taking on the highly regarded Katsuki Mori (9-1, 2) in what looks to be a brilliant match up between two talented young fighters each looking to progress their career, and move forward to bigger and better things.
Aged 24 Isa is the older man and the more experienced. The youngster from Kanagawa debuted way back in 2016 and won his first 4 bouts before losing in the East Japan Rookie of the Year to Retsu Akabane. He bounced back 9 months later with a pair of close wins before drawing with Masatora Okada and then losing to Yuni Takada in 2019, the man he would beat in 2021 for the Youth title. Although a talented fighter Takada has struggled with scoring stoppages, and his sole stoppage win was way back on his debut, meaning he has now gone 12 bouts with out a stoppage victory, and has started to come into his prime without developing much in terms of stopping power.
In the ring Isa is a fighter who likes to be on his toes, using a lot of quick movement and footwork to create space, using a busy jab and making opponents miss. Whilst he does lack power to begin with, he also in a way where he doesn't get much behind his shots, instead keeping things at range and using his speed and reach well. What Isa does well is box, move and dictate the tempo and range of the bout. Notably his style is very, very energy intensive, there is a lot of movement in his style, a lot of energy being burnt and it's a style that is certainly not suited to the longer distance of a 10 or 12 rounder, but in 6 and 8 round bouts his style is very effective. Notably he does appear the sort of fight who will do anything to avoid an inside fight, and a fighter targeting his body could end up taking his legs away, and taking the fight out of him, especially if his opponent doing it had a decent body attack and a decent bit of pop. Up top however he's a very tough guy to catch clean with head shots.
Aged 22 Katsuki Mori is the younger fighter, and he turned professional in 2018 before winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year in 2019. Mori's Rookie of the Year triumph saw fans getting very excited about him and his style, which was fun to watch and saw him throwing a lot of leather and being an aggressive boxer-fighter, capable of fighting on the back foot, or overwhelming fellow novices on the front foot. Sadly in 2020 Covid19 slowed his ascent through the ranks, with Mori fighting just once, but he was more active in 2021, scoring two wins, before losing earlier this year to Kai Ishizawa in a Japanese title fight. A fight that he put up a good effort in, but was unprepared for and it was a massive step up against a very dangerous fighter. Rather than having a confidence boosting bout since that loss, he has jumped in here against Isa.
In the ring Mori is a genuinely fun to watch fighter, with fast hands, fast feet and a high work rate. He likes to fight up close, letting his shots go in flurries, and landing clean accurate blows. He can box and move, but it often seems like he would rather engage in a tear up, and let shots fly on the inside, than have the bout at range. Despite not being a puncher he seems to be someone who believes in his physical approach, his defense on the inside and his work rate, which often sees him simply out working and out swarming opponents. One thing that we do wonder however, is whether the loss to Ishizawa will see him change his style, and be less willing to take the fight to his opponents, and maybe consider boxing and moving more, and swarming less.
If Mori is the same fighter as he was before the loss to Ishizawa, and continues to be an aggressive, physical fighter, we see him genuinely getting to Isa early on, attacking the champions body, working away and chipping down his speed, stamina and movement. If he can do that we wouldn't be surprised at all if Isa was to be slowed almost to a halt as Mori presses later in the bout and takes a clear, but hard fought, decision. If however Mori has some worries following that loss, holds back a little bit and iasn't as aggressive as he once was, there is a chance the outside boxing, movement and awkward style of Isa could ease him to a decision. If we're being honest we suspect Mori and his team will plan to be aggressive, and will accept Ishizawa was too much whilst Isa doesn't have the thunderous power of Ishizawa, meaning they don't need to worry, and play safe.
Prediction - UD8 Mori.
Having canned the old "Full Schedule" of Asianboxing we have instead decided to concentrate more on the major bouts. This section, the "Preview" section will look at major bouts involving OPBF and national titles. Hopefully leading to a more informative style for, you the reader.