After getting two great Japanese title fights in January, including a FOTY contender between Yusaku Kuga and Gakuya Furuhashi, we’ve come into February with high expectations of what to expect in bouts for the Japanese national title. With that said the next one we’re going to get looks like it could, potentially, be a special high level chess match as Japanese Featherweight champion Ryo Sagawa (10-1, 5) defends against mandatory challenger Hinata Maruta (10-1-1, 8), this coming Thursday.
Unlike the two Japanese title fights we got in Tokyo in January the view coming into this one isn’t that we’ll see a war but instead a sensationally high level contest, and one that will be more suited to the purists, rather than fans baying for blood. Despite that it’s one we’ve waited well over a year for!
The bout was originally announced to take place in early 2020, as part of the Champion Carnival. Sadly however Covid19 ruined those plans, and put the bout on hiatus, pushing it to 2021. In the interim Maruta sat out the year whilst Sagawa managed to make a voluntary defense against the gutsy Yuri Takemoto, who put up a game effort before being stopped in the 6th round. Despite the lengthy delay this is a bout that we suspect will be worth every day of the delay and should provide us something special.
For those who haven’t seen the men in action, they actually have quite a lot in common. Firstly both men are genuinely handsome young fighters, who don’t look like typical boxers, in fact both genuinely look like pretty boys. Despite that both are incredibly talented boxers, with excellent technical ability, great speed and under-rated power. They are also both flawed fighters, who appear to be improving from some early career hiccups.
The 26 year old Sagawa turned professional in 2016 after a very solid amateur career. He looked good in his debut, scoring a TKO win over Korean Ho Ya Kim, before suffering a TKO loss to Retsu Kosaka. The loss saw Sagawa being hurt as Kosaka made the most of Sagawa’s inexperience, and went on to force a stoppage soon afterwards. The bout exposed two issues with Sagawa. One was his chin, which was shaky but not glass, the other was his inexperience, and he looked very confused about how to react to being hurt. Thankfully since then he has improved so much, and has won 9 in a row. They have included a fight where he had to pull himself off the canvas to win, against Junki Sasaki, an excellent TKO win over former world title challenger Ryo Matsumoto, his international debut against Al Toyogon, his title winning performance against Reiya Abe and two subsequent title defenses.
In the ring Sagawa is a very, very tidy boxer. Offensively he’s very sharp and despite not being a puncher he has more than enough power to get respect from opponents, and he can hurt and stop fighters, as he did against Ryo Matsumoto and Yuri Takemoto. There’s no doubting his ability, and his adaptability, showing himself to not only be an excellent boxing, with textbooks skills, but also a very capable fighter when he needs to, as he did in the second half of his bout with Toyogon. Despite being incredibly talented, and very smooth, there are still worries about Sagawa’s chin and he has been stopped and dropped before. He’s not the easiest man to catch clean, but we do worry about what happens when he is caught. He has matured from his loss to Kosaka, but there will always be a worry about how well he takes a shot and whether he can pull it back together to take a victory, as he did against Sasaki.
Hinata Maruta turned professional in 2015, as a baby faced 18 year old, and looked set for huge things. As soon as he turned professional there was a lot of buzz and fuss about him, and it was proven to be warranted when he beat the then world ranked Jason Canoy on debut. He had been a stand out amateur and that amateur experience had seen him get rave reviews from those in Japan. Following his impressive debut he ran his record out to 5-0 (5), winning and defending the WBC Youth Bantamweight title and looking like a brilliant talent. He looked like a man with sensational skills, a crispness rarely seen of such a novice, speed, size, reach and incredible reactions. Sadly, though he stepped up too much too soon and in his 6th bout he lost a competitive decision to Hidenori Otake, in an OPBF title fight. Despite the loss Maruta’s stock remained high, given the huge step up and his performance. After a couple of wins he was held to a very debatable draw in the Philippines, against Ben Mananquil, before scoring a trio of solid Japanese domestic level wins.
In the ring Maruta is one of the smoothest boxers in Japan, and unlike many Japanese fighters his style is very one inspired by the slick, slippery style that we see as being popular in the US. His defense is fantastic, as is his ability to box behind his jab, and his power is criminally under-rated. Sadly though for all the positives we can say about Maruta, and there is a lot we like about him, there is one major issue we have with him. That’s his work rate. Early in his career Maruta was happier to show what he could do, and showcase his skills, rather than let his hands go, and often seemed to stall in second and third gear. Thankfully that has been less frequent since his draw with Ben Mananquil, but there is always a risk that he will fall back into that pattern of simply “not doing enough”. If he can let his hands go more though he looks like a sure fire future world champion.
Coming into this one we really are expecting a very, very high level boxing contest, between two men who will be looking to out think each other, adapt to each other, and come back with plans A, B, C and D. This is one that we suspect will start as a boxing contest and we’ll see both men adapt as the bout goes on, moving from pure boxing to more of a fight. In theory that’s the type of bout which favour Sagawa, who has proven he can up the tempo and fight up close. Whilst it’s true that brawl could favour Sagawa we actually think that will be his undoing and his chin will get tagged by a counter from Maruta, who will then unload on a stunned Sagawa and force a stoppage to take the title.
Whilst we are predicting a stoppage for Maruta we really wouldn’t be surprised by any outcome here. It’s one of those bouts where anything is possible, and one of those bouts where both men will need to make continual changes to their tactics until the ending comes. It will be cerebral at times, exciting at others, and genuinely fantastic through out.
Prediction - TKO9 Maruta
Every so often a match up comes around where the first impression isn’t a guess at who’s going to win, or how, but is instead a feeling that “that’s gonna be awesome”, and that was the case in December 2019 when Kosuke Saka (20-5, 17) won the Japanese Super Featherweight title knowing that Takuya Watanabe (37-9-1, 21) was waiting in the wings as the mandatory challenger. Following Saka’s win the bout was supposed to take place in April 2020, as part of the Champion Carnival, though was sadly postponed due to the ongoing pandemic, which ended up postponing almost all of the Champion Carnival bouts from last year.
Despite the delay to the fight it is still a bout that seems almost certain to be something special. Really, really special. And really brutal.
For those who don’t follow the Japanese scene, the easiest way to sum this up is “aggressive monster with brutal power, up against insanely tough blood and guts warrior”. That sort of combination always makes for spine tingling action, thrilling back and forth exchanges and the sort of fight that reminds you why you love this sport. And that’s exactly what we are expecting here. Neither man is world class. Neither man will be expected to use the Japanese title and leapfrog into a world title bout. But that doesn’t really matter, this is going to be an hellacious fight deserving of your time, attention, and eyes.
The 28 year old Kosuke Saka doesn’t have a record of a champion, with 5 losses in 25 bouts. He is however much better than his record suggests and his losses have, for the most part, not been embarrassing ones. His first loss was in 2012, in the All Japan Rookie of the Year final against Masayuki Ito. That was quickly followed by him losing 2 of his next 4, including a TKO loss to Hiroshige Osawa. The loss to Osawa was followed up by Saka reeling off 8 T/KO wins, including victories over Ryuto Kyoguchi - Hiroto Kyoguchi’s older brother, Takafumi Nakajima and Shota Hayashi. Winning the Japanese the Japanese Featherweight title with his win over Hayashi. Sadly though his reign was an embarrassing one, losing the title in his first defense, against Takenori Ohashi, when he misheard the 10 second clacker and confused it for the bell, giving Ohashi a free shot, which he took, knocking Saka out cold.
Saka bounced back from his title loss by moving up in weight, stopping touted prospect Masanori Rikiishi in 2 rounds and then taking out the limited Gusti Elnino, before being brutalised by under-rated Filipino Joe Noynay in a bout for the WBO Asia Pacific Super Featherweight title. That looked like a bad loss, until Noynay followed it up and battered Olympic bronze medal winner Satoshi Shimizu a few months later. Since the loss to Noynay we’ve seen Saka fight twice, a nothing win against Isack Junior and then a sensational win against Masaru Sueyoshi last December to win the Japanese Super Featherweight title. That win over Sueyoshi was Saka at his best. He was marauding throughout, bullying Sueyoshi, taking the space away from the technically well schooled Teiken man, and breaking him down round by round, until Sueyoshi was left a ruined man midway through round 6.
In the ring Saka is a monstrously hard hitting bully. He has brutal power, in both hands, he presses forward with one thing in mind, destruction, and he fights like every punch he throws is designed to break bones. He loves coming forward, applying pressure behind a stiff jab, pushing opponents on to the ropes and going to work. He’s all about heavy shots, coming forward and not taking a backwards step. His mentality is to break his opponents. Offensively he is a brutal monster. Where he is flawed however is defensively. He can be countered, he can be caught clean, and he can regularly over-commit. His footwork isn’t the sharpest out there, crossing his feet much more often than he should, and when hurt he can be slow to recover, as we saw against Noynay where he never regained his composure after the first of several knockdowns.
Saka’s biggest issue however is his mental state. It was a mental lapse against Ohashi that cost him and it was his lack of composure after being hurt that was his downfall against Noynay. If he can be locked in, as he was against the likes of Hayashi and Sueyoshi, he is very hard to beat. But his two recent stoppage losses does leave us wondering about how consistent he is, and where his mind is focused coming into this bout with Watanabe.
The 31 year old Takuya Watanabe is a true veteran of the ring, having debuted almost 14 years ago to the day. He is one of the most experienced men currently fighting in Japan, with 47 bouts and 289 rounds to his name, and he is also a surprisingly well travelled fighter with bouts in Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Taipei. In fact 14 of his 47 bouts have been fought outside of Japan, including his infamous 2014 blood bath with Jae Sung Lee in South Korea. A bout that really did see Watanabe leaving his blood all over the Gwanakgu Hall, in Seoul.
Of course there is much more to Watanabe than just being a road warrior, in fact there’s a teak tough competitor, with a hugely under-rated skill set, an amazing will to win, and a real hunger to win a Japanese title before he hangs them up. A title he wants to add to a collection that includes a WBC Youth world title, an IBF Asia title, a WBO Asia Pacific title, a WBO Oriental title and an OPBF “silver” title. Despite his collection of silverware he has been eluded by a Japanese title, losing in previous bouts for the title against Hisashi Amagasa and Satoshi Hosono.
Through Watanabe’s career he has really built his reputation and has had nothing handed to him. He turned in 2007, as a teenager and won his first 6 before losing to the mysterious Saengachit Kiatkamthorngym, in what appears to have been Saengachit only professional bout. He quickly fell from 6-0 to 10-3-1 (3) and struggled to find his identity in the ring. By 2012, when he fought Hisashi Amagasa, he had advanced his record to 15-3-1 (4) but had no idea how to deal with Amagasa and the “Slimming Assassin’s” unique physical features. Rather than biting down and fighting hard, like he would now, he looked lost and confused. But then Watanabe started to find himself, and built a reputation as a legitimate warrior on the back of his 2014 bout with Jae Sung Lee, where he spent much of the bout painting the canvas red, but refused to back down, and ran Lee close. By then he was a 25 year old fighter boasting a 20-5-1 (8), but also a man building a reputation as a warrior.
In 2015 Wayanabe got his second Japanese title fight and ran Satoshi all the way in a loss that helped solidify him as a solid, upper domestic level boxer. He wasn’t a fighter, he was a boxer. A tough as nails boxer, with a busy work rate and the ability to hold his own in exchanges with Hosono. In fact he was unlucky not to get the nod in a bit of a forgotten classic. Since then he has been really busy, facing a mix of lower level talent, to tick over and get experience on the road, and upper level talent, with losses to Masayuki Ito and Hironori Mishiro, where they simply out boxed him. In 2019 however he earned another Japanese title fight, this one, on the back of winning a brutal 8 round decision against Taiki Minamoto in a Japanese title eliminator. That was supposed to secure Watanabe in 2020 but due to Covid19 the bout, as mentioned, got postponed and will not be taking place this coming Friday.
In terms of his style Watanabe is probably quite fairly described as a fighter-boxer. He can box, and is a solid boxer, with a solid and busy jab, and he likes to use his footwork, setting shots up at midrange and using some very underrated skills. However he’s at his best when he turns into a fighter, taking a fight into the trenches with his educated uppercuts, hooks, crosses and lovely flowing combinations. When he gets the fight at mid to close range he covers up a lot of his flaws, such as his slow feet and his almost trudging pressure. At range he can be out boxed, as Amagasa, Ito and Mishiro showed. In the trenches however he will hold his own with anyone at domestic level. What helps there is his incredible chin, his amazing hunger and his willingness to take a bomb to land his own shots. If a fighter wants to go to war, Watanabe will go to war.
It’s the willingness of Watanabe to go to war, and his eagerness to fight fire with fire that makes us so excited here. It’s Saka’s power, pressure and aggression, against Watanabe’s toughness, sneaky combinations and inclination to respond when he’s hit that should make for something special here.
Saka is certainly the heavier puncher, the more destructive fighter, and the man who, if he lands clean, can genuinely do damage. But what happens when the irresistible force hits the immovable object? Watanabe is certainly the better boxer, but can he withstand the tenacity of Saka? Likewise can Saka mentally stay strong when shots that have been forcing men to crumble have no effect on Watanabe?
Predicting this one is tough, though predicting any Saka fight is tough, with the only sure thing being that this will be something truly captivating.
If pushed to select a winner, we’ll be going with Watanabe to weather out the storm from Saka, make him question himself and crumble late. Despite that the reality is that any outcome here is possible and that the journey to the final result is going to be thoroughly engrossing, beautifully brutal and fantastically physical.
If you’re a Boxing Raise subscriber you will not want to miss this one. And if you don’t subscribe to Boxing Raise, you should, even if it’s just to watch this bout! It may have taken over a year of waiting for this one, but we are just as excited as we were when we went into 2020
Prediction - TKO9 Watanabe
In 2020 the boxing calendar got completely screwed up with Covid19 forcing bouts to be postponed and cancelled on a regular basis. One of the bouts that was postponed was a mandatory title fight for the Japanese Super Bantamweight title. That bout has now been rearranged for January 22nd and will see defending champion Yusaku Kuga (19-4-1, 13) taking on mandatory challenger Gakuya Furuhashi (26-8-1, 14), in what could be something a little bit special and very brutal.
Those who have been following the Japanese scene over the last few years will know all about the 30 year old Kuga who is now enjoying his second reign as the Japanese Super Bantamweight champion. For those who haven’t been following the scene Kuga is a very fan friendly fighter, who’s a puncher first, with an aggressive style and warmonger mentality in the ring. He came up short in his first title fight, back in 2015 when he lost a razor thin decision to Yasutaka Ishimoto but has gone 8-2 (6) since then, and managed to avenge his loss to Ishimoto in 2017 to claim the title, for the first time. In his first reign he made 2 defenses of the title before losing in 2018 to Shingo Wake, in what was really an undressing for Kuga, who had no answer to Wake’s movement and jab.
Despite losing to Wake it wasn’t long until Kuga reclaimed the title, winning it back from Ryoichi Tamura in 2019, in what was the second bout between the men and an all out war, one of the genuine hidden gems of 2019. After reclaiming the title he made a single defense before taking on Jhunriel Ramonal at the end of 2019, and being brutally taken out after just 84 seconds, in a genuine upset.
At his best Kuga is a really brutal fighter to go up against. For much of his career he has been a heavy handed, teak tough warrior, with a great engine and a really physical style. He can box, though often seems happier to have a war, and his two battles with Ryoichi Tamura were both brutal, punishing affairs for both men. Sadly though his toughness has been questioned in recent losses, with Shingo Wake breaking him down in 10 rounds and the loss to Ramonal being a clean KO. As well as those losses we do wonder what he’s like mentally coming into this bout. Had he been able to get a confidence easy win after his loss to Ramonal we’d feel better about his chance, but we do wonder if that loss is still playing on his mind more than a year after it. We also wonder if the wars with Tamura have taken something from him.
At his best Kuga is a nightmare. His power is destructive at this level, he’s very physical, his right cross is a concussion maker and his pressure and work rate is incessant. He’s not the quickest, the sharpest, and his jab is somewhat limited, but he’s a real bully in the ring. The most obvious way to beat him is to out box him, out maneuver him and refuse to have a tear up with him. Saying that however we do, genuinely, wonder what the Ramonal loss has done to him, and what shape his chin is going to be in, and what his confidence is going to be like.
Furuhashi is a 33 year old who fights out of the Nitta Gym in Kawasaki, and has been one of their most notable fighters for years. Sadly though he has had a long career and this will be his third, and potentially last, shot at a Japanese title. His desire is to become the first fighter born, raised and from a gym in Kawasaki, and it’s really been a driving force for him in recent months. He was supposed to get this shot, as previously mentioned, in 2020 but has had to wait a long time to get it, and will now know that this could be now or never for him.
Furuhashi, unlike Kuga, isn’t really a name we expect too many fight fans outside of Japan to be familiar with, even those that follow the Japanese scene from around the globe. Despite that he is a really fun fighter to watch and has been in and around the title scene since 2014, when he was supposed to fight Hidenori Otake who pulled out of the bout due to a rib injury. Following that he got a show at Yukinori Oguni in 2015, fighting to a draw with the future IBF world champion and then lost 3 of his following 4 bouts, including a title bout in 2016 to Yasutaka Ishimoto. That run, which saw him going 1-3-1 including the draw with Oguni, seemed to spell the end for him as he slipped to 18-8-1 (8). Surprisingly however he has rebuilt brilliantly, going 8-0 (6) since then, including wins against Yuta Horiika and Ryoichi Tamura, with the win over Tamura in September 2019 earning him this belated third title fight.
In the ring Furuhashi’s strength is his tenacity, work rate, energy and willingness to press forward. Technically he’s nothing special, he’s not quick, he’s not got massive amounts of power, but he’s got an abundance of energy, he’s physically strong and is sneaky on the inside, with some excellent hooks and uppercuts. When backed up he responds with solid combinations and makes an opponent walk through a lot of leather to get to him, and he knows how to make things scrappy. Like Kuga he’s tough, but he’s more of a gritty tough than an iron chinned tough guy. Sadly for him however he has taken a lot of punishment during his long career, and his willingness to have a war with anyone has almost certainly taken something of a toll on his body.
As mentioned, to beat Kuga a fighter needs to use their brain and out box him. Getting into a war with him is a painful gameplan, for anyone unless they have lights out power, like Ramonal. Furuhashi doesn’t have that, and if Kuga is half the fighter he was before the Ramonal loss he should be able to force his will against Furuhashi. If that happens the heavier shots of Kuga will be the difference maker, and will, sooner or later, break down the gutsy and determined Furuhashi.
For Furuhashi to win he needs to totally change his gameplan. He can’t try to go to war with Kuga. He can’t hold his feet and try to out-battle Kuga. Instead he needs to move, lure Kuga in, reel off some shoe shining combinations and get out of dodge. He has the energy for that, and his legs can certainly do it, but we’re not sure he has the mentality to do it. He’s one of those fighters who takes a shot and wants to respond immediately, rather than thinking “I’ll get you next time”.
Whilst Kuga’s confidence could be shot, and a quick start from Furuhashi would give Kuga a lot of questions to answer, we suspect his chin hasn’t become cracked from the losses to Wake and Ramonal. Instead we suspect he’ll be back to his usual rampaging self. We expect Furuhashi to try and respond, punch for punch, with Kuga, giving us a thrill a minute war, until Furuhashi comes undone from the repeated heavy shots of Kuga and the referee is forced to step in and save stop in the second half of a sensational fight.
Expect blood, bombs, thrilling exchanges and incredible action here!
Prediction - TKO8 Kuga
For fans wanting to watch this one, it will be shown live on streaming service Boxing Raise.
The next of the Champion Carnival bouts sees our attention turn to the Flyweight division, where heavy handed champion Seigo Yuri Akui (14-2-1, 10) defends against mandatory challenger Seiya Fujikita (13-4, 6). The bout, set to take place on October 18th in Okayama will be Akui's first defense of the title and will be Fujikita's first title bout. For Akui it serves as a chance to build on last October's title win, when he beat Shun Kosaka inside a round, whilst Fujikita will be getting his first title fight, and gets it almost by default.
For those who haven't seen Akui he is a very fast starter. From his 14 career wins 9 having come in the first round, and all 10 of his stoppages have come in the first 3 rounds. What's more notable than being a fast start is the type of competition he has been blasting away, with wins already over the likes of Kenji Ono, Ryuto Oho, Masamichi Yabuki, Yoshiki Minato and Shun Kosaka, all of those have come in the opening round. He does however seem to struggle when he can't blast though opponents, and he found himself unable to blow out Junto Nakatani and Jaysever Abcede, both of whom went on to stop Akui.
For those who haven't seen Akui he's someone who is incredibly fun to see go to work. He's aggressive, powerful and lets his hands fly early. Defensively he is open, he can be tagged, and against fighters who can take his power he does appear to struggle, though at domestic level not many can take his power. Notably his 4 decision wins came in his first 7 bouts, with the final one being his win over Hiroki Hosoya in the 2015 All Japan Rookie of the Year, and since then he hasn't heard the final bell.
Interesting Fujikita has gotten this bout, as the mandatory challenger, for essentially making weight last year. The original plan had been for him and Ryota Yamauchi to face off in an eliminator, but Yamauchi was forced out of the bout due to an injury, leaving the door open to Fujikita, as long as he could make weight on the day of the planned weigh in. Which he did. That allowed him to become mandatory for his first title bout, and make up for the disappointment of losing in a title eliminator in 2018, when he lost a narrow decision to Naoki Mochizuki.
On paper the 32 year old Fujikita doesn't look much of a challenger. He has 4 losses in 17 bouts, and has got a single win of note of real note, a 2016 TKO over Yusuke Sakashita. His record is however one full of misfortune, with 3 split decisions and one technical majority decision. All of those close decisions have come to good domestic fighters, including Mochizuki, Yuta Matsuo and Hayato Yamaguchi.
Although he's without many wins of real significance Fujikita looks like one of those types of fighters who could score the upset over a decent guy. He looks solid, takes a shot well, applies smart pressure, and can fight on the back foot when he needs to. He's certainly more comfortable going forwards than backwards, and looks physically strong. When he is on the backfoot he moves very well and avoid shots really well, but seems to struggle to fire off counters.
Coming in to this we see Fujikita as the better boxer, the way he moves and the way he looks after himself in the ring makes it look like he could genuinely give Akui issues. If Akui fights the way he usually does, trying to steam roll Fujikita, things will be interesting. We suspect we'll either see Fujikita taken out early, in what would be a very impressive result for Akui, or we'll see Fujikita seeing out the storm, and then slowly picking Akui apart as the bout goes on. Fujikita looks like a tough guy, takes a shot really well when he needs to.
We expect Akui's aggression and power to be too much, and for Fujikita to be taken out early, maybe not the opening round but still early. Fujikita might be tough, but Akui is the most dangerous fighter he's faced so far. If Fujikita sees out the storm we could be in for a bit of a classic, but that's a huge "if".
Prediction - TKO3 Akui
Earlier in the year we were anticipating the Champion Carnival being well under-way and we were set to see another Champion Carnival bout on March 7th. That bout ended up being postponed due to the on going global situation and instead of taking place in March, as expected, it will now be taking place this coming Saturday. Despite the delay we're really looking forward to the next bout in the annual series of "Champion Vs Challenger" bouts, and that's because it's a great looking up on paper. The bout in question is up at 154lbs where Japanese domestic champion Hironobu Matsunaga (16-1, 10) takes on mandatory challenger Yuto Shimizu (15-3-2, 5) in what we suspect will be an excellent bout for the Japanese Light Middleweight title.
The under-rated champion has done things the hard way, without much fuss and without much acclaim, but now in his early 30's he's reaping the benefits of hard work. He made his debut way back in 2012, but began to get some attention in 2014, when he reached the all-Japan Rookie of the Year final, losing to Yuki Beppu. That loss saw Matsunaga fall to 6-1 (3) but since then he has gone 10-0 (7) and been on an excellent run. Whilst he is obviously the Japanese champion right now it's worth noting that he has scored notable wins over the likes of former Japanese Middleweight champion Sanosuke Sasaki, Korean foe Je Ni Ma and multi-time Japanese title challenger Koshinmaru Saito. Those wins lead him to his 2019 title shot against Nobuyuki Shindo, which he won in by breaking down Shindo.
Since winning the belt Matsunaga has defended it once, stopping former amateur star Koki Koshikawa in a thrilling match up last November. That was the 5th straight stoppage win for Matsunaga, who has really come on since that loss to Beppu way back in 2014.
In the ring Matsunaga may not be someone getting much attention, but he is quickly becoming a must watch fighter. He's small for a Light Middleweight but is aggressive, moves well, and after getting a read on his opponents comes forward with heavy shots from the southpaw stance. At range he can struggle to get close, but when he gets into range for his shots he grinds opponents down, both mentally and physically. It's the grinding and consistent power shots that take their toll on opponents rather than any single shots. When he has his man hurt he doesn't let off them and really makes them suffer, and feel sorry for themselves. At the higher levels we suspect he'd struggle to make a mark, but at Japanese domestic level he is a very, very hard man to beat.
We mentioned that Matsunaga quietly climbed the rankings to his title and it's fair to say the same is true of Shimizu. He was 3-3-2 after 8 bouts before going on a solid 8 fight winning run to earn his first title fight. That winning run had seen him defeat Hikaru Nishida, who later won the Japanese Middleweight title and former OPBF title challenger Takehiro Shimokawara to earn a shot at Yuki Nonaka. Although he lost to Nonaka he had earned the shot on merit. Since then he has gone 3-1, earning this shot with a win over Nobuyuki Shindo back in November 2019 which had followed another solid win over Charles Bellamy.
In the ring Shimizu is a rather weird looking fighter. He has a very herky-jerky style, long arms and an awkward rhythm. There's nothing pretty about him, but he's yet he's still effective, frustrating and uses his size well. For someone who's big at the weight he doesn't have the busiest of jabs, or the quickest of footwork, but has proven to be a hard man to hit, and someone who can land from very odd angles, as we saw when he beat Shindo last year. Also it's worth noting that whilst not a puncher he does hit hard enough to get the respect of opponents, time and time again, in fact he actually dropped Shindo last year on route to his win.
For Matsunaga the big issue is whether he can get inside the long reach of Shimizu. The straight right hand of the challenger will be a real issue for the champion. If he can slip it, get inside and fight up close, using his edge in speed and sharpness, this could look easy for Matsunaga, however that is a big if. What we're expecting is for Shimizu to make it real ugly. We expect the challenger to land at range and tie up up close, but to do that effectively against a grinder like Matsunaga, for 10 rounds, is certainly not easy.
We expect this to be ugly at times. Shimizu falling in and clinching and holding and making a mess of things. Saying that however we struggle to see Matsunaga losing, his energy, volume and tenacity will simply be too much and too regular for the challenger.
Prediction - TKO8 Matsunaga
Earlier this year the Champion Carnival bouts were announced and there was a number of those that really caught our eye and got us excited. One of those was a Featherweight title bout that would have seen talented youngster Hinata Maruta get his first shot at a domestic title. Sadly due to the on going situation the 2020 Champion Carnival has not gone the way many of us had hoped when the bouts were announced, and we've only had a few of those bouts actually take place, and it's unclear if, or when the others will happen.
With Maruta not having his shot at champion Ryo Sagawa (9-1, 4) this year, we have seen Sagawa turn his attention else where. Instead of being made to face his mandatory challenger he will actually be in the ring on August 13th to defend his title against Yuri Takemoto (8-1-1, 4). On paper this looks a decent bout, but in reality it's unlikely to live up the expectations we had for Sagawa Vs Maruta.
Saying that however, what do we really expect here?
Although not yet a name on an international level Sagawa is a highly skilled fighter who has been on a tear recently. Before turning professional he was a successful amateur who turned professional in 2016 and was tipped for success. Sadly however he was upset in his second professional bout, when he was stopped in 2 rounds by Retsu Kosaka. The loss was a major set back, but one that Sagawa quickly bounced back from and he has now won 8 in a row. Not only has he been scoring wins but he has been scoring notable ones, beating the likes of Junki Sasaki, Ryo Matsumoto, Shingo Kawamura, Reiya Abe and Ryo Hino.
Watching Sagawa we get the chance to see a fantastic boxer-puncher. He looks really well polished, with fluid movement, and makes boxing look easy. He makes the sport look effortless at times, and like a man who was born to be in the ring. He's light on his feet, quick with his hands and able to both box on the move, or apply pressure and fight. Sadly however there are real question marks over his chin. The loss to Kosaka to showed his chin was questionable and he was also dropped in his win over Junki Sasaki. It seems if there is a flaw to target as an opponent it is Sagawa's chin.
Whilst Sagawa has proven himself as one of the best in Japan in recent years the same can't be said of Takemoto, who is taking a huge step up in class.
The 24 year old challenger made his debut back in 2017 and, like Sagawa, lost his second bout. Unlike Sagawa however his loss was a close decision loss to Kensuke Nakamura. The youngster then fought to a draw with Tomoya Kishine, but has since reeled off 8 wins. The most notable of those was in December 2018 when he beat Hikari Mineta to be crowned the All Japan Rookie of the Year, in what was a huge win for him.
In his Rookie of the Year win Takemoto looked talented, promising and heavy handed, dropping Mineta 3 times in the opening round. Sadly however he seemed like a work in progress, and struggled to have success outside of that first round, with Mineta looking the more talented and rounded fighter. He seemed like he had some raw talent, but certainly needed a lot of work to reach the higher levels of the sport.
Sadly since winning Rookie of the Year Takemoto hasn't really impressed. He's picked up 3 wins but they included a against the hapless Kiki Marciano and a technical decision against Yoshiyuki Takabayashi. They have done little to prepare him for a title fight in a talent laden division in Japan. If anything this shot feels like it's coming far, far too early for him and whilst he may become a legitimate domestic contender one day he's not there yet.
What we're expecting to see here is Sagawa to out box, out punch and out think Takemoto. Takemoto is certainly dangerous if he lands, especially given what we know about Sagawa's chin, but it's hard to see him landing clean with any regularity. Instead we're expecting Sagawa will tag him at will, break him down and then stop him in the middle rounds. Afterwards it will like a mismatch, and in reality it's hard to see the bout being anything but an easy defense for the talented champion.
We do understand that the sport isn't running as freely in the country as we'd like but it's hard to get too excited here in a bout that we can't help but think is far too much, far too soon for Takemoto.
Prediction - Sagawa TKO 6
Whilst the most notable member of the Inoue family, Naoya Inoue, won't be in action until later in the year he's not the only member of the clan with a belt at the moment. The other is his cousin Koki Inoue (15-0, 12), who returns to the ring on July 16th to make a mandatory defense of the Japanese Light Welterweight title. The unbeaten champion will be taking on Daishi Nagata (14-2-1, 5) as part of the Champion Carnival, in what looks like a genuinely fantastic looking match up, though one the champion will enter as the clear favourite in.
Originally this bout was scheduled for a March date, which was originally delayed due to Inoue being injured in training. It was then rescheduled for May before being delayed again due to the out break of the on going issues that have had global impacts. As a result this bout will actually be the first Japanese title fight in months, after boxing was put on a hiatus in Japan.
The champion, who not only holds the Japanese title but also the WBO Asia Pacific title, turned professional with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. By the time he made his debut in late 2015 Naoya had already become a 2-weight world champion whilst Naoya's brother Takuma was the OPBF champion, winning that title in just his 4th professional bout. Sadly it did take Koki a bit longer to make an impact than either of his cousins, as domestic fighters seemed to give him a pretty wide berth at times. Despite some frustrations Inoue managed to secure himself a mandatory title in 2019, which he won by out boxing Valentine Hosokawa, to win his first title in his 13th professional bout.
Since winning the Japanese title in April 2019 Inoue has defended it once, beating Ryuji Ikeda in 5 rounds, and unified it with the WBO Asia Pacific title, by stopping Jheritz Chavez in 7 rounds.
In the ring Inoue is a southpaw boxer puncher. He's not quite as heavy handed, relative to his weight class, as Naoya, but he holds plenty of pop. He likes to move, use the ring and lure opponents into his shots, whilst calmly boxing on the back foot. It's not always the most exciting to watch him do his thing, but when he goes through the gears and lets his hands go he looks sensational, with quick, hard, free flowing combinations. Sadly he does often seem too cautious, which is a shame given that he's such a great fighter to watch when he does turn up the tempo.
Aged 30 this is Daishi Nagata's second shot at a title, following a very close loss in an OPBF title fight against Rikki Naito. The challenger is a very fun fighter to see in action, pressing fighter and looking to force opponents to break, mentally and physically. He's not unbeatable, and was taken out in 7 rounds back in 2017 by Vladimir Baez, but he's a real tough out at this level with his pressure and aggression. He used that pressure to out work and out point Cristiano Aoqui last October, to earn his title fight, and build on previous wins over Yusuka Tsukada and Min Ho Jung. He's not the biggest puncher, but he's physically strong and does enough power on his shots to get the results of opponents.
Nagata, like Inoue, is a southpaw and stylistically he very different to the champion. Whilst the champion likes to uses his legs, establish range and chip away before moving through the gears Nagata would prefer a tear up, and will press from the off. That pressure is a tactic that could beat Inoue, but will need to be amped up and sped up from Nagata, who will need to find a bit more zip in his footwork compared to what we've seen from him in the past.
Although we think Nagata has the style to cause problems at domestic level we do see Inoue as being too quick, too sharp, and too good. The pressure Nagata brings will, like Chavez's, be used against him and he will walk into shots, with Inoue chipping away against someone who appears to be a willing participant in their own beating. Nagata will be looking to try and walk down Inoue but it will not a successful idea and by the middle rounds Inoue will begin to come forward more and take out the gutsy, but over-matched, challenger.
Prediction - TKO8 Inoue
The Japanese Lightweight scene is a frustrating one at times. On paper it should be interesting, there's plenty of talent there, and lot of interesting match ups that could be made there in the coming years, but sadly we seem to be between waves of fighters. At the moment Japanese national champion Shuichiro Yoshino (11-0, 9) looks to be head and shoulders above the rest, having unified the Japanese, OPBF and WBO Asia Pacific titles. Despite the fact Yoshino looks to be well ahead of the others he hasn't yet vacated, and will instead defend the national title on February 13th against mandatory challenger Izuki Tomioka (7-2-1, 2) as part of the 2020 Champion Carnival.
The 28 year old Yoshino has really been on a relative fast track right from the start of his professional career. The talented boxer-puncher had been an excellent amateur on the Japanese scene, going 104-20 (55), before beginning his professional career in late 2015. In just his 4th professional bout Yoshino had beaten Yoshitaka Kato. Just 6 months after that he had won the Japanese title, which he has now defended 4 times, and last year Yoshino unified the national title with the 2 regional thrones.
In the ring Yoshino is a real talent. He can box, he can brawl and boy can he punch, with his last 7 wins all coming inside the distance. We actually need to go all the way back to his Japanese title win to see the last time someone was even semi-competitive with him, and even then Yoshino stopped Spicy Matsushita in 7 rounds. The power of Yoshino really is brutal and his KO's against Kazumasa Kobayashi and Harmonito Dela Torre have shown that it takes only a single left hook for Yoshino to finish someone off. The fact he has scored 2 awesome KO's whilst on the back foot shows how dangerous he is and how brutal his left hook is.
The 22 year Tomioka has been a professional since late 2016, and has shown some promise and also been in some frustrating fights. He's a talent, but a frustrating one who is perhaps getting this shot a little too early in his career. He won his first 5 bouts, winning the Japanese Youth Lightweight title in just his 4th bout way back in August 2017. He would defend the belt twice, beating Taiju Shiratori and fighting to a technical draw against Kaiki Yuba. He then faced the then OPBF Lightweight champion Masayoshi Nakatani and was stopped in 11 rounds by Naktani, following a very close bout. Another loss to Shuya Masaki followed up and really frustrated as Tomioka refused to really let his hands go. Since then however he has picked up 2 straight wins and earned this title fight, thanks to a win over Kazuki Saito.
At his worst Tomioka is a frustrating mover who looks unconvinced by himself, moving more than puncher and ultra-negative, as we saw against Masaki. At his best however he is brilliant boxer, with a sharp jab, excellent speed, great ring IQ and a fantastic judge of distance and timing. He's tall and rangy, and dictates things really well whilst picking great shots. It was these traits that were all on show last time out, when he schooled Kazuki Saito in a career best win. Despite schooling Saito the youngster still showed touched of negativity, and also a lack of physical strength and punching power. He's skilled, but we do wonder about his physical maturity.
We think Tomioka has future national champion written all over him. He's such a natural talent and a pure outside boxer. A truly fantastic young boxer. Sadly for him however he's up against a strong, powerful, heavy handed fighter who can hold his own when boxing, and bang. We see Tomioka having success, but Yoshino's pressure will build and he will begin to find a home for his left hook and straight right hand. Sooner or later we see Tomioka being stopped, and having his good early work being undone.
If Yoshino is successful here, fingers crossed he moves on and begin to face fringe world class guys and move towards a world title fight. There is, after all, no point wasting time at domestic level. As for Tomioka he will come again, and will find himself in an interesting era of Japanese Lightweight fighters, along with Shu Utsuki, Masahiro Suzuki and Katsuya Yasuda.
Prediction - TKO8 Yoshino
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.