This coming Saturday we'll get a bit of a treat in Japan as Super Flyweight triple crown champion Ryoji Fukunaga (14-4, 14) returns to the ring to defend his WBO Asia Pacific, OPBF and Japanese titles against unbeaten challenger Hayate Kaji (15-0, 9), in a bout that promises to be explosive, exciting and action packed. Whilst the bout won't get much international attention, it is a bout in a hotly competitive division, the winner could find themselves on the verge of a world title bout and it's one that should be something a little bit special given the styles and mentalities of the two men involved.
Of the two fighters it's clearly the champion who will go in as the favourite. The 35 year old has really impressed in recent years and has managed to unify his three titles thanks to big wins over Froilan Saludar and Kenta Nakagawa. In those bouts we saw Fukunaga being hurt, being forced to grit out some tough moments, but also fight like a man full of determination, getting through the rough patches and fighting like a man possessed. Sadly for Saludar and Nakagawa the hard hitting Fukunaga is a brutally heavy handed guy, with a high work rate, and steely determination, and he managed to stop both. With 14 stoppages in 14 wins, it's obvious he's a dangerous fighter, but he's also a fighter who is improving, even in his mid 30's, showing more maturity, a better boxing brain, and a growing under-standing of the sport.
Early in his career Fukunaga looked poor. He lost on his debut, in 2013, and lost again 2 years later, in an opening round TKO loss to Ryo Matsubara. Since then however he has really come a long way and both of his more recent losses were in competitive bouts to decent fighters, Yuta Matsuo and Kongfah CP Freshmart. He has built from those losses and now looks like someone who could land a world title fight before ending his career. Like many fighters in Japan he has learned from tough set backs, he has had to learn the hard way, and even with 4 losses on his record we can't write him off.
Whilst Fukunaga has improved following some early set backs the same can't really be said of Kaji. The 24 year old Kaji burst on to the pro scene back in 2015, as a teenager, winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year with an opening round KO win against Taiyo Inoue. He seemed destined to be a star at that point, and over the following couple of years his career continued to develop, and he would score decent wins over Jun Blazo and Kichang Kim. Sadly though things started to change, and there were rumours from those at Teiken that Kaji wasn't listening to trainers, and soon afterwards his performances start to suffer, with poor performances against the likes of Arnold Garde, Rey Orais and Diomel Diocos in 2019. He quickly went from a man people wanted to see getting a big fight into someone who no longer looked ready and seemed to be regressing. His power wasn't carrying up, and his performances seemed to show him just going through the motions, rather than trying to impress. It was as if his motivation was waning.
At his best Kaji is a hard hitting, aggressive fighter, who gets in to the ring with the intention of throwing a lot of hard leather. Sadly though that's not been the Kaji we've been seeing in recent bouts. Instead we've started to see Kaji become tamer, more timid, and whilst he is certainly more technical than he used to be there is a sense that he's very much a fighter trying to change styles, and is losing his identity as a result. He still looks like someone who could become someone special, but he's not looked good, at all, in recent bouts. His intensity has dropped, his power doesn't look vicious and he looks like someone who is boxing to orders, rather than fighting in a style that is natural to him.
We suspect that Fukunaga will look to bully the younger man early on, march forward and try to break down the challenger. Kaji will try to box, but we suspect after 4 or 5 rounds he'll elect to change styles, feeling that he needs to fight Fukunaga's aggression with more aggression of his own, and in the middle rounds we're expecting a war to break out. Sadly for Kaji we don't expect this to go well for him and by round 9 he'll be under intense pressure and the corner will need to think about saving him.
Kaji has got the skills and tools to win rounds, but we really don't see him having what is needed to win a fight with Fukunaga, and sadly for the challenger we're expecting this to become a true fire fight sooner rather than later. If Kaji can keep a busy jab, and move well, he has a chance, but we struggle to see him keeping that up for 12 rounds against the pressure, power and determination of the champion.
Prediction - TKO9 Fukunaga
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.