Over the last decade or so the Super Flyweight division has been one of the hottest, most interesting, exciting and compelling division's in the sport. We've really had everything at 115lbs in that time, with Fights of the Year contenders, brutal knockouts, huge upsets, all action wars, star making performances and recent the emergence of Jesse Bam Rodriguez, arguably the hottest young talent in professional boxing. At the global scene the division has been delivering year after year, though what most probably aren't too aware of, is that the division has also been delivering great fights on the lower levels, such as the Japanese and Oriental scenes, with some absolute thrillers in recent years. We could well be in for another of those thrillers this coming Tuesday, when Japanese champion Kenta Nakagawa (21-4-1, 12) defends his title against Hayate Kaji (15-1, 9) at Korakuen Hall.
Of the two men Nakagawa is the more established and the more well known. The 36 year fighter is currently enjoying his third reign as the Japanese champion, and has really established himself as one of the top domestic level fighters in the division over the last few years. He first won the title in 2016, won it again in 2019 and reclaimed it earlier this year. Sadly however his first two reigns have been short, losing in his first defense of his first reign and his second defense in his second reign, and at 36 it's hard to imagine him now having a lengthy run with the belt. Despite his short reigns Nakagawa has had a genuinely solid career, albeit one that maybe could have been better. He began as a professional in 2004 and went 2-1 before taking a 6 year break from the ring, losing 6 years of his developmental years. Since then he has gone 19-3-1 with notable wins against the likes of Joe Tanooka, Hayato Kimura, Takayuki Okumoto, Yuta Matsuo, Ayato Hiromoto and Hiroyuki Kudaka.
As a fighter Nakagawa is a technical, intelligent southpaw, with a gritty determination and a good variety of shots. Early in his career he was known for having solid speed, but as time has gone on, and he's aged, he has slowed down and relied more on his technical skills rather than his speed. He uses his technical ability to create space, landing straight shots, and he boxes well whether he's going forward or backwards. He's a crisp, clean puncher who doesn't take unnecessary risks, and instead boxes smartly. looking for holes to land big straight left hands, and gets his jab out there to remain busy. Sadly when he is dragged into a war, he doesn't have the power to turn things around, and he has been stopped in his two most recent losses, including one in a sensational fire fight to Ryoji Fukunaga. He's tough and brave, but he has been stopped, he struggles under intense pressure, and when fighters don't let him control space he really struggles to dictate things.
Whilst Nakagawa is a 3-time champion and a veteran Kaji really is the opposite. The 24 year old has been on the scene since he was a teenage, and he made a lot of buzz in Japan early on, winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year in 2015. Sadly Teiken spent years after that success slowly bringing him along, too slowly. There were reports that he was getting frustrated, and other reports suggesting he was playing up and being unprofessional. The reality is likely a mix of the two. He was a teenager looking like he could be fast-tracked and instead moved at a snails pace whilst being matched against opponents who did little to develop his skills over the following 4 or 5 years. Last year he got his first real chance to prove himself, and he did just that, in a thrilling bout with Ryoji Fukunaga for the triple crown. A bout that many felt Kaji had deserved to win, though was denied on the scorecards, losing a highly controversial majority decision. A decision that would later be questioned when Fukunaga subsequently landed a dream fight with Kazuto Ioka just a few weeks later.
Despite the frustrations of Kaji's development he has shown that he is a legitimate prospect at 115lbs. Early on he was something of a raw puncher. He was blasting out opponents, and did so earlier on stopping 6 of his first 8 opponents in the first 2 rounds. In more recent bouts however he has become a smarter fighter, accepting his power won't take everyone out and instead of being a pure banger, he has become an intelligent boxer-puncher. His last 5 bouts have all gone the distance, and he has developed the tools to become a genuine force on the regional scene. In the ring Kaji moves around the ring well, picks his spots well, and controls range really nicely whilst firing off crisp, clean, sharp combinations, with every shot having decent pop behind it. At times he has been accused of being lazy and pedestrian, but against Fukunaga he raised to the occasion and was out boxing, out punching and out fighting the dangerous and tough Fukunaga. If looking for a complaint with Kaji he still fights like a man who has more to offer than we see from him, but we suspect that as he mature we'll see more and more from him. Like many Teiken fighters over recent years, he doesn't like to waste energy, and is too apprehensive at times, but that is something we expect to see change as he gets used to fighting longer distances and becomes more comfortable with his stamina.
In his prime we feel Nakagawa would have the tools to deal with a 24 year old Kaji. We think he would be too mature and too mentally switched on. This however isn't a prime Nakagawa and given how Kaji dealt with the southpaw stance of Fukunaga, we really don't see him having any problems at all with the 36 year old champion. We expect to see Kaji pressing forward, and being too quick, too sharp and simply too young for Nakagawa, who will have success, but will be out worked by the younger man, when Kaji puts his foot on the gas. We don't see Kaji stopping Nakagawa necessarily, but we do see him hurting Nakagawa and securing a clear, yet hard fought decision. We expect to see Nakagawa down going into the late rounds, and trying to up the tempo, and potentially being caught by a bomb, but seeing out the storm to survive the distance.
Prediction - UD10 Kaji
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.