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
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.