In 2020 we saw very, very few fighters have years that will define their careers. One of the few exceptions was Japanese Super Flyweight Ryoji Fukunaga (13-4, 13) who had a career defining as he went 2-0 (2) and went from having never held a title as a professional to being the unified Japanese, OPBF and WBO Asia Pacific Flyweight champion. He did that by scoring two legitimately solid wins as well, defeating Froilan Saludar and Kenta Nakagawa, and came in to 2021 with some real momentum. As we write this he is also holding world rankings with 3 of the 4 major title bodies. At 34 however he can ill afford a slip up, and he'll be well aware of that going into his first bout of 2021,against Takahiro Fujii (12-6-1, 3) on June 21st. That bout will see Fukunaga defending two of the titles he unified last year, and look to continue moving towards a potential world title fight. On the other hand the bout will also be a huge, and somewhat unexpected, title shot for Fujii.
Aged 34 Fukunaga is a heavy handed southpaw who turned professional in 2013 aged 26, and struggled early in his career. He lost on debut, and was 4-2 (4) after 6 bouts. Since then however he has turned things around, going 9-2 (9) winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year, as well as becoming a triple crown champion.
In the ring Fukunaga has a lot of technical flaws. He's easy to hit, he's not particularly quick and a lot of what he does looks forced. Despite that he's not an easy man to beat. He's got rocks for hands, and what he hits he hurts. He's got a great will to win, and excellent stamina, and even in rounds 9 and 10 he can still be found throwing a lot of bombs. He's also learned how to use his experience well, and when he needs to he can "old man" his opponents, go for a walk, catch his breath and then come forward again. At 34 we do wonder how much he has left in the tank, especially after wars with Saludar and Nakagawa last year, with both of those bouts being incredibly punishing, but we also get the feeling he and his team have picked a bit of a patsy here, to keep him ticking over in a stay defense, rather than a genuine challenge.
Fujii is a fellow southpaw, and is slightly younger than the Fukunaga, aged 32, but he's also much less accomplished and is taking a massive step up in class. He began his career back in 2010, with a draw against Satoshi Obata, and was 6-3-1 (2) after 10 bouts. Sadly it wasn't just early on that he had mixed results and he's actually 6-3 (1) in his last 9 bouts. What hasn't helped him is that he been very inconsistent with results, and every time he gets a win, he then slips up soon afterwards. At least he did until very recently, and he's currently riding a rare winning streak, having won his last 3 bouts with a decent win over Sonin Nihei. Sadly though that 3 win streak dates back to 2018, showing a lack of activity to go with his lack of consistency.
When it comes to what Fujiii can do in the ring, one thing that needs mentioning is that he lacks power. Of any kind. He has only scored a single stoppage win since 2015. That sort of power will leave him needing to rely on his boxing skills against a guy like Fukunaga, who is a monstrous puncher who can really hurt people. Fujii has only been stopped once, very early in his career, but we suspect that he'll struggle with the power, work rate and aggression of Fukunaga, especially over 12 rounds. The guy can fight, but he's been fighting fringe domestic level fighters, and he's now leaping up to regional title level, with nothing to prepare him for what he's getting himself into here.
Fukunaga has had punishing bouts. He has taken a lot in his last two bouts, but this is a smart match up from his team. Matching him easily for his return to the ring, and we suspect he'll shake a bit of ring rust through the early part of the fight, before taking out Fujii in the middle rounds. The champion might lose a few rounds early on, but he'll be far too much for the challenger and will take him out sooner or later.
Prediction - TKO7 Fukunaga
One of the biggest upsets in 2020 was the huge surprise win that saw Daishi Nagata (15-2-2, 6) take the Japanese title 140lbs from Koki Inoue, the cousin of Naoya and Takuma Inoue, in one of the first shows back in Japan after boxing was put on the back burner due to the pandemic. Since that win Nagata has defended the title once, thanks to a technical draw against Akihiro Kondo, and this coming Thursday he'll be looking for his second defense as he takes on the unbeaten Masahiro Suzuki (5-0, 3). On paper Nagata is the big favourite, but will he manage to avoid an upset like the one he inflicted on Suzuki? Or will Suzuki be able to become the latest Japanese champion at 140lbs? Lets take a look at the fighters, how they match up and who we think will come out on top.
Of the two men Nagata is the clear favourite coming in to this bout. The 31 year old southpaw has been a professional since 2014, is the current Japanese champion and has faced a genuine who's who of the domestic scene. He fought Takeshi Inoue in his debut, fighting to a draw, and since then has shared the ring with Quaye Peter, Vladimir Baez, Takashi Inagaki, Rikki Naito, Cristiano Aoqui, Koki Inoue and Akihiro Kondo. Not only that but he has also shown he belongs in title level fights, giving Naito hell in a razor close 2018 bout and beating Koki Inoue.
In the ring Nagata is a well skilled boxer-fighter. He's at his best when he's applying intelligent pressure. Getting in and out and using his surprisingly quick feet. He's not that polished, but he's quick, strong, physically powerful, fights at a good tempo with under-rated punching power and really good stamina. In fact it was his stamina against Naito which made the fight so close, with Naito tiring and Nagata really coming on strong late on. Sadly though he's not the smartest of fighters and like many newly crowned champions he wanted his first defense to be a fan friendly one, and ended up holding his feet too long against Kondo, leading to that fight being a very close and competitive one. Not the showcase first defense he would have wanted. Given how bad that performance was we're expecting a much better one here against a very lively challenger.
Whilst Nagata is a strong, tough, lump of a fighter the exact opposite is true of Suzuki who is a much more rounded boxer, with good movement and a solid boxing brain. He was one of the few fighters over the last few years who really impressed on debut, when he beat Antonio Siesmundo, but sadly we've never seen that same level of performance from him since. In fact his performance have been rather mixed following his very impressive debut, though in fairness his competition has been pretty solid. In just 5 bouts he beaten Siesmundo, the heavy handed Kosuke Arioka, the solid domestic level Hokuto Matsumoto and former OPBF title challenger Takahiro Oda. And whilst he hasn't shown the same incredible potential he showcased on his debut but has shown a good boxing brain and he seems to be a fighter who is, slowly, finding his identity in the ring. He looks like he can do it all, box, move, punch and fight, but probably does need to find what he likes to do and focus on that more than he has at times.
Whilst we have been genuine impressed by Suzuki, it needs noting that he was hurt by Arioka, and seemed to struggle against Matsumoto. He has got questions to answer, and most notably one of those is his stamina. He looked good for 6 rounds against Siesmundo in his debut, and 6 rounds against Kelvin Tenorio, but we've never seen him go beyond 6 rounds, and this title fight will be a 6 rounder. We've also never seen him in with a southpaw, with Nagata set to be his first lefty, which is a second potential issue for Suzuki. Given Nagata's pressure and aggression Suzuki will need to be on his P's and Q's from the opening bell, he need to stay focused and be fully aware of what Nagata can bring, and we're not 100% sure Suzuki has that level of focus... yet.
In terms of pure skills Suzuki is, for our money, a level above Nagata. He's a smoother, not natural boxer. Skills however aren't the only thing important in a fight and we suspect the experience, physicality and the fact Nagata is comfortable fighting 8, 10 and even 12 rounds, will prove vital here.
We're expecting Suzuki to start well, out boxing Nagata, moving around the ring, landing shots against the slower man. But unfortunately winning the early rounds won't be enough and as the bout goes on Nagata's pressure will build, and he will begin to break down Suzuki, both physically and mentally. The early success of Suzuki will be used to fire up Nagata who will come on strong in the second half of the fight and will break down Suzuki in the later stages.
If Suzuki can stay focused, can rely on his boxing, and can keep the bout at range, using his footwork, and can keep it up for 10 rounds he could take a decision. But that's a massive if, and one we're not expecting from him. He's got the technical ability, but we don't think he's got the other tools needed to take home the victory.
Prediction - TKO8 Nagata
Over the last year or so the Minimumweight division has been almost frozen in the wake of the pandemic. The world champions have been worryingly inactive, the regional champions have sat and twiddled their thumbs and even the Japanese domestic scene has been a victim of the time, with only a single Japanese title fight at the weight in the entire of 2020. That single title fight saw Masataka Taniguchi (13-3, 8) claiming the previously vacant title in December, when he stopped Hizuki Saso. This coming Monday he'll defend that title for the first time as he defends against the once beaten Tatsuro Nakashima (11-1-1, 7) at Korakuen Hall.
When Taniguchi turned professional there was huge expectation on his shoulders inside of Japan. Him, and close friend Hiroto Kyoguchi, were expected to be the leading forces at the Watanabe Gym and were supposed to be the stars to carry the gym's legacy after Takashi Uchiyama and Kohei Kono retired. Whilst we have seen Kyoguchi scale the highest heights in the sport, Taniguchi hasn't quite managed the same, though the belief is that he still has the tools to do that.
The 27 year old champion was moved aggressive in the early part of his career, and fought in his first title fight, a Japanese title fight, just a year after his debut, losing a razor thin decision to Reiya Konishi. He would also lose a razor thin decision to Tsubasa Koura in an OPBF title fight just 7 months later. Despite those setbacks he has rebuilt well, won the WBO Asia Pacific title, challenged the then WBO champion Vic Saludar and won the Japanese title. He has notched notable wins over Joel Lino, Kai Ishizawa and Hizuki Saso. Maybe they aren't world class names, but all three are solid fighters, with Lino and Ishizawa both being very good fighters.
In the ring Taniguchi is an undeniable talent. He's a highly skilled boxer, who knows his way around the ring, has solid work rate, spiteful power, good movement and good handspeed. He's a really solid all rounder, and when his combinations flow he's a joy to watch. He's not the most physically imposing fighter, and he's more a fighter who's "very good" at everything rather than "great" in any particular area. The one area he's genuinely lacked through his career has been luck, and 2 of his losses could very easily have gone his way. In fact there's a very strong argument that both should have gone his way, and both of those losses came very early in his career. He's the sort of fighter who can compete at world level, will likely win a world title, and has a record that is thoroughly misleading.
Nakashima on the other hand is a 26 year old set to get his biggest bout to date. His biggest bout, by far. He's been a professional since 2015 and despite a slow start to his career did manage to show some real promise in 2017, only just missing out on a place in the All Japan Rookie of the Year final, with a draw against Yuga Inoue. The following year he would end up losing to the aforementioned Ishizawa, but has since bounced back with 4 straight wins including a solid one last time out against Ariston Aton. On paper his record looks solid, but in reality there is a lot of weak opposition on his record, with his most notable wins being over Mammoth Kazunori, very early in their respective career's, and Ariston Aton. Hardly the fighters to prepare you for a Japanese title fight .
Although his competition has been poor Nakashima is a solid boxer. He has light feet, moves around the ring easy, a nice jab, and good composure. He looks well schooled, but like a fighter who still has work to do. He's schooled but not polished. His jab lacks the spitefulness he really needs and as we saw against Ishizawa, he can be broken down, and he can end up fighting the wrong fight. He's not the biggest puncher out there, and whilst he is composed under pressure, his defensive flaws are clear to see when fighters put shots together, as Ishizawa did. He can also get dragged into exchanges more often than he needs to, as his lack of experience shows.
Whilst Nakashima is a good boxer, we see the issues that cost him against Ishizawa coming in to play again here. He's a good boxer, but he still makes mistakes, he holds his feet too long, and he struggles to get respect from his better opponents. Taniguchi might be asked questions, especially early on when the light feet of Nakashima will create some space, but as the fight goes on the challenger will be broken down, the body shots of Taniguchi proving to be especially potent here.
Nakashima will put up a good fight, he won't be there to make up the numbers, and he will come into the fight as a very live challenger. However the edge in class, the more rounded and polished skills, and the firepower of Taniguchi will prove to be a series difference maker here.
Prediction - TKO8 Taniguchi
This coming Wednesday we see the Champion Carnival resume as Japanese Middleweight champion Kazuto Takesako (12-0-1, 11) defends his title against mandatory challenger Riku Kunimoto (4-0, 2). For the champion this will be his fourth defense, and his sixth bout since winning the title in impressive fashion back in March 2018, when he blasted Hikaru Nishida in 92 seconds. As for the challenger this is a huge step up in class and his bout at title level. Despite the difference in professional experience the bout was one of the most interesting bouts scheduled for the 2020 Champion Carnival, when it was originally announced.
Like many bouts from the 2020 Champion Carnival this bout was delayed. It was originally pencilled in for May 2020, before Covid19 forced it to be rescheduled to July. Kunimoto requested a delay from the July date, due to issues training, which saw the bout being rescheduled before Takesako suffered a training injury, scuppering the November date and forcing a delay until 2021.
As his record suggests Kazuto Takesako is a puncher. A real big puncher. The 29 year old started his career with 10 straight T/KO wins, only once going beyond round 3. He was blasting through competition with surprising ease, including the likes of Shoma Fukumoto and Hikaru Nishida. It wasn't until 2019 that he was taken the distance, as he was held to a 10 round draw by the tricky and awkward Shuji Kato. Despite Kato seeing out the 10 rounds we saw Takesako write the wrong and stop Kato in a rematch just 5 months late. We also saw him prove his stamina this year when he won a wide 12 round decision over Shinobu Charlie Hosokawa.
Through his 13 bout career we've seen Takesako fight just 53 professional rounds, but he has impressed thanks to his destructive power and aggression. He has faced decent domestic level competition and, below Ryota Murata, he is probably the best in Japan.
Despite looking impressive there are questions about Takesako that we still haven't seen answers for, or where the answers are unclear. The most notable of those regards his chin, and we have seen him hurt a number of times during his career, and we do wonder if, maybe, he's a bit of a glass cannon. We also don't know how he will with a busy, taller, rangy boxer-puncher. The only fighter similar to that that he's faced was Shuji Kato, but Kato wasn't as busy as we'd have liked, and he also didn't keep things on the move as much as he perhaps needed to, opting to counter Takesako rather than keep things at range. We also wonder what the injury in 2020 will do to him, and whether he has real motivation for this bout.
Whilst we have seen a lot of Takesako, with a lot of his bouts being featured on G+, we haven't seen all that much of Kunimoto, sadly. On one hand that's bad, but on the other it shows how quickly he has been moved along. He debuted in August 2018 and is already getting a title fight. The 23 year old has been matched well from the off, getting some experience in his first couple of bouts, before being stepped up in 2019 and showing there was something pop on his shots with a win over Shoma Fukumoto.
Although footage of his recent bouts isn't available there is some old footage of Kunimoto on Boxing Raise and from that we can see a really talented young fighter. He appears full of self belief, confident in his defenses, and willing to press forward behind a tight guard before letting his shots fly. He's fairly crisp and clean with his shots, but can be seen over-reaching when he throws his straight right hand. His body work appears pretty solid and he does seem to take a shot well, when he needs to.
Sadly for Kunimoto whilst he does look a talented 23 year old he also looks like a work in progress. We know that's obvious, given his inexperience and the fact we were watching some very early fights of his, but it seems almost impossible to imagine he's improved enough from those fights to really be competitive here with someone like Takesako. Sadly the biggest issue with Kunimoto isn't his ability, or skills, or even his experience but instead his inactivity. He's now not been in the ring for over 2 years, and even at the age of 23 ring rust can be a major issue.
We're expecting Kunimoto to show glimpses of real promise here, but those glimpses won't be enough. The power, pressure, aggression and physical strength of Takesako will be too much. Sooner or later the champion will grind down the challenger, and break him up. Kunimoto, sadly, doesn't appear to have style needed to cope with the physicality and heavy hands of Takesako, at least at this point in his career. He'll try, and have some success, but we suspect he'll be found wanting and will be stopped somewhere in the middle rounds.
Prediction - TKO7 Takesako
NOTE - Due to a new state of emergency in several regions of Japan, this bout has been postponed from May 1st to May 19th.
When we think of Japanese boxing we tend to think about the men at the lightest end of the scales, the Minimumweights through to Bantamweights. Rather unfortunately however we, as fight fans, tend to forget that Japanese title bouts from Welterweight to Middleweight are often some of the most entertaining contests we get to see. Surely a lot of the Japanese fighters in those weights fail to make a mark at the highest level but they do, often, match up really, really well and give us some thrilling action bouts.
This coming Wednesday we're expecting another brilliant Japanese title match up in those weight ranges as Japanese Light Middleweight champion Hironobu Matsunaga (17-1, 11) takes on unbeaten challenger Rei Nakajima (4-0). On paper the bout doesn't scream anything special, but beneath the records are two men who should make for an excellent match up, and styles that should gel brilliantly to give us a compelling contest.
Of the two men it's clearly the champion who is the more well known. The 33 year old Matsunaga has been a professional since 2012, and first began to make waves in 2014, when he reached the All Japan Rookie of the Year, losing in the final at Welterweight to Yuki Beppu. Since then he has really built his name and reputation. He has gone 12-0 (8), scored wins in Thailand and Korea, won the WBO Asia Pacific and Japanese titles at 154lbs and become one of the leading faces of the Japanese scene at 154lbs, along with Takeshi Inoue. More than any of his achievements however he has also become a fan favourite thanks to his aggressive style, which is built around a lot of pressure, combinations and using under-rated speed and movement. He's not the best boxer out there but he's a fantastic fighter with a real tenacity to his boxing.
Since winning the Japanese Light Middleweight title in 2019, when he stopped Nobuyuki Shindo, Matsunaga has made two very credible defenses, stopping both Koki Koshikawa and Yuto Shimizu. Those wins have seen him extend his current winning streak to 12 and his current T/KO run to 6. They have also helped him prove his tenacious hunger and desire to be the best in Japan, and there's a genuine shout that his recent form has seen him over take the likes of Takeshi Inoue, whose last impressive domestic win came almost 3 years ago.
Whilst Matsunaga is well known, and has been on the radar of Japanese fans for the better part of a decade the same cannot be said of 22 year old Rei Nakajima, who only turned professional in 2019. Despite that Nakajima did manage to prove he was a legit prospect in his last two bouts, putting on a virtuoso performance against Thai veteran Komsan Polsan before scoring a break out win in 2020 against former OPBF and WBO Asia Pacific Middleweight champion Shinobu Charlie Hosokawa. In just 4 bouts the 22 year old has proven he belongs at title level, and could well have the potential to be the best in divisional domestically.
Whilst Matsunaga is very much a come forward pressure fighter the challenger is pretty much the opposite. In fact Nakajima is one of the true pure boxers of the Japanese scene. He's a diminutive Light Middleweight, standing at around 5'5", but uses his lack of stature in his favour, making himself smaller and being elusive, even whilst standing right in front of an opponent. He's quick, sharp with an excellent boxing brain, often drawing mistakes to counter. We've seen him show no fear against the dangerous Hosokawa and he has proven to be as slippery as an eel, both on the inside and the outside.
Whilst it can often be easy to think Japanese fighters rely on their toughness and determination that isn't something we've ever seen from Nakajima. Instead he relies on his technical ability, his boxing brain and his high level understanding of the ring. It's what makes him so different to many Japanese fighters, particularly at 154lbs where toughness and physicality often play a major role.
Given the styles of the two men involved this is actually a really hard one to call.
There is every chance that Matsunaga will manage to get up close, using his experience, bullying Nakajima around and breaking down the challenger. We've seen him do it to bigger men than himself and this is a rare fight where he will be the naturally bigger man. In fact he'll have around 3" height advantage whilst usually he's giving away 3", if not more, himself. He'll be in there looking to land body shots, take Nakajima's legs away and grind him down in the later rounds.
Likewise there is also a chance that the speed, movement, ring crafty and skills of Nakajima will neutralise the pressure of Matsunaga, and he'll walk him on to shots. It's unlikely that Nakajima has the power to take the champion out, but he has the movement to frustrate him, and rack up rounds. If he does that for 7 or 8 rounds there's a chance that he'll have mentally beaten Matsunaga to the point of no return, and the champion will simply not have the energy needed to turn things around.
Whilst we have really, really, enjoyed Matsunaga's rise through the ranks, and it really has been brilliant to watch. We do see him up against a stylistic nightmare here, and someone who will use his pressure against him really well. We suspect the sharp shooting, counter punching brilliance of Nakajima will see him racking up the points, winning the rounds, and doing more than enough to convince the judges he deserves the decision and the title. He'll have to work for it, and work hard, but we see Nakajima doing enough to take home the W.
Prediction - UD10 Nakajima
On April 8th we'll see a really interesting Japanese Welterweight title bout between a huge punching champion and a teak tough challenger, who should be able to put on a genuine show!
The bout in question will see Keita Obara (23-4-1, 21) making his first defense of the title, as he takes on "reimported boxer" Shoki Sakai (25-11-2, 13), who has fought much of his career in Mexico and the US. The two men have had very, very, very different careers, but together they should make for something of a special fighter.
Of the two men Obara is the well proven and more established fighter. Aged 34 he's at the back end of his career but hasn't actually taken all that much punishment during his 28 fight career. In fact he's only fought 146 professional rounds since his 2010 debut. That is in part due to his style, which is built around his out-side boxing and power. He hurts fighters when he lands and has 21 stoppages in 23 wins, and at Japanese and Oriental level he tends to not need to land too many shots to finish bouts. Sadly though he has also shown a questionable chin and has been stopped in 3 of his 4 losses, including a loss on his 2010 debut to Kazuyoshi Kumano and in a 2016 world title fight against Eduard Troyanovsky.
At his best Obara is a very, very good boxer-puncher. Not world class as such, but a good "top 30" type of guy. He has very good power, decent stamina, good size, but he lacks in terms of his durability and his speed. He's not slow as such, but he's quite deliberate and technical, which makes him look slower than he really is. At Japanese level he has looked almost untouchable since losing on debut, and since then he has never lost against a fellow Japanese fighter. In fact his record against Japanese fighters is 15-1 (14), and he has genuine dominated the scene at 140lbs and 147lbs.
During his long career Obara has won Japanese and OPBF titles at Light Welterweight and the WBO Asia Pacific and Japanese titles at Welterweight. The last of those titles was the Japanese Welterweight title which he won in February 2020, when he stopped Yuki Nagano. That win is, notably, his most recent bout and is now well over a year ago. It's going to be very interesting to see what the 34 year old Obara, with more than a year of ring rust, is going to be like here.
Although somewhat new to Japanese fans Shoki Sakai is no spring chicken himself. He's 30 years old and has been a professional since 2010. Unlike most Japanese boxers however he really made his name outside of his homeland, and carved out the first few years fighting only in Mexico, in fact his first 15 bouts were all in Mexico and 24of his first 25 were in the country. From 2016 however he began to frequent rings in the US, where he was matched against some fairly notable names such as Ashley Theophane, Cameron Krael, Eddie Gomez, Alexis Rocha and Gor Yeritsyan. He was used as a bit of a gatekeeper, testing highly regarded prospects, and often being a very credible test due to his toughness and desire. He lacked the skills to beat the top prospects, but gave them all a tough time and lasted the distance with them all, making them all work incredibly hard.
In 2020, after 36 bouts as a professional, Sakai made his Japanese debut and has now won 2 bouts in Japan, beating 2017 Rookie of the Year winner Hironori Shigeta and current Japanese Youth champion Takeru Kobata. Two very decent domestic wins and two wins that showed what Sakai could do in the sport.
As a fighter Sakai is a pretty basic pressure fighter, who can box a bit but really relies on his pressure. Given his skillset however that's a tactics that works for him. He's technically limited, but strong, tough and has a good work rate. With that in mind he uses what he has. He comes forward, looks to get inside and works up close. He's not the quickest, sharpest, or particularly light on his feet, but he's a tough lump who gets in the ring and looks to have a fight. Sadly for him he does take a lot of punishment, and in his 38 bouts he has already had 241 professional rounds and some of those have been tough rounds, such as the 8 spent with Gor Yeritsyan.
When it comes to this bout there are a lot of interesting questions. For example what is the lengthy lay off going to do to Obara? He may have aged over night, he may have been caught by father time, or he may just be a bit rusty. In fact at the age of 34 is Obara now at the end of his career? Can he even get up for a fight like this? At On the other hand can Sakai take the power of Obara? Can Sakai get past the very good jab of Obara? In fact can Sakai's style even have success against Obara given his somewhat flat footed approach in the ring?
Sadly for Sakai we suspect he'll be in trouble here. We don't see him getting close with the regularity he needs to really be a test for Obara. In fact we expect the power and straight shots of Obara too get Sakai's respect early and as the bout goes on Sakai will be taking more and more punishment, as he tries over and over to cut the distance. Up close Sakai will have some success, but Obara will hold, spoil and force the referee to split them, allowing him to get back behind his jab.
We expect to see Sakai being well behind going into the second half of the bout and taking more risks, before finally being stopped. Potentially by his corner.
Prediction - TKO9 Obara
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.
On December 27th we'll see Japanese Youth Super Bantamweight champion Toshiki Shimomachi (12-1-2, 8) make his final defense of the title, win or lose, as he takes on Satoru Hoshiba (7-4, 2), a man he previously faced over 3 years ago. On paper this is an intriguing match up, with out being a big one, and a great chance for the two men to end the year on a high, after what has been a frustrating 12 months for both the talented youngsters.
Of the two men it's Shimomachi that has really impressed us over the last few years and has quickly become one of the most under-rated prospects in all of Japan. He's also someone who has developed a style we don't see too much of in Japan, but is bringing him great success, and could, very easily, take him all the way in the coming years.
The 24 year old champion debuted all the way back in December 2015 and started his career 2-1-1 (1). That was his record at the end of 2016 before he kicked on and won the 2017 All Japan Rookie of the Year, beating Ryosei Hamaguchi, Satoru Hoshiba, yes the man he'll be facing again here, and Arashi Iimi en route to the All Japan crown. He then followed that up in 2018 with wins against Kiyohei Endo and Renan Portes before ending the year with a draw against Daisuke Watanabe, a draw that has aged very well.
It was in 2019 that Shimomachi won his title, stopping Kenta Nomura in August, but sadly it took more than a year for him to defend the belt, doing so this August against Hiroki Hanabusa in a very impressive performance.
Unlike most in Japan Shimomachi's style is much more like that of an American counter-puncher than a typical Japanese fighter. He dictates range and distance with smart, well educated feet, he uses the ring well, lines up his counters, and when an opponent makes a mistake he punishes them with sharp, powerful straight left hands. Not only is his straight left a potent weapon but so too is his right hook, and his control of distance, which really is brilliant, makes him an incredibly awkward opponent. Unlike many counter punchers Shimomachi actually tries to lure mistakes, his fighters with his hands low, and uses slippery movements to make opponents miss. He wants opponents to try to hit him, and this makes him an exciting fighter to watch, rather than someone who is overly negative.
Aged 23 Satoru Hoshiba is a bit of an unknown, and he hasn't had the same level of bouts or publicity as Shimomachi since they fought in 2017. In fact footage of Hoshiba is hard to find and, as a result, it's somewhat tricky to get a read on his style, however we do know plenty about his career.
He debuted in 2015 and was stopped in the opening round, he then returned to the ring 4 months later and was again stopped early, making it to round 2. Then he managed find something of a groove, winning 4 in a row to reach the penultimate stage of the 2017 Rookie of the Year, where he lost a majority decision to Shimomachi. That bout, one of the very few we have got footage of involving Hoshiba, saw him applying real pressure and taking the fight on the inside, where he managed to have genuine success.
Despite losing to Shimomachi we have seen Hoshiba bouncing back well winning 3 of his 4 subsequent bouts. The one loss during that stretch was another bout we've been lucky to get footage of, and saw Hoshiba being stopped in 2 rounds by Tom Mizokoshi. In that bout Hoshiba again showed a willingness to come forward, marching down Mizokoshi with intense pressure and even seemed to have rocked him at one point. That was until he was rocked himself, and Mizokoshi fired off bombs until the referee stepped in.
Given what we have seen of Hoshiba we suspect this to be a fun bout, with the challenging show casing his intense, pressure, pushing forward incessantly and showing no fear of Shimomachi's power and defensively skills. Sadly for Hoshiba however his lack of power, and the heavier hands of Shimomachi, are likely to be the difference here. We suspect that Hoshiba will come forward, and will make mistakes that Shimomachi will capitalise on, breaking down Hoshiba and stopping a tiring challenger in the later rounds.
Prediction - Shimomachi TKO7
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.