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
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
The 154lb division in Japan hasn't really been a particularly strong one, but it can still be a very interesting one, and the rare times it is relatively strong we do get some great fights. In 2018 we had an amazing example of that as Akinori Watanabe and Nobuyuki Shindo knocked lumps out of each other in a brilliant 10 round draw. Not all fights for the title are that good but when they are good, they tend to really be sensational.
On November 2nd we'll see bout between once beaten fighters, in what could be another instant classic for the title.
In one corner we will have new champion Hironobu Matsunaga (15-1, 9), who won the title in May when he stopped Shindo, and in the other corner will be the once touted Koki Koshikawa (9-1, 6), who is getting his first shot at the title.
Aged 32 Matsunaga is an example of what hard work, determination and a refusal to buckle after your first loss can do. In 2014 he reached the All Japan Rookie of the Year final, losing to Yuki Beppu in 2 rounds. That was at Welterweight. He then moved up in weight and has gone 9-0 (6) whilst notching notable victories over the likes of Hisao Narita, Sanosuke Sasaku, Je Ni Ma, Koshinmaru Saito and most recently Shindo. Despite the loss to Beppu in 2014 Matsunaga's career has easily over-shadowed the "Kyushu Tyson's" so far.
Matsunaga's success is impressive but he's had that success is telling. He's developed into a very good fighter, and gone about his work without too much fuss. He typically keeps things simple, and makes the most of his southpaw jab. There's nothing complicated about him, but he's persistent, has under-rated power and comes to fight. His left hand is solid and he always looks to get on the front foot and make opponents work to create their space. His head movement is smart and when he puts his foot on the gas he can go through the gears very quickly. The telling thing about him going through the gears is his style doesn't really change, he just does more and speeds things up, rather than taking significantly more risks.
Matsunaga's persistent front foot pressure, constant search for gaps and accurate output is a nightmare to go up against, and to beat him you really need to get his respect. He's not faced many punchers, and it will be interesting to see him in with one, but against opponents unable to hurt him he is a nasty fighter and is often all over his opponents.
At 28 years old Koshikawa is in the middle of his physical prime. Sadly though many had expected much more of him, much earlier in his career due to a solid reputation from his days in the amateur ranks. He turned pro more than 5 years ago and the hope was that Celes Kobayashi would guide him quickly through the ranks. Instead Koshikawa took more than 24 months out of the ring following a 2015 loss to Koshinmaru Saito, in what was Koshikawa's 5th bout and came just 15 months after his debut. Since his return to the ring he has scored notable wins over Daisuke Sakamoto and former OPBF champion Ratchasai Sithsaithong, whilst stringing together 5 wins, 4 by stoppage.
Sadly not a lot of Koshikawa footage is out there, though his win over Sakamoto was a good example of what he can do. Like Matsunaga he keeps things simple. He looks at his best when he's on the back foot, luring opponents in and setting the distance with his jab, however he can come forward and pressure pretty well when he feels in control. His right hand is a solid weapon and although he's not a 1-punch KO artist, he does chip away with his big shots and wears opponents down. He's still a bit reckless and rough around the edges, but physically strong and not an easy out at this level.
Given the fact that both men like to come forward we're expecting this to be a very fan friendly bout. Both are confident fighters, both are aggressive and both are pretty basic, which should give us a lot of trading and exchanges. The key issue is a question over who is the stronger man physically. If that's Matsunaga, which we suspect, then the fight could be a very close quarters war, and we wouldn't be surprised to see Koshikawa fighting off the ropes in a real under-rated war. If Koshikawa can force Matsunaga back, the fight really does change and we suspect his longer reach will come into play, and he will take a hard fought decision with his right hand really being used as a barge pole on the southpaw champion.
Prediction - UD10 Matsunaga
It's rare for the JBC to feel the need to create an "interim" national title, but that's what they did at Light Middleweight earlier this year, when Nobuyuki Shindo (20-4-1, 8) suffered a hand injury when being crowned the full champion. In the wake of Shindo's injury Akinori Watanabe (37-7, 31) became the interim champion, putting on a fantastic performance to defeat Ryosuke Maruki inside a round this past August.
Now we'll see Shindo and Watanabe face off to unify the interim and regular titles, in what could be a very good pre-Christmas treat for fight fans in Tokyo and those who subscribe to Boxingraise.
Shindo is enjoying his second reign as a Japanese champion, having held the domestic Welterweight title from January 2016, when he claimed the vacant belt with a win over Yasuhiro Okawa, to April 2016, when he was stopped in 10 rounds by Toshio Arikawa. His reign was a thoroughly disappointing one, and had come less than a year after he had lost to Suyon Takayama in a bout for the same title. Following the loss to Arikawa he moved up in weight and has scored 3 wins, stopping Sanosuke Sasaki and Cobra Suwa before taking a very competitive decision over Ryosuke Maruki. It was in his title win against Maruki, back in May, that he suffered a damaged hand and he has been in action since.
Shindo is a tall awkward boxer, with a frustrating style, but one that works for him. He's very gangly and rangy, and makes fights tricky for his opponents. Although he has a good engine he certainly doesn't have an incredibly high work rate and he does lack power. However his flaws are covered relatively well by his awkward size. His biggest issue however is that he's coming back from injury and has shown in durability, losing the title to Arikawa and being dropped by Sanosuke Sasaki, something that could be an issue here.
Watanabe is a veteran on the domestic scene and has been a successful one with reigns as the Japanese and OPBF champion at Welterweight and the PABA champion at Light Middleweight. The 33 year old has long had a reputation as a glass cannon, and if he tags you it can be the start of the end, but he can also be left flat if he gets caught clean. In his 44 fight career he has only heard the final bell 7 times, 6 times in victory and once in defeat. As he's matured however he has developed the skills to go with his power, and his ability to survive, and box has improved. During his long career he has Takayuki Hosokawa, Yasuhiro Okawa, Tadashi Yuba, Yo Inoue, Koshinmaru Saito, Toshio Arikawa and Takeshi Inoue, among others.
In the ring Watanabe is an aggressive fighter, who takes risks and comes forward. His fighting style, at least domestically, seems to be focused on the idea that he's more powerful than his opponents, hard hitting than them and tough. Sometimes this works out well for him, other times he ends up being caught by a bomb and being finished off. As mentioned he does seem to have become less vulnerable recently, going the distance with Takeshi Inoue and lasting into round 8 with Magomed Kurbanov.
We suspect Shindo has the tools to make life very difficult for Watanabe, but we can't feeling like Watanabe's power, aggression and experience at title level will be the difference. Shindo will try to keep the fight long, but we suspect that at some point Watanabe will catch him, and leap all over him, forcing a stoppage. Shindo will likely start well, but be broken down in the second half of the fight.
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.