saOver the years the Middleweight division in Japan has long been over-looked, at least internationally, with only Shinji Takehara and Ryota Murata managing to make much of an impact on the international scene at the weight. Despite that the division has been really interesting to follow domestically and has featured a host of stunning bouts which are well worth checking out, for example Makoto Fuchigami's incredible war with Koji Sato or Tadashi Yuba's bout with Carlos Linares. On April 17th we might be in for another treat as Riku Kunimoto (5-1, 2) clashes with the unbeaten Mikio Sakai (4-0) for the currently vacant title, in what has the potential to be a really interesting bout, even if it's not set to be the most explosive of bouts.
On paper this is a hard one to call, and one that we’re expecting will be a very, very high level technical bout, unlike the aforementioned bouts with Tada and Fuchigami, but that’s certainly not a bad thing, especially given the credentials of the two men, and the level they are fighting this early in their respective careers. In fact with just a combined 10 professional bouts to their name, the bout is a sign of what makes Japanese boxing so interesting, the lack of record padding and the willingness to take risks early in careers and losses not being the end of the road, like we can sometimes see in the West.
Of the two men, the 24 year old Kunimoto will be the favourite going in. He's the younger, taller, fight who's also fighting at home, with this bout being held in Osaka on a card promoted by his promoter. He is also the one with title fight experience, having challenger Kazuto Takesako for the Japanese title last year, where he entered as the mandatory challenger. Sadly for Kunimoto he was stopped within a round by the hard hitting Takesako, who vacated the title after that win. Prior to that loss Kunimoto had looked impressive, racing out to 4-0 in just 8 months, before the pandemic totally derailed his rise. During his firsy 4 bouts he had made his international debut, fighting in China, and scored a good win over Shoma Fukumoto. Sadly though more than 2 years out of the ring before facing Taksesako was not great preparation against someone as dangerous and heavy handed as Taksesako. Since that loss he has returned and picked up a low key win over Kazuki Kyohara.
In the ring Kunimoto is a really solid fighter, despite the loss to Takesako. He's a boxer-puncher, with a big frame, a good amateur background, and some very polished skills. He stands at 5'10", which is big for a Japanese fighter, moves well on his feet and likes to use his straight punches to set other things up. Although he does have very nice straight shots he's not against putting up the earmuffs and walking forward with a high guard, getting inside and working away up close with some very educated body shots. At times he can be found over-committing, but for the most part he's accurate, smart, aggressive and versatile.
Aged 28 Mikio Sakai is very much a pure boxer, with next to no power on his shots, but a lot of skill, energy, boxing IQ and a very, very strong amateur background. He made his professional debut in 2019, beating Elfelos Vega, and then squeaked past Ran Tomomatsu, in a really good fight. Sadly he was then inactive for a year before resurfacing in late 2020 to beat Toshihiro Kai and last year he defeated veteran fighter Koshinmaru Saito, in a real got check. With no stoppages in his first 4 bouts it's fair to say he has no real power, though with 28 rounds to his name in just 4 bouts, he has done pretty well in proving he has decent stamina and can go 8 rounds without an issue.
In the ring Sakai likes to come forward, boxing behind his jab, using his footwork and drawing errors from opponents that he can counter. He's accurate, patient, very sharp, has varied offensive weapons and intelligent defensive work. Although not a big puncher he is physically strong, and he knows how to tie up opponents when he needs to. Where Sakai really excels is his boxing brain, and whether he's on the front foot or not he is constantly thinking a step or two ahead of his opponents, luring them into making errors, and conditioning their behaviour. He's not the most eye catching or glamorous of fight but he does a lot of subtle things, really well.
Sadly for Sakai it doesn't really matter how skilled he is, when he's in an opponents home town, in a title fight and he has no fight changing power. Unfortunately for Sakai we expect to see Kunimoto press more of the action, and whilst Sakai will pick some gorgeous counters he will find himself being out worked, and fighting the crowd just as much as Kunimoto. The judges, almost certainly by accident, will end up giving the closer rounds to Kunimoto, and at the end of the day those close rounds will end up deciding this bout.
Kunimoto will press, pressure, and try to bully the more naturally gifted Sakai. He won't dominate the bout, but will do enough to catch the eye of the judges often enough to take home the victory.
Prediction - UD10 Kunimoto
Power punching Takesako takes on unbeaten challenger Kunimoto in over-due fight!
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.
Despite the Japanese Middleweight scene not making much waves on the global scene, except for Ryota Murata and Shinji Takehara, it has been brilliant as a fight fans wanting to watch some great fights. There's been something the Japanese Middleweight title that has just delivered thrillers, such as Makoto Fuchigami Vs Koji Sato and Tadashi Yuba Vs Carlos Linares and Makoto Fuchigami Vs Tomohiro Ebisu.
The latest thriller for the title was earlier this year, when Kazuto Takesako (10-0-1, 10) saw his stoppage run come to an end in a thrilling draw against mandatory challenger Shuji Kato (10-1-2, 6). On August 3rd they run it back, in a very highly anticipated rematch, with both men looking to make a point, and walk away as the better man and the champion.
In their first bout Takesako had entered as a steam roller. He had scored his first 10 wins in just 23 rounds, with only 1 bout going beyond 3 rounds. He had won the title in just 92 seconds, smashing through the durable Hikaru Nishida, and had recorded his first defense by stopping former champion Sanosuke Sasaki in 2 rounds. He was seen as the unstoppable force on the Japanese scene.
Kato on the other hand wasn't really much of a name, though had won the Rookie of the Year in 2017 and had earned his shot at the title with a decision win against Hikaru Nishida in late 2018. He had momentum coming in to the bout, but looked like he was taking a massive step up, with his best win being a narrow victory win over the man Takesako had blitzed for the belt.
When they got in the ring we saw Takesako being made to look human, with Kato neutralising the power of Takesako with smart defense, good movement and a really accurate jab. It was the smart work of Kato that actually saw him taking a very clear early lead and instead of Takesako blowing him out it was the champion forced to dig incredibly deeply late on to to pull out the draw. It saw both men proving so much about themselves. We learned that Kato can take a shot, knew how to ride punches and could pick up his game to fight at title level. We also learned that Takesako could go 10 rounds, could dig deep and could fight hard in the later stages of a bout, proving that whilst he was a puncher, it wasn't only his power that made him dangerous but also his desire to win.
After their first bout both men spoke about a rematch, and now we get that rematch with both hungry to prove a point. For Kato it's a case of proving his first performance against Takesako wasn't a fluke, whilst Takesako will be desperate to get back to his destructive best.
Given how Kato neutralised Takesako we feel he'll be the more confident man here, but that confidence may be misplaced and with Takesako knowing he needs to step it up, shorten his punches e see the champion making a statement. Kato can be a nightmare, especially with his long southpaw jab, but we expect Takesako will have trained to combat that southpaw stance and will find himself landing his right hand much more often than in the first bout.
Prediction - Takesako TKO7
The Japanese Middleweight scene isn't known as something too exciting, but right now it's probably as interesting as it's ever been. There's a relative lack of depth, and very few really interesting bouts to be made, but those top domestic level bouts are really interesting match ups.
One of the fighters that really does standout as a must watch fighter on the domestic scene is national Middleweight champion Kazuto Takesako (10-0, 10), who will be looking to make his second defense on March 2nd, when he takes on mandatory challenger Shuji Kato (10-1-1, 6). For Kato this will be his first title fight, but also a huge step up in class for him.
Takesako is from the World of Sport Boxing Gym, the same gym as the recent world title challenger Takeshi Inoue. He turned professional back in 2015 and rose through the ranks quickly, whilst leaving destruction behind him. His first 6 bouts took place over 21 months and saw him need just 12 rounds to stop all 6 foes. Those wins lead to him getting a Japanese title eliminator in late 2017, and he made the most of his opportunity as he blasted out Shoma Fukumoto in the opening round. That win lead to him facing Japanese champion Hikaru Nishida in early 2018, and Nishida was also blasted out inside a round.
Since the winning Takesako has fought twice. His first opponent following his title win was tough Thai Chaiwat Mueanphong, who managed to survive into the 7th round with Takesako before eventually succumbing to his power. He then defended his title against a game and aggressive Sanosuke Sasaki, who came to win but was stopped in the second round.
Takesako is, as he record suggests, a big puncher. His power is legitimate and when he lands clean he hurts fighters. He has devastating blows to both head and body and surprising hand speed for such a puncher. Where he perhaps looks limited is in terms of his naturally size, he's only about 5'10" which is tiny for a Middleweight, and in his recklessness. When he feels he has his man hurt he can leave himself a little bit too open. Another issue is his defense is quite basic. He's essentially a puncher-boxer, who appears to be able to take a shot as well as landing his own dynamite leather.
Whilst Takesako has been on our radar for a while the same can't really be said of the 28 year old challenger. Kato, a southpaw from Tokyo, made his debut in December 2014 fighting just above the Super Middleweight limit, stopping his foe inside a round. He would drop down in weight for his second bout, in July 2015, and take a decision win. After having won his first 2 bouts Kato would suffer his first loss, being taken out by Altin Pepa in September 2015. His return to the ring would also end in disappointment as he was held to a draw by Agoo Masaru. Since that draw however, Kato has built himself a decent record, winning his last 8 bouts. Those 8 bouts have sene him being crowed the 2017 Middleweight Rookie of the Year, and becoming the mandatory for the Japanese title, following a split decision win over Hikaru Nishida last November, in what is by far and away his best win to date.
Watching footage of Kato we see a rangy fighter, who uses his lead hand to control distance, pawing at his opponent, moving backwards and trying to lure opponents in. It's not a pretty style, but it is an effective one at the lower levels. When he comes forward he doesn't appear to have much power on his shots, but they are thrown from some awkward angles. His technique often looks really poor, bug his size seems to allow him to get a real amount of weight behind his blows, which do do damage.
Whilst Kato has been having success, and will tower over Takesako, we really don't see what he has to offer when he goes up against Takesako. We suspect that Kato will manage to frustrate and annoy the champion, but won't be able to get Takesako's respect. We expect to see the champion begin to slip the lead hand of Kato and then pound away on the inside, stopping the challenger in the first 3 or 4 rounds, depending on how tough Kato is, and how well he can survive the power of the champion.
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.