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
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.