New Year's Eve is always a big day for boxing in Japan, and this year is no exception with a brilliant WBO Super Flyweight world title bout between Kazuto Ioka and Kosei Tanaka set to headline the end of year festivities. It is worth noting however that the brilliant main event for the day is set to be one of two title bouts on this year's final Japanese show. The other will WBO Asia Pacific Bantamweight champion Yuki Strong Kobayashi (16-8, 9) seek his second defense, and his biggest win to date, as he faces former WBC Flyweight champion Daigo Higa (16-1-1, 16).
The bout, which will be aired in the Kanto region of Japan, is one that looks poor on paper and we suspect many will see it as a mismatch in favour of the challenger. In reality however we suspect this could be an absolutely brilliant bout, between two well matched fighters, who's styles should gel and make for a very hotly contested and action packed battle.
Of the two fighters it's certainly Higa who is the more well known. The former WBC Flyweight champion began his career with a brilliant and thrilling run of 15 straight stoppage victories. He looked like he was set to be one of the major stars of Japanese boxing over the coming years, and looked, in some whats, like a Japanese Roman Gonzalez, with a style that saw him being dubbed the "Romagon of Okinawa". He connected quickly with fans, and seemed like a quiet guy out of the ring and a destructive one between the ropes, whilst also having the legendary Yoko Gushiken as his mentor.
Sadly after making 2 defenses of the WBC Flyweight title Higa's career came to a startling halt, after he lost the title on the scales ahead of his bout with Cristofer Rosales. He was the first Japanese fighter to ever lose a world title in that fashion and it seemed like he was mentally done going into that fight, being stopped in the 9th round. The weight issue saw the JBC suspending him, and it was almost 2 years later before he returned to the ring, with the JBC not allowing him to fight at a weight below Bantamweight. On his return to the ring that wasn't an issue, as he took out Jason Buenaobra, with no issues at all. Sadly though for Higa and his fans, his second bout back was an issue as he struggled against fellow Japanese fighter Seiya Tsutsumi in October, with the two men fighting to a draw. A draw that many felt Tsutsumi should have won.
At Flyweight Higa a lot of things going for him. He was physically intimidating, with really impressive core strength and power. He was quick on his fight, pressured fantastically well and threw brutal combinations to head and body. His shots at 112lbs were damaging, and he was able to rip opponents apart with combinations, and force them to back off with single, clean jabs. He had it all at 112lbs. At 118lbs however it does seem like his physicality is less dominant, he looks small at Bantamweight, and his style hasn't had the same effect as we saw at Flyweight. He looks somewhat average at the weight. As well as the move up in weight Higa has also left long term mentor Yoko Gushiken and is now fighting out of Tokyo, whilst sparring at fitness gyms, something that has gotten the AMBITION Gym in trouble recently. There is very much a feeling that things are not what they once were for Higa.
When it comes to Yuki Strong Kobayashi we have a fighter with a record that looks unimpressive, and in some ways very limited. With 8 losses from 24 fights we're not even going to pretend he's close to world class. However his numbers don't really reflect the fighter he is today, but more the journey he has taken to get where he is. The 29 year old has had a hard career since beginning his journey way back in 2011 and the man from Osaka has not had the chance to build his record, and pad out his experience with easy fights. He began his career with some success, winning his first 4, but soon began slipping and was 6-3 (4) after 9 bouts, and 10-7 (5) after 17 bouts. His career was going nowhere in early 2017, after losses to Takahiro Yamamoto, Ye Joon Kim and Rey Megrino. But then things changed, and he has gone 8-1 since then, with the one loss being a controversial one against Keita Kurihara, which saw Kobayashi out boxing Kurihara long stretches of the bout, but hitting the canvas numerous times, costing him the win. That same Keita Kurihara is now a world ranked contender just a few fights off a potential world title fight. And the fact Kobayashi went 12 rounds with Kurihara is a testament to his toughness and determination.
Since his loss to Kurihara we've seen Kobayashi score a career best win over Ben Mananquil, defeating him for the WBO Asia Pacific title, and make his first defense, surprisingly going 12 rounds with Ki Chang Go en route to a wide decision win.
In the ring Kobayashi is a pretty basic come forward boxer. Watching him you don't see anything that stands out as spectacular, there's no eye blurring speed, or dynamite power, there's now intense work rate and super high output, and there's flash. Despite all that he's actually a solid boxer, he understands what he's doing and why, he gets the fact he needs to use a jab to set the table, he throws a good solid straight right hand behind it and his defense has improved no end from the early days. He's unfortunate not to have been blessed with any of those traits that a top fighter needs, but he's strong and he always comes to fight. He's also a very natural Bantamweight, which could play a major part in this fight.
Coming in to this the obvious prediction is for Higa to steam roll Kobayashi, applying intense pressure early and breaking down the champion. That however seems far fetched given how Higa has looked at Bantamweight, and the fact Kobayashi, whilst not the most intimidating of fighters, is a strong, well schooled guy, with a tight defense and a good jab. After all if Kurihara, a big puncher at Bantamweight, can't put Kobayashi down and out, we don't think Higa can either.
Instead we expect the smaller Higa to be cautious and instead of trying to break down Kobayashi with pressure and power, he'll use his brain, be quick, get in and out, landing combinations before getting away. Despite that tactic we still expect the power, strength and jab of Kobayashi to be a problem for Higa, who will eat a lot of punches on his way in, and his way out. The jab and right hand of Kobayashi will be enough to get Higa's respect, and we suspect enough for him to pick up rounds, giving us a very close fight.
As the fight goes on, we expect Higa to tire, and the bout to slowly become a war of attrition in the later rounds. We suspect neither man will manage to finish the other off, taking us to the scorecards, in a very hotly contest bout. Just, narrowly, won by Higa, in what would be his first decision win.
Prediction - MD12 Higa
Among the many bouts in the pre-Christmas period we'll see WBO Asia Pacific Bantamweight champion Yuki Strong Kobayashi (15-8, 9) make his first defense, as he takes on unheralded Korean challenger Ki Chang Go (8-3, 4) at the Sumiyoshi Ward Center.
For Kobayashi this is a great chance to not only defend his title, but to also put memories of his loss to Keita Kurihara behind him, with that loss coming in the same venue almost a year to the day of this fight. On the other hand it gives Go a chance to pick up a win in Japan, a country where he lost last year to Masahiro Sakamoto, a former stablemate of Kobayashi's at the Muto Gym. Sadly it's that bout between Go and Sakamoto that make us pretty confident in feeling that this will be little more than a mismatch in favour of the champion.
Kobayashi is no world beater, don't get us wrong, but he's a fighter who has developed from his losses and is much, much, better than his record suggests. Since his 2011 debut he has been inconsistent, but has turned things around well in recent years, following a 6-3 (4) start, and in fact he was once 10-7 (5). His recent winning form hasn't seen him blitzing over-matched foes, instead he has been performing well against the likes of Vincent Astrolabio and Ben Mananquil, with the win over Mananquil being his title winning bout.
Kobayashi's 23 fight career has seen him suffer 3 stoppage losses, but last December he showed his heart and toughness, pulling himself off the canvas 4 times to lose a razor thin decision to Keita Kurihara. That loss seems to have solidified Kobayashi who looked better than ever last time out. He showed an aggressive boxing mentality, pushing and physically imposing himself against Mananquil, dragging the Filipino into a fight before breaking him down. He looked strong, exciting and kept coming, breaking down Mananquil in an overlooked war. There was real desire in the way he fought, and whilst it wasn't the most skilled and technical of showings, it was exciting and aggressive.
Go made his debut in 2016 and despite losing his first 2 bouts has since gone 7-1, though all of those wins have come in Korea, and pretty much of the wins have come to either novices, or fighters with less than 50% wins. His best win, on paper, is a narrow decision over the then 3-0-1 Joo Ho Lee, and sort of says it all. He has shown he belongs in this level. In fact he hasn't shown he even belongs even close to this level.
In his most notable bout to date Go was stopped by Masahiro Sakamoto in 2018. Sakamoto out boxed Go, out fought Go and broke Go down, behind his calculated jab. As we've seen Sakamoto isn't much of a puncher, he's not a naturally big man, and yet he managed to beat down Go. With Kobayashi being a bigger man we expect Go to be taken out again here. Not only that but we expect it to be rather quick as well.
Prediction - TKO2 Kobayashi
On Sunday 26th May Filipino skillster Ben Mananquil (17-1-3, 4) returns to Japan as he looks to make his first defense of the WBO Asia Pacific Bantamweight title, and takes on recent OPBF title challenger Yuki Strong Kobayashi (14-8, 8). The bout isn't likely to get much attention outside of Asia, but could move the winner into the higher reaches of the WBO Bantamweight rankings.
Of the two men the champion certainly enters the bout as the favourite. Just looking at his record he looks like he's on a different level to the challenger, and that's ignoring the level he's been fighting at. When we consider what Mananquil has actually done it seems even clearer that he should be regarded as the favourite. The 4 marks on his record have come to Kwanpichit OnesongchaiGym, Jing Xiang, a loss and a draw, and Hinata Maruta. Those aren't bad marks to have against you, but he has also picked up good wins too, including victories against Glenn Porras, Jess Rhey Waminal and Tenta Kiyose, who he beat for this title back in February.
For those who haven't seen Mananquil he's a really talented boxer. Defensively he is smart, a good mover and knows his way around the ring. He's not a very handed puncher, but he does find home for shots very easily. He's a smart counter puncher, who's accurate with his shots on the back, making miss and tagging them in return. Notably he's a really small Bantamweight, and stands at just 5'4" but fighting out of the southpaw stance and using a good boxing brain he makes his diminutive height work for him, and and uses it to become a smaller target, drawing opponents in and making them make a mistake. It's rarely fun to watch Mananquil, but he is effective at what he does, and does make more natural Bantamweights give away their advantages.
On paper Yuki Strong Kobayashi isn't a great fighter. He has lost 8 of 22 pro bouts, in fact he has lost the same amount of bouts that he has won by stoppage. Unlike some fighters who have suffered early losses and built a career afterwards he has actually suffered consistent losses through his career, he was 8-4 after 12 bouts and has gone 6-4 since. What's notable however is that he is 1 4-1 in his last 5 and through his career he has mixed with great company. His last 4 defeats have come to regional title level fighters, in the form of Takahiro Yamamoto, Ye Joon Kim, Rey Megrino and Keita Kurihara. Those bouts have seen his chin being a major issue, with Yamamoto and Megrino both stopping him and Kurihara sending him down 4 times, but wins over Noboru Osato and Vincent Astrolabio are really notable and show there is quality there.
This is a bout where Kobayashi's chin is less likely to be an issue than it has been. Instead he'll be able to stick to his boxing without too much fear of what is coming back in his direction. In fairness he is a better boxer than this record suggests. He's aggressive, he comes forward and he tried to make life difficult for opponents with volume and body shots. There's very much a "I have to attack a lot to have a chance" look to him, but he's a fun go to watch in action, throwing lots of lead hooks to try and cramp the distance and let him work on the inside.
Stylistically this should be fun. The pressure of Kobayashi against the sweet boxing skills of Mananquil, the aggression of the challenger versus the defensive know how of the champion. It should be really fan friendly, though we expect the local fans in Osaka will be disappointed when their man loses a clear, but competitive, decision to the Filipino.
We're expecting the cleaner shots to come from Mananquil, who we think will run away with the bout in the final rounds. Kobayashi will be close through 8, but come up short after 12 rounds.
Prediction - Mananquil UD12
The first WBO Asia Pacific title bout to take place in Japan this year is an excellent match up between once beaten Filipino Ben Mananquil (16-1-3, 4) and local hopeful Tenta Kiyose (15-2-1, 7), who battle for the WBO Asia Pacific Bantamweight title that was vacated in 2018 by Hiroaki Teshigawara when he moved up in weight to fight for the OPBF title. On paper the two men are well-matched, with neither being a huge puncher, and we suspect we'll have a really good contest. But let's have a look in more details.
Mananquil is a Filipino who has been criminally underrated during his career. The 26 year old "Nightmare" made his debut more than 8 years ago and fighting at Minimumweight as an 18 year old. He fought solely on the Filipino domestic scene for his first 9 bouts, running up a 9-0 (2) record, fighting at Minimumweight as an 18 year old. He fought solely on the Filipino domestic scene for his first 9 bouts, running up a 9-0 (2) record.
In 2013 Mananquil went on the road for the first time, and fought Kwanpichit OneSongchaigym, dropping Kwanpichit in the first round and coming close to a stoppage, before a clash of heads in round 2 saw the bout conclude with a Technical Draw. Another draw occurred in 2014, when he fought Jing Xiang, before losing a rematch to Xiang 5 months later. Since then he has stuck to fighting in the Philippines, and scored notable wins over Glenn Porras and Jess Rhey Waminal as well as getting a very fortunate draw against Hinata Maruta, who seemed to do more than enough to win an 8 round decision.
Against Maruta we saw a small looking Mananquil trying to protect himself, showing nice defense and trying to counter. He showed really nice defensive skills, but a lack of power, a lack of offense and really was depending on landing counter shots. That was a stark difference to the fighter who had fought Kwanpichit, and had come close to stopping the Thai. So what we know is that he can be aggressive, he has surprisingly speed and is defensively smart. We do however wonder how he'll fare on the road, with fans clearly backing his foe, whilst fighting at Bantamweight against a naturally bigger foe.
The 22 year old Kiyose hasn't yet made his international debut, though has fought through out Japan. He lost on debut, to Kensei Hirano, and fought to a draw in his third bout, against Noboru Osato. Following those set-backs Kiyose had some good success, reaching the 2015 Rookie of the Year final before losing to Matcha Nakagawa. Since that loss Kiyose has been in good form, going 8-0 (6) with notable wins against Ryuta Otsuka, Joe Tejones and Oleydong Sithsamerchai. Through those bouts he has won the WBC Youth Super Bantamweight title and broken into the WBA and IBF rankings.
Watching footage of Kiyose, quite a bit of which is available on Boxingraise, we see a pretty solid looking boxer with a sharp jab, good movement and quick hand speed. There's defensive flaws there, and he does drop his hands when punching which will be punished when he faces better opponents than he has been up against. Also he has looked over eager to finish opponents when he has them hurt, and has shown a lack of real intelligence when trying to close the show.
Kiyose will be strongly backed by local fans here, and will be the bigger, more aggressive, harder hitting fighter. Sadly for him however he also looks the more crude, less smooth, less intelligent fighter and that is probably going to be the difference. Mananquil isn't a big puncher, but he is a smart counter puncher and those counter shots are almost certainly going to be landing cleanly on Kiyose, due to his defensive flaws. Manaquil isn't unbeatable, far from it, but stylistically he's a fighter who will be a nightmare for Kiyose, unless the local shows more ring craft than he has in the past.
Saying all that, we wouldn't be surprised by a Kiyose win, though we suspect a win for the local would likely have some questionable scorecards.
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.