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 Japanese boxing scene gives us a pre-Christmas treat on December 24th as Keita Kurihara (12-5, 11) and Yuki Strong Kobayashi (14-7, 8) face off in Osaka for the vacant OPBF Bantamweight title. On paper this may not look like anything special, but in reality it's a brilliant match up, that again shows records really don't tell us everything.
Of the two men the more impressive has been the 25 year old Kurihara, who has really impressed in recent years with his power, aggression and wonderfully exciting style. His record is a total mess due to a less than great start to his career, losing 4 of his first 7 bouts to record a 3-4 (3) record. Since then however he has gone 9-1 (8) with his sole loss during that 10 fight stretching coming in a war to Hiroaki Teshigawara. On the other his wins during that run have included stoppages against Sonin Nihei, Ryan Lumacad, Tetsuya Watanabe and Kazuki Tanaka.
Blessed with power, heart and grit Kurihara is a nightmare to face at this level. His skills probably won't take him to the top, unless he works on his technical flaws, especially his defense and how he sets up offensive work, but on the Oriental scene there's not many who will defeat him. Many may feel they can, but they'll end up in a war that really won't do them well. To beat him either a fighter needs to be insanely tough themselves, like Teshigawara, or be a very sharp boxer-mover who can counter him and make him pay for his aggression. Fortunately for him there's not too many of either those on the Oriental level at the moment.
Kobayashi is the slightly older man at 27 and has had 21 fights, to Kurihara's 17, but in terms of rounds fought is much more experienced, with 109 rounds to Kurihara's 53. Despite that he is also a heavy handed fighter, who has stopped fighters like Hikaru Matsuoka, Satoshi Ozawa and touted Filipino Vincent Astrolabio. Unfortunately for him he has been matched hard, and has lost 3 of his last 8, with stoppage losses to Takahiro Yamamoto and Rey Megrino, as well as a decision loss to Ye Joon Kim. Against Megrino and Yamamoto there was simply too much of a difference in power, whilst Kim out boxed and out moved Kobayashi.
Kobayashi is also an aggressive fighter, who likes to stand just inside range and launch hard right hands up top, and short hooks. His ability to close distance is one of his weakest points from a technical; stand point, with his slow feet and weak looking jab being an issue, but he is sharp with his power shots. Sadly he is relatively flat footed, and looks to be someone who sets him self a bit too much, with a lack of fluidity to his overall work, and is a bit of an "offense or defense" fighter, rather than someone who can switch between the two on a whim.
Give that both like to let their hands go, both are relatively slow of foot and neither likes to back down we're expecting the two to meet centre ring and have a tear up. And we mean a tear up. In a war we favour the hard hitting and more aggressive Kurihara, but he will certainly give Kobayashi openings for his right hand, and we're expecting him to land plenty of those.
As a prediction we're going with a Kurihara stoppage in the middle rounds. Given that this is on Kobayashi's home turf Kurihara may fight like a man who feels he needs a KO and will fight like that's his only way to win in what we're expecting to be a Christmas cracker!
Fans in Osaka on New Year's Eve really are in for a treat, on paper at least, with 4 title bouts. Sadly whilst the card sounds deep it is somewhat a false economy with only one of those bouts really looking like a stand out contest, that being the WBA Flyweight title bout between Kazuto Ioka and Juan Carlos Reveco.
Of the title match ups on the card the weakest looks to be an OPBF Bantamweight title bout between exciting, and heavy handed, champion Takahiro Yamamoto (16-4, 13) and little known challenger Yuki Strong Kobayashi (9-4, 5).
The champion claimed the title earlier this year, winning a thriller against Yu Kawaguchi, avenging a defeat to Kawaguchi in the process. That win saw Yamamoto and Kawaguchi go to war from the off with Yamamoto leaving Kawaguchi a bloody mess, forcing the referee to stop the bout.
In the ring the champion is tough, busy, heavy handed and a real nightmare. Defensively he can be found open and there is still a lot for him to improve, but he's a real handful for anyone and appears to be a man making his way, albeit slowly, to a world title fight in the future. Not only is he talented but he is also improving and his work at the Ioka gym is really helping him to develop into a genuinely good fighter young fighter.
Whilst the champion is a really talented boxer-puncher the challenger really doesn't seem to have much going for him. Last year he was beaten up by Hinata Maruta, in what was Maruta's protest bout, and was beaten in a bout last December by Satoshi Niwa, in fact that loss to Niwa was Kobayahi's third loss in just 5 bouts, and he enters this one 3-3 in his last 5. Somewhat worrying for Kobayashi is that he has been decision by three relatively limited foes and was stopped in 2013 by Kiron Omura. A stoppage loss to Omura is a worry given Yamamoto's power.
In the ring Kobayashi has scored some semi notable wins, including a decision over Bunta Mitaka and a stoppage against Hikaru Matsuoka but they are certainly no better than Japanese domestic level wins in a division that is stacked. Sadly for him that is a problem, as he jumps from facing Japanese ranked contenders in 8 rounders to facing an OPBF champion, with a serious punch, over 12 rounds.
Whilst it's fair to say that Kobayashi has a chance, we need to also say it's a very slim chance and we can't see him surviving 12 rounds with a fighter as talented or as heavy handed as Yamamoto who will likely make his first defense of the OPBF title inside 8 rounds.
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.