One of the distinctly unique things about Japanese boxing is the Rookie of the Year and the way it's formatted, with the regional tournaments leading to an All Japan final in December. The tournaments, and the way they allow us to get well matched bouts with novices is one of the genuine highlights of the Japanese system. No other country, even South Korea who do run their own rookie shows, has something that comes close to the Japanese Rookie of the Year.
Kantaro Nakanishi (1-0-1) vs Shodai Morita (2-0, 2)
The All-Japan Rookie of the Year, for those unaware, pits the best rookie's in the West of Japan against the best in East Japan. To find out who's the best the fighters compete in a knockout tournament with the West and East finals typically taking place in November, before the All-Japan finals in December. Today's Treasure Trove bout is the West Japan Bantamweight final.
In one corner was Kantaro Nakanishi, who had gone 7-6 (4) as an amateur and was fighting out of the obscure HK Sports Gym in Kitakyushu City. His gym was a small one and he really was unknown, though had notably defeated a 5-0-1 fighter on debut and held a 4-0 opponent to a draw in his second bout, advancing in the tournament on a tie breaker. Aged 18 at the time of this bout he, and his team, would have been full aware that getting into the All Japan final would be huge and would give him a chance to show case his skills in front of a nation wide audience on G+ as part of the national final.
Of course the bout wasn't all about Nakanishi and Shodai Morita was also an unbeaten teenager, also aged 18. Unlike Nakanishi, who had gone the distance in both of his bouts, Morita had look explosive in his. He had blasted out Sadayuki Yamada in his debut and then stopped Daichi Okamoto inside a round to book his place in this final. Whilst Nakanishi was one of the few notable names at his obscure gym Morita was coming from the Morioka gym, which has the likes of Hinata Maruta training at it. It seemed he had the power, the better gym, and home advantage, with this being his third bout at the EDION Arena Osaka.
On paper this looked brilliantly well matched. The tough matched non-puncher against the heavier handed but less tested fighter. From the opening seconds it was clear we were going to get something really exciting.
Morita seemed the quicker man, dancing around, using his movement to unsettle Nakanishi. Despite being a novice himself Nakanishi showed great composure and didn't look flustered at Morita's movement and feints, instead remaining poised and making sure he had his say in every exchange. He was countering well, and a number of his right hands really caught the eye in the opening round, whilst Morita burnt a lot of excess energy with un-needed movement.
Despite the extra movement from Morita there was always a threat that he had the fight changing power. Not only was that threat on everyone's mind but it was clearly something that Morita himself had belief in. It was as if he felt when he landed clean the bout was going to be over, whilst he felt like Nakanishi couldn't hurt him. This made for an exciting dynamic, which one man needing to be more cautious, but still busy, and the other being a bit more reckless but also being very dangerous.
We won't ruin this one, but it's a cracking little 4 rounder that's well worthy of a watch.
Although we're seeing more boxing in the East there is still a disjointed feel to lots of things, with bouts being cancelled, and events being changed almost daily. Thankfully though Thailand seems to be on top of things, and we're now starting to see some regular action from "The land of Smiles".
With that said this week's "One to Watch" is coming from Thailand and is a bout that has seen more attention than a typical all-Thai bout!
The One to Watch?
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (47-5-1, 41) Vs Amnat Ruenroeng (20-3, 6)
August 1st (Saturday)
It's rare to get a bout in Thailand that has some interest in the west, but that's exactly what we have here with a bout between two former world champions who meet in the main event of a WP Boxing event. The bout won't just be a rare bout between two well known Thai's but will also likely lead the winner into another world title fight. This is a bout that has significance well beyond the realms of Asian boxing, despite featuring two Asian fighters. This has implications on the world scene.
The WP Boxing is also proof of concept behind "studio boxing" with all the events being held at the Work Point Studio in Bang Phun. We've seen BT Sport trial something similar, but the WP Boxing series dates back a few years now and they almost all run from a studio with no issues at all. For a small event in the west this may end up being something we get to see more of in the west.
We suspect almost every fan to know something about Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. The 33 year old from Si Sa Ket is a 2-time WBC Super Flyweight champion, one of the hard hitting hitting fighters in the lower weights and a human tank. He is best known for his wins over Roman Gonzalez, both of which came in 2017, but other notable wins include victories over Juan Francisco Estrada, Jose Salgado and Yota Sato. He's a power punching and aggressive Super Flyweight and a physical monster who is looking to become a 3-time world champion.
Aged 40 Amnat Ruenroeng is an ancient "smaller man", but he's had a strange career in general. He made his professional debut at the age of 32, won the IBF Flyweight title at the age of 34, and scored a string of notable wins when he was the IBF champion. During his title reign Amnat beat the likes of Kazuto Ioka, Zou Shiming, John Riel Casimero and McWilliams Arroyo. Although a talented boxer he was a master at bending the rules, knowing how to foul and get away with it. He's not typically a physically imposing fighter, but he is a surprisingly strong one.
What to expect?
We'll be honest we actually see this as being a bit of a mismatch. Although both men are former world champions Srisaket is still in, or around, his prime. Amnat on the other hand is very much coming towards the end of his career. Not only that but Amnat is also the naturally smaller man, despite having slight edges in height and reach he is less powerfully built than Srisaket. It's also worth noting that Amnat has suffered a lot of punishment in recent years, including a KO loss to John Riel Casimer, a TKO loss to Nawaphon Por Chokchai and a loss in a kickboxing bout against Tenshin Nasukawa.
We expect to see Srisaket struggle early on with the tactics and jab of Amnat, but after 3 or 4 rounds we suspect that Srisaket's strength and power will begin to break down the 40 year old, who will begin to look for a way out by rounds 5 or 6.
The bad news?
For one of the few times in this series there really isn't too much bad to talk about. The bout will be streamed for free, via Matchroom and Work Point, there's no paywall or tape delay issues. Maybe the one issue is the fact the the bout is a mismatch and the it's on at an awkward for a Western audience, but it's still worth tuning in for.
Regular readers of the Treasure Trove series of articles will be well aware by now that we absolutely love Korean boxing. The skill level, particularly in recent years, is lower than in many Asian countries, but that the heart, determination and action make up for the lower technical ability. This weekly series has always put action and excitement ahead of skills, and with that in mind we have a real gem to share today!
Sung Jae Jo (7-0, 6) vs Gyung Mo Yuh (3-5-3)
In one corner was the unbeaten 23 year old Sung Jae Jo. Up to this point Jo had had everything his own way, with 6 stoppages from his 7 wins, and he had stopped his previous 5 in a row, including a win over Jong Min Bang for the Korean title in September 2018. He had never looked all that well polished, but in reality he didn't need to be, he was easily dealing with opponents with just his heavy handed blows and his trudging aggression. He certainly had areas he had to work on to go further in the sport but in reality on the Korean scene he was looking pretty solid. The Korean scene might be his limit, but he was certainly going to be a fun guy to watch.
Gyung Mo Yuh was in the other corner. He was a 31 year old fighter who had lost his first 4 bouts and won just 1 of his first 9, going 1-5-3 during that stretch. He had managed to notch back to back wins on route to this fight but they had come at Welterweight, where he had won a Korean title. Despite his "recent success", he had no right to be getting a Korean Middleweight title fight and was easy to over-look as being a legitimate challenger for Jo. Sometimes however it's those who are being over-looked who put in the best performances, and whilst Jo may have been expecting an easy fight he wasn't going to get that. Yuh was going to play his part in what turned out to be a great little war.
The two men clashed in January 2019 and despite the bout looking like a mismatch we ended up a very fun and enjoyable war.
From the opening round the champion was coming forward, looking to let his shots go on the inside whilst the challenger was showing the much more rounded skills, boxing and moving, and looking to control the distance. Despite the mentalities of the men being polar opposites the bout fight would quickly descend into Jo's type of fight, with bombs being thrown toe to toe.
Round after round was intense and both men had to take as good as they got. Although not a puncher Yuh was landing some really clean head shots as he tried to slow down the champion.
Despite the bout getting messy at times, especially when the two men began to tire, the intensity and excitement never dropped and both fought as if they had to give everything they had.
For those who love absolute wars, with heavy head shots, and don't mind defensive workd being ignored as a result this is brilliant. It's crude combatitve carnage and so much damn fun!
At the time of writing it's not totally clear which bouts will and won't get TV, though we are hoping that this week's "one to watch" will get some sort of tape delay television coverage as it's a bout that has had us more and more intrigued as time has gone on. The bout is on a show that we know will have TV cameras, and the main event will be shown, so we are hoping that the co-feature will also be shown, in some form, as it's the debut of a man many are tipping as a future Japanese star.
One to Watch?
Rentaro Kimura (0-0) Vs Yuya Azuma (5-3-1, 1)
July 22nd (Wednesday)
We love seeing touted youngsters making their debuts and this is one such case, with former Japanese amateur standout Rentaro Kimura making his professional debut in a 6 rounder against the under-rated Yuya Azuma, who is a very good fighter despite his 5-3-1 record. The debutant has spoke about wanting to fight for a world title within 10 bouts, so his journey to the top could be a quick one, and we would advise everyone to get on the ground level, before Kimura has raced his way into major fights.
With Kimura expecting to fight for a world title within 10 fights it should come as no surprise to learn that he was very impressive as an amateur. In the unpaid ranks he went 72-16 (26), won 3 notable amateur titles and captained his University team. Although managed by Suruga boys in Shizuoka he's expected to spend a lot of time training in Tokyo, at the Misako Gym, where he will be training with some of the top fighters in Japan. As an amateur he was a very exciting and skilled prospect, with a nice aggressive style from the southpaw stance, and if the hype is right he could be one of the next great Japanese Super Featherweights.
On paper Azuma looks like he is there to be blown away, with only 5 wins from his 9 professional bouts and only a single stoppage to his name. That, however, looks at just the numbers. In reality Azuma could easily have an 8-1 record, with several of his loses being by razor thin decisions, and coming away from home. Since his last loss he has been in good form, scoring 3 straight wins, including a pretty decent one over Ryo Tanimoto last time out. Sadly with a lack of power Azuma will find it hard to turn a fight around, but the 20 year old is far better than the numbers of his record suggest.
What to expect?
It's obvious that Kimura will want to do more than just win his debut. Given his confidence, and the positive talk about racing to a world title fight we expected him to be out to impress, not just to win. We really were impressed watching him as an amateur and can see him being very impressive here. His style looks like it was pretty "pro-ready" and he could be set to make a big statement early on. We expect his clean, crisp punching, movement, skills and speed will be on show here.
Despite not being a big name Azuma has quite a lot of footage available and he looks like a very handy fighter. He's aggressive and brings pressure, but does so with surprisingly intelligence for such a youngster. He's patient, comes forward without taking too many risks and also looks big compared to the guys he has been fighting. He looks like a genuine student of the sport, though lacks those one off attributes that you can't teach, the lightning speed and lights out power. For a man with so many losses so early in his career it's obvious those set backs have helped to improve him as a fighter.
We genuinely expect Kimura to have to work hard for a win here. Azuma might not be a special fighter, but he's certainly no pushover and Kimura should expect to be tested by the desire and hunger of Azuma. We think Azuma will make life difficult for 3 or 4 rounds, but potentially begin to be broken down by then. If Kimura gets the stoppage it should be considered a very good result for the debutant, and instead we're expecting him to take a clear, but very hard earned, decision.
The bad news?
As stated at the beginning it's unclear if this bout will actually be shown on TV, at all. If it is then it's fantastic news, but there's a chance that all we will get is some short highlights, which would be a huge shame given the hype behind Kimura.
For the most part the Treasure Trove idea has been a chance to show off some of the best, and most well hidden bouts of 2019 from through out Asia. Sometimes we've taken a slight detour on that idea to show bouts that were less "the best" and more "a showcase". We did theta earlier in this series with Ginjiro Shigeoka's WBO Asia Pacific title win against Clyde Azarcon. Today we return to a Shigeoka bout, and one that did have more drama than the Azarcon bout. And it always had a sense of danger.
Ginjiro Shigeoka (4-0, 3) Vs Rey Loreto (25-14, 17)
After kicking off his career in 2018 Ginjiro Shigeoka was earmarked as a special fighter, with a very, very high ceiling. He had been a sensational amateur and was being groomed as one of the next stars of Japan. His victory over Clyde Azarcon had shown just how fantastic he was as a prospect, but now came something more serious, a bout with a former world title challenger. For Shigeoka the question was whether he really was as good as he had looked, and that his team thought he was? And was he ready for this level? Afterall we had seen other, very talented, young Japanese fighters suffer losses to people due to the fact they simply weren't ready for the men they were facing.
On paper Rey Loreto, a Filipino dubbed the "Hitman", didn't look anything of a test. If you look at his record along you probably shrug your shoulders and ask how he even got a world title fight. The reality however is that Loreto came through the sport the hard way, losing bouts early in his career and learning on the job, like many Filipino fighters do. He lost his first 4 bouts and was 8-11 after 19 professional contests. From that start however he had gone 17-3 with wins over the likes of Wissanu Kokietgym, Kompayak Porpramook, Nkosinathi Joyi, twice, and had challenged WBA Minimumweight champion Knockout CP Freshmart. Loreto was heavy handed, tough and whilst not the best boxer he was an absolute nightmare to fight, with only a single stoppage loss on his record, from early 2011. He wasn't a journeyman, as his record suggested, but a genuine contender.
From the off it was the speed of Shigeok that caught the eye, as he looked like he had much better hand and foot speed to the Filipino, though the power of Loreto was in to the bout early and he managed to land some solid body shots on Shigeoka midway through round 1. Despite the success of Loreto it was he who was dropped, close to the 2 minute mark of the round. Smartly Shigeoka knew it wasn't a serious knockdown and didn't jump on his man, who has proven to be dangerous when he's hurt.
The pace from both stepped up in round 2, as Loreto looked to get revenge for the knockdown. It wasn't a war, but with Loreto's power there was always a chance he was going to detonate with something big. He seemed to do that early in round 3, and for the first time we saw Shigeoka actually looking a bit shaken. He responded with fire and both men launched some huge shots before Shigeoka made the decision to retreat, trying to clear his head a little. Loreto knew he had an opening, and there was a sense of tension.
We won't more of the bout, but this was a genuinely over-looked gem from the very end of 2019 that saw a youngster being asked questions, and a veteran coming to the ring knowing he had a chance to upset someone seen as the next star of Japanese boxing.
This isn't a firefight, but it's a bout that is compelling through out, with a sense of drama and danger, and a nice mixing of styles. It was interesting, as opposed to exciting, but still well worthy of a watch.
Not all fights in this series are wars, or dramatic 2-way battles of attrition and determination. Today we look at something a little bit from the treasure. This was more a bout that put one guy on the map, rather than being a thrilling all action fight. The was less about the fight and more about the single guy, who thrilled us through out, and made us bigger fans than we were previously.
Nobuyuki Shindo (20-4-2, 8) vs Hironobu Matsunaga (14-1, 8)
Coming into this the tall and rangy Nobuyuki Shindo was enjoying his second reign as a Japanese champion. He was the Japanese champion at 154lbs, having previously been the Welterweight champion. Although not the most pleasing fighter to watch Shindo was a freak of nature. He was a huge guy, standing at 6'1" with massive wingspan, and to top that off he was also a southpaw. He was the sort of fighter others avoid if they can. In 2018 he had won the Japanese Light Middleweight title with a narrow win over Ryosuke Maruki and then defended it against "interim" champion Akinori Watanabe, in what was a truly amazing fight. He then entered 2019 with a mandatory due as part of the Champion Carnival.
The mandatory challenger for Shindo was Hironobu Matsunaga, and exciting but often over-looked fighter, with an aggressive style, that saw him barrelling forward with a lot of pressure. Like Shindo, Matsunaga was a southpaw, but that was about all they had in common, with Matsunaga being significantly short than the champion, and having a very aggressive style, compared to Shindo's rather negative and cautious one. He had earned his title fight by retiring Koshinmaru Saito in October 2018, but this was still regarded as a big step up for him, against an opponent who towered over him and had the edge in experience.
From the opening seconds it was clear the two men were significantly different in terms of size, with Shindo physically looking 2 divisions bigger than Matsunaga. Shindo managed to get his jab out working early and used his feet to maintain distance and held up close, neutralising Matsunaga when he did close the distance. Around half way into the round however we were starting to see Matsunaga getting closer, getting more aggressive and landing heavier artillery than the champion. By the end of the round it was very much becoming a Matsunaga fight, with his pressure building and his punches landing.
Having began to find his range in round 1, and finding a way around the reach of Shindo reach, Matsunaga kept coming forward in round 2. This forced Shindo to fight fire with fire at times, and from there on we get a fun fight with the fun under-dog forcing the action and the brave champion trying to get his respect, and fight back. This was particularly apparent at the end of the round, when Shindo was forced to fight off the ropes and landed a monstrous right hand. We knew Shindo was tough, given his bout with Watanabe, we knew he was skilled, and we felt like we were set for something very fun.
Again this isn't an all out war, but is a rather fan friendly bout, and a real chance to see one of the more over-looked, and entertaining, Japanese fighters out there.
Sadly it's been hard to find many Filipino bouts from 2019 that we've been to include in this series. It's a shame and something that we expect to see become even more difficult if we continue this series for 2020. That's not because the Philippines hasn't got good fights, but because so few of them are internationally available in good quality. Thankfully however we do have one really interesting bout, that we advise people to watch, from February 2019 and better yet, it sees a young unbeaten hopeful being given his first real test.
Dave Apolinario (9-0, 6) vs Romshane Sarguilla (7-1-2, 4)
In one corner was rising prospect Dave Apolinario, a really talented and unbeaten Filipino fighter who was following in the footsteps of his brother, John Mark Apolinario. At just 20 years old the talented southpaw hopeful needed to be tested, and needed to be in the ring with someone who was going to ask questions of him. He needed to fight someone wanting to beat him, someone who came to win.
Thankfully we saw Apolinario finally facing a fighter trying to beat him when he stepped in the ring with Romshane Sarguilla in a scheduled 8 rounder at the Midas Hotel and Casino in Pasay City. Sarguilla was not a special fighter but he was a hungry fighter, who's only loss up to this point was a close decision to Powell Balaba at Super Flyweight, not his more natural Flyweight. He was tough, hungry, young and wanting make a name for himself, rather than a fighter happy to roll over for the touted prospect.
From the opening round you could see Sarguilla was there to win, pressing forward against the more skilled and talented Apolinario. The under-dog was pressing behind his solid jab, moving when he needed to showing enough respect to Apolinario to not leave himself open, but enough ambition to make it clear he was here to win. Sadly the ambition and belief alone weren't going to be enough against the more rounded, and very skilled, Apolinario. He knew he had to take some risks and did so towards the end of the first round, making Apolinario look uncomfortable as the pace picked up.
The unbeaten man, who was in against his first opponent who had come to upset him, had the clear edge in skills but had to do more than just rely on the skills he had, and had to try and get respect from Sarguilla, landing his own big shots to close out the opening round and open the second round.
The fight continued to be an intriguing test throughout, with Apolinario being forced to answer questions by a fighter there to win. It wasn't an all out war, as a number in this series are, but was instead a brilliant test for a youngster who was forced to show what he was about against an opponent looking to make the most of a big opportunity.
If you like seeing prospects being given a test then this is well worthy of your time.
Interestingly this wasn't the only hidden gem featuring Sarguilla from the year, with the Filipino travelling over to Thailand to play his part in a cracking little bout with Siridech Deebook in August as well.
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.