Whilst we love watching boxing from throughout Asia one thing that is consistently true, is that South Korea provides a higher ratio of great fights than any other country. The fighters might not be the best out there and the skills might not be the most impressive, but their hearts, determination and in ring mentalities seem to provide an unfairly high number of amazing bouts.
Today we we get to share one of the most significant Korean bouts from 2020, between two men each putting it all on the line in an attempt to claim the KBM Lightweight title.
Moo Hyun Kim (5-1, 1) vs Dong Hyun Won (3-3)
This bout came on November 14th from the DND Boxing Gymnasium in Hwaseong and saw Moo Hyun Kim and Dong Hyun Won battle for the vacant KBM Lightweight title. On paper it was nothing special, but it was in Korea, and that automatically made it something that was worthy of noting. Korean bouts, really do provide a lot of action, even the lowest level Korean bouts.
The entire in ring mentality in Korea seems to be about winning a fight. It's not about out-pointing the other man, and fighting cute, but winning a toe to toe fight. Having a war. That was the case here.
In one corner was 27 year old Moo Hyun Kim, who made his debut in 2016 and won his first 4 bouts, including wins in Japan against Hironori Shigeta and George Tachibana both of which were wins that aged well. He then lost in 2017 to Gyu Beom Jeon before bouncing back with a win in 2018. Kim then took more than 2 years away from the ring before picking up a narrow decision win of Jun Gyu Oh in August 2020, just 3 months before this title bout.
In the opposite corner to Kim was Dong Hyun Won, a 36 year old who debuted in 2016, going 1-1 that year before taking more than 3 years out of the ring. When he returned in 2019 he won his first 2 bouts, but then suffered back to back losses, falling to 3-3. Given his age this was pretty much viewed as his one and only chance to win a Korean title, and it seemed like a chance he didn't really deserve given he had lost his previous 2 bouts, and was 13 months removed from his last win.
The fight started surprisingly slowly for a Korea fight with Kim pressing forward and Won using his experience to soak up the pressure. The low quality of skills from both men were clear and it seemed, through much of the first round, that the occasion and inactivity was getting to them. Then we had a moment of class as Kim dropped Won with a brilliant counter right hand that Won walked on. Won got to his feet and Kim seemed to be in control.
Sadly after the knockdown the rest of the round was tame. Thankfully things began to pick up in round 2, as Kim began to let his hands go more, and forced Won into responding, which he did in a big way late in the round. It wasn't am amazing round, at least not compared to typical Korean standards, but it was a big improvement from the opening round and was more like what we had been expecting. It was as if the touch paper was being lit and we were starting to get a fight.
Despite the fight beginning to erupt in round 2 the pace early in round 3 was slow, it was as if both teams had told their fights to calm down, relax and fight at their tempo. That was until midway through the round when Won decided to up his work rate, and drew out the dog in Kim, who came back strong in the second half of the round.
In round 4 we saw the tempo tick up again, though by now it was clear. Kim was much more skilled than Won, and Won was instead relying on his heart, his determination and his work rate to try to over-come the skills of his foe. At times Won's output was enough to win him portions of rounds, but it always seemed that once Kim turned on the gas he was getting the upper hand.
As the rounds went on Kim's edge in size, skills, and power proved vital as he began to beat the fight out of Won, who showed some genuine grit and bravery but was getting slowly beaten up. Through round 5 and 6 Won's heart and toughness were the only thing keeping him in the fight, which was fairly wild at times. That will and determination was however doing enough to impress some of the judges, with one having the bout even, 57-577, after 6 rounds.
In round 7 Won's will to win showed at the start of the round and, for the first time, he seemed to actually buzz Kim who backed up and had to regroup. Sadly for Won his success early in the round came back to bite him in the backside when Kim managed to clear his head and turned the tables. Won dug deep, despite taking a shellacking through much of the round, eating big head shots as Kim looked to put his man away. Won was left bloodied and battered part way through the round. With seconds of the rounds remaining a pair of head shots wobbled Won who was dropped at the very end of the round. He got to his feet before the 10 count but he was done, his corner knew it, the referee new it, and he knew it, as the bout was stopped, at an official time of 3:07 of round 7.
The bout is certainly not the most intense, especially not by the lofty standards we see from Korea, but it was certainly a battle worthy of attention. We had more than enough highlights to get excited about, plenty of exciting changes in tempo and some thrilling exchanges from both fighters. It took a while to get going at times, but there was more than enough good stuff here to enjoy, especially in the final round.
This wasn't a fight of the year contender, not by any stretch, but it was a fun, enjoyable battle between a skilled fighter and gutsy warrior.
One of the best things about Japanese boxing is the competitive match ups that take place at the lower end of the domestic scene. These bouts typically don't feature fighters with the potential to be regarded as prospects, but are often some of the most compelling fights to just sit and watch. The bouts typically feature two men who come in to the ring to win and as a result give us something a lot better than the typical low level squash matches we see in the west.
Today we're lucky as this weeks Treasure Trove article is set to be one of the best 4 rounders from 2020, and is a legitimately thrilling action bout between two men who were incredibly hungry to prove a point. The fact both men came into this feeling like they could win ended us making for a brilliant, hotly contested, back and forth thriller.
Yusuke Endo (2-2-1, 2) vs Takahiro Nakatsuka (2-2-1)
Many bouts at this level in Japan have fighters with similar records and potential and this was a great example as we saw Yusuke Endo and Takahiro Nakatsuka clash. Both men were in their early 20's, with Endo being 23 and Natasuka being 21, both had debuted in 2018, were 2-2-1, and both men had lost on debut, won their second bout and lost their third bout. Interestingly both men had also fought to a draw with Weed Taichi. Both were also, obviously, here to win.
Endo was fighting out of the Shonan Yamagami Boxing Gym, a relative small gym based in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture. Stood at 5'10" he was taller than many fighters he had shared the ring with, and had competed at the 2019 East Japan Rookie of the Year, being eliminated follow a draw with Weed Taichi in June. Following that set back he had fought just once, beating Hoshi Saito in October 2020 and was now hoping to build some career moment with back to back to back wins. Notably in all his bouts, except for his draw, the bout had finished early with both of his wins and both of his losses finishing in the first 3 rounds. He was proving to be a glass cannon.
Nakatsuka on the other hand was fighting out of the JB Sports Gym, which is run by Hajime No Ippo creator Jyoji Morikawa. He stood at 5'8", slightly shorted than Endo, but was certainly a tall guy for the Feather and Super Featherweight divisions, between which he was plying his trade. Going through his first 5 bouts he had done the distance every time, but was certainly developing into a talented young man, maturing physically and building on his experience. The hope was clearly to build up his power and strength as he became a man. Sadly for him he had been out of the ring since January 2020, when he fought to a draw with Weed Taichi, and it was clear he was hungry to get back to winning ways.
On paper this was a bout that was easy to over-look, despite the evenly matched records of the two men. However this bout is not one to ignore!
Given this was a 4 rounder it's fair to say this was a sprint, and not a marathon, and both men came out throwing punches almost immediately. Within seconds of the bout starting we were having exchanges in the middle of the ring, with Endo getting the better of things, before Natasuka began to fire back, and then Endo came for more. The entire first round was back and forth brilliance, fought at an incredible tempo. Both men proved themselves willing and able to go to war, but both also showed some nice touches of boxing. Albeit those were mere flashes of boxing before both men resumed a high tempo action fight. Towards the end of the round Endo was staggered, but came back well and seemed to finish the round strong. This was 3 minutes that genuinely flew by. It was brilliant, hugely entertaining and impossible to look away from.
With the first round being brilliant it would have been fair to have assumed both teams would have told their men to slow down entering round 2. If they had, they were ignored as the two continued to put on a fire fight in the second stanza. There was a little bit more technical work here, but very little as both continued to fight at an ultra high tempo and trade shots back and forth in 3 minutes of brilliant, brutal action. This was a much easier round to score than the first one though, with Nakatsuka clearly taking it on our cards, despite a spirited effort from Endo.
Given how good Natasuka had things in round 2 he seemed determined to not let the momentum slip and he started round 3 fast, really fast. Endo had to respond, and he did, even rocking his man with a straight right hand and knocking his gumshield out moments later. This lead to a weird break where covid19 safety kicked in and the gumshield had to be picked up with what appeared to be tongs. Soon afterwards the action resumed, and the men were straight back to unloading bombs on each other, with Endo getting the better of things overall, though Natasuka really wasn't making things easy for him. Given this was round 3, and both men and thrown an incredible amount of leather, it was amazing to see them getting more intense, rather than slowing down.
Given that we'd had 3 brilliant rounds, and that the first could have gone either way, we were not going to get a quiet final 3 minutes. Instead we got another all out battle to win the round. Once again both men stood their ground and let big shots go, defense was rarely thought about as both fighters hunted a stoppage. Neither wanted this to be in the hands of the judges. Early in the round Natsuka was sunned, and rocked, though as the round went on he managed to shake Endo. Both looked like they could end up hitting the canvas, both seemed to be fighting to a stand still and both looked amazingly well matched that they were made for each other.
This was a bout all about aggression, work rate and hunger. Defense, intelligent boxing, and counter punching traps were out of the window. The fans knew they were getting something special and this really is a must watch bout.
In the end it felt like neither man deserved to lose and thankfully for both, the judges agreed, scoring this 38-38, 38-38 and 39-37, to Endo, to give us a majority draw.
If you have the time to enjoy a great fight, seriously watch this one. It's amazing and one that truly deserves to be watched, even if it is "only a 4 rounder".
(Note the bout starts about 6:25 into the video below)
Last week in this Treasure Trove series we looked at a pretty big fight, that we suspect many will have watched, even if a lot of fans sort of forgot about it. Today we bring you a much, much obscure fight, and one that seriously deserves watching, even if it wasn't one that looks particularly good on paper. In fact like many Japanese bouts it was a fight that shone because both men went into the contest feeling they could win. Something we don't see enough of in the west. Far too often bouts take place there to pad records, rather than entertain fans. This was certainly not a record padding fan, and it certainly entertained the local fans at Korakuen Hall.
Yuji Awata (12-7-1, 5) vs Toru Kiyota (9-4, 7)
Coming in to this Yuji Awata was a 29 year old southpaw from Kanagawa Prefecture. He had had mixed results through his entire career, and was 2-2-1 in his previous 5 bouts, but he had long been a good servant for Japanese boxing and had been a professional since 2012. His record didn't have many wins over notable names, despite him winning the 2016 All Japan Rookie of the Year, but he had always given an honest account of himself, and had always entered the ring looking to pick up a win. He had found himself coming up short numerous times, but he didn't enter the ring to roll over, even when he was up against the likes of the touted Shuma Nakazato.
Toru Kiyota was very similar. He was younger, at 25 years old, but was a fighter with a similar record, losing 4 of his 13 bouts. On paper his biggest achievement coming in to this was a win over Shota Suito in 2018, though he also held wins over Kanehiro Nakagawa and Ryukyu Oho, from when they were both very early in their careers. What was notable about Kiyota was that he had lost 3 of his previous 5 and his career seemed to be struggling, he needed a win, and like Awata would have come into this bout as a chance to pick up a victory against someone in his league. He would also have come into this bout wanting local bragging rights, as he too was based in the Kanagawa prefecture.
Knowing that both men felt they could win, and that both had tools that they could use to their advantage, with Awata being the taller more experienced man, and a southpaw, and Kiyota being the bigger puncher, this had the feel of being something that could be a little big special. Even if it wasn't being fought at the highest level. What we got was indeed a little bit special.
From off Kiyota was the man coming forward whilst Awata tried to box at range, using his southpaw jab, and counter left hands to try and keep Kiyota at distance. Through the opening round we saw both men land some solid shots, though over all it felt like Kiyota's power and aggression probably did enough for him to take the round. It wasn't the most exciting of rounds, and did see the two men clinch a fair bit, but there was very much a sense that something was going to break out, especially with the way Kiyota was attacking.
That aggression of Kiyota moved up a step in round 2 as he really did push forward more, let his hands go more, and had Awata on the back foot even more than he had in the opening round. Awata knew he could clinch if, and when he needed to, but was being punished regularly through the round as Kiyota came forward. Every so often however Kiyota would eat some huge, clean counter shots, as Awata began to find his timing, his range and his aim. Sadly Awata he would find himself on the canvas towards the end of the round, bundled down under the pressure of Kiyota.
Having been dropped in round 2 Awata came out hungrier in round 3 and landed some of his best shots early in the round. This was a change in tactics from the taller man, and one that Kiyota didn't appreciate, with the smaller puncher responding with some huge shots of his own. Despite being down the previous round Awata was looking clear headed, focused and like he knew he could capitalise on a Kiyota mistake. To his credit Kiyota continued to pressure his man, avoiding many of the many of the potential traps that Awata was trying to set, he was still aggressive, but was showing respect to Awata, and not rushing in quite as reckless as he had in the first two rounds. In fact he was using his jab really well in round 4, using it to mask the power shots that followed behind it.
Knowing he was well behind Awata had to change things, and he did that in round 5, as he became more aggressive. Kiyota was still the more offensive of the two men, but Awata was letting his hands go more often, taking center ring more than he had earlier in the fight, and fighting with more urgency. He was no longer waiting for Kiyota to fall into a trap, but was looking to force the issue more, this resulted in a brilliant exchange late in the round as both men let shots fly back and forth. This was the most exciting round of the fight up to this point, and finished with Kiyota trying to resume control of the action.
With the action heating up in round 6, and Kiyota looking like he was putting his foot down to stamp out any kind of a comeback at the very end of the previous round, it was down to Awata to really try to turn things around. Early in the round the men stumbled into each other, falling on top of each other, in a messy moment. Not too long after that Awata found the space to land some big left hands, straight to the face. It seemed to encourage Awata who got a big break through later in the round with a straight left-right hook combination that put Kiyota on the canvas. Kiyota beat the count, but it was clear that the tide was turning, and Awata would go on to land clean shots through the rest of the round, despite Kiyota trying to press back.
With both men having been dropped and with 2 rounds remaining it was fight against time for Awata, who knew he had to put his man down again. Kiyota had other ideas however and kept coming forward. He didn't want to just take a decision. He wanted to get revenge for being dropped and pressure behind a tightened guard, looking to press forward and draw a mistake, leaving Kiyota open for a counter shot. This made for an exciting 7th round and the action grew more intense in round 8 as Kiyota continued to hunt a knockout and Kiyota stood his ground more. The final round even better than the 8th, with Awata having his head snapped back at one point, but gritting his teeth and firing back.
Although not a Fight of the Year contender, or anything close, this is a genuine hidden gem. We had two knockdowns, styles that gell, and despite a slow start the bout was really enjoyable, and got better as the rounds ticked on. It was an aggressive but smaller fighter up against a crafty tall counter puncher. It was genuinely compelling viewing and something we think fight fans will really enjoy.
(Note if you are going to watch this bout, the fight starts about 13 minutes into the video below.)
Whilst many bouts featured in our Treasure Trove series are rather obscure, and not particularly well known, not all of them are and today's Treasure Trove bout is one of the most notable bouts from 2020. In fact it's one of the bouts that should have been included in any legitimate "Bout of the Year" short list from the major media outlets, but because it took place in January 2020, it was really forgotten by the end of the year. Especially given how boxing was put on the back burner just a few weeks later.
Murodjon Akhmadaliev (7-0, 6) vs Daniel Roman (27-2-1, 10)
Over the past few years the Super Bantamweight division has been slowly, but surely bringing through a new era of fighters as the division has repeatedly shifted it's focus from big names and established fighters, to newer younger fighters. Whilst that was happening there wasn't really any focus point for the division, which was in many a good thing, as it was a division that had really spent a while not doing much.
As we entered 2020 there were two men to focus on at the top of the division. One of those was the exciting Emanuel Navarrete, though he was a man who's time in the division seemed very limited and he would leave the division later in the year, and there was IBF and WBA "Super" champion Daniel Roman.
Roman had done everything he could to get his head above the rest and to show his ability globally. He had won the WBA title in Japan, beating Shun Kubo, had defended it in Japan against Ryo Matsumoto and then returned to the US for two more defenses before unifying with a 2019 FOTY contender against TJ Doheny, in which Roman won the IBF title. In his first defense of the unified titles he took on the rising Murodjon Akhmadaliev. In the ring Roman was a tough, exciting fighter, who didn't hit hard, but hit a lot, and really was a high tempo, high schooled fighter who had real grit, determination and an amazing will to win. He had long been under-rated and was now starting to get the respect he deserved.
Akhmadaliev was one of the many rising hopefuls in the division, and had been moved a lot more aggressively than any of the others. He, along with Stephen Fulton, Brandon Figueroa, Carlos Castro and Angelo Leo, looked like the new generation of fighters that the division needed. They weren't big names going into the year, though they were all expected to be part of the scramble to become the #1 man in the division. As part of that scramble Akhamadaliev had the first major opportunity as he took on Roman for the unified throne, in just his 8th professional bout. He had been a fantastic amateur, but had only been a professional for around 2 years and had only fought 28 professional rounds prior to this bout.
Heading in to this bout there was a genuine sense of excitement and anticipation. Could Akhmadaliev really be this special this early in his career? Was Roman going to have the experience and tools to over-come the confident upstart? From the off fans had a sense of anticipation and it was genuinely a fight that delivered.
The opening round was faster than a typical opening round. It wasn't a war, or an all out slugfest of an opening round, but it was a high tempo start to the bout, with both men boxing really well, and both showing some really high level stuff. Both were respectful of the other and both mixed stuff up really nice. For the most part Akhmadaliev was on the front foot, putting the pressure on, but Roman picked his spots well and it was a really close round fought at an incredible level.
In round 2 we saw the tempo step up again, as Akhmadaliev picked up his work rate, and forced Roman to come with him. This resulted in a genuinely brilliant round that saw Akhmadaliev being tagged early on, before recomposing himself and getting his own shots off. It was a continuation of the high level action of the opening round, with both men picking some fantastic shots, but it was high level action with an offensive edge. Both men were happy to lets shots fly, neither seemed happy to just sit back and instead both wanted to prove they could fight coming forward as well as going backwards.
The tempo again picked up in round 3, with Roman likely 2-0 and knowing he had to turn the heat up. It was heat that Akhmadaliev coped with without too many issues, and as the round went on he came back into the round himself, picking some sensational combinations and looking very composed for such a professional novice. Roman was having plenty of success but it never fazed Akhmadaliev who seemed very comfortable, and showed his brilliant amateur pedigree.
In round 4 Roman began to get a foot hold in the bout, amping up his pressure, working the body, and it seemed like momentum began to shift in the middle rounds. The champion was beginning to find his grove and it seemed to be at the right time. After all Akhmadaliev had only been beyond 6 rounds once, and there were question marks about his gas tank. The body work and extra aggression of Roman continued to play a factor through the middle rounds, along with some brilliant uppercuts that he used when Akhmadaliev left a gap up top. It was a sign that the champion had got a read on the challenger and that the momentum was turning.
Going into final rounds the scores could easily have been all over the place, though Akhmadaliev seemed to do enough in rounds 10 and 11 to take them. Albeit narrowly.
Heading into the final round it was clear this was a close one. Both men had had some great success at times, but it was going to be a hard one to confident say who was winning. Akhmadaliev had started so well, before Roman came back. And then Akhmadaliev gritted his teeth and showed his fire in the later stages, but was it enough for him to be in the lead?
Prior to the final round Roman's corner seemed unsure if their man was up, and told him he had to go for it. It seemed however that Akhmadaliev had been told it was in the bag as he got on his bike, a very risky strategy and one that could have bit him in the backside. Through the entire final round Akhmadaliev threw very little and let Roman dictate the round, until the dying seconds when Akhmadaliev finally let his hands go. By then he had given away the round. In fact it was the clearest round of the fight and the only one that seemed impossible to make any case of going the other way.
At the bell Roman celebrated, likely feeling the final round had been enough to see him keep the title, even if it was going to be a draw.
The three judges all turned in scores cards reading 115-113, showing just how close and competitive this was. Though thankfully for Akhmadaliev all 2 of those cards favoured him, crowning him the new champion in just his 8th bout. It was, however, a nail biter. A razor thin, highly competitive, totally compelling, highly skilled, high tempo chess match. This was brilliant... and sadly because it took part in January, was all but forgotten by fans come the "awards season" in December.
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.