To end 2019 we got a host of world title bouts, one of which saw a pair of veterans put on a great showing in a bout that easily outshone all expectations and was much, much, more entertaining than it had any right to be. It wasn't a Fight of the Year contender, in the grand scheme of things, but was certainly a sensational post-Christmas treat for fight fans as we began to prepare for the end of the year.
Akira Yaegashi (28-6, 16) Vs Moruti Mthalane (32-8, 25)
In one corner we had former 3-weight world champion Akira Yaegashi, a popular Japanese warrior who had losses piling up but kept a solid cult following for the way he fought, and his in ring mentality, which focused more on thrilling fans than doing things the easy way. At the age of 36 and with a host of wars behind him it seemed almost certain, win or lose, that this was going to be his final bout at world level. He had given more than he needed to to the sport, and it had a taken a toll on his body over the years. He had suffered numerous injuries over the years, most notably to his eyes but also a nasty injury to his jaw early in his career, and yet was determined to reach the top one more time.
In the other was the often over-looked Moruti Mthalane, a sensationally talented South African who was defending the IBF Flyweight title. Mthalane had been unbeaten in 11 years coming in to this, with 3 world title reigns. Had Mthalane been heavier he would have been someone fight fans would have adored. He was aggressive, smart, and technical. He had given Nonito Donaire one of his toughest bouts, way back in 2008, and had been involved in a number of over-looked classics, including a brilliant 2012 clash with Ricardo Nunez. Sadly poor decisions had seen Mthalane lose a number of his prime years, but he remained very fresh faced at the age of 37 and was looking to record a third straight win over a Japanese opponents, having stopped Masahiro Sakamoto at the end of 2018 and the beaten Masayuki Kuroda in May 2019.
Despite a combined age in their early 70's hardcore fans knew these two could fight. What few expected was a really sensational bout. We knew they could go, but we also knew neither man was in their physical prime. What we ended up getting however was something amazing.
Early on we saw Yaegashi fighting on the move, setting distance and a high tempo to try and neutralised Mthalane's compact pressure. It was a smart gameplan from the Japanese warrior, who knew that mixing it up close with Mthalane wasn't going to be a good idea. Mthalane stayed tight defensively and pressured well, with the champion obviously knowing this wasn't going to be a sprint.
As the rounds went on Yaegashi began to go through the gears before Mthalane forced the bout to become a war, using his footwork to cut the distance. As early as round 3 the men were standing toe to toe and unleashing big shots, then trying to avoid the response. It was incredible to watch some of the back and forth we were getting, and it was very easy to forget that both men were the wrong side of 35.
Going into round 4, we knew we were getting something rather damn special. Though questions were hanging over both fighters. Could Yaegashi's body and engine hold up for 12 rounds? Could Mthalane, who had looked fantastic in beating Kuroda, really take the win against Japanese boxing royalty in Japan?
For those who missed this at the end of 2019 do your self a favour and enjoy this treasure from late in the year. For those who watched it live...you know it's worth a re-watch!
The good Japanese fights through 2018 really haven't stopped coming, the main issue perhaps is less about the consistency of great fights but where they were shown. During August and September we had a huge number of great fights, sadly some of those are tucked away behind a paywall on boxingraise.com. They include the all action Middleweight bout between Yasayuki Akiyama and Shinobu Charlie Hosokawa and the third meeting between Saemi Hanagata and Yuki Kuroki.
Even with those bouts "out of sight", so to speak, there was still 5 other great bouts during those two months that were televised.
If you missed part 1 than can be read here The best Japanese Fights of 2018 (Part 1)
Part 2 can be read here The best Japanese Fights of 2018 (Part 2)
And part 3 can be read here The best Japanese Fights of 2018 (Part 3)
August 17th - Korakuen Hall
Satoshi Shimizu (6-0, 6) vs Shingo Kawamura (16-3-1, 8)
On paper the OPBF Featherweight title bout between defending champion Satoshi Shimizu and domestic challenger Shingo Kawamura looked like a mismatch. It was hard to imagine the 2012 Olympic bronze medal winner and current OPBF champion losing to a fighter like Kawamura. Someone obviously hadn't told Kawamura he was there to lose, and instead he set off like the confident, cocksure fighter who had been the betting favourite. With Kawamura pressing the fight and Shimizu forced to respond we got something truly hellacious! It's just a little bit unfortunately that is shared a card with an even better bout.
August 17th - Korakuen Hall
Akira Yaegashi (26-6, 14) vs Hirofumi Mukai (16-5-3, 6)
As mentioned Shimizu Vs Kawamura was good, it was however over-shadowed by the insane war between Akira Yaegashi and Hirofumi Mukai, a fight that may well be the best Japanese fight of the year, and one that had everything. Both Yaegadhi and Mukai have seen better days, both are beyond their best and both have shown clear signs of sliding. Despite the wear and tear both are warriors and that was seen when they got in the ring together and featured in a truly amazing back forth brawl that saw both men rely on their heart, just as much as their skills. This had one of the best rounds of the year, worldwide, as well as being one of the true standout Japanese fights of 2018.
September 1st - Korakuen Hall
Yuta Saito (10-9-3, 7) vs Eita Kikuchi (21-5-4, 8)
We had to wait most of the year to finally see a Japanese Bantamweight title bout, after a number of bouts fell through this year, but when we finally did see the title being fought for we got a really fun bout to crown a new champion. On paper the match up between Yuta Saito and Eita Kikuchi didn't promise a lot, but it really did over deliver in what was a short but thrilling war, as both men seemed to put it all on the line, knowing this could be their final shot at a title. It wasn't just the desire of the two fighters that shone, but their styles also jelled amazingly well and made for something action packed.
September 11th - Korakuen Hall
Takuma Inoue (11-0, 3) Vs Mark John Yap (29-12, 14)
In mid-September we saw a WBC world title eliminator at Bantamweight, when the unbeaten Takuma Inoue faced off with OPBF Bantamweight champion Mark John Yap. On paper this promised a lot, with both men knowing that a win would secure them a world title fight, and although it wasn't a FOTY contender it was a very good contest and a very well fought one between two talented fighters each desperate for a shot at a world title. This wasn't explosive but did nicely combine skills, styles and wills to win, in a very competitive contest. Sadly though, for both men, it did show they were some way below the divisional elite and they will have to improve before making that final step up.
September 24th - Takeda Teva Ocean Arena
Sho Kimura (17-1-2, 10) Vs Kosei Tanaka (11-0, 7)
When we did The best Japanese Fights of 2018 (Part 1) we were inspired to due to the brilliance of WBO Flyweight title bout between Sho Kimura and Kosei Tanaka, a bout that we still consider the leading FOTY candidate, not just for Asia but for the world this year. We had high expectations for the bout, and it over-delivered, massively. Both fighters came to win, Kimura came looking for his third defense whilst Tanaka came chasing his third world title, the styles gels, the mentality of both fighters worked perfectly, and the bout ended up being something extra special. The sort of bout that every fight fan should watch, and if you've already seen it it's worth watching again!
The month of August is now coming to an end, and I've decided to look over the fights Japanese fans have been able to see during the month, picking out the most exciting bouts to have either been television or have been made available online. For the sake of this I've not included things that have only been made available on Boxingraise, so that I can share the videos with you, the readers, and not push you to an online paid service to watch things, though I would certainly advise all readers to look into subscribing to Boxingraise if they do wish to watch more action from the Japanese domestic scene.
Earlier this week we broke the news that Hideyuki Ohashi had finally announced the Flyweight dream fight between WBC Flyweight champion Akira Yaegashi (20-3, 10) and Nicaraguan sensation Roman Gonzalez (39-0, 33). The fight was one we had been talking about most of the year and knew fans from around the world were really interested in. It isn't just a Flyweight title bout but is the lower weight equivalent to Manny Pacquiao Vs Floyd Mayweather Jr. It pits the linear champion against the most destructive fighter in the 112lb division and at the end of the day everyone who knows boxing knows this one will be great, especially with the mentality of both men.
In all honesty we rarely get the best men in any division fighting each other but in this case really we do have 2 of the elite fighting each other and better yet it seems very likely that the winner will be moved on to a fight with Juan Francisco Estrada next year in a bout that really would tie up all 3 of the divisions of the elite fighters.
Despite it being such a major bout it does seem highly unlikely that it will be shown in the US or the UK where a vast majority of our readers are from. In my eyes that's a huge shame and it tells us a lot about the boxing media in those two countries and the way they are both missing out on not just some of the best fighters but also some of the best fights.
I understand that channels in both countries have their reasons for not showing the bout but in some cases the arguments seem to be more like excuses.
Firstly the "time zone" of the bout. We understand that Asian fights are a problem, especially for US TV, due to when they take place however they have been showing some footage of the Bob Arm's cards from Macau on tape delay allowing fans in the states to see the fights "as live" the same day. Sure by then the results are out in the open but it's a step they have shown to be willing to take for fighters like Nonito Donaire. With that in mind I can't see a reason for the channels, especially smaller ones like AWE, ESPN or Boxnation, not to be willing to show the Yageashi/Gonzalez bout on tape delay giving an hour of their time for the bout. Incidentally if the bout finishes early they could then include highlights from the co-feature between Naoya Inoue (6-0, 5) and Samartlek Koietgym (16-4, 5), it's self a world title bout.
If the bouts were shown on tape delay it would give the teams on those channels a chance to piece together highlights from the fights and even give the men a small build up before they showed the actual fights, as if introducing the fighters to a new audience.
Of course another problem is the profile of the fighters involved. Whilst Gonzalez is a big name in Latin America he's almost unknown by all but the most hardcore of American fight fans. Yaegashi is even less well known and for many American fans it's a case of of knowing that Yaegashi has beaten Edgar Sosa and lost to Kazuto Ioka whilst also having a thriller with Pornsawan Porpramook. Thankfully however there is more than enough high quality, high octane action involving the two fighters to do excellent build up trailers involving things like Gonzalez's battering of various fighters and Yaegashi's fianl few rounds with Pornsawan Porpramook.
It wasn't too long ago that HBO took a punt on Gennady Golovkin and we all know how well that went, like wise Yoshihiro Kamegai and Nihito Arakawa have been involved in thrillers on US TV giving a chance for a US audience to see just how exciting Japanese fighters are. Whilst I wouldn't say Yaegashi was the same stylistically as Arakawa or Kamegai he is equally fun to watch and in Gonzalez he has an opponent who is also known for putting on a show. With the two of them it's almost guaranteed to be great back and forth action. If you give the fighters a chance to show themselves they will excite fans.
Another argument would be the price of the fights however no one is suggesting the networks send over their own commentators to Tokyo. What the channels would need would be the footage, which is being aired in Japan by Fuji TV, and their own commentators, who could be in a studio anywhere on the planet. Whilst we're not suggesting Fuji TV would just give away the footage for international distribution we wouldn't assume the cost for it would be much and a "token payment" would likely be accepted as the company would be getting a new line of revenue that wasn't previously there. Likewise the channel would likely be happy to build up some good will knowing that the Inoue brother's have seriously long term potential to make the channel long term money in international fees.
Of course one more thing we often hear from fans in the west is that no one cares about the lower weights. Whilst we know that this does apply in some ways a big part of that is due to a lack of exposure. If you don't let someone see something how are they to know they would enjoy it? Funnily this has seen fans missing out on dozens of modern day wars including, but not limited, to: [Note fights with links are to videos of the fights]
Katsunari Takayama Vs Roman Gonzalez (2009)
Giovani Segura Vs Ivan Calderon I (2010)
Akira Yaegashi Vs Pornsawan Porpramook (2011)
Kompayak Porpramook Vs Adrian Hernandez I (2011)
Hernan Marquez Vs Luis Concepcion I (2011)
Roman Gonzalez Vs Juan Francisco Estrada (2012)
Koki Eto Vs Kompayak Porpramook (2013)
Giovani Segura Vs Hernan Marquez (2013)
Kohei Kono Vs Liborio Solis (2013)
Katsunari Takayama Vs Mario Rodriguez (2013)
Yodmongkol Vor Saengthep Vs Takuya Kogawa (2014)
Koki Eto Vs Ardin Diale (2014)
I dare say if fans were given a chance to watch those fights they'd love the little divisions just as much as I do. Maybe it's time that the channels gave the fans a chance to decide for themselves if they enjoy the lighter divisions by letting them watch this one without need to go and hunt it down for a Japanese stream or a youtube video after the fight. Maybe, just maybe, the western media can give Akira Yaegashi and Roman Gonzalez a chance to impress fans on a wider scale than they have been able to in the past. You never know what happens when you give someone a chance and with both of these fighter being fun, action based men a US network could have some very cheap thrillers on their hands in the coming years if they decide to not only show this fight but continue to run with similar fights and fighters.
(Images courtesy of Ohashi Gym and Teiken Promotions)
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.