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!
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.