The Rookie of the Year tournament in Japan is one of the annual highlights of the Japanese boxing calendar and something that often brings highlights throughout the entire tournament. From the preliminary bouts, to the regional finals and the All Japan finals we get so lucky with Rookie of the Year and the consistently fantastic bouts that it delivers. The competition really is a Treasure Trove on it’s own and is one of the key reasons why Japanese boxing is so much fun to follow. The match ups are, generally, competitive, well matched and evenly fought between novices. The tournament tends to develop prospects and unearth real talent, and fans usually get the chance to join a fighter early in their professional journey. It is a tournament format that really should be copied in other parts of the world and it would certainly help make under-cards more interesting in the West.
We’ve said all that to begin with as this week's Treasure Trove bout is one of the East Japan Rookie of the Year finals, which took place on December 20th at Korakuen Hall. And boy did this deliver. Big time.
Kenji Yoshino (1-2, 2) vs Eiki Kani (2-1-1) II
Before we talk the actual bout we need to go back a little bit to just lay down the foundations of the bout, but we’ll get there in a little bit.
In February 2019 Kenji Yoshino made his professional debut at the age of 18, losing in 4 rounds to Taigo Ito. Some 5 months later he suffered his second loss, being stopped in 4 rounds by Eiki Kani to end 2019 0-2. Like most fighters he ended up sitting out most of 2020 due to Covid19 but returned to the ring in November 2020 and stopped Taiga Ito in a rematch of his debut, to secure his place in the East Japan Rookie of the Year final around 6 weeks later.
Eiki Kani on the hand had debuted all the way back on December 30th 2018, at the age of 17, on the under-card of Masayuki Ito’s win over Evgeny Chuprakov. He had fought to a draw in his debut before fighting his second bout in July 2019, when he stopped Yoshino in 4 rounds. He then added a win over Daijo Kogo towards the end of 2019. He then scored a win in an East Japan Rookie of the Year bout against Tomohiro Ishida which should have led him to a clash in the semi finals with Masanori Iwai, who pulled out of their bout giving Kani a bye to the East Japan final.
So for those who followed that, Yoshino and Kani had fought back in 2019, when both men were fighting in their second professional bouts, with Kani stopping Yoshino in the 4th round. Despite that, the two men had fought their way to the finals of the East Japan Rookie of the Year in 2020, with Yoshino now out for revenge and Kani looking to do the double over Yoshino.
There was a lot on the line for the two youngsters, who were fighting for a place in the All Japan final, which will take place in February, the chance to call themselves the East Japan Rookie of the Year and to settle chapter 2 of their personal rivalry. This was more personal than pretty any of the other Rookie of the Year bouts from the year, and it was also among the most exciting.
The bout started relatively slowly but within a minute both men were starting to let their shots go, and both managed to find real success. Yoshino, who sported the Teiken shorts, looked the bigger man, and the heavier handed fighter, but was putting a lot into his shots, and he even wobbled Kani late in the round. Kani on the other hand seemed to be the smarter man, landing the better counters and covering up better. The dynamic of the two men made for an exciting first round, which got better and better as it went on, and the final 40 seconds or so of the round were tremendous as both men looked to make a statement for the judges.
Although the first round was great it was fought in bursts, from both. The second round however was a lot more consistent, with both men looking to go tit for tat. Again it was Yoshino who looked the bigger single shot puncher, but Kani was regularly finding excellent counter shots, punishing Yoshino for his wider shots. Almost the entire final 90 seconds of the round was thrilling back and forth up close with neither man wanting the other to have the final say. Both rounds were hard to score, but both were brilliant to watch.
The action continued to be enthralling through round 3. By now Yoshino’s pace was dropping. He was still throwing hard shots when he threw, but was throwing a lot less, and Kani was starting to land more. This felt like Kani was starting to finally break up a tiring Yoshino. That was until Yoshino got a second wind and started to connect with his bombs, forcing Kani to hold for a few moments until he came back trying to shine at the very end of the round. It was another compelling round, and it left the bout very finely balanced as we entered round 4.
In round 4 Kani began to look tired, backing off, letting Yoshino come to him, and then tried countering. It was a somewhat negative tactic, especially given how he’d fought earlier in the bout, but it was clear that he was feeling the pace of a hectic bout, and he was desperate not to be stopped by Yoshino in round 4, like he had been in their first bout. With just over a minute left Kani was rocked, but gritted it out, once again spoiling and trying to catch his breath. With that done the two men then exchanged some big shots as they each looked for a decisive blow to secure a win.
After 4 rounds both men had given their all, they had each taken a lot of heavy shots, and they had each battled through exhaustion. They had gone to a decision and amazingly the judges were unable to split them, leading to a majority decision draw in one of the best 4 rounders we saw in the entire of 2020.
Yes the action might be bitty, the quality of the fighters might not be the highest, and the fight itself might not be anywhere close to a Fight of the Year contender, but this was certainly a war and was a thoroughly enjoyable 4 round tear up.
One day, somewhere down the line, we hope these two youngsters clash again in a third bout. Given how good this was when both were novice we can only hope a third bout in 3 or 4 years, manages to be just as good!
Note - There are some minor issues with the signal for this video. They should only last a few seconds.
With so few fights taking place during this month we’ve not been able to talk about too many solid matchups during this series. The reality is that the boxing calendar is still far, far too empty and the effects of Covid19 are still being felt on the fighters and the amount of fights we’re getting to enjoy. Despite that we do have a notable Japanese show this coming weekend, thanks to the annual All Japan Rookie of the Year final.
The One to Watch?
Eiki Kani (3-0-2, 1) vs Katsuhiro Nakata (5-0, 4)
February 21st (Sunday)
Although the Middleweight division in Japan has been notoriously thin on the ground the division has consistently given us some amazing bouts, thrilling wars, and brutal brawls. With that in mind we figure this year’s Middleweight Rookie of the Year final could end up providing us with some special. Especially given the men involved, who are both unbeaten, both typically fun to watch, and both have styles that should gel to give us one of the more exciting Rookie bouts from the finals on Sunday. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not expecting a high level boxing contest, but we are expecting an all action war.
Eiki Kani is a 19 year old fighter who’s tiny for a Middleweight, but also a pretty smart fighter, who uses his lack of size well and makes for a small target. His lack of stature also allows him to jump in and out of range, and he regularly unloads off on his way in, or way out. He can be kept at range, and will struggle against fighters with a good jab, however he’s aggressive, and when tagged he covers up very well. Up close he’s the sort of fighter who sets a higher pace, and picks his moments well. Technically he’s not the most polished, but he’s a strong fighter with real determination and some sneaky tricks in his arsenal.
Whilst Kani is a short, aggressive, teenager how opponent, Katsuhiro Nakata, is a 29 year old who will dwarf him when the two men get in the ring. Standing at 6’1” Nakata is what you expect a Middleweight to look like. In regards to Japanese fighters he’s big, tall, rangy and even a little bit awkward looking due to his height. For a Japanese fighter he really does look much bigger than many of his opponents. Despite being a tall and rangy guy Nakata doesn’t really fight like a big man. Instead he’s more of an inside fighter, who launches really ugly looking power shots and seems very adverse to throwing a real jab. He is very, very basic. But very heavy handed. Last time out he was was forced backwards by Norifumi Hayakawa, before his heavy power turned the fight around.
What to expect?
Looking at the two men, it would be fair to assume that Nakata would control the range behind his straight punches and dictate the tempo and range. In reality however, that is not Nakata’s style. Instead he wants to fight. He wants a war, a battle and a tear up. With that in mind Kani will likely find himself getting the fight he wants.
With both men wanting a tear up we expect an all out war. We expect to see Kani closing the distance, getting inside, and going to war with Nakata responding with his wild, looping, heavy heavy shots. This won’t look pretty, oh no this will be a mess at times, but it will be a thoroughly engaging mess, with bombs thrown by both men and all out excitement from the off.
We suspect the shorter, busier, Kani will have more success, however that success could be neutralised, rather easily, by the power of Nakata who certainly has enough on his shots to give Kani real issues, if he can land clean, and can land successively.
The bad news?
With this being a Rookie of the Year bout, it actually is somewhat tricky to predict what will happen with the men in the future. We suspect Kani will move down in weight, and fight at 154lbs which isn’t included in the Rookie of the Year. With that in mind there’s also a chance that Kani’s lack of stature will be an issue against the much bigger Nakata here. Saying that however we still expect this to be a barn burner from the offer!
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.