This past week saw something happen that has worried me about boxing in Japan, where they have a very rigid gym system in place to manage and train fighters.
Boxing gyms around the world might generally look the same but they are different in certain regions. In most countries the training facility and the promoter are very different things. In Japan however they are very much interlinked. A fighter is generally promoted by their gym, and will train there along with other fighters from the same stable. In, say, the US or UK, different promoters will work with different fighters from various gym. Some fighters within a UK or US gym might fight for promoter A, some for promoter B and some for promoter C. That's not the case, at all, in Japan.
Just to give some examples, when we talk about the Ohashi Gym, the Watanabe Gym and the Teiken Gym, the fighters train there and are promoted by Mr Ohashi, Mr Watanabe and Mr Honda respectively.
In Japan promoters typically work together to put on shows, and fighters from different promotions will be on shows put on by different promotions. The promoter of the event will typically make up a large portion of a show, with up to 50% of the fighters involved coming from one gym. A gym can't be responsible for all the fighters on a card as they aren't allowed to match two of it's fighters against each other, hence the need to work together.
With that said when an issue affects a gym, it can have notable knock on consequences. For example when Kyoei shut it's doors last year it left two fighters stranded and needed a new licensed gym to accept them just weeks before the Rookie of the Year final. Thankfully they were both able to sign temporary deals at the Hanagata gym, but there was a chance that they would have missed out on the Rookie of the Year due to the issue with Kyoei.
I'm saying all this as I think it really needs to be made very clear before I talk about the subject I'm about to touch on, just how big of an issue the current "on going situation" is to the Japanese gym system. I've simplified it a lot here, but overall the concept is pretty much as described. A gym is essentially a promoter, a gym needs to work with other gyms to make bouts, and the gym that is promoting and event will typically make up the vast majority of bouts on a card with their fighters.
On Friday news broke that Jorge Linares (47-5, 29) had had a PCR tests that resulted in a positive result. This was huge news to the international boxing community as Linares was scheduled to fight at the end of August against Javier Fortuna (35-2-1-2, 24) in the main event of a DAZN show.
Much of the international focus was on Linares, the big name fighter and the one who is known to international audiences. What wasn't really mentioned was the bigger implications of the positive test. Almost all of the attention was on the Fortuna bout, and whether Linares was going to be able to fight at the end of the month.
The more interesting thing for me however is the implication this has on boxing in Japan, more specifically the Teiken Gym, which is currently closed and will remain closed until it's given the green light to re-open from a local body It's not clear when that will be.
It should be noted that Linares himself is asymptomatic. He had no issues at all, none of the tell tale signs, like fever, headache or loss of taste and smell. It was a test that he had to take due to Californian regulations, with California being where the bout against Fortuna was set to take place. It wasn't a test he requested to check his health. We need to make that clear. He had no obvious symptoms.
Just hours after the news that Teiken, the most prestigious boxing gym in Japan, had been forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future, we saw the first bout featuring one of their fighters being cancelled. Whilst that was a low key bout, between their fighter Munetaka Kihara (3-2-1, 1) and the debuting Reiji Kodama (0-0), from the Misako Gym, it's unlikely to be the only bout cancelled due to the Teiken gym issues.
Notably, at the time of writing, Teiken have a show set for September 5th at Korakuen Hall, which will be televised as part of the Dynamic Glove series on G+. The show was set to be the first live televised show in Japan since boxing resumed and it was set to feature Teiken fighters in 5 of the 6 bouts. If the gym is closed for the next week or so those bouts will almost certainly be cancelled and the show will be off as the 5 Teiken fighters involved would have missed a week of training, this close to the event.
I've not been given a full list of bouts scheduled for Teiken fighters, though we are aware that Daiki Funayama (11-3-1, 4) is pencilled in to fight Kimihiro Nakagawa (7-4-2, 3) in Shizuoka on September 27th. If the gym is closed for the next week or so we could end up with not just the September 5th show being cancelled but this late September bout as well.
Whilst there is no blame to give to anyone, and this is just "one of those things" it's not the first time we've seen "one of these things" since boxing returned to Japan. We also saw the Osakan boxing gym cluster as well, which affected Mutoh gym fighters and forced a number of bouts to be cancelled. It's an issue that is likely to get worse before it gets better and with boxing returning to Japan we would assume more and more gyms will have issues like this. It's inevitable, especially given the fact so many people people are asymptomatic, that this won't be the last gym needing to be closed in Japan.
Precautions can be taken, and have been taken, but there will continue to be a risk of a fighting taking the virus into a gym and essentially forcing it to shut down. How do we stop this from being a problem? I really don't know.
We can't exactly expect fighters to stop sparring, that would be ridiculous and in Linares' he had been sparring with a number of Teiken fighters, including Kenji Fujita (0-0), Mikito Nakano (4-0, 4) and Gonte Lee (2-0-1, 1), all of whom would have developed immensely from ring time with him.
We also can't expect fighters to stop training indefinitely, or to spar with masks or train at home all the time, that just won't work, and is impossible for most fighters as very few will have private gyms.
The two extremes are that we shut boxing down completely in Japan, something that would stop the spread within the boxing community, and essentially kill the sport. Or alternatively we let it rip through the gyms, on the idea that the fighters are healthy and will fight it off.
They are the two extremes, and they are both stupid ideas. Almost as stupid as forcing gyms to essentially act like bubbles, keeping trainees, staff and the like in their own bubbles for weeks before an event.
What has been implemented in Japan is that fighters will be tested 3 weeks before a fight and a day before a fight. In theory that has worked pretty well, but hasn't been flawless and didn't prevent the situation in Osaka. The issue is, as mentioned, the asymptomatic carriers. Someone may not have any idea they are taking it to the gym,and may have no idea who they are passing it to, or even who they picked it up from.
The truth is it's taken minds far, far better than mine to get to where they are now, which, for the most part, has worked. It can still be improved, things can still be done to limit the spread, and make boxing gyms safer.
We're not going to see a big change to the whole Japanese gym system because of the current situation, and we would hate for that to even be considered. Saying that however improvements need to be taken in the planning of events before we begin to see big shows cancelled on a regular basis. That's not because one fighter is ill, but because half of the card belong to a gym that has had to be closed.
The only solution I can think of, for the short term at least, is that each show needs a bigger mix of gyms involved, meaning if a gym is closed we still end up with more than half of the planned bouts.
This is completely possible, but a frustrating and somewhat arduous task for a match maker putting a card together. It would also likely be more expensive and further limit just how much cross gym training fighters can do. For the short term however it might be something that will be needed to keep the system ticking over.
We need to make it clear. Single cases are not going to be a major problem in Japanese boxing. A fighter being ill isn't the issue. It's the gyms needing to be closed that will be a problem, and the possibility for a closed gym to cancel full shows. In some countries a fighter being ill will mean their bout is off, in Japan a fighter being ill can close a gym and result in bouts on various shows being cancelled, and shows themselves being cancelled.
One of the biggest strengths of Japanese boxing is the gym system, but right now, it's close to becoming one of it's biggest, and most troubling, weaknesses, and that is a massive concern for me.
The contenders at 140lbs are numerous, we know we're going to miss some off this list, and it's certainly not an exhaustive one, but it proves how deep the division is right now,and how brilliant the weight class is, even if it does lack, overall, in proven, world-class elite level talent.
If you missed our preview look at the division's champions that can be read here The state of the Division - Light Welterweight - The Champions
Josh Taylor (14-0, 12)
Arguably the best fighter in the division right now doesn't have a title, but could end up with one early in 2019. Josh Taylor is a former amateur standout from Scotland who made an impressive impression early in his career, on national TV in the UK, before massively improving his reputation in 2017 and 2018. In his short career he has already scored notable wins over Ohara Davies, Miguel Vazquez, Viktor Postol and Ryan Martin. More is expected to come when he faces Kiryl Relikh in a WBSS semi-final later this year.
Jorge Linares (45-4, 28)
Venezuelan veteran Jorge Linares, who has won world titles at Featherweight, Super Featherweight and Lightweight, is now competing at Light Welterweight, though has the option of moving backdown in the future. At the age of 33 Linares doesn't have forever to make an impression at 140lbs, but with his name, his reputation, his following and style we suspect there will be a big fight for him later in the year. He's in action on January 18th, against Pablo Cesar Cano, and a win there will almost certainly move him up the ladder towards a world title shot.
Mohamed Mimoune (21-2, 2)
Feather fisted Frenchman Mohamed Mimoune is one of the dark horses in the division, and has been unbeaten in over 5 years, suffering both of his losses back in 2013. During his current unbeaten run, of 10 fights, he has got his passport out and beaten Ceferino Rodriguez and Sam Eggingtton on the round, taken the unbeaten records of Ceferino Rodriguez, Emiliano Dominguez Rodriguez and Nabil Krissi, and, proven that even without power he's a nightmare to fight. A real dark horse on the fringes of world class.
Jack Caterall (23-0, 12)
The highly regarded Jack Caterall is one of the many British fighters looking to make a big statement in 2019. Sadly though it feels like he has been on the verge of making a statement for a few years now and hasn't ever felt like he's managed it. He scored a huge win over former amateur star Thomas Stalker in 2014, and hasn't really managed to make the strides since then. Good wins over Joe Hughes, Martin Gethin, Tyrone Nurse, Tyrone McKenne and Ohara Davies have followed in the years since, but it still feels like he's only operating on a domestic level. At 25 he's young enough to wait, but there is a real risk of him going stale.
Terry Flanagan (33-2, 13)
On the subject of going stale that certainly seems to be the downfall of Terry Flanagan. "Turbo" was once 33-0, the WBO Lightweight champion and a man going places,though has now suffered back to back losses and is only just making it on to this list. His biggest issue was that his record papered over the fact he had been a thoroughly disappointing Lightweight champion. He had won the title in sensational fashion in July 2015 but his challengers were, without trying to sound too harsh, poor and uninspiring. Those poor challengers likely contributed to Flanagan going off the boil and looking very poor in his last two bouts. He needs something to light the fire under his backside in 2019 or his career with crash and burn, but he does have the talent to right the ship. He needs desire to go with that talent if he's to get his career back in track.
Jose Zepeda (30-1-0-1, 25)
Interestingly one of the few notable fighters that Flanagan has beaten was heavy handed American southpaw Jose Zepeda, who unfortunately suffered a nasty injury in his bout with Flanagan. Since the loss to the Englishman we've seen Zepeda going 7-0-0-1 (5) with notable wins overAmeth Diaz, Carlos Diaz Ramirez and Abner Lopez. This wins, and Zepeda's connections, have secured Zepeda a world title shot against Jose Carlos Ramirez in February. That will be make or break for Zepeda, and should, in all honesty, be a gut check for Ramirez at the very least.
Rances Barthelemy (27-1-0-1, 14)
Cuban fighter Rances Barthelemy is a 32 year old former Super Featherweight and Lightweight champion, who has shown world class ability, but not the mentality to go with it. His resume is an impressive one littered with wins over good competition, like Hylon Williams Jr, Arash Usmanee, Argenis Mendez, Fernando David Saucedo, Antonio DeMarco, Denis Shafikov and Kiryl Relikh, but he's had a fair bit of good luck, and some thoroughly uninspired performances. A great talent, but a fighter who tends to underwhelm.
Yves Ulysse Jr (17-1, 9)
Sensational Canadian fighter Yves Ulysse Jr is a 30 year old who looks to be wanting to prove himself before getting a world title opportunity. In 2017 he began to make a charge through the rankings, dominating Zachary Ochoa and Ricky Sismundo, but suffered a real set back of a decision loss to Steve Claggett inn October 2017. Since then he has bounced back brilliantly with wins over Cletus Seldin, Ernesto Espana and Maximilliano Becerra. He may have a loss on his record but he also has a host of good wins and is quickly moving towards a world title fight.
Maxim Dadashev (12-0, 10)
Unbeaten Russian fighter Maxim Dadshev, aka "Mad Max", is a hard hitting 28 year old who is based in the US and is rising contender to get excited about. His first 4 or 5 bouts were nothing special but since then every fight has been a step forwards. In 2018 he scored notable wins over Abdiel Ramirez, Darleys Perez and Antonio DeMarco. He's not looked unbeatable, and was forced to dig deep against Perez and DeMarco, but after just 12 fights that's not really a surprise. In 2019 we expect his team to continue matching hard and prepare him for a world title shot in 2020. A flawed but exciting fringe contender.
Anthony Yigit (21-1-1, 7)
Swedish fighter Anthony Yigit is best known internationally for his gutsy loss to Ivan Baranchyk in October 2018, when his face was badly swollen and the referee stopped the fight. Prior to that loss he had been unbeaten and pretty impressive picking up the European title and scoring good wins over the likes of DeMarcus Corley, Lenny Daws,Sandor Martin and Joe Hughes. Despite the loss to Baranchyk the personable Yigit certainly deserves to remain in the title mix, and hopefully he does get another shot in the future.
Hiroki Okada (19-0, 13)
Japan's Hiroki Okada is another fringe contender, looking to come into his own in 2019. He's a former Japanese and WBO Asia Pacific champion, but really failed to deliver on his US debut, struggling past Cristian Rafael Coria. His next bout is set for February 10th against Raymundo Beltran, and that is going to be make or break for both men. Beltran is seen as being on the slide, but Okada is seen as untested. A loss to Beltran will likely send Okada back to Japan with his tail between his legs, whilst a loss for Beltran will end his career. Interestingly the Okada Vs Beltran bout is expected to decide a future WBC title challenger, for Jose Carlos Ramirez
Akihiro Kondo (31-7-1, 18)
Another Japanese fighter in and around the world rankings at 140lbs is 33 year old tough guy Akihiro Kondo, who will be fighting in an IBF eliminator in February against Downua Ruawaiking. The tough Kondo is best known for losing in an IBF title fight to Sergey Lipinets in 2017. Kondo is a technically solid but unspectacular fighter who is insanely tough, has a good engine and is very steady in the ring. Sadly though he is pretty 1-paced and even a win in his world title eliminator won't really prepare him for any of the champions.
Downua Ruawaiking (14-0, 11)
The man Kondo is fighting in his IBF title eliminator is unbeaten Thai youngster Downua Ruawaiking, aka Apinun Khongsong, who debuted at the age of 19 is now only 22. Despite his youth he has been on a tear on the regional scene and really impressed back in December he did a number on Sonny Katiandagho to record a 4th straight stoppage win, and didn't look like he had even got out of 1st gear. It's hard to really know how good Downua is, but we're expecting to find out when he faces Kondo, he could be the next hidden gem from Thailand, or a fighter who fails when he takes the next step up. A really interesting match up.
Shohjahon Ergashev (15-0, 14)
One of a number of Uzbek fighters rising through the ranks, at an alarming pace, is Shohjahon Ergashev. The hard hitting 27 year old southpaw announced himself on the international scene in 2018, with notable wins against Sonny Fredrickson and Zhimin Wang. Ergashev is incredibly exciting, hard hitting, dangerous and aggressive. His last couple of wins in 2018 took less than 90 seconds combined and he's coming into 2019 with a lot of momentum and a much higher profile. Whether he's the #1 Uzbek in the division is yet to be seen, but he's certainly in the conversation.
Shakhram Giyasov (6-0, 5)
The other Uzbek looking to prove he is the #1 is 2016 Olympic silver medal winner Shakhram Giyasov, who only turned in 2018, making his debut in March, but has quickly become one of the most exciting rising stars out there. Despite his short career he has looked sensational, heavy handed, exciting and like a sure fire world champion. Technically there are things for him to work on but his competition so far has been stellar, with a combined record of 139-35-2. We're expecting to see Giyasov take a huge step up this year, and he's expected to fight in the Uzbek national stadium in Tashkent in early 2019.
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.