Earlier in this series we looked at a Japanese Midddleweight title bout, and amazingly the men involved in that would later go on to have a second thriller a few months later, giving us more amazing rounds of their rivalry. Unlike their first bout, which ended in a draw, the rematch left us with no questions as to who was the better man. Whilst we had a conclusive ending this time, it doesn't take away from the fact we ended up with another cracker.
Kazuto Takesako (10-0-1, 10) vs Shuji Kato (10-1-2, 6) II
In March 2019 Kazuto Takesako saw his perfect stoppage run come to an end, as he was held to a draw by Shuji Kato in a mandatory Japanese title fight. For Takesako it was a successful defense, his second, but was a less than impressive performance. He had struggled mightily with the southpaw jab, the movement and the relaxed defense of Kato. The challenger exceeded expectations in not only taking the power of the champion but also landing plenty of leather of his own.
After 10 rounds both men had felt like they had deserved the win. Just 5 months later we saw them go again.
This time Takesako knew what to expect from the slippery Kato, he knew he had to find a way around the jab of the challenger and that he needed to find a way to neutralise the southpaw stance of Kato. As for Kato he knew he had to do more, and make sure the judges didn't have any questions as to who deserved the win.
The opening round was very much round 11 of their rivalry, rather than round 1 of fight 2. Just like their first fight Takesako was on the offensive, backing up Kato who tried to slip and slide, use the ring and his jab. Unlike the early staged of fight 1 Takesako was having success very early and was forcing his fight on to Kato, with the pressure having success early on. Kato was able to soak it up, and landed some meaty blows of his own, but it was clear, this wasn't a normal opening round.
If the opening round was round 11 of their rivalry then round 2 of this bout was certainly round 12, with the round being violent from the off. It was clear Takesako wanted to get revenge for being taken the distance and he was unleashing massive power shots. Kato was taking them, and landing some solid counters, but was clear having his toughness tested early. If he could see out the early storm then there was a chance he could get to Takesako late, especially with the way the champion was throwing everything with bad intentions, and leaving himself open for counters.
We won't ruin any more of the fight, but lets just say this is brutal, this is exciting and this is a bout that mean so much to both men following their draw. Neither man was in the ring to lose, and both had to dig deep with both men landing some very heavy leather as they both began to slow. A genuinely punishing battle for both men!
The contenders at the Middleweight division make for an odd bunch, with very few fighters in the mix who have previously world titles, and many who are really more prospects than contenders. In fact really the division is really lacking in terms of top tier contenders, with only a handful who have proven they belong in and around world level. It's a bad division as such but it's one that is clearly in transition
Rob Brant (25-2, 17)
American fighter Rob Brant shocked the boxing world in 2018 when he out pointed Ryota Murata to claim the WBA "regular" title. Sadly for him however his reign was a short one and it ended in 2019 when he travelled to Japan to face Murata in a rematch. Brant is a talented volume fighter who belongs in the title mix, but he'll need to rebuild in 2020 if he's to get a shot at the big time. Sadly it feels like his short reign at the top is going to be as good as it gets for Brant.
Chris Eubank Jr (29-2, 22)
Second generation fighter Chris Eubank Jr received a lot of attention in his homeland early in his career, under the guidance of his enigmatic father. In recent years however he has seemingly vanished off the face of the planet. Wins over James DeGale and Matt Korobov in 2019 are impressive, but the profile of the two fights was miniscule compared to the quality of fighters in them. Since losing in 2018 to George Groves Eubank has really struggled to get attention, no matter how solid his competition has been. Fingers crossed 2020 is a better year for the 30 year old, who is talented, charismatic and exciting.
Jaime Munguia (35-0, 28)
Former WBO Light Middleweight champion Jaime Munguia moved up to Middleweight for his last fight, and 11th round TKO win over Gary O'Sullivan. The 23 year old Mexican is an exciting, high volume fighter, but a pretty limited one and someone who we expect will struggle to make a mark on the division if he doesn't tighten up his defense, significantly. If we look at Munguia as a fan friendly fringe contender, and are willing to give him time to improve, he could become a solid contender. In reality however he's too well known to be given time and the division is too weak to stall a title fight for him. His biggest issue at Middleweight was his biggest strength at Light Middleweight. His size. At Light Middleweight he was huge, but being huge has forced him to move up and face bigger fighters. We suspect this is going to be a really tough year for Munguia and his management team.
Sergiy Derevyanchenko (13-2, 10)
Talented Ukrainian Sergiy Derevyanchenko is an unlucky man. The technically excellent, solid punching 34 year old could, well have had wins over Daniel Jacobs and Gennady Golovkin had judges just seen things a little bit different. Both of his losses, to legitimate world class fighters, have essentially been decided by 2 rounds, and he has given both men one of their toughest bouts. Sadly at 34 years old Derevyanchenko is likely on the slide, and may get 1 more shot at the top, if he's lucky. On the other hand he may well find himself as part of the "who needs him?" cub following his impressive performances in defeat.
Liam Smith (29-2-1, 16)
Englishman Liam Smith is a former WBO Light Middleweight champion who has moved up in weight but is yet to really show what he can do at Middleweight, having scored a couple of rather low level wins since moving up. At Light Middleweight he was a strong, powerful and tough, yet relatively basic, fighter. At 31 years old Smith does have time to mount a real charge at 160lbs, but he can't keep wasting time against B tier competition. This year has to be one where he steps back up to the fringes and gets the chance to prepare for a top Middleweight.
Liam Williams (22-2-1, 17)
Another British fighter looking to make their mark at Middleweight is Liam Williams, a 27 year old from Wales. Both of his losses came to Liam Smith at Light Middleweight but since changing trainer Williams has looked a more powerful and devastating fighter. He's not the most polished or rounded fighter out there, but he's strong, powerful and is still very much an improving fighter with a very fun style. It's going to be fun to see him mixing at world level, and given his Decemeber 2019 win over Alantez Fox a world title fight isn't going to be far away.
Kamil Szeremeta (21-0, 5)
Poland's relatively unknown Kamil Szeremeta is next in line for Gennady Golovkin and is the IBF mandatory challenger. The 30 year old has become the mandatory more on the volume of his wins than the quality of them but the former European champion is certainly not a bad fighter. He's been unbeaten since his pro debut in 2012 and has a couple of past it fringe contenders on his record, in the form hand Rafal Jackiewicz and Kassim Ouma. He's strong, despite not being much of a puncher, but shouldn't really be much of a test for Golovkin, even a much faded 2020 Golovkin.
Kazuto Takesako (12-0-1, 11)
It's unlikely we'll ever see Kazuto Takesako making a mark at world level, but the hard hitting Japanese fighter is knocking on the door of the top 15 and has unified the Japanese and OPBF titles, whilst being fun to watch, powerful and exciting. There is, obviously a gap between him and the top guys in the world, but given the relative lack of depth at 160lbs the 28 year old could end up finding himself as fringe contender sooner rather than later. He's here more because the division is weak, rather than being anything great, but we would advise fans do at least make a note of his name, as he is very fun to watch.
Janibek Alimkhanuly (8-0, 4)
Top Rank promoted Kazakh Middleweight hopeful Janibek Alimkhanuly is a former amateur standout who took some time to adapt to the professional ranks, but now appears to have settled at the weight. In 2019 he racked up 4 wins, 3 by stoppage, and took on progressively better competition. We would be a little bit surprised to see the 26 year old southpaw get a world title fight in 2020, but we wouldn't be surprised to see him knocking on the door as we go into 2021.
Edgar Berlanga (13-0, 13)
The divisional wild card is American puncher Edgar Berlanga, who may end up being a genuine star, if his power carries up through the levels. In 13 fights he has blown away 13 opponents, all in the first round. His competition has, admittedly, been limited, but not terrible and his December win over Cesar Nunez was particularly notable as Nunez had gone 8 rounds with Vincent Feigenbutz in his only previous loss. He's still very much a work in progress but if he keeps blowing opponents up and taking steps forward it's going to be very, very hard to hold him back from world level contenders for long.
Whilst no one will ever describe the Japanese Middleweight scene as being world class it does deliver an alarming number of fantastic fights, in fact the title scene really tends to give us a more consistently entertaining fights than any other division in Japan. Thanks to great fights like Tadashi Yuba Vs Carlos Linares, Makoto Fuchigami Vs Koji Sato and Tomohiro Ebisu v Makoto Fuchigami we have started to become accustomed to Japanese Middleweight bouts being fantastically entertaining and worth watching.
This year has been no exception with 2 more great Japanese Middleweight title bouts. Today we delve into the Treasure Trove and bring you the first of those bouts, a very entertaining bout between concussive punching champion and the #1 contender. With the men clashing in the Champion Carnival.
Kazuto Takesako (10-0, 10) vs Shuji Kato (10-1-1, 6) I
It was March 2nd when Japanese Middleweight champion Kazuto Takesako returned to the ring for the first time in 2019 to make his second defense off the title. He had demolished all those who had been put in front. With 10 straight stoppage wins the hard hitting World Sports Boxing gym fighter had looked brutally heavy handed, with dynamite in his straight right hand, he was technically flawed but strong, and did enough things right to always have the respect of his opponents. He was not only able to land concussive blows up top but also had a very solid array of body shots in his arsenal and knew how to finish opponents off.
Kato on the other hand was pretty much the opposite and he was a skilled fighter not a puncher. He had respectable power, but not concussive. It was more the sort of power that kept opponents honest and allowed him to chip away at them. His real strength was in his movement, his southpaw stance and his busy jab, along with his ability to ride shots. In many ways he was the next Makoto Fuchigami, a fighter who lacked major power but had success with his skills, and although not a massively entertaining fighter he could have great fights with the right dance partner, such as an ultra aggressive opponent.
What we ended up getting was a show case of what both men were about, with Takesako pressing, constantly, and Kato countering, soaking up the pressure and unleashing his own combinations. Whether he was on the ropes or centre ring Kato was finding space for his own uppercuts and hooks, whilst Takesako's own offense looked more devastating, but less effective. The lead to a fantastic match of wills and and desire and a truly wonderful piece of boxing treasure.
Notable the two men did it all again a few months later in excellent rematch. Their second bout wasn't quite as this one, but was another brilliant fight between two men with styles that just matched up brilliantly.
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.