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.
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.