For this weeks one to watch we focus on a bout from the US as a Japanese fighter travels Stateside to take on a talented and touted Puerto Rican fighter in an interesting fight set to be shown on a Top Rank card. The bout isn't a massive one, but it is very much a must win for both men, if they are going to secure themselves a world title bout in the talented laden Lightweight division.
The One to Watch?
Masayoshi Nakatani (18-1, 12) Vs Felix Verdejo (27-1, 17)
December 12th (Saturday)
A former OPBF Lightweight champion looks to build on an impressive performance in a loss 17 months ago as he takes on one of the most highly regarded Puerto Rican hopefuls out there. If both men are 100%, or close to it, this will be a very interesting contest between two men who will likely see a win as their chance to set up a world title fight in the new year. On paper it's maybe not an A* bout, but it's certainly a solid B level match up between world level contenders.
Japan's Masayoshi Nakatani is a 31 year old who was making a name on the amateur scene before turning professional in 2011. After turning professional he was moved quickly and in his 7th bout he won the OPBF Lightweight title with a decision victory over Yoshitaka Kato. He would defend that title 11 times before making his international debut and take on the feared Teofimo Lopez in the US, giving Lopez his toughest bout to date. Although Nakatani lost to Lopez his performance drew positive reviews, with many expecting big things of the Japanese fighter.
Sadly following that loss Nakatani announced his retirement. Only to then un-retire for this bout.
In the ring Nakatani is a tall, awkward fighter, with incredibly long arms, a very solid jab, good straight punches and under-rated body work, as shown in his excellent early career win against Shuhei Tsuchiya. Although not a 1-punch KO artist he's a solid puncher and certainly has enough pop in his shots to get respect. He's a well schooled fighter though he's certainly not the quickest, sharpest, or most agile, and a speedy fighter can give him trouble, as we saw when Izuki Tomioka gave him fits.
Felix Verdejo is a 27 year old Puerto Rican who many expected to be the successor to Miguel Cotto as the next big thing in Puerto Rican boxing. He was an amateur standout, winning over 100 amateur bouts and reaching the quarter finals of the 2012 Olympics, where he lost to Vasyl Lomachenko. Soon after the Olympics he turned professional and it was assumed Top Rank would guide the youngster, who was just 19 when he debuted, to superstardom. Things seemed to be going perfect for Verdejo early on and he reached 22-0 (15) with no problems at all, whilst showing a star winning smile, an exciting and aggressive style and scarcely losing more than a round a fight. Then things crashed, literally, in 2016 as Verdejo was involved in a bike accident. Although he fought in early 2017 the year was pretty much a write off, and then in 2018 things came off the rails when he was stopped in a major upset.
Thankfully for Verdejo things have gotten back on track and he has won 4 in a row, including an eye catching win against the over-matched Will Madera back in July, and looks to be back to the point where is, once again, seen as a star in the making.
Verdejo is a very talented fighter, with a lot of promise, a good ring mind, a lot of amateur experience and good know how. He's not the biggest, strongest or most physically imposing, but he's quick, sharp and when he has a point to prove he fights like a man who is genuine world class. Sadly though he has been inconsistent, and has struggled to impose himself against his better opponents. It's also worth noting that his loss, to Antonio Lozada Torres, came to a man with similar proportions to Nakatani.
What to expect?
Whilst it's easy to look at the Lozada result and query how Verdejo will fare with Nakatani we need to begin this by suggesting that that result really isn't too relevant here. Nakatani is very much boxer, Lozada, despite being tall, is a more of a crude pressure fighter, applying pressure behind his jab and setting a high work rate. That's not to state that we ignore that result all together, as the length and straight shots of Lozada did give Verdejo fits, but Nakatani is a very different type of fighter to the Mexican giant.
We suspect Nakatani will have watched that bout though, and will be looking to have similar success with his jab to what Lozada had, and will also be looking to dig in body shots, another thing Lozada had success with. Sadly for Nakatani though we do wonder whether he has the intensity in him to do what Lozada did.
Given that result we expect to see Verdejo fighting cautiously. Although he's the smaller man he is a speedy fighter and if he uses his footwork well and his hand speed he could end up using a game plan similar to the one Tomioka used against Nakatani. Landing single shots and getting out of dodge. It could make for a boring fight, but he has got the speed for it. Whether he has the temperament is different question. One thing that is clear is that he can't be over-negative, as we've seen from him at times, if he is, and if he doesn't show enough offensively, he will be taking Nakatani's jab at range over, and over.
We expect Verdejo to be really fired up here, and looking to make a statement to Top Rank that deserves a shot at Teofimo Lopez. If he's on point we'll see him taking a decision over Nakatani, taking a step towards a world title fight. But he needs to be on point. We suspect he'll learn quickly that Nakatani is no joke, will take some early shots, then decide to box and move, picking off the Japanese fighter to take a clear, but competitive, decision win.
The bad news?
There is a worry that Nakatani will not be the fighter he once was. As mentioned he did announce his retirement from professional boxing in 2019, following his loss to Teofimo Stevenson, and there is a real worry that they have simply made him an offer here too good to refuse. At 31 however he's not an old fighter and it might just be us being cynical and expecting the worse, rather than Nakatani just going for a decent pay day. Other than that we really can't see any bad news here, and the bout should be one to look forward to. If both men are up for it, we should get a really intriguing bout.
The Lightweight division is one of the most peculiar at the moment, having a unified champion, a vacant title and a champion heading up to Welterweight. This is leaving the division a bit of a mess, but sadly it's a mess that doesn't have a great deal of focus. Thankfully it does have a good number of contenders coming through the ranks, and looking to fill the holes at the top.
If you missed out at the champions in the division that's available to read here- The state of the Division - Lightweight - The Champions
Richard Commey (27-2, 24)
Hard hitting Ghanian fighter Richard Commey has had a hard knock career, winning his first 24 bouts before losing a razor close decision to Robert Easter Jr, in an IBF title fight, then losing another close decision to Denis Shafikov. Since then he has bounced back and will be getting a second world title fight on February 2nd when he faces Isa Chaniev in Texas, for the IBF title. At the age of 31 Commey won't get many more chances and will know that he needs to beat Chaniev if he's going to get the big pay days his career deserves. He's heavy-handed, tough, has a great work rate and is a real nightmare to fight. A real physical force.
Isa Chaniev (13-1, 6)
Having mentioned Commey's February 2nd bout it makes sense to talk about his upcoming opponent, 26 year old Russian fighter Isa Chaniev. Chaniev's career, which began in 2015, saw him take 9 low key wins before stepping up and beating Rimar Metuda. That win was followed by a loss to Fedor Papazov in May 2017 and since then he has really come of age, with 3 impressive against Jean Pierrer Bauwens, Juan Martin Elorde and Ismael Barroso. He's earned a shot at the title, but will likely be the under-dog against the hard hitting Commey. He's a good fighter, who has been impressive recently, but maybe getting his shot just a touch too early.
Luke Campbell (19-2, 15)
Baby faced Englishman Luke Campbell is a 31 year old southpaw who looked shaky early in his career, following an excellent amateur career, but has developed into a fantastic boxer-puncher. As an amateur he won European and Olympic gold medals, and came runner up in the World Championships. As a professional he showed some problems adapting to the professional style losing in 2015 to Yvan Mendy and being dropped in 2016 by Argenis Mendez. Since then he has matured, adjusted his style, avenged the loss to Mendy and given Jorge Linares a really tough contest. He's expected to get a second title shot in 2019 and would likely be favoured against anyone in the division, other than Vasyl Lomachenko and Mikey Garcia.
Robert Easter Jr (21-1, 14)
Rangy American boxer Robert Easter Jr is a former IBF champion, having won the belt in 2016 when he narrowly beat Richard Commey. He held the title for close to 2 years before losing it in July 2018 to Mikey Garcia. His seems impressive on paper, with wins against Luis Cruz, Denis Shafikov and Javier Fortuna, but the reality is that he was very fortunate against Shafikov, a bout that had some of the worst scorecards in recent memory, and Fortuna, and his title win was also very questionable. Despite some fortunate results Easter is still a top contender, his resume is a strong one and given his dimensions he could be a nightmare for anyone. We just wonder whether he would be better off moving up in weight and letting his frame fill out a bit rather than drain his body so much to make a weight that doesn't seem to suit him particularly well.
Anthony Crolla (34-6-3, 13)
Well liked Englishman Anthony Crolla, dubbed "Million Dollar", is one of the sports good guys and at 32 years old he is on the verge of one more big fight. The former WBA Lightweight champion secured himself another shot at the WBA title when he beat Daud Yordan in November, and is now being lined up to fight Vasyl Lomachenko. Although not a huge puncher he hits hard enough to get respect from his opponents, has underrated technical ability, is tough and has a great work rate. Sadly a couple of losses to Jorge Linares showed he was a touch under the level of the divisional elite, but that doesn't change the fact that he is a top contender, and a live fighter against anyone but the very, very best.
Edis Tatli (31-2, 10)
Finland's 31 year old Edis Tatli is edging towards a world title fight. The European champion has got a strong following at home, where he has fought 32 of his 33 professional bouts, and he is very highly ranked by both the IBF and WBC, with an IBF world title eliminator in 2019 against Japan's Masayoshi Nakatani. Although not a big puncher Tatli is a hard worker in the ring, and has scored notable wins over the likes of Yvan Mendy, Francesco Patera, Mzonke Fana and Antonio De Vitis. A very talented and over-looked fighter, but one who has had a hard career with 232 rounds already under his belt, and a lot of gruelling 12 round contests.
Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12)
Having mentioned Talti's potential next opponent could be Masayoshi Nakatani it makes sense to talk about the rangy Japanese boxer-puncher. The Osakan is almost 6' tall and has a 71" reach, giving him size advantages over almost anyone else in the division. He's only 29 but already has 11 OPBF title defences and has beaten a number of good fighters, such as Shuhei Tsuchiya, Yoshitaka Kato and Ricky sismundo. Despite those good wins there has been growing frustration over the way his career has gone and it really feels like he needs to have a big bout now, or risk going stale. He's a talented boxer-puncher and a fight with Tatli would tell us a lot about both men
Nihito Arakawa (31-6-2, 18)
At 37 years old Japanese tough guy Nihito Arakawa is in the final stages of his career, but is still highly ranked by the WBO thanks to holding the WBO Asia Pacific title, which could help him secure one last big bout. The Tokyo man, now fighting out of the Watanabe gym, is best known for his 2013 bout with Omar Figueroa, a bout he lost by a long way. Over the 2 years that followed that loss Arakawa went 1-3, but has now rebounded with a run of 6-0-1, claiming the Japanese and WBO Asia Pacific titles along the way. He's still tough, but his hard and long career is likely to show when he steps up again. Still given how he fights we'd love to see him get one final big bout in 2019, before hanging them up.
Mercito Gesta (32-2-2, 17)
Once highly touted Filipino fighter Mercito Gesta has come up short in a couple of world title bouts, losing to Miguel Vazquez and Jorge Linares, but bounced back from the loss to Linares with a win over Robert Manzanarez to remain in the mix. He would be an under-dog against the bigger names in the division but is a proven fighter, who has a wealth of experience, good skills and relatively large following, as well as name value in the US. Sadly Gesta was one of the many fighters who was dubbed the next Pacquiao, a tag that never seems to do a fighter any good, and his early promise has never been fulfilled, and likely never will be.
Roman Andreev (22-0, 16)
Russian fighter Roman Andreev is a limited but dangerous fighter who has beaten the likes of Rey Labao and Craig Evans. At 32 years old he's an old fighter, but will feel like he still has time on his side, having only had 91 professional rounds under his belt. He can be out boxed, as we saw when he faced Evans in February, but has good power, toughness and a will to win, and could well pick up a title in a division that looks set to be blown open. Sadly if he does win a belt it's hard to imagine him holding it long, and we suspect he would be little more than a transitional champion. At the time of writing he is ranked #1 by the WBO, but would really need Vasyl Lomachenko to vacate the title to have any chance of winning the belt.
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.