To end 2019 we got a host of world title bouts, one of which saw a pair of veterans put on a great showing in a bout that easily outshone all expectations and was much, much, more entertaining than it had any right to be. It wasn't a Fight of the Year contender, in the grand scheme of things, but was certainly a sensational post-Christmas treat for fight fans as we began to prepare for the end of the year.
Akira Yaegashi (28-6, 16) Vs Moruti Mthalane (32-8, 25)
In one corner we had former 3-weight world champion Akira Yaegashi, a popular Japanese warrior who had losses piling up but kept a solid cult following for the way he fought, and his in ring mentality, which focused more on thrilling fans than doing things the easy way. At the age of 36 and with a host of wars behind him it seemed almost certain, win or lose, that this was going to be his final bout at world level. He had given more than he needed to to the sport, and it had a taken a toll on his body over the years. He had suffered numerous injuries over the years, most notably to his eyes but also a nasty injury to his jaw early in his career, and yet was determined to reach the top one more time.
In the other was the often over-looked Moruti Mthalane, a sensationally talented South African who was defending the IBF Flyweight title. Mthalane had been unbeaten in 11 years coming in to this, with 3 world title reigns. Had Mthalane been heavier he would have been someone fight fans would have adored. He was aggressive, smart, and technical. He had given Nonito Donaire one of his toughest bouts, way back in 2008, and had been involved in a number of over-looked classics, including a brilliant 2012 clash with Ricardo Nunez. Sadly poor decisions had seen Mthalane lose a number of his prime years, but he remained very fresh faced at the age of 37 and was looking to record a third straight win over a Japanese opponents, having stopped Masahiro Sakamoto at the end of 2018 and the beaten Masayuki Kuroda in May 2019.
Despite a combined age in their early 70's hardcore fans knew these two could fight. What few expected was a really sensational bout. We knew they could go, but we also knew neither man was in their physical prime. What we ended up getting however was something amazing.
Early on we saw Yaegashi fighting on the move, setting distance and a high tempo to try and neutralised Mthalane's compact pressure. It was a smart gameplan from the Japanese warrior, who knew that mixing it up close with Mthalane wasn't going to be a good idea. Mthalane stayed tight defensively and pressured well, with the champion obviously knowing this wasn't going to be a sprint.
As the rounds went on Yaegashi began to go through the gears before Mthalane forced the bout to become a war, using his footwork to cut the distance. As early as round 3 the men were standing toe to toe and unleashing big shots, then trying to avoid the response. It was incredible to watch some of the back and forth we were getting, and it was very easy to forget that both men were the wrong side of 35.
Going into round 4, we knew we were getting something rather damn special. Though questions were hanging over both fighters. Could Yaegashi's body and engine hold up for 12 rounds? Could Mthalane, who had looked fantastic in beating Kuroda, really take the win against Japanese boxing royalty in Japan?
For those who missed this at the end of 2019 do your self a favour and enjoy this treasure from late in the year. For those who watched it live...you know it's worth a re-watch!
One of the most interesting divisions right now is the Flyweight division, which features 4 world champions with a combined record of 88-3 (62) and mixed youth and experience well. It also mixes styles really well, with a hyper aggressive champion, a skilled multi-weight champion, a counter punching genius and a talented, yet incredibly frustrating, champion. It's also a division with some really interesting contenders, which again mixes styles, experiences and skills.
WBO - Kosei Tanaka (15-0, 10)
Unbeaten Japanese star Kosei Tanaka is enjoying success in his third division, having won world titles at Minimumweight and Light Flyweight before beginning his charge at Flyweight in 2018. He's a fighter who's inconsistent at times, but when he's on he looks sensational. Blessed with incredible speed, in both his hands and feet, under-rated power and a smart boxing brain Tanaka can do it all, but is regularly dragged into the wrong type of fight.
IBF - Moruti Mthalane (39-2, 26)
The most experienced champion in the division is 37 year old South African Moruti Mthalane, who has got 2 losses on his record but has gone unbeaten in over 11 years. The 2-time IBF champion has the best resume in the division, with notable wins against the likes of Zolani Tete, John Riel Casimero and most recently Akira Yaegashi. Despite his age he's looked after his body well, avoided wars and looks like he could have another year or two at the top. It's just a shame that Mthalane gave up the IBF title way back in 2013 or he'd likely have been a much more well regarded fighter.
WBA - Artem Dalakian (19-0, 14)
Azeri born Ukrainian fighter Artem Dalakian seemed like a breath of fresh air in 2018, when he travelled to the US and beat Brian Viloria for the WBA title. Sadly since then his reign has been dire, despite going 3-0 (3). He has made 2 mandatory defenses against poor Thai challengers and made a voluntary against the hapless Gregorio Lebron. Next up for Dalakian, in February, is Josber Perez, and it's clear that Dalakian and his team are happy to avoid decent challengers if they can. Sooner or later the WBA will force him to face a solid challenger, but until then expect fighters like Perez to be the norm for the talented, yet frustrating, 32 year old.
WBC - Julio Cesar Martinez (15-1-0-1, 12)
All action Mexican puncher Julio Cesar Martinez had a sensational 2019, going 3-0-0-1 (3). Notably he stopped the once touted Andrew Selby and former champion Cristofer Rosales. The only blot on his record for the year was his stupid late shot on Charlie Edwards, that gave the Englishman an excuse to seek a DQ win, though the result did only end up being changed to a No Contest. Had it not been for the late shot Martinez would have been the champion in August, rather than waiting until December. He's now planning his first defense for February and a win there is likely to open the door to much bigger fights down the line.
In recent years we've seen the Flyweight division really shine with great talent, incredible depth and fantastic match making. Right now however it's a division that's a bit of a mess and between the 4 world champions we don't have anyone with a lengthy reign, in fact all of the champions won their title this year, and one of the current champions has spoke about leaving the division in the near future.
Artem Dalakian (18-0, 13) - WBA (2 defenses)
As mentioned none of the champions has held their title long, in fact the longest reign only began in February when Azeri born Ukrainina Artem Dalakian claimed the WBA title, with an upset win over Brian Viloria. Since then he has defended the title twice, beating Yodmongkol Vor Saengthep and Gregorio Lebron, both by stoppage. Dalakian is a big, strong, powerful fighter who is surprisingly tricky and combines his heavy hands with some unorthodox fighting. He's 31 already, but hasn't had a hard career and is a "young" 31, if we can say such a thing.
Cristofer Rosales (28-3, 19) - WBC (1 defense)
Nicaraguan fighter Cristofer Rosales shocked the boxing world back in April when he stopped the then unbeaten Daigo Higa, who had been stripped of the WBC title on the scales. Since beating Higa for the belt we've seen Rosales defend the title once, stopping Paddy Barnes in Northern Ireland with a brilliant body shot. He's now set to make his second defense later this month, as he takes on Charlie Edwards in London. Rosales is a brilliant boxer-puncher who has developed from losses earlier in his career, to forge a good standing as a world champion. Sadly though his reign is expected to end shortly, win or lose against Edwards, with Rosales stating he intends to move up to Super Flyweight in the near future.
Moruti Mthalane (36-2, 24) - IBF (0 defenses)
South African Moruti Mthalane is currently enjoying his second reign as the IBF Flyweight champion, having won the title back in July when he beaten Muhammad Waseem. At 36 years old he is the division's senior citizen, but is a young 36 and is someone with a lot of world class experience. Mthalane is going to be defending his title on New Year's Eve against little known challenge Masahiro Sakamoto. Mthalane is a wonderfully talented fighter with the best ring IQ of any champion in the division, he's surprisingly quick, has a good steady work rate and under-rated power.
Kosei Tanaka (12-0, 7) - WBO (0 defenses)
The newest if the champions in the division is Japan's Kosei Tanaka, who claimed the WBO title in September, to become a 3 weight champion in just his 12th professional bout. The talented Japanese youngster claimed the title in thrilling 12 round war against Sho Kimura and is expected to make his first defense of the title in Spring 2019 against Ryoichi Taguchi. Tanaka is a highly skilled, lighting quick boxer puncher who already has an incredible record, with wins against Ryuji Hara, Vic Saludar, Moises Cuentes, Angel Acosta, Palangpol CP Freshmart and Kimura. Sadly for Tanaka he often lets the warrior inside dictate how he fights, giving up his skills to have a fighter, something that has seen him being dropped in the past and suffering notable injuries. If he can use his brain more going forward he could be an incredibly tough fighter to dethrone, that however is a big if.
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.