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.
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.