Last Friday we finally got the chance to see the Japanese Featherweight title bout between defending champion Ryo Sagawa (10-2, 5) and mandatory challenger Hinata Maruta (11-1-1, 9).
The two men were originally supposed to clash in 2020, as part of the Champion Carnival, but saw their bout being delayed due to Covid 19. There was then a delay to the broadcasting of the bout, due to an earthquake in Japan earlier this month. Despite the delays, and the tragedies surrounding them, it was a bout that we were really looking forward to, and a bout that promised a lot. Thankfully it delivered and was a brilliant bout, well up there with some of the best bouts of 2021 so far. It was high level stuff, exciting and a really, really interesting bout.
In the end Maruta dethroned Sagawa, stopping him late in round 7, and finally lived up to the promise he had shown glimpses of since his days as an amateur. Before then however both men had shown a lot to like and given us a great bout.
With the bout now re-watched we've decided to give it the "Five Take Aways" treatment and share some of the things we took from the bout.
1-This is the best we've seen from Maruta
When he turned professional there was a lot of expectations on the shoulders of Hinata Maruta, who was aiming to win a world title within 3 years of his debut and was regarded as the future of the Morioka Gym. There was a lot of pressure on a man who was just a teenager. It was clear he had insane potential, and watching his early bouts it was clear he could go all the way, but there was also a lot of work to do and he could, at times, admire his work too much, and want to show off the flashy things, rather than get in and get the job done, drawing out bouts that that could have ended quickly. Here we saw him put it all together and put on a career best performance. He still switched off a little bit at times, but all in all this was a brilliant performance, he was sharp, quick, accurate, and when the time came to close the show he did just that. This was, by far and away, the best we've seen from Maruta.
2-Sagawa wasn't there to lose
Over the last few years Ryo Sagawa had been on a great role and had scored a string of notable wins over the likes of Junki Sasaki, Ryo Matsumoto, Shingo Kawamura, Al Toyogon and Reiya Abe. He wasn't going into the ring here to just hand his title over to some young upstart. He may have ended up being stopped in the end, but Sagawa was not in the ring to hand over his title and crown a new prince of Japanese boxing. Instead he fought hard, changed things up and tried to rely on his deep amateur experience and tough professional competition. He boxed early on and managed to turn up the heat as the bout went on, trying to get into Maruta's head and change the momentum of the bout. He wanted to keep his title, keep his career going forward and his effort can not be questioned here.
3-High level boxing can be exciting
There's an old George Foreman quote that we've all heard and seen, "Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it". Whilst that can be true, to some extent, we can still get high level boxing contests that are great to watch and highly entertaining affairs, when two fighters aren't overly negative and aren't coming to run and avoid a fight. That was certainly the case here. This was genuinely high level boxing, almost everything was based off technically solid work, jabs were the key for both men, feints and counter punching were seen regularly and both men fought first with their brains, rather than their brawn. Despite this being boxing contest, and not a fight, this was still a hugely exciting bout, and thoroughly entertaining. Really good boxing, and really good bout!
4-The finish was sensational
The big question mark we had coming in to this, in regards to Sagawa, was his chin, and it had let him down early in his career. Here he took some huge shots, with one of the best coming at the end of round 3, and showed surprising toughness and heart. Despite that there was little he could do to prevent the finish in round 7. Early in the round he took some big shots, and came through them trying to turn the fight around, even having some success in dictating the bout and forcing Maruta to back up. Sadly though there was next to nothing he could do to stop the counter right hand that dropped him the first time. That was a peach of a shot. Sagawa getting back to his feet afterwards was impressive, but Maruta had his man hurt, heard the clacker to signify the final 10 seconds of the round and finished with one of the best combinations we'll see this year. A brilliant, brutal, combination to put away the defending champion.
5-The Featherweight division in Japan is incredible!
The argument as to what makes a good division is one that we can go around in circles on, however a good division for us is "having a number of fighters who can be matched to give compelling and even looking match ups, and though fighters having no reason to avoid each other". With that definition in mind what an amazing scene the Japanese Featherweight division is right now. We have pure boxers like Sagawa, Maruta and Reiya Abe, we have punchers like Satoshi Shimizu and Tsuyoshi Tameda, we have craft little fighters like Musashi Mori, warriors like Daisuke Watanabe and Shingo Kusano, and emerging youngsters like Ryosuke Nishida and Rentaro Kimura, Jinki Maeda and Mikito Nakano.
Whilst not all of these fighters will ever compete at world level the domestic picture is incredible and there's no excuse for us to not get more amazing bouts in the division. With Maruta as champion we have potential match ups against Shimizu, Mori and Abe for the next year or two, and we have Sagawa's rebuilding process to look forward to. This division is going to be on fire in Japan for the next 5 or 6 years, if not longer, and to us that's something to be really, really excited about!
Earlier this month we saw a new Japanese Youth Light Flyweight champion being crowned, as Yudai Shigeoka (3-0, 2) scored a TKO win over Ryu Horikawa (3-1-1, 1) to claim the previously vacant title. The bout was later aired on Fuji TV and gave us a chance to see an excellent match up between two youngsters. In fact it gave us a match up that, in many ways, is part of why Japanese boxing is so good right now. Youngsters are risking unbeaten records against each other to deliver great fights and prove themselves, rather than padding their records until they are ranked high enough for a world title fight.
The bout looked great on paper, it seemed to have all the ingredients of being something special in the ring, and matched stylish boxer-mover against a more mature and aggressive pressure-fighter-come-puncher. And when they got in the ring, the two men delivered something sensational.
With the bout having been watched and dissected, it's one we want to go back over and look at again, as we bring you a Five Take Aways article on the fight.
1-The Japanese Youth title is brilliant and unique to Japan
The main Japanese title is the most competitive domestic title on the planet by far. It might not have the same history as the British title, but in recent years the Japanese title has been one that Japanese fighters have gone for, and looked to defend against top domestic fighters adding value to the title. Sadly the British title has been devalued by fighters vacating the belt, and the split between the two top promoters, leading to a lot potentially brilliant match ups simply not taking place. As a result the Japanese title has over-taken the British title in some ways.
Regardless of which title is more meaningful, the idea of a domestic Youth title is something really unique to Japan and is one of the most amazing concepts. It gives youngsters a reason to face off. They get a belt and recognition for winning bouts like this one. They have a reason to risk their records, and a reward for winning. It's something only Japan, and maybe Mexico, could pull off right now, but it's something every major boxing country should be looking to replicate. It repeatedly gives us great bouts and allows young prospects to prove themselves very early on. It really is something truly brilliant.
2-High level skills from two youngsters!
Before the first bell we knew these weren't the typical 3-0-1 and 2-0 novices we see out there. Both men had been very accomplished amateur fighters and both came into this bout with reputations as talented youngsters. In the ring that talent was evident from the very start. Horikawa looked the better boxer, he judges range well, moved like a feather at times and showed impressive punch selection. He showed touches of genuis and is clearly a brilliant schooled young fighter. Shigeoka however looked the stronger, more powerful man and the bully in the clinches, he knew he was the more mature fighter and he made the most of that advantage. Regardless of the styles the two youngsters showed some fantastic ability, heart and determination. We don't tend to see the skills these two showed at this age, and with so few fights to their name, but the skills on show really made this something very special.
3-Shigeoka is a monster...but also a work in progress
We all know Ginjiro Shigeoka is a star in the making, and he was actually working the corner for Yudai, his older brother, but what this bout showed is that Yudai is also well on his way to being a star. The 23 year old looked like a monster at times. He was being outboxed at times by Horikawa early on, but never looked too phased, and instead believed in his power, his toughness and his skills. He was was left with a bloody nose in round 3, but that seemed to drag out the dog in him, drawing out the bed in him and when he felt Horikawa slowing down he really did turn the screw. He might lack the 1-punch power of his brother but his combinations are a thing of beauty, his counter punching is excellent and his huge left hand is going to be a major threat at world level. He is however some one who sill has work to do, and we suspect his team will be working on his defense and his footwork, and at times he looked a bit too stationary for our liking. With just 3 professional bouts behind him, mistakes were expected, but he was still hugely impressive.
4-Akihiko Katsuragi did a great job
Although this was certainly not a dirty fight, the dynamic of the southpaw vs orthodox fighter caused the fighters to fall into each a fair bit and there was more clinching than we typically see in Japanese fights. Despite that Akihiko Katsuragi did really well as the referee. He gave them chances to work inside, but also knew to split them when shots weren't being thrown. He kept out of the way when he wasn't needed and only involved himself when he needed to. He also had a great view of the fighters at all times, and was clear with his instructions. Most notably he was always in position to jump in when needed and Horikawa chance when he was hurt. He didn't jump in too late, nor did he let a youngster get ruined.
This was just good, solid refereeing from a man who has been there, seen it, got the post card and knows what he's doing in the ring. Referees can learn a lot from watching how Katsuragi officiated here.
5-Do not write Ryu Horikawa off!
We've raved about Horikawa's skills already though his problem was almost certainly the fact the bout came too early for him. He's a talented boxer, but he's a kid and his lack of physical maturity and man strength showed. He was out boxing Shigeoka at times, but he lacked the fire power to get Shigeoka's respect whilst Shigeoka was able to bully him around, hurt him and walk through shots when he needed to. Despite the loss we wouldn't write him off. In fact if anything the loss will do him the world of good, it will help his team focus on letting him mature, develop physically and work on that on that side of things. He is technically very good, but also very young and needs to be given time. If he matures, as we expect, by his mid 20's he will be a real force on domestic scene and a potential national champion.
This past weekend in the US the Super Bantamweight division came alive with stellar performances from Raeese Aleem and Stephen Fulton, who both looked spectacular on Showtime on Saturday night. Before those two bouts we also had a Japanese national title fight in the division, with that bout taking place on Friday in Tokyo, and being shown around the globe on Boxing Raise.
That bout in Japan saw Gakuya Furuhashi (27-8-1, 14) dethrone Yusaku Kuga (19-5-1, 13) in what was a sensational fight for a title that has repeatedly given us amazing bouts. It was a brilliant back and forth, fought almost entirely on the inside, and it saw both men take a lot of punishment. It was competitive, dramatic, brutal and one we suggest all fight fans make an effort to watch in 2021.
Having had time to let the bout breathe before rewatching it earlier today we've decided it's now time to share our take aways from what was a genuinely amazing fight.
1-The styles gelled perfectly
When we look at potential bouts, and how much we're going to enjoy them, or whether they are going to be fan friendly we need to think about how each fighter fights, and how their styles should gel. For this bout the styles gelled amazingly. Both men have the same mentality or fighting, rather than boxing, both have similar game plans, and both have similar strengths. This made for a bout that was great on paper, and equally as good in the ring.
Despite this being a mandatory title defense for Kuga it rather fortunately showed what good match making should focus on. It's not the records that matter when making a good fight, but the styles. Both of these men wanted to work at a high pace. Both wanted to let their shots go and both did so in different ways. Kuga wanted to fight at mid-range, but was willing to fight up close in spurts. Furuhashi wanted to fight up close, and was willing to take a bomb or two to get inside. In many ways this was similar to the Angela Leo vs Stephen Fulton fight seen on Saturday, and again the styles gelled. Wonderful to watch.
2-Akihiko Katsuragi did a great job
We've been over this so many times in this series but Japanese referees seem to be consistently fantastic and Akihiko Katsuragi, the third man in the ring here, is no exception. Katsuragi stayed out of the action, he let fight, he didn't look to interject at any point. He wasn't there to get involved unless he needed to be, such as at the end of the rounds. The one exception to that came towards the end of the bout when he quite rightly stopped the contest with Kuga being completely gone. We saw a lot of praise for David Fields' work on Saturday night, for letting Leo and Fulton fight, and it was the same here with Katsuragi. When they clinched, which was incredibly rare, they were allowed to fight out of it, breaks were few and far between.
Not only did Katsuragi not interject but he was also aware of the fight, it's meaning and the men involved. A lesser referee would, potentially, have stopped this at various points. A nervous referee may have thought a man was more hurt than he actually was and jumped in. We've seen it in the past with early stoppages particularly prevalent in the UK. Katsuragi showed no intention of stopping this until he needed to.
3-This deserved a louder audience
Originally this bout was planned for April 28th 2020, as part of the annual Champion Carnival series of fights. Sadly due to Covid19 the bout was postponed by around 9 months. Covid19 not only meant there was a lengthy delay to the bout, but also meant that restrictions were put on the fans, who were limited by number and by what they were allowed to do. All fans were forced to wear masks to attend the fight and they weren't allowed to chant and cheer on their man. Instead they were pretty much limited to applauding.
We fully understand the rules, the regulations and the limitations on the fans and the venues, and why they are in place.
However this bout deserved so much more noise and atmosphere than it got. Throughout the bout we had rounds of applause, with fans appreciating the fighters, the action and the fantastic bout they were watching unfold. Sadly however it deserved chants, cheering, and roars of appreciation from a full Korakuen Hall. It was a brilliant bout, a brutal war, and a great come from behind victory for Furuhashi. It deserved to have fans going wild over what we were seeing. Instead it sounded appreciative, rather than excited. It sounded respectful, rather than rapturous. It sounded mild instead of deafening.
4-Furuhashi wasn't going to be denied
This was Furuhashi's third shot at the title and at the age of 33 it was almost certainly going to be his last. Given the punishment he took in the bout a loss would have been incredibly hard to bounce back from, mentally and physically. He put everything he had into the bout. And that's really the key to this point. It was do or die and he wasn't going to be denied. He had his head snapped back multiple times, he took huge shots to the body and kept coming forward, and it didn't matter that he had to walk into the danger zone to get to his man. He wasn't going home empty handed here.
When a fighter has the mentality Furuhashi had here they are able to dig deeper and deeper than anyone can imagine and that showed as he fought like a man willing to go to the depths of hell for the title. He beat Kuga in part, due to his desire. His refusal to lose. It's rare we see a fighter dig as deep as Furuhashi did, but he showed exactly what the title meant to him, and how much he needed that belt.
5-The end for Kuga?
Yusaku Kuga is someone known for his brutal power and his durability. Or rather he was. Sadly this is now the third time in 6 fights that Kuga has been stopped, having also been worn down by Shingo Wake in 2018 and blasted out by Jhunriel Ramonal in 2019. With that in mind we do wonder if this is the end for him. He took a lot of punishment here, and he's also been in gruelling bouts with Ryoichi Tamura, twice and Yasutaka Ishimoto, in their first bout. A man can only go to the well so many times before his body says no more and we can't help but feel that might be where Kuga's body is right now. He has been on the wrong end of a lot of punishment during his 25 fight career, and it may well be time to hang them up, for the good of his long term health.
Last Friday we saw Kosuke Saka (21-5, 18) make his first defense of the Japanese Super Featherweight, as he scored a 6th round TKO win over veteran Takuya Watanabe (37-10-1, 21), in what was Watanabe's third shot at a Japanese title. The bout, aired live on Boxing Raise, was was the first Japanese title fight of 2021 and was a hold over from last year's Champion Carnival, which was delayed due to the ongoing Pandemic, forcing a delay from April 2020 to January 2021.
With that bout now in the record books, and now re-watched we're going to share our views on the bout in the latest "Five Take Aways".
1-Saka has improved a lot in recent fights
Before the bout Kosuke Saka spoke about wanting to hit without getting hit, and seemed to have been training hard on becoming a better boxer. Through his career he has always been more of a puncher than a boxer, and it seemed strange for him to talk about such a drastic change after 25 professional bouts. To his credit however it really did show and he seemed a much better boxer than the man we saw take the Japanese title in 2019. That's not to say he's removed aspects of his style that make him such a dangerous fighter, he's still a dangerous puncher, which we'll get onto in a moment, but he's really improved from the man who was, for the most part, a rather basic come-forward pressure fighter with a lot of power. He's really improved his understanding of the ring, how to use his jab, how to fight going backwards and how to use space. Given his improvements, and the fact he is still incredibly dangerous, we really like this more rounded Saka who appears to have become a genuine boxer-puncher.
2-Saka punches like a mule
The obvious point, Saka punches stupidly hard. From the early going he seemed to get Watanabe's respect, something very few fighters have managed to do. Saka landed to both the head and body of Watanabe in round 1 and it really put Watanabe into a bit of a shell. Watanabe had success with his jab, using his reach, but he often looked worried about Saka's firepower. Given Watanabe is a known tough guy it was telling how quickly Saka's power seemed to worry the challenger.
In fairness Watanabe was right to be wary and that was shown in round 6 when Watanabe came forward trying to turn the tables after the open scoring at the end of round 5. The finish from Saka showed his power, and showed that he really is a brutal puncher. If Saka lands clean we have the feeling he can stop anyone in the Japanese and regional scene. Genuinely a dangerous, brutal, vicious puncher.
3-This wasn't as good as we expected
We got it wrong. Going in we were expecting a sure fire FOTY contender. The power and aggression of Saka against the skills and toughness of Watanabe seemed set to give us a bout that would start slowly and really gear up to something special. There were glimpses of this happening, but that's all we ever got. Glimpses. This was a surprisingly tame contest given the individuals involved.
Don't get us wrong, this wasn't a bad fight. It wasn't dull, and it didn't lack excitement. It just wasn't what we expected. It was underwhelming giving the fighters, but still a very solid fight overall. That's on us though, we had very, very high expectations. Sadly those expectations were offset by Watanabe not wanting to get too involved early on, Saka showing more versatility than usual, and the ending coming when it did.
4-This may have been a more competitive bout last April
We mentioned how Saka had been taking about working on hitting and not getting hit during the long break, he also turned got an extra 9 months to physically mature into a weight that he only moved into a few years ago. That extra 9 months almost certainly helped him. It possibly also hindered Watanabe. At 31 he's not an old man but he is an old fighter, and he would probably have been a slightly better fighter 9 months ago.
It's not a huge change difference on paper, but we can't help feel like Saka improved, mentally, physically, emotionally and in terms of ability. Watanabe on the other hand aged, got older and edged towards his 32nd birthday. Watanabe would also have known that this was almost certainly his last chance. Had he lost last April there was a small window for him to earn another title fight, now however that opportunity is almost certainly gone, and that may have added some extra pressure to him.
We might be wrong here, but we do have a very strong feeling the lengthy postponement favoured Saka a lot more than it favoured Watanabe.
5-The wars have probably caught up with Watanabe
It's rare for Japanese fighters in this day and age to fight more than 40 times. You can count the amount of active Japanese born fighters with 40 or more bouts to their name on one hand. The typical Japanese style does not make for long careers with lots of bouts. With that in mind it's perhaps not too much to suggest that the 31 year old Watanabe, who now has 48 bouts to his name, has started to feel the effects of his long career. Watanabe is an incredibly tough fighter. His blood bath with Jae Sung Lee proved that, as did his bouts with the likes of Satoshi Hosono, Yongqiang Yang and Taiki Minamoto. He has had a lot of tough bouts and those miles on his body will be adding up.
With that said we wouldn't be surprised if he decided to call it quits and retire after this loss.
Last week we saw Takuma Inoue (14-1, 3) claim the OPBF Bantamweight title by dethroning Keita Kurihara (15-6, 13) at Korakuen Hall in what was a highly anticipated match up, getting interest not just in Japan, but internationally. The bout managed to get listed on betting websites in Europe, Russia, the UK and US and fans genuinely seemed to want to watch it on Thursday, with many complaining about the lack of a live stream or a live TV broadcast. Thankfully it was aired, albeit on tape delay, a few days later.
With the bout now aired, and with fight fans having had a few days to give it a watch we’re now going to look back on the bout and share some of the things we took from the contest.
1-The cut was a major problem for Kurihara
The first thing that needs to be mentioned was that the cut that Keita Kurihara suffered in the first round was a genuine problem for him. It was a nasty cut as soon as it happened, and it was one that really could have forced a much earlier conclusion to the bout than we had. The bout went to the scorecards after round 9, but in fairness there were worries that the contest could end up being stopped in the first 4 rounds, which would have resulted in a technical draw. It was a deep one, it was a big one, and it was one that certainly gave Kurihara some issues throughout the bout. Thankfully Kurihara didn’t make excuses or use the cut as an excuse, and in fairness we suspect even if he had avoided the cut it wouldn’t have changed the winner of the bout.
2-Kurihara failed to set things up
One thing that surprised us here was how little Kurihara tried to use his reach and jab, and how he trudged forward whilst paying with the jab, rather than really letting it go. It was a good weapon in the first round, and should have been used throughout the contest to set up his power shots. He has a genuinely good jab, and we saw it in the first minute or two of the bout. Sadly though the jab almost vanished as he began looking more and more for a hail Mary shot. We suspect this is likely due to the cut, which came across his left eye, but it really showed as the bout went on. He came out looking for big right hands and heavy hooks and was caught time and time again. If he’d used his jab he could well have gauged range better and landed his harder shots. It’s a shame his jab really did vanish after he had early success with it.
3-Inoue’s footwork was fantastic
Whilst we can easily talk about how Kurihara failed to create openings and work on them it needs to also be said that Inoue did brilliantly at making Kurihara reset. We constantly saw Inoue on his toes, moving, changing directions, keeping Kurihara from having a range where he could have success. It wasn’t the eye catching, sparkling footwork of someone like Vasyl Lomachenko, but instead it was very, very effective footwork. Inoue was almost always in control of the range and the tempo of the bout, despite mostly fighting on the back foot. He used half-steps, forwards and backwards, small pivots, he created angles, made Kurihara fall short and really neutralised the reach advantage of Kurihara. He knew was the quicker man and made full use of that by using really smart footwork right throughout the bout.
4-Inoue KO backers - What were you thinking?
One of the strange things before the bout was the amount of money that went on an Inoue T/KO win, taking the result to almost events on the betting market. We’re not sure why so much money poured on a stoppage for the challenger here, and we suspect even he’s not sure. Before the bout he stated that he was going to box his bout, and that was a style that had only seen him pick up 3 low key stoppage stoppage wins. Kurihara has been stopped before, but his last stoppage came to Hiroaki Teshigawara, and we really don’t understand why money poured on an Inoue stoppage. Given the way Inoue fought there was no plan to go for the finish early on, and although he caught Kurihara with some very clean shots in the second half he never really hurt the champion.
5-Despite a year out Inoue was razor sharp
Prior to this bout Inoue had been out of the ring since November 2019, when he lost to Nordine Oubaali. That was his first loss and we had expected him to look, at the very least, a bit rusty. Instead he looked razor sharp from the opening moments to the eventual conclusion of the bout. His defense was on point, his footwork - as already mentioned, was fantastic, his offense was clean and crisp, and he boxed fantastically. Everything he did was pretty much on point, and we dare say that was, in part, due to the danger that Kurihara posed. We’ve seen Inoue turn off in bouts, get lazy in others, and give rounds away. Here however he was focused throughout, he was fighting like a man who knew if he was tagged he could be hurt and didn’t want to be dropped again. It was only for around 30 seconds in round 5 that we saw him in any trouble at all, and he quickly regained his composure and went on to land some of his best shots afterwards. Given this is the same Takuma Inoue that was run incredibly close by Kentaro Masuda and Mark John Yap, and was dropped by Rene Dacquel, Froilan Saludar and Mark Anthony Geraldo, this was the performance he needed. In fact we would go as far as to say this is the best we’ve seen from Inoue.
This past weekend we got the first live televised Japanese card of 2021 and if we’re being honest it wasn’t the best show we’ve seen in recent months. In fact, to be bluntly honest, much of the card seemed to meander, with a few highlights. That was until the chief support bout, which saw Jukiya Iimura (1-0, 1) make his professional debut, taking on Daisuke Yamada (6-6, 1). This was not a bout that had us frothing at the mouth or overly excited going in, but afterwards we felt we’d seen someone a little special make their first mark on professional boxing, and it seems we weren’t alone in thinking that. In fact it seems Iimura has instantly become someone worthy of making a real buzz around.
With that in mind we’ve gone and taken a look back over the bout and decide to share some of our take aways from the contest.
1-Iimura stood out immediately
It’s rare for Japanese fighters to standout in their ring walks, at least during the early stages of their careers. Iimura however stood out immediately. Part of that was the sombrero he was wearing to the ring but there was also an almost cheeky smile and a confident look to him. He didn’t look like a youngster stepping into his first professional bout, but instead he looked like a man who was about to show everyone that he was something special. It was clear, almost immediately that he wanted to catch the eye, he wanted to grab fans attention, and he wanted those watching to make a note of him. We’ll get onto his performance in a moment, but the aura that he gave off on his ring walk was telling and should have been enough to tell everyone in the venue that they weren’t about to see another rather cautious contest.
2-Iimura’s style is VERY pro-ready
Earlier on the card we had seen a number of other Kadoebi debutants, with Yudai Murakami, Yugo Kono and Jun Ikegawa all debuting on this show. All of them looked good, including Kon who suffered a 6th TKO loss to Koji Tsurumi, but they all looked like they hadn’t quite adapted to the professional style of boxing. Iimura on the other hand looked like he was made for this. Unlike the other debutants he wasn’t looking to sharp shoot at distance or point score at range. Instead he wanted to leave an impression. He came forward early on, he looked like he wanted to fight, rather than fiddle, and applied intelligent pressure. That pressure opened up opportunities to land heavy shots and he twice dropped Yamada with fantastic counter right hands, forcing a stoppage after the second knockdown. His style is already looking like that of an experienced professional. He is not only a man who seems to like being in front of an opponent and using subtle movements and footwork, but also has solid power, intelligent shot selection and he looks like a genuinely powerful young kid. His legs look particularly powerful and we suspect the amount of pop he is going to get into his shots is going to become very scary when he gets some more experience under his belt.
If you missed the performance we seriously suggest you go and watch the fight. It was very impressive from the youngster.
3-Daisuke Yamada was there to win
Although nowhere near the best fighter in the Flyweight division in Japan Daisuke Yamada didn’t get into the ring to lose. This was obvious from the way he fought. He came out with ambition and hunger. He pulled himself up after being dropped, both times, and he wanted to fight. He even had some moments of success. Unfortunately for him he was up against a fantastic young prospect who really was several levels above him, but we can’t take anything away from Yamada who wanted to do more than just make up the numbers. He wanted to take home a victory. We need to see more fighters, especially in the west, fight with Yamada’s mentality of wanting to win, even if you are very much up against it.
4-The finish was damn impressive
We mentioned that Iimura dropped Yamada twice but we really need to explain just how impressive the second knockdown was. It was a perfectly placed counter right hand, on the chin, over the extended right hand of Yamada. Watching the slow motion replay really did show how brilliant the shot was. We’re amazed that Yamada managed to get to his feet following the shot, though he obviously had little control of his body as he collapsed into the arms of Michiaki Someya and then later left the ring on a stretcher. We’ve not been told how Yamada is, but we suspect the stretcher was used as a precaution more than anything else.
5-Genuine concern and respect for Yamada
When Yamada was on the canvas after the bout was stopped it was great to see genuine concern and respect from both the crowd and Iimura himself. The youngster had just scored a really impressive win on debut, and rather than celebrating like we suspect he probably wanted to, he was subdued in his corner, and it wasn’t until he had checked on Yamada and spoke to his team that he put back on his Sombrero. As for the crowd they were silent in respect of Yamada until he was being carried out of the hall, where they gave him a round of applause. It wasn’t a big thing, from either the victory or the crowd, but it was still nice to see, and we’d like to see more youngsters showing some concern for their opponent in situations like this.
Back on December 10th we saw Japanese Light Welterweight champion Daishi Nagata (15-2-2, 6) make his first defense of the title he won back in July, when he upset Koki Inoue. In that defense Nagata fought to a 7th round technical draw against Akihiro Kondo (32-9-2, 18) in a bout that is seriously worth watching for those that missed it. It wasn’t a fight of the year contender, but was a compelling bout, and one to enjoy during the upcoming barren stretch from boxing.
Having watched the bout when it aired in December, and now going back over to rewatch it we thought we’d discuss what we took from the bout, and what we saw from the two men that was worth talking about
1-This started at a hot pace
With Nagata having secured a career best win over Koki Inoue just a few months before this fight it was clear that he was going to be flying high with confidence coming into this one. He tried to show that straight from the off and put a lot into round 1 as confidence and excitement seemed to be driving him on. Given that Nagata is a really good boxer and Kondo is a really tough guy we’re not too sure why Nagata didn’t try to control the bout at a slower pace and use his speed to control the action. Whatever the reason it didn’t matter, this started hot and was really fun from the opening bell due to Nagata’s decision to take the fight to Kondo, and Kondo’s willingness to respond and counter. Sadly for Nagata we suspect this hot pace he looked to set will turn into a learning experience for future bouts.
2-Kondo isn’t shot... but he is old
In 2019 Akihiro Kondo suffered losses to Downua Ruawaiking, via 5th round KO, and Andy Hiraoki, by UD10, and heading into 2020 we had assumed he was pretty much shot. In reality however he’s not shot, in fact the 35 year old is still a very, very capable fighter. He is however an old fighter, and his speed has dropped just a touch along with his reactions and movement. His timing is still there, his toughness is still there and he’s full of experience. If a fighter wants to beat Kondo the best tactics are not to treat him like a shot fighter and blast him out, that’s not going to happen. To beat Kondo you really should be looking to avoid a fight, boxing smartly and staying on the move, don’t let him time his counters and certainly don’t stand still in front of him. Even as early as the opening round Kondo was landing solid right hands on Nagata, and chin checking the champion. Nagata may have been winning the early rounds but he was certainly not getting things all his own way. With this in mind we would certainly not suggest Jin Sasaki’s team look at Kondo for a bout in 2021, he’s too tough, too rugged and too experienced for the teenage sensation.
3-The bout had great atmosphere at Korakuen Hall
Given that the Japanese Boxing Commission has really limited what fans are allowed to do at fights, in terms of preventing cheering, chanting, yelling and the like, it was great to hear a raucous atmosphere here for this bout. It was a rough, tough war, with a lot of shots being landed by both and it deserved the atmosphere it got, with plenty of nose being made by fans who were clearly picked up on the camera. Whilst it did seem like some of the noise was probably prohibited noise, there was also plenty of applause from excited fans who knew they were getting a really, really good bout. It’s a shame the bout ended the way it did, following Nagata being badly cut from head clashes, but it was a good one and it got a worthy reception from the crowd…
...or at least we think it did. Sadly the camera at Korakuen Hall was focused on the far side of the ring and the fans there didn’t seem to be showing much in terms of excitement or emotion, so this take away does come with the caveat that the noise may have been added afterwards. If that was the case it was well done, and did actually add to the fight, rather than distract from it.
4-Nagata was lucky when the bout was stopped
It can seem silly at times to talk about a fighter being lucky but we really do feel that Nagata was very, very lucky for the early conclusion here. He seemed to be getting tagged repeatedly and Kondo seemed to be coming on strong, and had been for several rounds. Had this bout gone on much longer Nagata would almost certainly have ended up taking the loss on the scorecards. It’s never great to defend a title by technical draw, but it’s better than losing it by technical decision and had this bout gone midway into round 8 we genuinely feel the title would have changed hands. Sadly for Kondo he does have himself to blame, he admitted his gameplan was about coming on strong in the middle rounds and had he started to get more offensive just 1 round earlier he would have had rounds in the bag needed to take home the decision and the Japanese title.
5-Michiaki Someya did a great job
We feel this goes without saying now but Michiaki Someya continued to do a great job as the referee. He was clear with his instructions to the fighters, who fell into a number of ugly clinches as the bout went on, he was clear when he ruled out a knockdown in round 2 and felt comfortable correcting himself when he realised it was a slip, he was always aware of what was going on and when they could work in a clinch he let them. He seemed to quickly realise that due to the orthodox Vs southpaw dynamic that clinches could get messy and head clashes could occur and did his best to limit them. He couldn’t prevent them all, but he did a good job in a fight that could easily have gotten very ugly at times.
The excellent Boxing Raise service is one of those that we suggest every fight fan wanting to follow Japanese boxing at least considers subscribing to, at least on and off, and the service has regularly delivered some of the best fights we’ve seen every month. In December the one absolute stand out bout was the Super Flyweight clash between Ryoji Fukunaga (13-4, 13) and Kenta Nakagawa (19-4-1, 12).
The bout saw Fukunaga unify the WBO Asia Pacific Super Flyweight title, which he held going into the bout, with the Japanese title, that Nakagawa held, and the previously vacant OPBF title, to see him end the year a triple crown winner. It wasn’t however just a big fight in terms of the silverware on the line, but also the in ring action with the bout being a truly brilliant fight, one of the legitimate Japanese Fight of the Year contenders. In the end Fukunaga, the bigger puncher, came out on top, thanks to a 10th round TKO but before we got there we had everything we could ask for, and the two men really delivered something special.
1-Kadoebi’s pre-fight presentation added something
Before the ring entrances Kadoebi played something of hype package before hand showing highlights of the two men along with interviews of the two fighters and a voice over of someone building up anticipation for the bout. Whilst the fight really didn’t need anything to build it up, it was still great to see Kadoebi going the extra few steps and delivering a really nice build up video. If we’re going to have to wait a few moments for a fight then using something like this is fantastic, and something we really should start seeing in the west, rather than going to a studio team who end up chatting garbage for far too long. This was short, it was sharp, it made the bout feel a little bit more important and let us see, and hear, from the men we were about to see fight. It was only a minute or two but it served its purpose really well and added a little bit of extra gloss to the fight.
2-Fukunaga can really take a shot!
Whilst we already know Ryoji Fukunaga was a big puncher, what this bout showed is that he can really take a shot too. This wasn’t shown too much early on, but as the bout progressed, and as both men grew tired, both landed with alarming regularity and both seemed to buzz the other with clean shots, that were followed up on. Amazingly whilst Fukunaga was buzzed a few times he never really looked close to going down. He has been down in the past, and was down in his previous fight against Froilan Saludar, but here he looked like a man possessed with staying on his feet no matter what. It was a testament to grit, determination and toughness for him to stay up right in rounds 8 and 9 in particular. More about those rounds a little later. When a man is fighting and has that “you’ll never stop me” mentality, he’s a very, very hard man to beat, and we saw that so much here. He physically and mentally beat Nakagawa here.
3-The all-southpaw dynamic wasn’t an issue
Often when we get all-southpaw bouts the dynamic of the fight is off, with many all-southpaw bouts feeling awkward and failing to catch fire. This was not one of those bouts. The two men shared respect for each other early on, but when they began to find their groove, and get comfortable this became a bout that got better and better as it went on. Early on both men took their time looking to find their range, used their jabs and began to lay the groundwork for what was to come later in the bout. Nakagawa was dropped in round 4, and from there on fireworks were seen regularly between the two men, who had no issues at all with their opponents stance. This was perhaps the best all-southpaw bout of 2020, and it is one that seriously deserves a watch as the drama unfolds in amazing fashion.
4-Rounds 8, 9 and 10...what the hell!
We had some amazing fights in 2020, and some fantastic rounds, though rarely have we had back to back round of the year contenders. This fight however gave us just that with rounds 8 and 9, and what we had of round 10, being insane. The action started quickly in both rounds, and saw the two men both landing bombs, both looked out on their feet several times, before responding with a huge burst of shots of their own. It seemed like both men had not just fought themselves to a standstill but also fought the other into waking up, and digging deeper and deeper into their energy reserves. Going beyond the point of fighting on fumes, and beyond the tank being empty. This was almost 8 and a half minutes of pure brutality and beautiful violence. If you haven’t got boxing raise these rounds alone are worth the price of a month subscription and are absolutely sensational.
Action, drama, determination, desire, brutality, heart and jaw dropping back and forth. These rounds were simply awesome.
5-Yuji Fukuchi did an amazing job
It seems like we’re always praising Japanese referees in this series but they often deserve, as Yuji Fukuchi did here. A less referee would have jumped in multiple times during this bout. Ian John Lewis for example would have denied us much of the fight. Fukuchi however allowed this to go on, even when both men were rocked, tired, and looking close to spent. He gave the fighters the chance to fight back, he let them show their heart and their fighting spirit and made it clear that they were allowed to fight. He did an amazing job by letting the fight flow, by letting the bout come to a natural conclusion and made a perfect stoppage when he finally stepped in and saved Nakagawa. His patience and understanding of the fighters, the understanding of the bout he was officiating, and what the fight meant allowed him to do the perfect job and few would have done as good a job as Fukuchi did. We’ve praised Michiaki Someya and Nobuto Ikehara multiple times during this series but Fukuchi did just as good here. Genuinely fantastic from the referee.
In the days following Christmas Boxing Raise were in Osaka where they recorded the latest Green Tsuda show, from the EDION Arena Osaka. Among the bouts on that card was the highly anticipated return of Katsunari Takayama (32-8-0-1, 12), who faced Reiya Konishi (17-3, 7) in a bout that was originally scheduled for November. The bout, Takayama's first in more than 4 years, saw the former multi-time world champion look fantastic as he out sped, out pointed, out landed, out boxed and out thought the naturally bigger and naturally stronger Konishi, who looked second best throughout.
Having recently re-watched the bout we've decided to share what we took away from the bout, and what the bout really tells us about the two men.
1-Takayama looked so sharp
Little fighters age quicker, and fighters who fight at 105lbs or 108lbs tend to not have very long careers. In fact by their mid 30's they are usually done at the top tier and never really recapture any form. Aged 37 however Takayama looked fantastic, and didn't look like a man who's last professional bout came back in 2016. Whilst he had fought a few amateur bouts since his last professional contest it was still a real surprise to see him looking this good. He was just as fleet as he had ever been, he seemed to have improved his head movement since his 2016 bout with Riku Kano, he looked full of energy, and set a high output, to go along with his non-stop movement. Unsurprisingly he never looked close to stopping Konishi, someone who has gone the distance with Carlos Canizalez and Felix Alvarado, but he dominated pretty much every minute of the fight. A brilliant performance.
2-Stylistically this was a bad bout for Konishi
Through his now 20 fight career Reiya Konishi has been involved in some great scraps, and this one had the potential to be another nail biter, at least on paper. In the end however wasn’t as exciting as we expected and that was because of the styles the two men employed. Konishi has great work rate and a fun physical style, but he’s got relatively slow feet and due to the movement of Takayama he could never force his will, despite being the naturally bigger man. He whiffed at the air time and time again, missing, whilst eating leather. He pressed forward, only to taste more and more of Takayama’s shots. Against the right opponent, one who is willing to stand and trade rather than box on the move, Konishi does have success, but Takayama’s movement, and sharp clean really made him look incredibly limited here.
3-There was real respect for the fighters by the crowd
One of the things that has been a negative in recent months for Japanese boxing is the deathly silent crowd, something that is essentially a requirement from the JBC who aren’t allowing cheering due to Covid19. Despite that this bout did receive plenty of noise from fans in the venue with regular applause, but at the end of the round and during rounds. It was nice to hear noise in a venue, something that has been missing from Japanese bouts, even some really good competitive bouts. Yes this wasn’t anywhere near the noise that would have been made had the bout took place in 2019, but it was still a very nice addition to a really solid fight and we’d love to hear more applause at future fights. Alternatively maybe fans should be allowed to bring something musical to fights, like a drum, to try and boost the atmosphere.
4-This should have been an 8 rounder...if not 10
The only real complaint we have about this fight was that it was only a 6 rounder. This really should have been over 8 rounds, minimum. Both of these fighters are proven at a high level, both have gone 12 multiple times in world title fights, and a 8 rounder, or even a 10 rounder, would have told us so much more about Takayama’s stamina and fitness. He never looked like he struggled, at all, here but it would still have been much more interesting to see how he looked in a longer fight to know whether or not he’d be able to keep this up if he was to get a world title fight in 2021, something that is very possible. A longer distance in this bout would have favoured Konishi, and it would have made the bout a lot more interesting down the stretch.
Sadly for Takayama we suspect he’ll need another fight before a world title bout, and hopefully that will be over a longer distance than this one.
5-Nobuto Ikehara really had little to do
Referee Nobuto Ikehara, himself a former fighter, didn’t have too many appointments as the third man in the ring in 2020 but this would have been among the very easiest he’ll have had. He had to call a couple of obvious slips early on, but other than there was literally nothing for him to do other than enjoy the best view in the house. There was pretty much no clinching, wrestling was kept to a minimum and when he was needed he was decisive, though he was happy to let them fight out of the clinch when they did occur, something Japanese referees tend to allow. For a 6 rounder to have as few breaks as this had was great to watch and enjoy and really easy work for a very good, and very underrated official. According to boxrec this was the first show he had worked since getting the job for the Junto Nakatani Vs Giemel Magramo fight, which he officiated excellently. Despite having an easy bout here he never let his concentration slip and was very rarely out of position.
One of the most dramatic, exciting and captivating fighters from 2020 was the brilliant Lightweight bout between Japan’s Masayoshi Nakatani (19-1, 13) and Felix Verdejo (27-2, 17). The bout, fought in The Bubble, at the MGM Grand had everything we could ever wish to see in a fighter. It had skills, heart, power, multiple knockdowns, momentum shifts and one of the biggest comebacks of the year. The bout really was something truly amazing and those who missed it really did miss out one something truly special.
1-Nakatani’s will to win is incredible
Few will ever describe Masayoshi Nakatani as a truly skilled fighter, but he has a number of traits that make him incredibly tough to beat. Whilst the most obvious of those, visibly, is his physical size and stature, the other is his will to win. He, like many top Japanese fighters, has incredible determination and his will to fight through adversity cannot be questioned. He did it against Izuki Tomioka, who took an early lead against Nakatani in an OPBF title fight, and against Yoshitaka Kato, who pushed him all the way very early in his career and clearly hurt him with a body shot. He had answered those questions about how much he wanted to win, and what he’d go through to win. Being dropped in rounds 1 and 4 weren’t enough to finish off that will, neither was taking a number of huge right hands in the first few rounds.
Sometimes that will to win, despite being tagged repeatedly, is a trait that will be too much for an opponent and in many ways this was somewhat comparable to the first Antonio Margarito Vs Miguel Cotto fight, though admittedly not as good as that sensational 2008 battle. Nakatani, like Magarito, was being out sped, out boxed, and tagged at will, but refused to quit, pressed forward and slowly broke down his man, who was left questioning what exactly he had to do to stop the terminator like figure in front of him
2-Verdejo’s questionable heart is his biggest issue
Felix Verdejo is an incredibly talented fighter, and he has a lot of things going for him, including blistering speed and fantastic power. Sadly however he still has a number of real issues, and issues that have been clear issues in both of his losses. One of those is his stamina. Due to his style he puts a lot in every shot he throws, and when those shots don’t take opponents out he uses a lot of energy. That’s great if you blow opponents out, which he likely expected to do here, but by the end of round 5 he had clearly slowed and in round 6 he was becoming negative. This was very, very similar to how he suffered his previous loss, with his negativity kicking in, and Verdejo using a lot of energy to try and stay from a taller man.
Another issues he has is his heart. He’s rarely come under any real pressure during his career, but the two notable times where he has had questions being asked of him he has come undone. Sadly for Verdejo whilst a fighter can learn to pace themselves better they can’t suddenly develop the heart and guts to dig themselves out of a hole. With Verdejo having now twice been broken down in the later stages of fights, whilst tiring and crumbling mentally, we suspect he will never become the star he was groomed to be.
3-Nakatani’s jab was vital to his victory
Standing at close to 6’ Masayoshi Nakatani has one of the tallest bodies in the Lightweight division and one of the longest reaches in the division. With that in mind it will come as no surprise to learn he has a solid jab, and that jab really was his key to victory here. Not only did it help him create space when he needed it but it also helped get Verdejo’s respect, broke his man down, created situations to land his right hand and forced the stoppage late on. It also, more notably than anything, helped him extend this fight, and allowed him to slowly break Verdejo mentally and get to a tired Verdejo late on. The lanky Japanese fighter might not be the quickest fighter, or even the smoothest fighter out there, but that long jab is a brilliant weapon and something that he has shown in both of his US bouts as well as his Japanese bouts. Notably however when fighters have taken the jab away from him, as Izuki Tomioka did in 2018, he does struggle to work his way into bouts.
4-ESPN’s commentary was poor
Through much of the early rounds the commentary was more focused on Verdejo’s preparation for the fight rather than calling what was going on in the ring. This meant they ignored a lot of work, with far too much time spent talking about Ismael Salas, who seemed to be the focus of the commentary work for much of round 2. They were very much overlooking everything Nakatani did and over-egging what Verdejo was doing, other than Timothy Bradley who actually did add some genuine insight here about Verdejo’s lack of body shots, rather than repeat “Nakatani can’t take all these shots”, something he did. The pro-Verdejo commentary ended up missing out on some very important things, and also ended up not mentioning Verdejo’s loss, which came to a physically similar fighter to Nakatani, something that would have actually been very insightful for this bout. One of the most annoying things about modern day commentary is that it’s very cheerleading of a fighter, and that was shown here.
It wasn’t until round 5 that they even seemed to question Verdejo, who had been having success but was still being caught himself in the earlier rounds. Even in the later stages, when Nakatani was coming on strong, the focus still seemed to be about Verdejo, and what he had to do to win and his past, rather than what was actually happening. This even saw the commentary talking about Tyson Fury Vs Anthony Joshua at the start of round 9, when Nakatani rocked Verdejo.
Andre Ward even said it was difficult to see Verdejo go out like he did, continuing the narrative that Verdejo was their man. Whilst he might be the Top Rank fighter they need to separate promotional bias from their commentary.
For us commentary should be adding to the fight and telling us what is happening to the fight. It shouldn’t be about trying to sell out of the ring narratives and sacrifices or other fights. Tell us about the fight that is going on, and even give the fight a chance to breathe. This was an incredible fight, and it deserved so much better than it got.
5-Celestino Ruiz did a great job here
In 2013 Celestino Ruiz was the third man in the ring for a controversial bout between Mike Mollo and Artur Szpilka, and he made it very clear which side he was on. He was widely condemned for his performance that night, and deservedly so. Since then however he has slowly been building a solid body of work, and this bout was another example of it. Lesser referees would have panicked after the first knockdown and robbed us of what was a great fight, but Ruiz took his time. Ruiz was also timely with his breaks when the fighters were tangled, even when those the clinches favoured the tiring Verdejo. He also gave Verdejo every chance to continue after the first knockdown. Where he didn’t need to be involved he didn’t involve himself, and like a good referee he let the action flow as much as possible.
We think it’s probably time where we accept Ruiz is actually a very, very good referee, and the Mollo Vs Szpilka fight was a very bad night at the office for him, rather than a sign of anything else.
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).