One of the many bouts this past weekend that deserved a little bit more extra attention was the contest between rising Japanese hopeful Hayate Kaji (15-0, 9) and the tough Hiroki Yajima (9-9-3, 4), who clashed on Friday but had their bout televised on G+ on Monday, on tape delay.
At one point, a few years ago, Kaji looked like he was going to be one of the future stars of the Teiken Gym but came into this bout on the back of a run of under-whelming performances that had seen some sour on him. However how he looked here is just one of a number of things we want to discuss in our Take Aways from the bout.
1-Kaji looks to be taking the sport seriously again
We mentioned that Kaji had had some poor performances, and sources inside Teiken had explained that Kaji hadn't been fully listening to trainers and had been struggling to maintain his weight. There was also murmurs of him being frustrated at his career stalling, and potentially being annoyed at how slowly his career has progressed following his Rookie of the Year success in 2014. It was somewhat understandable that his career hadn't moved on quickly, but with poor performances it was easy to see where Teiken were coming from with his slowly, slowly progress. In this bout however he looked like a man with a point to prove. The silly mistakes were gone. He looked professional, mature, calm, controlling, and better than he has in a long time. It almost seemed like he had a point to prove, and did it. Fingers crossed Teiken repay him with a more meaningful bout as a result.
2-Yajima has balls!
With a 9-8-3 record coming in to this it would be easy to think that he was going to be stopped by a solid puncher like Kaji. That seemed even more likely when he was dropped in the opening round. Kaji however gritted his teeth, gutted it out and and recovered from two knockdowns to see out the bell. Gritting it out in one fight is one thing, but Yajima has now gone the distance in all 9 professional losses, including 4 of his last 5.
Even when he was way down and winning was beyond him, he held, spoiled and did all he could to clear his head and see out a torrid round 7. Credit to him for not taking the easy way out.
Side note - Yajima lost on his debut to the brilliantly named Astro Cheerioboy Maura, a name that sounds almost like a perfect for a cereal mascot!
3-Kaji's jab is really solid
We often get impressed by body shots and uppercutts from fighters but for Kaji the best shot in his arsenal is his sharp, stiff jab. He doesn't throw it quite as much as he should but it's a real solid shot, and something we'd like to see him building more work from. He's got a solid right hand, and if he puts them together more we could see him hurting a lot of opponents with his 1-2's. It's just a shame he often forgets to set his right hand up with the jab. Come on Kaji, pump that jab out more, it's a very nice shot, and then let the right hands fly behind it!
4-Crowds aren't the be all and end all
For the last few weeks we've had crowds back in boxing in Japan. One big thing that certain promoters, especially those in the UK and US, are desperate for are crowds. Unfortunately a bout like this shows that crowds aren't the be all and end all. In Japan at the moment crowds aren't allowed to cheer and yell, and chant. Instead they've been told they need to wear masks and can only clap. Sadly for this particular bout the crowd seemed almost completely fed up. There was no clapping, and almost no noise from the Korakuen Hall at all. The often repeated myth of Japanese fans being quiet at boxing, which isn't as true as some will tell you, certainly seemed the case here. This was almost eerie at times. If promoters are to bring crowds back in the West they need to try and make sure there is some noise in the venue, some how.
This wasn't actually a bad bout, even if it did drag a bit. But if fans are sat in silence for this Western promoters will need to realise they need to put on good bouts to have an atmosphere, and may even need to continue pumping crowd noises in anyway.
5-Akihiko Katsuragi doesn't like holding!
It's fair to say holding is a bane of every boxing fan around the globe, especially when it's continual and ruining the fight. For fighters planning to do that, they better avoid Akihiko Katsuragi, who took two points from Yajima for holding, one in round 7 and one in round 8. The decision was a foregone conclusion by then, so the deductions didn't affect the result, but we'd love to see more referees look to stamp it out like this. The holding wasn't as bad as we have seen in the past, and Katsuragi did perhaps get a little overly antsy late on, but if he's consistent and points are taken quicker for holding going forth we won't be complaining! Our only complaint here is that he could have taken one earlier, and that may have sorted things out before the bout started to feel like it was dragging.
Over the last few years Teiken's dominance of the Japanese scene has really under threat and as we right this they currently have no world champions at the gym and only a pair of domestic champions. It wasn't that long ago that fighters like Shinsuke Yamanaka, Roman Gonzalez, Jorge Linares, Takashi Miura, and Carlos Cuadras all holding, or in the mix for, world titles. Now their hopes at the top level essentially lie with Ryota Murata, who will know a loss in July ends his career, the beyond their best trio of Gonzalez, Linares and Cuadras, who are all still in the mix, but not the fighters they once were, and Kenichi Ogawa.
Worryingly all of the names so far mentioned are 30 or above, and most of them are seen as being on the slide.
It would be easy to suggest the Teiken gym is now longer a leading gym in Japan. The likes of the Watanabe Gym and the Ohashi Gym seem to have over-taken it in recent years, and the gym hasn't replaced their faded stars. That however would be partially wrong. The gym isn't done as a top gym, what has happened however is that their transitional stage to the next generation of top fighters, has been delayed some what.
What we mean by that is that instead of having ready made replacements for their faded stars the gym really missed out on a generation of talent. They failed to secure the youngsters who were part of the current generation of stars. The likes of Naoya Inoue and Kenshiro and Hiroto Kyoguchi and Kosei Tanaka took other options, and didn't ink deals with the Teiken gym. Sometimes the reason was obvious, such as location or gym owner, and other times it wasn't, but what is clear is that the top Japanese fighters of today saw other avenues, and went their own way.
That left Teiken needing to chase the next wave of fighters, and that's exactly what they've done, signing 3 top Japanese amateurs in the last 18 or so months, and developing some lesser talents as well. They have essentially had to play catch up with the rival gyms since Yamanaka retired, and they have done so in a manner that could end up having them back on top of the Japanese scene in the coming years.
Before we look at their top prospects it's worth looking at both of their current national champions. They are Super Featherweight Masaru Sueyoshi (19-1-1, 11) and Welterweight Yuki Nagano (16-2, 12). Interestingly neither of these were amateur standouts, Sueyoshi managed to go 21-8 in the amateurs before competing in the 2012 Rookie of the Year, losing to Masayuki Ito. Nagano on the other hand won the 2015 Rookie of the Year. Both have developed from Rookies to national champions, and that leads us to one of the top Teiken prospects, one who doesn't have a strong amateur backing but has excited fans.
Super Flyweight hopeful Hayate Kaji (12-0, 9), like Sueyoshi and Nagano, came through the Rookie of the Year. In fact Kaji won the Super Flyweight competition on the same day that Nagano won the Welterweight competition, in 2015, winning the final in just his 4th professional bout. Sadly since that Rookie triumph Kaji hasn't shone like many suspected, and despite maintaining his unbeaten record the 21 year old has shown signs of ill discipline, and disappointing performances, especially his 2017 clash with Jun Blazo. Those poor performances, added to blow outs against some horribly over-matched competition, has seen Kaji essentially put on the back burner, with his team clearly focused on getting him experience before getting him a title fight. That's a risky approach for the youngster, who needs to be tested, but he is a big hope for the gym, with an exciting style and vicious power, and time well and truly on his side.
Whilst Kaji is clearly a prospect to keep an eye on the more interesting thing about the Teiken gym is a trio of former amateur standouts, who are just beginning their professional careers but all 3 are marked, already, for something huge.
They are Mikito Nakano (2-0, 2), Kuntae Lee (1-0, 1) and Shokichi Iwata (2-0, 1) who only 5 pro fights between but can already be regarded as 3 of the brightest hopes in Japanese boxing, and at the time of writing all 3 are 23 years old.
The oldest of the 3, by a few months, is Nakano a southpaw competing in the Featherweight division. He ran up a tremendous 68-9 (48) record in the amateur ranks before turning professional last year and debuting in October. Despite being a fantastic talent his first two bouts were little more than show cases against Thai novices however we now know that his third bout, scheduled for July 6th, will come against Filipino Arvin Yurong (12-2, 3).
Yurong is a really test for Nakano, and he showed a lot of desire and hunger in his January loss to Xiang Li. If Yurong can show that same hunger here he could give Nakano real issues and ask very serious questions of the Teiken man. If Nakano slices through him we can already mark Nakano as someone who should be mixing for titles by the end of 2020.
On the same card as Nakano's bout with Yurong we'll see Lee have his second bout. Like Nakano Lee is a southpaw, and had a stellar amateur career, running up a reported 102-10 amateur record. He fights at 140lbs, a division which Japan hasn't had much international success at in recent years, and looks like a real natural. On his debut he hardly broke sweat, beating a Thai novice inside a round, but looked like every punch he threw was crisp, natural and sharp. He's someone with a lot of potential, strong amateur background, and a rather rare backstory, with North Korean blood in his veins. As an amateur he competed for North Korea in international competitions and clear has the ability to make a mark well above domestic level.
At the moment Lee's opponent for his July 6th bout hasn't been announced, though the bout will be scheduled for 6 rounds and we'd expected a limited opponent, before a stiffer test at the end of the year.
Nakano and Lee are both fighting on the same card leaving Iwata as the odd one out, however he will actually be in the ring on July 12th, as part of the under-card for Ryota Murata rematch with Rob Brant. Iwata made his professional debut in the US last year, after running up a 59-12 (16) amateur record, and then made his Japanese debut earlier this year against Rookie of the Year winner Daiki Kameyama. Unlike the other two he does spend plenty of time in the west and clearly is happy to fight on international soil early in his career, despite the fact he's a Light Flyweight and the best competition there is in Asia right now. On paper the's the least experienced in terms of amateur bouts, but his win over Kameyama is the best that the trio have and he seems the ost likley to be fast tracked.
We've not yet been told who Iwata will be debuting against but we're expecting it to be an international opponent, hopefully some one who will ask Iwata something new, and allow the speedy youngster to show more of what he can do.
Whilst the Teiken gym hasn't got any world champions, it appears they have 3, or 4 if we include Kaji, top prospects and the foundation is there for the next wave of Teiken success. It might be a few years away, and we may see Watanabe and Ohashi move further ahead in that time, but Teiken is not dead, it's merely transitioning to the next generation of fighters, and they are very exciting.
One more thing to add is the fact Teiken will be scouting the 2020 Olympics and will be expecting to pick up several of the top prospects from those games, so the next wave of Teiken fighters won't just be Kaji, Nakano, Lee and Iwata, but also some of the fighters who may well medal at Tokyo games. The gym has the money, the connections and the know how to secure big signatures, and we're really excited to see where those Olympians end up at the end of next year, along with those top amateurs who fail to qualify for the games. They are likely to have promoters, including Teiken, trying to get their signatures, and strengthen the stables for the future.
Teiken isn't dead, it's just a sleeping giant.
(All Images courtesy of Teiken.com)
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).