This past Friday on Boxing Raise we saw the hard hitting Kosuke Saka (21-5, 18) retain the Japanese Super Featherweight title, recording his first defense, as he stopped Takuya Watanabe in a solid bout. The expectations were that this would be something special, and whilst the bout failed to hit the heights expected of it, it was still a very engaging and solid contest until Saka took out Watanabe in round 6.
Following that win we had a quick and tried to think about what should be next for the hard hitting champion and realised there is a lot of interesting domestic options for him. In fact from where we're sat the Japanese Super Featherweight division currently being one of the most compelling domestic scene's out there. Whilst having a look at the options we decided Saka was a perfect fighter to give our "Five for..." treatment to.
1-Kenichi Ogawa (25-1-1-1, 18)
Our first choice for Saka’s next defense is probably not likely, but it would certainly be something worth watching, and a big fight for Japanese fans, with Saka facing Kenichi Ogawa. The world ranked Ogawa will have his eyes set on a world title bout of some kind, but in reality the world we live in today makes international travel awkward at best, and maybe Ogawa will need to look elsewhere for a notable fight. With that in mind it would be great to see the handed Ogawa look to recapture the Japanese title that he held between 2015 and 2017. A bout between himself and Saka would have the ingredients to be an explosive encounter, with a strong feeling of tension. Both men would know they have the power to take the other out, but they would also know their opponent has the power to take them out.
2-Masanori Rikiishi (9-1, 5) II
Our second choice is a much, much more likely option and that would see Saka rematching the talented Masanori Rikiishi. In 2018, in just his third professional bout, Rikiishi dared to make a statement and was stopped in 2 rounds by Saka, with his lack of professional experience showing through. Since then Rikiishi has won 7 in a row and late last year he made it clear he was wanting a chance to avenge his loss to the hard hitting Saka. Rikiishi has also been edging himself towards the Super Featherweight division, as if targeting Saka and his title. As for Saka this would be a chance to prove that he can beat an improved Rikiishi, and make a solid second defense against a man in great form. The bout would also, given the title status, have significantly more attention than their first bout.
3-Kanehiro Nakagawa (10-6, 5)
Our third choice is probably the most likely and that would be a bout between Saka and the JBC#2 ranked contender Kanehiro Nakagawa, who could potentially be ordered as a mandatory title challenger this year. On paper Nakagawa looks like a massive downgrade from some of the other names on this list, given his less than appealing record, however he is probably in the best form of any Japanese fighter at 130lbs having won his last 5 bouts, with wins over Taiki Minamoto, Ken Oato, Ryuto Araya and Seiichi Okada. That level of competition has seen him climb rapidly through the rankings and earn a shot. In terms of his style, he has the toughness, determination and work rate to make for a thrilling clash with Saka and this would be a firefight well worthy of main eventing a Dynamic Glove show.
4-Yoshimitsu Kimura (12-2-1, 7)
Staying with men well ranked by the JBC a bout between Saka and #7 ranked Yoshimitsu Kimura. This would be a very different type of test from many on this list, but also a really interesting one. Kimura isn’t a big name challenger but is a solid fighter, well known on the Japanese scene and the type of fighter who has been in some great fights already. His 2019 battle with Hironori Mishiro showed the level he could compete at, losing a razor thin decision for the OPBF title, and his 2020 draw with Shuma Nakazato was equally good. Kimura is a speed boxer-fighter, who often finds himself needing to fight more than box, and that could be a downfall against Saka, or it could make for an instant classic. Either way, we would love to see this one and would anticipate something special. For as long as it lasts, at least.
5-Kazuhiro Nishitani (21-5-1, 12)
We started with a former Japanese champion and we’ll end with one, with Kazuhiro Nishitani, a former Japanese Lightweight champion, being a very interesting match up for Saka. The talented Nishitani was last seen in the ring losing a clear decision to Kenichi Ogawa, but he showed enough in that bout to remain in the title mix and against a man like Saka the styles should make for a very interesting bout. Nishitani is tough, really tough, a very relaxed boxer who rides shots well and fights smartly and has real determination. His career defining win over Shuhei Tsuchiya, back in 2017, was fantastic and in many many ways Saka has some similarities to Tsuchiya which should make for a dramatic bout. Nishitani has never been stopped, and Saka would love to change that, whilst Nishitani would love to get a shot to become a 2-weight champion!
*Note rankings are right as per the English version of the JBC rankings on January 25th.
It's fair to say that January wasn't a busy month, by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a handful of gems that took place over on Japanese subscription service Boxing Raise and with that in mind we felt it was worth sharing those gems as we cover the The Best of Boxing Raise January 2021.
As with our previous "Best of Boxing Raise" article all the fights featured here can be accessed by subscribers by logging into Boxing Raise and adding the "movie/####" to "https://boxingraise.com/".
The rising Lightweight hopeful - Shu Utsuki (7-0, 6) vs Masashi Wakita (10-10-2, 5) [movie/9409/]
To begin with we don't have a gem per se but a bout you should make an effort to watch as it features one of the most promising Lightweights in Japan. That is the unbeaten, and heavy handed, Sut Utsuki who was up against the rangy and experienced Masashi Wakita. The bout wasn't the most competitive or most exciting, but for fans wanting to see one of the more promising Japanese fighters at 135lbs this is well worth a watch.
Japanese Super Featherweight title bout - Kosuke Saka (20-5, 17) vs Takuya Watanabe (37-9-1, 21) [movie/9411/]
An obvious choice here for this months list was the first Japanese title fight of 2021, and that saw Japanese Super Featherweight champion Kosuke Saka take on mandatory challenger Takuya Watanabe. On paper this one promised a lot, with Saka being one of the biggest puncher in Japan and Watanabe being a well known tough guy, who has been in some thrilling action bouts during his long career. The bout may not have quite reached the lofty expectations some, including ourselves, had for the bout, but it was certainly worth a watch.
Japanese title war! - Yusaku Kuga (19-4-1, 13) vs Gakuya Furuhashi (26-8-1, 14) [movie/9413/]
Another obvious choice to enjoy was the sensational Japanese Super Bantamweight title fight between defending champion Yusaku Kuga and mandatory challenger Gakuya Furuhashi. Like the Saka Vs Watanabe bout, the expectation was high, and this exceeded those expectations, giving us a legitimate fight of the year contender. If you like high-tempo, inside, phone booth wars this will be down your alley. And if you don't like those sorts of fights, why are you even following this sport? Genuinely this is going to be a very, very hard fight to beat and we may well have already seen the Japanese fight of the year!
Teenager debuts - Seiya Iwamoto (0-0) vs Keisuke Endo (0-0) [movie/9432/]
One thing Japan does better than anywhere else is making 4 rounders something, and their regular 4 round shows match novices who both come to win, rather than have a prospect taking a quick and easy win against someone incredibly limited. One example of that was the debut of 17 year old Seiya Iwamoto, who took on Keisuke Endo in a short but fun fight. The skill level here was low but the action came from the opening bell and the bout really is a gem hidden away on the service. Fun, short and exciting.
All debutant Lightweight clash - Tomoki Sato (0-0) vs Jun Nakahara (0-0) [movie/9434/]
Another 4 rounder that's worth watching is the Lightweight bout between Tomoki Sato and Jun Nakahara. Again these were two debutants and both men were there looking to leave an impression. This wasn't a crude battle, like Iwamoto Vs Endo, but was an entertaining bout, with 2 knockdowns and a chance to see two fighters who may well end up competing in a Rookie of the Year tournament one day. Despite the novice status of both men there was plenty to like here, and it's clear both fighters have got something to work with, even if they are both very, very rough around the edges.
Another 4 rounder! - Kei Fujita (2-1, 2) Vs Narimichi Miura (1-2, 1) [movie/9436/]
Another exciting 4 rounder was the bout between Kei Fujita, who fought on the under-card of Kazuto Ioka Vs Kosei Tanaka, and Narimichi Miura. On paper this looked like it could be an explosive one given neither man had seen the final bell in any of their bouts. It didn't end up being quite as explosive as anticipated, but it was still a damn good bout and round 2 in particular was thrilling. If you like competitive back and forth action this is fantastic to watch and was fought in really good spirits by two men who believed they could take home a victory.
We know some don't enjoy "club level" fights, but to us they are quickly becoming some of our favourites and the 4 rounders in this list are great examples of why, with exciting action and both fighters coming to win. With so few fights taking place in January we really do suggest giving these 4 rounders a watch, as well as the three bigger bouts!
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.
After doing a few really interesting divisions in this series we then come to a jumbled mess at Super Featherweight. The division is almost entirely dominated by the mess of Japanese fighters, who have sort of proven themselves capable, and probably would make for a brilliant round robin. The top few guys stand out, but the rest sort of match each other out, a bit too well
1-Masayuki Ito (26-2-1, 14)
Former WBO Super Featherweight world champion Masayuki Ito had a 2019 to forget, losing the WBO title in May, to Jamel Herring, and then taking a TKO over Ruben Manakane but suffering a nasty looking injury in the bout. His lack of fortune seemed o continue this year, when he had to pull out of a bout in China, before other issues saw the card he was supposed to be on being cancelled all together. Ito is a talented boxer who proved his ability in 2018, with wins over Christopher Diaz and Evgeny Chuprakov, but did look very limited against Herring. It's going to be interesting to see how he bounces back, and we suspect he'll be looking to face some southpaws in the near future, as he didn't appear to ever understand Herring's stance and movement when they fought.
2-Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (15-0, 12)
Russian based Tajik Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov is currently in the running for an IBF title fight, after beating Azinga Fuzile back in September 2019. That win was marred with some controversy, in regards to some drug issues, but stands. Although it'd be hard to see him beating Jo Jo Diaz that bout is an interesting one and would be a very, very exciting one if it took place. Aggressive, heavy handed, tough and with an impressive will to win Rakhimov is a nightmare to fight, despite some technical flaws. He's not the quickest or the smoothest, but he's probably the deadliest in this top 10, as wins over Fuzile, Robinson Castellanos and Malcolm Klassen have shown. Very much the under-rated dangerman of the division.
3-Kenichi Ogawa (24-1-1-1, 18)
Former Japanese national champion Kenichi Ogawa is best known his controversial bout against Tevin Farmer in 2017. That bout ended with Ogawa being crowned the IBF Super Featherweight champion then being stripped for a failed drug test. Whilst there are still unanswered question about the test he served a year ban and was actually out of the ring for almost 14 months before finally returning last year. After two low key wins he had a technical draw with Joe Noynay, in a messy bout for the WBO Asia Pacific title. We expect to see Ogawa back in big bouts in the near future and the 32 year old from the Teiken gym certainly still has time left in his career, but will need to move fast when boxing returns later in the year.
4-Joe Noynay (18-2-2, 7)
Filipino fighter Joe Noynay Had a fantastic few months in 2019, stopping both Kosuke Saka and Satoshi Shimizu, before ending the year with the aforementioned technical draw against Kenichi Ogawa, in what really was a messy, dirty accidental foul filled war. Although not a puncher, as such, he looked really destructive against Saka and Shimizu and has been impressive since losing to Reiya Abe more than 3 years ago. At 24 years old the talented southpaw is one to keep an eye on, and is only behind Ogawa on the basis the depth of the two men's records. We would favour Ogawa, marginally, in a rematch but given the mess of their first bout we're not in a rush to see them face off again.
5-Hironori Mishiro (9-0-1, 3)
Rushing through the rankings has been 25 year old boxer Hiironori Mishiro, who has proven he can box and brawl, when he needs to. Mishiro won the OPBF title in his 6th professional bout and has since made 4 defenses of the title, including a draw against Masaru Sueyoshi and victories over Takuya Watanabe and Yoshimitsu Kimura. Although not the most powerful Mishiro is well schooled, a very smooth boxer with excellent movement and skills. He's proven he can turn things around and brawl, as he did against Sueyoshi. Sadly Mishiro does look like he lacks some real killer instinct, and that could be a major problem when he moves from regional level to world class. As well as his lack of killer instincts there is also question marks about his punching power, but so far his achievements have been impressive.
6-Kosuke Saka (20-5, 17)
Few fighters had the rollercoaster year that Kosuke Saka had in 2019. He was stopped in 2 rounds in April, by Joe Noynay, in what was considered a real set back, scored a low key nothing win against Indonesian journeyman Isack Junior in September and then ended the year by smashing Masaru Sueyoshi to claim the Japanese Super Featherweight title with his best win to date. Saka, at his best, is a nightmare to face and he looked at his absolute best when he beat Sueyoshi. That was the sort of performance that put the division on notice and was his most impressive win since he stopped Shota Hayashi, back in April 2017. Saka is dangerous, but a flawed glass cannon. He'll be in some great fights, win or lose.
7-Takuya Watanabe (37-9-1, 21)
With 9 losses in 47 bouts Takuya Watanabe doesn't look like a fantastic fighter, but boy is his record misleading. He's certainly not a world beater, but on the regional scene not many fighters will beat him without needing to answer serious questions. He's technically a very solid fighter, despite not being the quickest, most powerful or sharpest punching. What he is, is very physically strong and powerful, incredibly tough and has a solid gas tank. Despite his 9 losses he has never been stopped, and that was despite his blood bath in South Korea with Jaesung Lee which saw Watanabe give the Gwanakgu Hall in Seoul a serious donation of claret. Watanabe has lost to some men on this list, notably Masayuki Ito and Hironori Mishiro, but he made both men work for their wins. Most recently he was seen beating Taiki Minamoto to set up a mouth watering showdown with Kosuke Saka, though we may need to wait until 2021 for that bout given the current climate.
8-Yoshimitsu Kimura (12-2, 7)
Having previously lost to Hironori Mishiro and Richard Pumicpic, who is in our Featherweight rankings, the case may be that Yoshimitsu Kimura is too highly ranked here, but in reality he pushed Mishiro all the way in December and is very much a fighter developing rapidly. Aged just 23 he had matured fantastically into a Super Featherweight, after winning the 2016 All Japan Rookie of the Year at Featherweight. In the coming year we expect to see Kimura really climb up these rankings, and he may well be among the best kept secrets in the division. Don't be fooled by his two losses, they were very competitive, and great learning experiences for the youngster who is going to be a key player in the next few years.
9-Masaru Sueyoshi (19-2-1, 11)
Former Japanese national champion Maasaru Sueyoshi rounds out the Japanese fighters in these rankings, though the reality is that he could probably beat some of the ones above him, and did draw with Mishiro. Despite being, head to head, better than some of the guys above we really can't put him higher than Saka, due to Saka's victory over him, and Watanabe and Kimura both looked better than he did last time out. Sueyoshi is a very good technical fighter, he controls distance, tempo and timing well, but lacks real power and struggles with the physical side of the sport. Saka really bullied him, showing no respect to Sueyoshi's power, and we suspect many of those ranked higher up this list would now do the same with that tactic being shown to work against the 29 year old Teiken fighter.
10-Stanislav Kalitskiy (10-0, 3)
As well as all the Japanese talent "clogging" up the division there are some interesting fighters emerging from Central Europe. Among those is the unbeaten 22 year old Stanislav Kalitskiy, who is based in Russia. The talented Kalitskiy lacks power, with only 3 stoppages in his 10 bouts, but has stepped up his competition well and a January win over Alan Isaias Luques Castillo is worthy of note. It'll be interesting to see what RCC have planned for him, but we suspect it's going to be a long, hard slog for him going forward. He is simply too early in his career, and lacks the power, to let him off the leash any time soon.
On the bubble:
Taiki Minamoto, Akzhol Sulaimanbek Uulu, Sultan Zaurbek, Nurtas Azhbenov and Xiang Li
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).