On Saturday we were lucky enough to be able to catch an interesting looking OPBF Light Welterweight / Super Lightweight title bout as Rikki Naito (23-2, 8) faced off with Yusuke Konno (16-5, 9). The bout, Naito's 4th defense of the title, looked like an easy one on paper, but it was one that had real intrigue due to the recent form of Konno, who had won his last 5 including solid wins over Kazuya Maruki, Vladimir Baez and Baishanbo Nasiyiwula. Those wins had seen Konno build up momentum and style wise he seemed to be the kryptonite for Naito, who has long issues with physical boxers and with stamina.
Of course those who watched the bout will known that Naito won the contest when Konno was forced to retire in his corner after 9 rounds with an injury, a disappointing end to a relatively interesting match. And an ending that came just before we expected to see Konno's stamina, toughness and size begin to play their part on the bout.
With the bout now behind we've taken the chance to rewatch it and give our take aways from the bout.
1-Naito is a joy to watch
We need to start with the obvious and that's that Rikki Naito really is a joy to watch. He's a pure boxer, with nice speed, good movement, lovely shot placement, a brilliant straight left hand, and he really does tick a lot of boxes. Sadly though he is very much a boxer and not a fighter. When dragged into a fight he struggles, and his lack of physicality, power, strength and questionable stamina are all major issues. At this sort of level he looks very classy, very talented and very much a wonderful boxer. Sadly for him however being a wonderful boxer does have it's limitations and he lacks those other tools needed to be a real star outside of Japan.
2-Konno's pressure told in round 6
In round 2 and in round 6, to a much bigger degree, we saw Konno's pressure really getting to Naito and it seemed like Naito was falling into the wrong sort of fight. Round 6 in particular made things really interesting, and it's a shame Konno suffered his injury as another round like that and we would could have been looking at a new champion. Konno's toughness, size, and power allowed him to take clean blows from Naito and his physical strength and body work could well have worn down the champion had he gone on unhindered. It really is a shame we saw him suffer the injury to his left shoulder that forced the early conclusion of the bout.
3-The injury of Konno seemed to show as early as round 6
Konno's excellent round 6 seems to come at a very serious price. He didn't take much punishment from Naito but by the dying seconds of the round it seemed he was a 1-handed fighter. He was in the position to throw left hooks a number of times, but simply didn't let them go. It was amazing, looking back, just how much success he had as a 1-handed fighter. It seemed that in round 6 he hadn't completely done in the arm, but was certainly not using it towards the end of the round. He then essentially fought the following 3 rounds without using his left. When he he walked towards his corner something seemed wrong, though strangely his team only iced his right side and not his left.
4-Kadoebi gave their man a chance even with an injury
Likely realising their man was a 1-handed fighter the Kadoebi team in charge of Konno gave their man every opportunity to continue on and allowed him to fight 3 rounds whilst clearly carrying an issue. To his credit he did throw some left hands in round 7, but they were few and far between, and they rarely looked right. To be honest, they looked wild, sloppy and lacked any crispness at all. We suspect those shots really just did more harm than good and likely explained why rounds 8 and 9 saw him essentially give up with the left all together. Credit to his undoubted toughness however, and well done to his team for giving him a chance and then pulling him out before he took any serious punishment or further damaged the shoulder. Fingers crossed he'll be back in the ring in 2021 with a fully healed shoulder
5-Naito's ceiling isn't too much higher than this
We started this saying how Naito is a joy to watch and then listing his flaws. Sadly those flaws are going to keep him at this type of level. At 29 it seems unlikely he'll develop any more in terms of power or physical strength, and if he does they will likely come at the expense of his speed and his already questionable stamina. Naito against anyone near the top of the division wouldn't bode well for the Japanese fighter, no matter how nice, smooth and technical his boxing skills are. With that in mind we see him continuing his career at the OPBF and WBO Asia Pacific type level. On one hand that's disappointing, given his ability, but on the other hand that keeps some really good match ups on the table for him. A rematch between Naito and Daishi Nagata, or Konno, would be great, or Naito against fighters like Hiroki Okada, Andy Hiraoka, Akihiro Kondo, the winner of the upcoming bout between Jin Sasaki and Aso Ishiwaki, Hwang Kil Kil, Downua Ruawaiking and Koichi Aso would be entertaining bouts. His ceiling isn't massively high, but there are a lot of interesting match ups out there for him.
Last week we saw Japan's Rikki Naito (22-2, 7) make his third defense of the OPBF Light Welterweight title, with a good win in South Korea over Gyu Beom Jeon. The bout had been rescheduled several times, and in the end it really wasn't competitive, with Naito dominating much of the bout with his boxing skills, until slowing down late and Jeon just a slight window of opportunity. In the end bout was a clear victory Naito.
With the OPBF title still around his waist Naito will have a target on his back and he looks a very beatable champion, especially by fighters who can force him to fight at a high pace and get to him late. Today we look at 5 potential opponents for Naito going forward.
1-Koki Inoue (14-0, 11)
On December 2nd Koki Inoue will look to claim the WBO Asia Pacific title, as he faces Jhertiz Chavez, and add it to a collection that also includes the Japanese title, a match with Naito would therefore clear who is the best at 140lbs not only in Japan but also the wider region. The two have some history, following them from the amateurs, they are both regarded as being among the best in regions and stylistically they should make for a compelling all southpaw bout. This has everything, history, titles, and regional domination. Of course Inoue will need to get past Chavez, and that is certainly not a given, for this bout to have the allure in 2020.
2-Mercito Gesta (32-3-2, 17)
Another bout that is dependent on future bout would be a showdown with US based Filipino veteran Mercito Gesta. Gesta has a bout scheduled for November, but if he comes through that unscathed a bout with Naito would certainly be an interesting looking contest. For Gesta it would be a chance to face a fellow Asian fighter, something he's not done recently, having fought solely in the US since 2007 mostly against American and Mexican opponents. On the other hand it would give Naito a great chance to fight in the US and make his American debut, and in a bout he would see as very winnable. Gesta would likely be the favourite but this certainly would be interesting.
3-Yusuke Konno (15-4, 8)
We go back to Japan for our third option, and a bout with the under-rated Yusuke Konno. On paper this doesn't have the greatest allure, but in reality this would be the type of bout that would push Naito, and test him to his absolute limits. In terms of skills and speed the advantages lie with Naito, however Konno has the advantages in stamina, power and will be in there to win. We saw Konno score a career best win earlier this year over Baishanbo Nasiyiwula in China, to extend his current winning streak to 4, and he would be make for a fantastic bout with Naito. This would be skill against will, speed against power and brilliant to watch.
4-Miguel Vazquez (41-9, 15)
In his prime Miguel Vazquez was an avoided fighter, nobody wanted to share the ring with the awkward, talented, and smart Mexican. In the last few years however he has been able to get the role of gatekeeper and has landed a lot of fights against solid prospects and hopefuls. Although he typically loses he always puts up a good effort, and exposes areas for youngsters to work on. With that in mind he makes the perfect opponent for a future Rikki Naito fight. Naito should have enough to beat him, but this would still be a very good at this point and a chance for Naito to be compared to some of the better fighters in the division. If the Naito gym could get this in the US it would also help improve Naito's international profile and could be his US debut.
5-Downua Ruawaiking (16-0, 13)
A high risk-high reward option would be a showdown with unbeaten Thai puncher Downua Ruawaiking, aka Apinun Khongsong. The Thai poses a lot of risk and danger with his power but by that same token he is the IBF #1 ranked fighter in the division and if Naito could secure a fight with him, and beat him, he could find himself in line for a world title fight. It would take a lot of money to make the Thai and his team risk their future fight for the title, maybe too much money to risk here, but it would make for a very interesting boxer-mover vs boxer-puncher match up and the type of high risk-high reward fights that we love seeing fighters take.
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).