To kick off the month of September we'll see WBO Super Flyweight champion Kazuto Ioka (26-2, 15) make a third successive mandatory defense of his title, as he takes on Mexican warrior Francisco Rodriguez Jr (34-4-1, 24), in a mouth watering bout that is sadly going under-the-radar. And will sadly be held in front of an empty arena as the affects of Covid19 on Japanese sport continues to take it's toll. On paper the bout is a genuinely excellent one between one of the sports most talented boxers and a thrilling all action warrior, and the styles of the two fighters should gel to provide us with a sensational bout.
For those who have lived under a rock for the last 10 years we do perhaps need to talk about just how good Kazuto Ioka is, and also what's been going on in his life in the last few months.
The highly skilled man from Osaka had boxing in his blood, with his uncle being a multi-time world champion and his father also being a professional fighter. When he made his professional debut, aged 20, he was put on the fast tracked and groomed for success, something that came incredibly quickly. Within 18 months of his debut he beat Masayoshi Segawa to claim the Japanese title at 108lbs. Just a few months later he went on to stop Thailand Oleydong Sithsamerchai, who was then 35-0-1, to claim the WBC Minimumweight title. Soon afterwards Ioka unified the WBC and WBA titles, beating Akira Yaegashi, before moving up the weights and winning titles at Light Flyweight, Flyweight and most recently Super Flyweight. Along the way he has beaten a real who's who of the lower weights, Juan Hernandez Navarrete, Felix Alvarado, Juan Carlos Reveco, McWilliams Arroyo and mostly recently Kosei Tanaka. Were it not for Naoya Inoue, and his incredible career, Ioka would be regarded as the king of Japanese right now. Instead he's playing the role of backing singer to The Monster, but wants to change that with bouts against some of the top guys in the sport.
Sadly since beating Kosei Tanaka at the end of 2020 Ioka has been embroiled in a feud with the JBC, who leaked details of a failed drug test. A drug test that suggest Ioka had taken multiple banned substances including marijuana, an illegal drug in Japan. Ioka was later cleared, complete, with revelations that the testing had not followed normal protocol, and was likely tainted and damaged by the fact his sample wasn't frozen and hadn't been kept properly. Later leading the JBC to clear him, and take responsibility. That however will be a very notable sub-story coming into this bout, and there will be a lot of questions about how that may effect Ioka ahead of this bout, his first since that saga.
In the ring Ioka is one of the best fighters on the planet, and deserves a high pound for pound ranking, though maybe just misses out on a top 10 slot. The talented Japanese boxer is a fantastic body puncher, a very intelligent fighter, with good ring craft, and a very versatile tool set. We've seen him box, we've seen him play counter puncher, we've seen him pressure and we've even seen him play the role of a puncher over the years. Again Tanaka he played the role very good counter puncher, neutralising the speed of Tanaka well with his timing and just a fight earlier he pressured Jeyvier Cintron, and used his body shots to neutralise a much bigger, faster man. There are holes in Ioka's game, but they are few and far between, and with Ismael Salas acting as his trainer, a lot of the focus is on understanding his opponent, and building a game plan to beat them. That really is Ioka's biggest strength, his adaptability, and the fact he can be an enigma when he needs to be.
Whilst Ioka is a major player in the sport the same can't be said of Rodriguez, though it did once seem like he was well on his way to being a true star of the lower weights. Like many Mexican fighters he started young, debuting in 2010 at the age if 18, and he reeled off 8 straight wins, 7 by stoppage, to begin his career. In 2012 he suffered his first loss but bounced back quickly and was 14-1 (12) when he got his first real bout of note, against a then 35-0 Roman Gonzalez. Rodriguez put up a fine effort, but was stopped in 7 rounds by Gonzalez. For a young fighter to have given his all against Gonzalez, in Nicaragua no less, this was a loss that showed what Rodriguez had to offer the sport and just 6 months later he went on to stopped WBO Minimumweight champion Merlito Sabillo to claim his first world title. Just 5 months later he went on to defeat Katsunari Takayama in arguably the best fight of 2014, to unify the WBO and IBF titles. At that point in time he looked like one of the hottest young things in world boxing but sadly a move up in weight saw his career hit a snag, suffering an unexpected draw to Jomar Fajardo, and losses to Donnie Nietes and Moises Fuentes. That left him desperately needing to rebuild. And rebuild he has! In fact he's won his last 15 bouts, with 11 stoppages, beating the likes of Ramon Garcia Hirales, Yohei Tobe, Hernan Marquez, Oswaldo Novoa and Martin Tecuapetla during that run.
In the ring Rodriguez isn't a smart fighter. He's not an intelligent boxer, or a crafty counter puncher. Instead he's a pretty intense, in your face, aggressive warrior, coming to have a fight. Although not a huge puncher in terms of 1-shot power, Rodriguez is a brute, his pressure, work rate and tenacity often being too much for opponents Watching him we see a fighter who isn't technical, he isn't accurate, and he's not the most natural of boxers. But he is a fighter, who lets combinations go, uses head movement and does a very under-rated jab, which he uses well to dictate moments. At his best however he's a warrior on the inside, through uppercuts, hooks and switching his attack between head and body. He's developed more as a boxer, rather than a bully, over the years, but is still at his best as a bully with grinding pressure.
Whilst Rodriguez has tried boxing more in recent years we don't see him applying that approach here. He would come off second best for almost every second of every round. Boxing a master boxer like Ioka is not a good idea, unless you are also a master technician. Instead we expect to see Rodriguez trying to apply pressure, and make this a tear up on the inside. Although it's not in Ioka's best interest to fight that type of fight, we do expect the Japanese star to hold his feet a lot and make this into a tear up for the TV viewers.
Sadly with no fans in attendance we don't expect this to feel like a world title fight, but we do imagine a lot of excitement, and it'll be a fight we wish had fans in the venue.
After 12 rounds we're expecting a wide and clear win for Ioka, though we do expect him to have a lot of questions asked of him, and for Rodriguez to show no quit at all. The Mexican will be there from the opening bell to the final seconds, and he'll be putting in an honest shift, but coming up short.
Prediction - UD12 Ioka
The first “big” Filipino fight for us this month comes at Light Flyweight where WBO champion Donnie Nietes (35-1-4, 21) defends his belt against mandatory challenger Francisco Rodriguez Jr (17-2-1, 11). Whilst this is a mandatory title fight it is also one of the very best bouts that could be made at Light Flyweight, a division that has often been over-looked.
Nietes has been one of the most impressive lower-weight fighters over the last few years. He first became a world champion back in September 2007, at Minimumweight, and has held a world title every since. On paper his record is impressive with just a single, controversial, loss in 40 fights and in reality he's proven he can cope with anyone.
There are some who will suggest that Neites' competition has been poor over the years but wins over the likes of Pornsawan Porpramook, Manuel Vargas, Jesus Silvestre and Moises Fuentes are solid wins.
In the ring Nietes can do it all and has evolved over he years. At his best he's a phenomenal counter puncher who can stand in the pocket, land laser like shots and make opponents pay for every mistake. At other times he's a frustrating guy to watch, who relies on his natural ability and sleep walks through fights, as he did in his first meeting with Moises Fuentes. In recent times he's not only been a sharp counter puncher but he's been one who has been making statements with 4 successive stoppages against decent Mexican opponents.
A big question regarding Nietes, and one of the few that will linger over his head going in to the future, is his age. He's already 33 and with 40 bouts, 274 rounds, on the clock he may find himself getting old over-night. He's not shown his age yet but we know fighters in the lower weights do age suddenly and Nietes may go from ultra-sharp to “on the slide” almost in a single fight.
As for for the challenger, Rodriguez will be looking to build on a sensational 2014. He came from absolutely nowhere to be in the running for the hardcore fans Fighter of the Year as he unified both the WBO and IBF Minimumweight titles in stunning back-to-back performances and, were it not for a draw against Jomar Fajardo we'd have had no complaints with anyone voting for Rodriguez. The year saw him fight 4 times though he first came to our attention when he battered Merlito Sabillo to claim the WBO Minimumweight title just a few months later he over-came Katsunari Takayama to add the IBF title to his collection, in a bout later dubbed by many as the 2014 FOTY.
In the ring Rodriguez has had some mixed fortunes. At 105lbs he seemed to be really big and really strong with an aggressive attitude that saw him effectively fight as a bully. When he's fought at a higher weight, as he did in both in 2 fights with Fajardo, he has struggled to make his strength and power count. From those results it does seem like Fajardo isn't really ready to move up too high, though of course they were fought well above the Light Flyweight limit. At 108lbs he may well be more effective than he was against Faardo.
Aged 21 Rodriguez has a really, really bright future ahead of him. He's already been mixing with some genuinely elite level fighters, such as Roman Gonzalez, and has scored two huge wins. One more, over Nietes, would put Rodriguez on the verge of becoming one of the most accomplished youngster fighters in the sport. Although accomplished we do wonder how Rodriguez fares when the crowd want to see him beat, and when he's facing a real technician like Nietes. Against Sabillo and Takayama we saw Rodrgiuez beat fighters, warriors and men who traded with him, that won't be the case here.
In their ring we're expecting a little bit of a bull Vs matador. Rodriguez will know that to win on the road he needs to clearly win the bout and this will make him even more aggressive than usual. The extra aggressiveness will give Nietes chances and the Filipino will make the most of the opening to land crisp and clean straights and uppercutts. If Rodriguez can walk through the, then we wouldn't be shocked to see the fight become an all out war of attrition. If they take their toll however and Rodriguez slows then we see Nietes taking a relatively comfortable decision win.
The interesting scenario is if they do end up going to war. We think that would favour Rodriguez though he really will need to win the rounds clearly to get the win...and we don't think he'll manage that.
We wouldn't be shocked if this was the fight of the month, but really don't see the title changing hands, even if the fight end sup being one that the neutral would give to the visitor.
This coming weekend's major fight, at least for us anyway, is in Mexico as Japan's incredibly brave and criminally under-rated Katsunari Takayama (27-6-0-1, 10) attempts to unify his IBF Minimumweight title with the WBO title currently held by the big punching Francisco Rodriguez Jr (14-2, 10). The bout, one of the very few Minimumweight title unifications, is a major one for both men who are both looking to claim that they are the best at 105lbs.
For Takayama this bout is a special one. It's his chance to became the first ever Japanese fighter to claim a "Grandslam" and to have won a version of all 4 of the major titles, thus achieving one of the goals he set out to accomplish when he returned to the sport after his short lived retirement. It's certainly a big ask but it's something he seems confident of doing.
For Rodriguez this continues his rapid rise through the sport following his victory over Merlito Sabillo earlier this year. It was that victory over Sabillo that saw Rodriguez winning his WBO belt and announcing himself as a serious force in the Minimumweight division.
Takayama, for those who haven't followed his career, has been one of the true "will fight anyone, anywhere" type fighters. This has seen him travelling to South Africa 3 times, including two fights Nkosinathi Joyi, the Philippines to fight Mateo Handig and to Mexico to fight Mario Rodriguez. In total Takayama has fought just 2 of his last 7 bouts in his native Japan.
Not only has Takayama fought top fighters on the road but he has also fought top fighters in his native Japan. This has included a fight with the brilliant Roman Gonzalez, Yutaka Niida and Eagle Den Junlaphan. In fact going through Takayama's record there are very few fighters that he didn't fight in the Minimumweight division such as Akira Yaegashi and Ivan Calderon.
For Rodriguez this will be his fourth fight with a notable foe. As mentioned above he holds an outstanding victory over Merlito Sabillo and he also holds a win over Manuel Vargas whilst his most recent loss came, via stoppage, to the sensational Roman Gonzalez. It's arguably the Gonzalez fight, in Nicaragua, that told more about Rodriguez than any other. It showed he was tough, despite being stopped, that his work rate was solid and that for a 20 year old he had real potential.
Young, powerful and strong we really do think that Rodriguez is a serious threat to Takayama and could well upset the popular and talented Japanese fighter much like he upset Sabillo. He is a pressure fighter with a growing confidence and ever developing skills that could help make him one of the divisional kingpins over the next few years, if he stays at 105lbs which it's self is a debate and a half.
Going for Takayama however are a number of things, not least his experience against the divisional elite. He is also one of the toughest and bravest fighters out there and if nothing else he has shown an ability to survive, in fact his sole KO loss, way back in 2003, came from over-confidence. Most importantly however is his energy and against a pressure fighter that could well be the key for him to succeed. He has proven capable of being able to fight at a great pace from the opening round to the final bell and, despite being hurt though his career he has been able to bounce back and recover excellently.
Although we tend to feel Takayama has a lot of advantages going in to the fight he has also had major issues in the build up to the bout. Firstly he saw his trainer, manager and mentor Hiroaki Nakade spend time in hospital early in his training camp. That was because Nakade needed an aneurysm removing and whilst he seems to have recovered from surgery it will have been an unwelcome distraction for Takayama. Another problem that has troubled his camp has been a cut over his right eye which was accidentally opened by Naoya Inoue in sparring. That cut, suffered just weeks before the fight, saw several planned spars cancelled and will have seriously thrown a spanner into Takayama's training plans. Thankfully it appears that that facial damage has healed though it is a target for Rodriguez to aim for and the talk is that Takayama really struggled in the spar with Inoue.
We'd like to think that Takayama will win, though we know he's in a very tough contest here and we'd certainly not be surprised at all to see him pushed all the way in a very hard bout. Of course bouts that fought on foreign soil do come with the risk of the judges being swayed by the home fighter and sadly we see that being an issue here. Takayama, for all his skills, isn't a fighter who stops opponents and we'd be shocked if he manages to see off Rodriguez which means it's likely this one is going 12 and we think Rodriguez will get the nod, albeit a controversial one.
(Image courtesy of http://nakazatoboxing.com)
Last year was a funny year for unbeaten Filipino Merlito Sabillo (23-0-1, 12). He started the year a complete unknown before stopping Colombian Luis De la Rosa to claim the WBO interim Minimumweight title. From this his popularity blossomed and he looked very solid in his first defense, stopping the limited Colombian Jorle Estrada in the 9th round.
Unfortunately for Sabillo his second defense didn't go so well and he struggled to a draw with Nicaragua's exciting youngster Carlos Buitrago. It was a fight that could have been a contender for Fight of the Year though many felt the result was a home town decision to keep Buitrago as the champion.
Whatever you thought of the Sabillo/Buitrago result is immaterial now and Sabillo will be looking to put it behind him as he travels to Mexico for his 3rd defense. Whilst it would have been nice to see him give Buitrago a rematch on neutral soil Sabillo will instead be facing dangerous Mexican Francisco Rodriguez Jr (13-2, 9), a man ranked #10 by the WBO at Minimumweight and #14 by the WBC at Light Flyweight.
Although a relative unknown the 20 year old Rodriguez is a a fighter with more than 3 years of professional experience under his belt. Those 3 years and 15 professional contests have seen him sharing the ring with some decent fighters, most notable Roman Gonzalez, who stopped Rodriguez in 7 rounds,
and Manuel Vargas, who was stopped in 3 by Rodriguez.
What we know of Rodriguez is that he is gutsy, you don't fight Roman Gonzalez unless you have real guts and courage and he is hard hitting with 9 stoppages in 13 wins. However he's also limited in terms of his boxing ability and the few decision wins he does, other than his most recent against Ernesto Guerrero, have been close. It seems that if his power doesn't take you out then he struggles.
Sabillo on the other hand is a talented fighter who has come from a street fighting background and has since had to develop into a boxer. In terms of his power he wasn't blessed with it but had to work on it. His first 11 bouts saw him scoring just 3 stoppages and his first 18 fights saw him with just 7 stoppages. Since then however he has began to believe in his own power and scored 5 stoppages in 6 fights with only Carlos Buitrago surviving 12 rounds with the Filipino.
In terms of experience it's to pick against Sabillo who has proven he's a warrior, proven his toughness and even proven that he's capable of fighting well on the road with his victory last year in Colombia. He might not be anything special but he's that solid type of fighter who will never be easy to beat and in fact it'll take a true divisional elite to beat him.
As for Rodriguez, he may have home advantage but it's hard to see him making it to the final bell. It took Gonzalez 7 rounds to stop the Mexican and whilst Sabillo doesn't hit as hard as "Chocolatito" we don't imagine it'll take him much longer to see off the Mexican maybe 9 or 10 rounds.
Hopefully the winner here will give Buitrago a shot later in the year though we could understand both fighters being apprehensive of "Chocorroncito".
(Photo courtesy of http://www.alaboxing.com)
World Title Previews
The biggest fights get broken down as we try to predict who will come out on top in the up coming world title bouts.