On December 23rd in Yokohama fight fans get a really interesting card with 3 world title bouts taking place. One of those world bouts could quite fairly be described as a must win bout for both men, who know a loss will likely send them into retirement, and at very least give them little option but to seriously question their future in the sport.
That bout is the IBF Flyweight title bout, which pits current champion Moruti Mthalane (38-2, 25) against 2-weight world champion Akira Yaegashi (28-6, 16). Entering the bout the 37 year old Mthalane will be looking to make his third defense, of his second reign, whilst Yaegashi will be be looking to become a 4 time champion, just a couple of months short of his 37th birthday. For Flyweights these two men are ancient and bother are grizzled veterans.
As the champion Mthalane deserves to really be credited for what is a disappointingly over-looked career. He is a 2-time IBF Flyweight champion who first won the title in 2009, when he beat Julio Cesar Miranda, and never actually lost the belt in the ring. Instead of travelling to Thailand to defend it against the then unknown Amnat Ruenroeng for pennies he vacated it. A decision that was a bad one at a time when he needed fights, but one he finally recovered from when he became a 2-time champion in 2018.
Mthalane, from South Africa, is unbeaten in over a decade, with his last loss coming to Nonito Donaire way back in 2008 and since then he has gone 15-0 (10), with notable wins over the likes of Miranda, Zolani Tete, John Riel Casimero, Ricardo Nunez, Muhammad Waseem and most recently Masayuki Kuroda.
In the ring the champion is a crafty but aggressive pressure fighter. He's not the quickest, but he is incredibly sharp, with a very high boxing IQ and unerring accuracy. His composure is excellent and he judges distance brilliantly. He knows his way around the ring, he's a natural there, and he knows how to be aggressive but safe. Notably though he is ageing, and there's always a potential question over father time, especially for a lower weight fighter in their mid 30's. Overall he's not taken much punishment but with close to 240 rounds under his belt he as certainly racked up ring miles, and miles in training.
The challenger, Yaegashi, is a fighter who will be well known to fight fans around the globe for his list of world title bouts, and other thrillers. His first world title bout came way back in 2007, hen he lost to Eagle Den Junlaphan and suffered a nasty injury in that bout. Since then however he has proven to be a warrior, and someone with desire to not only win, but to put on a show. His 2011 bout with Pornsawan Porpramook, which he won to become the WBA Minimumweight champion, was regarded by many as the Fight of the Year, whilst his 2012 clash with Kazuto Ioka was a massive all-Japanese unification bout. He lost to Ioka but would then move up in weight to claim the WBC and Lineal Flyweight title, defending it several times before running into Roman Gonzalez, at his best. A short reign as the IBF Light Flyweight champion followed, thanks to an often forgotten battle with Javier Mendoza. After being blown out by Milan Melindo in 2017 his career looked over, but 3 stoppage wins have seen his team back him for one more big fight.
For those who haven't seen Yaegashi you've missed out on one of the sports most consistently entertaining fighters of the last decade or so. He's dubbed the Fierce Warrior in Japan and not without good reason. Win or lose he's been in violent wars, fight after fight. Win or lose his face has regularly swollen up in a grotesque mess, a proud bad of war worn with honour by Yaegashi. He's a talented boxer, with light feet and great stamina, but often that boxing ability takes a backwards step as he gets involved in brawls, using his hand speed to out fight opponents. As he's gotten older he's had more and more exchanges, and his 2018 bout with Hirofumi Mukai is a great example of the type of war Yaegashi has needlessly involved himself in.
Sadly for Yaegashi this is the type of match up that doesn't look good for him. Against slower footed fighters he can shine, he can get in, he can get his shots off and he can get out. Against fighters with sharp punches and good timing however he is countered, caught coming in and has his facial swelling playing an issue. As he's aged his punch resistance has dropped and this is a major problem against a fighter like Mthalane.
We see this as being an action fight early on, with Yaegashi taking the fight to Mthalane, getting in and out for a round or two. Then we suspect he gets caught, and his warrior mentality kicks in, before Mthalane begins to break him down, and by the middle rounds a swollen, bloodied and battered Yaegashi is finally stopped by the referee, who will have seen enough.
Prediction - TKO7 Mthalane
The Flyweight division is one of the most interesting right now, with no fighter clearly standing out as being the best. There are strong arguments for any of the champions to be regarded as the number 1. We suspect that Kosei Tanaka will become the top guy, if he stays in the division for a while, but Charlie Edwards, Artem Dalakian and Moruti Mthalane all have a good argument to be regarded as the best.
This coming Monday Moruti Mthalane (37-2, 25) gets a chance to strengthen his claim as the best as he defends his IBF title against mandatory challenger Masayuki Kuroda (30-7-3, 16) of Japan. Kuroda isn't the best in the Land of the Rising Sun, that's clearly Tanaka, but is a world class veteran getting his second shoot at a title. Mthlane on the other hand will be getting a chance to make his second defense of second reign, and continue his mini-tour of Asia.
Aged 36 Mthalane is a proper veteran of the sport. He's been a professional since 2000 and is a legitimate 2-time IBF champion with a criminally under-rated resume and a 10 year unbeaten run. He's proven to be a technically excellent fighter with great timing, under-rated speed, brilliant accuracy and very solid defense. Through his career he has typically been an aggressive counter punching fighter, and it's a style that has had real success for the South African.
Going through Mthalane's record is like going through a mini who's who of lower weight fighters from the last decade or so. He's scored notable wins over Hussein Hussein, Julio Cesar Miranda, Zolani Tete, John Riel Casimero and Ricardo Nunez. Sadly though management issues cost him activity during some of his prime years, and he certainly missed out on some notable opportunities due to poor decision making. Thankfully however he has began to string together a good level of activity, and this will be his third bout in 10 months, following wins over Muhammad Waseem and Masahiro Sakamoto. Also, despite being 36, he is a rather fresh 36 year old, and doesn't appear to be showing much in terms of wear and tear.
Kuroda, himself a 32 year old, is much less well known that Mthalane but is a battled hardened veteran himself with a 14 year career and plenty of experience. He's had one previous world title fight, losing to Juan Carlos Reveco in a WBA title fight back in 2013, but is a 2-weight Japanese national champion, having held the Light Flyweight and Flyweight title. At national level he has scored numerous notable wins, including victories over Katsuhiko Iezumi, Shin Ono and Takuya Kogawa, whilst also fighting to a draw with Ryoichi Taguchi, though he has never really scored a win above domestic level.
Kuroda has proven to be a gruelling warrior in the ring. He does tend to start fights like he's a technical fighter, but always seems to get dragged into a war, ignoring his technical ability and fighting a brawl instead. He's technically solid, when he sticks to his boxing, but has somewhat questionable composure, and seems to be happy to take one to land one whilst fighting on the inside. He's usually in pretty entertaining fights, but has been dropped numerous times during his career, and he's not got the power or speed to really fight with the style he has, at world level.
Although we suspect Mthalane will lose to someone he should beat, due to his age, we don't see that loss coming here. Kuroda has a style that should make life easy for Mthalane, coming forward and trying to fight on the inside. Kuroda will likely have more success than Masahiro Sakamoto did, before he was stopped by Mthalane, but he'll likely face the same sort of beating Sakamoto had, with Mthalane's clean, hard, accurate punching and tight defense being too much for him.
Prediction - TKO9 Mthalane.
In 2018 we've seen the Flyweight division go through some huge changes, and not a single fighter who began the year a world champion is actually still a champion. In fact the longest reigning champion in the division is Artem Dalakian, and his WBA reign only began in February. To end the year the division may have one more sting in the tail, as IBF champion Moruti Mthalane (36-2, 24) makes his first defense, of his second reign, and goes up against unheralded Japanese challenger Masahiro Sakamoto (13-1, 9).
The champion is a true veteran of the sport. He turned professional in 2000, as an 18 year old, and got his first big break in 2008, winning an IBF eliminator. Unfortunately he would come up short in his first world title fight, losing by TKO due to cute to Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas, but gave Donaire one of his toughest bouts at the time. Despite losing to Donaire we did see Mthalane claim the title a year later, beating Julio Cesar Miranda for the vacant title. As the champion he would make 4 defenses over 3 years, stopping Zolani Tete, Johnriel Casimero, Andrea Sarritzu and Ricardo Nunez. Sadly though politics would play a part in hins reign, not only leading to inactivity but also eventually leading to Mthalane vacating, rather than facing Amnat Ruenroeng for a very paltry purse.
Despite vacating the belt Mthalane remained a leading Flyweight contender, and would get a chance to recapture the belt this past July, a chance he made the most of by beating Korean based Pakistani fighter Muhammad Waseem by unanimous decision in Malaysia.
At the age of 36 is ancient for a Flyweight, and with 38 bouts on his record is certainly a fighter who has had a hard career. He has real wars with the likes of Donaire, Nunez, Waseem and Jether Oliva, who gave Mthalane a horribly swollen eye. Despite being old Mthalane is a technical master in the ring, with an excellent boxing IQ, an aggressive style, which can be either that of a pressure fighter or an aggressive counter puncher, and he is a surprisingly quick an powerful fighter. Defensively he's sound, though there are some question marks about his stamina, and he was running on empty in the later rounds against Waseem.
Whilst the champion has long been under-the-radar, hard core fans have known about him for around a decade. The challenger on the other hand is a real unknown for those who don't follow the Asian scene, and more specifically the Japanese scene. He made his first mark on the sport in 2015, winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year at Flyweight and would lose his first title bout the following year, losing in a WBO Asia Pacific title bout to future world champion Sho Kimura. Thankfully for Sakamoto he would win that regional title the following year, stopping Kwanthai Sithmorseng, and defend it once, stopping Pigmy Kokietgym. Sadly those are the only 2 wins of major note on his record, and his loss to Kimura came at a time when no one really knew who Kimura was, and was the win that put Kimura on the road for his break out win against Zou Shiming in 2017.
Although Sakamoto hasn't had much TV exposure, aside from his Rookie of the Year stuff, he has got plenty of footage out there on boxingraise. That footage shows a smart fighter, a fighter who thinks about what he's doing, and boxing with his brain. Sadly though it shows a fighter with not exceptional natural talent. He's a a good, steady, boxer, but not a quick one or a monstrous puncher. He's a fighter who appears to have been more about hard work, dedication and gradual development, something that was clear between the loss to Kimura and his wins against the notable Thai's.
With a loss to Kimura it's fair to say that Sakamoto has lost the biggest bout of his career. This bout is bigger though and he will be the clear under-dog. He's up against the most technically proficient fighter he has ever faced, and a man who has a wealth of experience at world level. Sakamoto's team have been developing a game plan for Mthalane for a while, and it's almost certainly one based around making the most of Mthalane's advanced age. Sadly though the Japanese fighter is likely to find himself up against it here.
We would love to see Sakamoto win, and the potential rematch with Kimura or a unification bout with Kosei Tanaka, though the truth is that he is the huge under-dog here. We suspect his lack of experience at this level will be a major problem. We suspect Sakamoto will have moments, but sadly will come up short to the pressure and accuracy of the very talented champion.
The Flyweight division has long been one of the best divisions in the sport, combining both great fighters and amazing bouts. In recent years however it's wobbled a bit as the top guys have gone up in weight and left the 112lb weight class feeling a little bit like a void as fighters begin to step up to bigger challenges. This has seen the likes of Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada, Donnie Nietes all abandon the division for success at Super Flyweight. As a result the division currently lacks in terms of x-factor, with good but not amazing champions, like Sho Kimura and Artem Dalakian. We're currently missing a real star in the division, and whilst Cristofer Rosales looks to be the best of the bunch he doesn't have the same allure as a Gonzalez, Estrada or even the now retired Kazuto Ioka.
This coming Sunday we get the chance to see another two fighters throw their hats into the ring to try and become the division's star and the new IBF Flyweight champion. The bout in question will see former champion Moruti Mthalane (35-2, 24) attempt to reclaim the title as he faces off with Korean based Pakistani fighter Muhammad Waseem (8-0, 6).
Of the two men it's Mthalane who is more well known. He is best, internationally, for giving Nonito Donaire a few really tough rounds back in 2008, before being stopped on cuts in round 6. Since then the South African has gone 13-0 (9), with some notable issues with inactivity plaguing his career. Although he hasn't been massively active he has notched up some brilliant wins, including victories over Julio Cesar Miranda, Zolani Tete, Johnriel Casimero and Ricardo Nunez. Sadly he has, like many African fighters, struggled to get the career defining fights on a big stage and actually gave up the IBF title rather than get paid pennies to face a then unknown Amnat Ruenroeng after 4 defenses.
Since vacating the IBF title Mthalane has been arguably the best Flyweight to essentially be locked out of the title picture. He's too dangerous to face as a voluntary and he was unable to secure a mandatory position until the IBF title was vacated by Donnie Nietes. Despite missing out on a world title fight he has been picking up his activity and he fit 3 fights into 2017, winning all 3 by stoppage.
At the age of 35, soon to be 36, the South African will know that a loss will be the end of his hopes of becoming a 2-time world champion, at least with the 4 big organisations. He is however a tough, skilled, accurate and aggressive fighter with very under-rated power who will look to take the fight to his foe here.
Waseem on the other hand is a bit of an unknown to many fans, and this will be, by far, the highest profile bout of his career. The Pakistani born fighter turned professional in 2015 under the promotional guidance of Andy Kim, who has matched Waseem aggressively and gotten him very high level training. He made his professional debut in a 10 round bout for the Korean Bantamweight title and less than 10 months later he had claimed the WBC Silver Flyweight title. From then on it seemed like he was heading towards a WBC title fight but financial issues almost derailed his career. What had been a fast track to the top approach for Waseem hit a brick wall and he spent 2017 fighting in stay busy fights on under-cards in Panama.
In the ring Waseem has looked like a fighter able to do it all. He can box, he can bang and he can move. He began his career like a fighter wanting to test things, get used to the ring and the distance of a fight, looking like he was working on things all the time. After his 2016 win over Giemel Magramo however he's had to do a lot less to pick up wins and instead beaten some very abject opponents in any way that he wanted. If he can still mix the different styles together then it's very possible that he could use his speed to out fox and bamboozle the hard hitting Mthalane.
At 30 years old Waseem is young enough to have a nice reign, if he comes out on top here, but given his lack of financial backing there is a real issue he could find his reign cut short like Mthalane did when he held the title a few years ago.
Although there is a huge gulf in experience here we do actually favour Waseem. He appears to be the fresher fighter, the fighter who hasn't had the bouts against the likes of Donaire and Nunez. Mthalane is going to be dangerous through the fight, and Waseem can't get lazy, but if he uses his legs, moves and prevents Mthalane from setting his feet there's a great chance for Korea and Pakistan to claim a world champion.
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.