It's fair to say that 2021 has not been the year any of us wanted, expected or needed. It is, much like 2020, a year that will go down as one we want to forget, scrub from history, and never need to repeat. Thankfully it is about to end, and we are about to go in 2022, a year where hopefully normality will resume after a couple of frustrating years.
The last major fight before the end of the year will be held this Friday as Kazuto Ioka (27-2, 15) defends his WBO Super Flyweight title against fellow Japanese fighter Ryoji Fukunaga (15-4, 14), in a bout that was rushed after the emergence of the Omicron variant lead to Japan closing it's borders to international travellers. A change that forced the cancelation of a bout between Ioka and IBF champion Jerwin Ancajas and left the promoters scrambling for a replacement that was already in Japan, something that gave Fukunaga this very, very unexpected shot at the WBO title.
Despite the late opponent change for Ioka it's a bout he needs to take seriously, especially if he wants to land a massive fight in 2022 against the likes of Ancajas, Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada or Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. It's also a bout that sees him taking on a supposedly lesser opponent, but someone he knows he can't over-looked, especially after having had 3 successive mandatory title defenses since winning the title in summer 2019. Those mandatories weren't pushovers either, coming against the then unbeaten Jeyvier Cintron, 3 weight world champion Kosei Tanaka and former unified Minimumweight champion Francisco Rodriguez Jr, who all gave Ioka different types of tests.
The 32 year Japanese champion is one of the major faces of Japanese boxing, and is up there with Naoya Inoue and Ryota Murata as the three most notable Japanese boxers right now. He's been a world champion, on and off, for a over a decade now having first won a world title in February 2011, and has won titles at 105lbs, 108lbs, 112lb and 115lbs and managed to unify titles down at 105lbs. He has a resume that puts him in the mix for a future Hall of Fame place, with wins against the likes of Oleydong Sithsamerchai, Akira Yaegashi, Felix Alvarado, Juan Carlos Reveco, McWilliams Arroyo, and the aforementioned pairing of Tanaka and Rodriguez Jr.
In the ring Ioka is a brilliant technical boxer, and someone who has proven to be amazingly adaptable. He's a a boxer first and foremost, with spectacular body punching, under-rated speed and movement and respectable power but his really impressive traits are his boxing brain, his timing, his understanding of the ring, and his ability to think his way through tough spots. We've seen him play pressure fighter, as he did against Cintron, we've seen him turn full on counter puncher, as he did against Tanaka and we've seen him put on everything in between. He is a very, very accomplished all rounder, with very few weak areas. There are areas where he doesn't shine, such as his lack of brutal power, but he more than makes up for it in other areas.
As for Fukunaga he is very much a raw fighter, who has achieved a lot despite being completely under-the-radar outside of Japan. He made his debut in 2013 and despite losing 2 of his first 6 bouts he turned things around to win the 2016 All Japan Rookie of the Year on route to running up a 10-2 (10) record. His 6 fight winning run came to an end in 2018 when he was beaten in back to back fights by Yuta Matsuo and Kongfah CP Freshmart. Since then however he has gone on a notable run beating Froilan Saludar to win the WBO Asia Pacific title and Kenta Nakagawa, to unify the WBO Asia Pacific title with the OPBF and Japanese titles, and most recent he defended those three titles with a win over Hayate Kaji back in October, in what was actually his first decision win.
At his best Fukunaga has always been a bit of an offensive monster. He is naturally heavy handed, throws a lot of leather, and has damaging combinations. His offense is best defense, and his wins over Saludar and Nakagawa both showed that. He also showed real heart, climbing off the canvas to stop Saludar, and simply breaking down and beating up Nakagawa, in what was a late contender for the 2020 Japanese Fight of the Year. Sadly though aged 35 it does appear his tough bouts are catching up with him and he looked very, very lucky last time out when he barely scraped past Hayate Kaji, in one of the worst decisions in a Japanese ring this year. Kaji out worked, out landed and out boxed Fukunaga, who really shouldn't have got the decision. Had he suffered a loss there however, as he probably should have done, there is no doubt we wouldn't be talking about Fukunaga getting a world title fight. Sadly in that fight he seemed unable to set his feet, he was hurt repeatedly, and the speed and combinations of Kaji got him time and time again. The only saving grace for Fukunaga was his toughness, and the feeling he always had the power to turn things around, but he looked very very slow, clumsy and out of his depth there.
Sadly for Fukunaga the bout with Kaji really does suggest he has no chance here. He was hurt so frequently by Kaji that we have to assume he's shot, or on the verge of being shot. Given how easily Kaji landed single heavy shots and eye catching combinations we can't see how Ioka misses him, and the real question is whether Ioka goes after him, or allows Fukunaga's aggression to be his own downfall. Either way, Ioka hits harder than Kaji and we don't think this will end well for the challenger.
Prediction - TKO7 Ioka
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.