The quotation marks need explaining: I, like so many other boxing fans, cannot take the proliferation of alphabet belts seriously. As every seasoned Sweet Science reader knows, a man holding a given trinket is never much better than three or four-to-one on to be the best fighter in the division. Still, even in a case where a youngster is scooping up a vacant strap rather than beating an incumbent champion, the speed with which a prospect is matched for one of boxing’s many alphabet belts is telling. It imparts to the fan the confidence in which the would-be-title-holder is held by his management and fistic team. A gym knows a fighter better than a fighter will ever know a gym. Kosei Tanaka’s gym showed the confidence to see him matched for a world title in just his fifth outing last weekend, in Aichi, Japan.
The number is not without significance. Naoya Inoue, aka “The Monster”, currently a dark horse galloping on the pound-for-pound beach after just eight contests, is a two weight world-champion who must name, already, among the most dangerous fighters on the planet. He was allowed to match for a strap in his sixth contest; Tanaka has just broken his record for a Japanese fighter claiming a strap by a single fight. The fact that Inoue was matched for his second title two weights north, at super-flyweight, just eight months later, leaves him as a distant speck on Kosei Tanaka’s horizon, but he has signalled a warning note to his more prestigious countrymen and it is not a discord that will go unnoticed by the former record holder. For all that Tanaka and Inoue are said to like and respect one-another, a future in which they do not meet for every marble the Japanese fight scene can muster does not seem possible.
Tanaka’s opponent for his this prestigious occasion was Julian Yedras. Yedras, out of Campeche, Mexico, is at first glance every inch the ABC setup one has come to expect from occasions that see a valuable commodity like Tanaka anointed champion, and to an extent he was; as a challenge, Yedras represents neither the advanced thuggery of Orlando Salido, who derailed Vasyl Lomachenko’s early attempt at a strap, nor Inoue’s extreme daring in taking on divisional #1 Adrian Hernandez, for his first title outing. But, having now dropped to just 24-2, Yedras brought more than enough to his teenage opponent’s table to make things interesting.
A record populated mainly by journeymen and prospects, the Mexican’s status is clear, and it is not that of a strapholder – but Yedras had matched one outstanding fighter in Carlos Buitrago, currently ranked the #5 minimumweight in the world. The result was a points loss and perusing the scorecards we can see that it is a wide one (116-113, 118-111, 118-110), but as is so often the case the cards do not tell the story.
Buitrago landed combinations often and they were consistently the better punches, but Yedras had his successes also. Wild-swinging and impossible to discourage, he thundered forwards against his slicker, more experienced opponent, popping out a torqueless jab with persistence, shaping himself around a whipping hook and digging in a right hand to the body. A thudding, rather than a stinging hitter, an apparent lack of power handicaps him but Yedras has at least some of the banditry that made Salido so dangerous, even if he lacks certain elements of style and, shall we say, artistry which his fellow Mexican mastered.
Nevertheless, Yedras looked a handful against Buitrago, and early in the fight he put together a rather frightening rush on the cards. In the mid-rounds Buitrago had mastered him, or so it seemed, until the tenth, when it suddenly looked as though the Mexican’s dogged determination and investment in the body might pay off; the round was close, but I scored it for him, making the fight take on a narrow appearance entering the eleventh. Had Yedras taken both remaining rounds he would have made a draw on my card, and according to broadcaster Box Azteca, he would have done enough to win. In the end, I thought that Yedras won the fight quite literally in the final seconds of the twelfth where he rallied and appeared to hurt his man. It was that close.
This fight gave me the impression that Yedras would be dangerous for Tanaka. So it would prove. He was clearly the fresher man in the closing rounds against the more elite Buitrago, and capable of concentrated bursts of consistent pressure yielding consecutive rounds on the scorecards. This is a dangerous combination for a prospect that has yet to do the twelve. Any sudden lapses of will would be exposed; any tiny coughs in his engine would be heard and pounced upon – and any stylistic tics, say, the propensity to exchange unadvisedly or a failure to work to keep a more limited fighter on the outside could be ruthlessly exploited.
As I wrote in profiling Tanaka in February (an article you can read here), Kosei is “a box-mover in the truest sense, a methodology designed to embrace, to the greatest extent, his natural gifts…it works well for a fighter with the necessary speed.” Speed, the kid has, in abundance, and he was able to repeatedly get around the corner on the Mexican with his left-hook and counter his opponent’s best work in the early rounds. Unsurprisingly to anyone who had seen his fight with Buitrago, however, Yedras was able to match jabs with the young Japanese. As it provided countering opportunities for Tanaka this seemed, perhaps, not to matter; but the plot would shortly thicken.
But before we get to Yedras and his inevitable surge, let’s take a moment to appreciate those things that the fledgling Tanaka does so well; the way he can find a three punch combination to the body off a jab to the face; the footspeed that guides him all the way around his back-stepping opponent to find the hook behind the ear without giving up a punching opportunity; the guard-splitting uppercut behind which he vanishes in a cloud of ethereal footwork; the stunning straight, hook, straight combination that sent the granite-chinned Mexican reeling to the ropes in the second. Old men in hard gyms might shed a single tear at seeing such skill demonstrated by an eighteen month professional, but Tanaka already makes them look easy. He is unencumbered by doubt or bulk.
Returning to Yedras and his jab, his surge. While it is true that his jab was absolutely failing to do its most important job, namely keep the spritely Tanaka busy, Yedras embraced this fact which was so detrimental to his scorecard and his face, and slowly, surely, he followed his jab in, and by the middle of the third he found ground zero, his target, the space inside his opponent’s rapier left-hook. Showing an immaturity typical of his age or perhaps even a machismo more typical of his opponent’s national character, Tanaka elected to stay in the pocket and fight.
It led to some fantastic exchanges, as Tanaka’s speed was neutralised by Yedras and his determination to punch regardless of what was coming the other way. It also induced in Tanaka a pause, eschewing the out-fighting at which he was so clearly the better, in favour of infighting, where the competition was hotter. Tanaka was still, clearly, winning the fight and he followed Yedras to the pocket with such savagery in the fifth that it seemed he may be on the verge of stopping him, but he dropped the fourth and perhaps the sixth, as Yedras stepped over the line from heart into sheer bloody-mindedness.
A golden fluidity on offence and defence brought Tanaka firmly back to the box-seat through eight, although fire-fights continued to break out with breath-taking regularity as the Japanese elected to hold his ground rather than move. In the ninth, Tanaka was finally chin-checked by a legitimate counter-right that landed flush and was perhaps momentarily troubled; but within seconds he had brushed the punch off and was back to his foraging attack, his chief weapon that varied, roaming left. Tanaka’s swarm is composed of more fast punches than perhaps anyone in the sport right now. It’s not that he has the out-and-out fastest hands, it’s that he is bringing across the eighth punch in the swarm at the same speed as the first and second; his lack of power is now absolutely confirmed because he was landing so many shots that even a chin like the Mexican’s couldn’t hold up against these shots in volume from any kind of puncher. I would speculate, though, that his punches may have the disorienting qualities of a Joe Calzaghe, the ability to “mix a man’s mind” so aptly described by Muhammad Ali.
While we now know absolutely that Tanaka lacks power, we can confirm, too, that he runs a deluxe engine. This was a fast fight and both men threw many punches but Tanaka is the man on the wrong end of the economy equation; he is a volume puncher who moves a lot, who circles, who forages. This means there will be few fights where he throws fewer punches than his opponent and perhaps none in which he will take fewer steps. Although Tanaka had the look of a tired man come the eleventh, and although he was likely out-worked in that round, he moved more, threw more, landed more, and rather unfortunately, showboated more than an opponent of seeming limitless stamina in the twelfth.
Those who were a little underwhelmed by Tanaka’s belt-winning performance might consider this for a moment, as well as the fact that Yedras is a better opponent than has generally been credited. It is also worth considering that of the official scorecards, the two judges scoring 117-111 are far more a reflection of reality than the third card which read 115-113, and which seems close to unjustifiable. Finally, it should never be forgotten that Tanaka was 4-0 at bell. The aforementioned Muhammad Ali was fighting a late substitute by the name of Jimmy Robinson at that point in his career. Robinson, a career light-heavy, amassed a final record of 11-26. Joe Calzaghe on the other hand was fighting a Cypriot named Martin Rosamond. Rosamond, fighting his last fight, dropped to 10-16 and was stopped that night for the tenth time. Tanaka is ahead of the curve based upon this result, not behind it. Unlike Ali and Calzaghe he will learn his trade against ranked men, not journeymen. It seems likely that his opponent in one of his next two fights will be fellow Japanese Katsunari Takayama, inarguably among the three best minimumweights in the world. A victory over Takayama followed by a successful title-tilt somewhere north of 105lbs, a weight Tanaka is happy to acknowledge he won’t be able to make forever, and Japan will have another fighter breathing down the neck of the pound-for-pound list before he has even had ten fights.
That is all quite far away, admittedly. But there may be a change of wind coming. It blows from the East.