ALL EYES ON JAPAN — As we in the western world plan for the usual orgy of fireworks, booze and the resultant hangovers, in Japan New Year is synonymous with boxing. On the 30th, wonderkid and superfly kingpin Naoya Inoue (11-0) will clash with veteran Kohei Kono (32-9-1) in an anticipated all Japanese clash in Tokyo; the following day in the same city, hometown hero Takashi Uchiyama (24-1-1) rematches former conqueror “El Invisible” Jezreel Corrales (20-1).
The second of these contests is the more compelling and it is worth sparing a thought for Uchiyama, who stages, at the ripe old age of 37, the fight of his life. He was crushed back in April in Tokyo’s General Gymnasium, the very site of their rematch on the 31st of this month, out-sped in the first round and battered to the canvas three times in the second by a rampant Corrales who deservedly hoisted aloft the super-featherweight alphabet strap Uchiyama has worn since 2010.
For Uchiyama, finding himself at such a difficult nadir must be dually frustrating as it was Javier Fortuna, not Corrales, who was slated to share that Tokyo ring with him that night. That fight fell through; Fortuna went on to suffer a stoppage defeat against Jason Sosa, while Corrales met the Japanese and looked the most difficult stylistic fly in the super-featherweight orbit, excluding one Vasyl Lomachenko. Now Uchiyama has to pluck that fly out, or retreat to retirement with thoughts of what should have been.
This is a significant ask for a fighter who may be tottering on the cusp (or barreling down the hill) of past-prime. Calling a fighter aged 37 “old” in the wake of Bernard Hopkins seems excessive, but he is old, both for a super-featherweight and for a pugilist. Corrales, meanwhile, is 25, bang in his prime; more, he is a quick southpaw who boxes unorthodoxly but who is also accurate and stinging. There is nothing here that one would see on a list of attributes most welcomed by a fighter who has started losing steps.
Corrales, who is the WBA’s “Super World Super Featherweight champion” (Sosa is the WBA’s “Super Featherweight champion”) lucked out a little when the Fortuna fight fell through, but he had earned his luck with an impressive eleventh round stoppage of Juan Antonio Rodriguez (then the WBA’s “Interim Super Featherweight Champion” – I swear, I’m not making this stuff up, the WBA routinely names three champions per division).
Rodriguez is tough and had not been stopped since his third pro fight back in 2008; Corrales dominated him in a non-competitive fight that brought him all but a single round on my card. He did it in a small ring with a slippery surface, neither of which is conducive to his mobile box-punching style. Corrales has but a single loss, suffered very early in his career and my feeling then was that boxing was sleeping on him a little bit. In no way comparable at this time to the great exponents of the Panamanian style, he is nevertheless very capable, in his way, of morphing defense into attack, the hallmark of his greatest countrymen, celebrated fighters like Roberto Duran and Ismael Laguna. Slippery when he puts his mind to it, he has yet to earn his nickname – “El Invisible” – but can vanish into a combination of dips, slides, and a handy shell defense when the going gets tough.
When he comes back it is with a combination of wonderfully accurate straight punches which he can park on a postage stamp in 1-2 and 1-2-3 sequences and often wild, winging punches that produce an offensive quilt of no little depth. These punches frankly overwhelmed an outclassed Rodriguez who showed heart in the ring but was forced to quit on his stool at the end of the eleventh having been on the receiving end of some genuinely nasty work through the previous three rounds.
Still, as I wrote at the time, Corrales remained “the ugly girl at the dance, easily ignored” and he went into his defining fight with Uchiyama very much the underdog. He did not box like one. Rather, he boxed with a self-belief that belied his lack of experience and ranking. His first second-round knockdown of Uchiyama was so fast that it remains difficult to mine the details of the punch that did the job; suffice to say that Uchiyama got careless, squared up, sat down, the Panamanian’s punch very much the cause of his sudden recline.
This was the knockdown that did the job. Uchiyama called upon all of his experience to stage a fighting retreat that brought him to within seconds of salvation in the form of the bell, but he could no longer trust his legs (or his strategy) and was twice more dispatched to the canvas resulting in a Corrales victory on the three knockdown rule.
Now, despite the fact that he won not a single minute of the near six completed in the first fight, Uchiyama must find a way to master his conqueror or go gentle into that good night. He has earned the right to this rematch having sat atop the division for many years, but it is difficult to see how he will place Corrales under control with his jab as he has so many others. In fact, it is fair to say that this plan has failed miserably, and that Corrales is too fast, too unconventional and arguably in possession of a better jab anyway; so the old dog will have to uncover some new tricks to get the job done.
That is far from impossible but perhaps Uchiyama has spent too many years in his Tokyo stronghold having things his own way against under-qualified challengers to have gained the most precious type of experience there is, that of adaptation. North-American viewers can find out in the early hours of the last day of 2016; Europeans in the mid-morning.
The day before, Naoya Inoue steps into a professional ring for the twelfth time. Naoya boxing is always a cause for celebration as far as I am concerned. He is as fluid and limber a puncher as boxes today and in just four years and eleven pro fights has boxed his way onto, then dropped off, the pound-for-pound list. He is an exquisite talent, every bit as gifted as Lomachenko for my money, although injuries to his hands have hampered him in the ring and kept him short on activity.
His opponent is Kohei Kono, and the fight once again pits the belt-holder’s youth against the challenger’s experience. Kono has fought professionally for sixteen years and in that time has seen and done it all, though boxing should forever be grateful to him for being the man who actually gained a decision over Koki Kameda late last year in the fight that finally brought him the profile his earnest if workmanlike approach to the sport so richly deserves. Luis Concepcion brought a halt to the celebration via unanimous decision in August of this year but Kono remains a ranked man and is a live threat. He is no puncher, however, and getting the job done with volume against Naoya is close to mission impossible. The younger man by thirteen years, Naoya seems to see every opportunity presented to him by a busy opponent, and like Corrales he discourages activity simply by his deadly presence in the ring.
A Naoya win seems likely.
So two favorites then, in both cases the younger fighter, one to be favored due to his domination of a previous meeting between the two combatants, the other to be favored due to his elite status. All of that said, it’s the prize-ring, anything can happen, and it often does where ring veterans with greater experience than their green opponents are concerned.
But the results are almost beside the point. 115lbs and 130lbs are the two hottest divisions in boxing. The first lays claim to Roman Gonzalez, Carlos Cuadras, Khalid Yafai, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Norberto Jimenez and Naoya Inoue, the latter Vasyl Lomachenko, Francisco Vargas, Orlando Salido, Jezreel Corrales and Takashi Uchiyama. Our two winners, whoever they are, will help shape the future for these red-hot divisions; in fact Corrales has already been mentioned as a possible opponent for Vasyl Lomachenko. If he defeats Uchiyama again we have confirmation that his first win over the Japanese was something more than lightning in a bottle and that he represents perhaps the most difficult opponent for a divisional #1 who appears ready to take on all comers (although Salido may have a point in naming himself de-facto opponent in waiting for the division’s crown-prince).
To look at it another way, as a boxing fan, you have little choice – Japan is the only show in town as the year winds down.
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