Another big weekend of boxing has passed in Japan but it seems the boxing juggernaut that is The Land of the Rising Sun is losing steam.
Pound-for-pounder and super-flyweight number one Naoya Inoue fought the main event in the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo on Sunday night but his opponent reeked of alphabet-strap mandatory. Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez was 16-3 going in and his marginal claim to fame before this fight, his first scheduled for the twelve round distance, was a pair of narrow losses to David Carmona. Unfortunately this had somehow netted him a ranking with the WBO making him the latest in an alarming line of cannon-fodder that Naoya has chosen to feed off after his spectacular twin destructions of Omar Narvaez and Adrian Hernandez in 2014. Nayoa has now failed to meet an opponent of that seriousness in three calendar years; the slippage of the tag “wonderkid” may have more to do with this than his advancing years.
Nevertheless, Naoya looked back to his spectacular best after what has been a run of niggling injuries. Rodriguez seemed doomed from the opening bell, appearing both smaller and slower but he did not lack for heart and exhibited a decent if less than withering body-attack. Meanwhile, the Japanese did pretty much as he wished, the highlight of the first a spearing left uppercut from all the way outside which rattled his opponent’s teeth. An uppercut, too, was perhaps the stand out punch of the second, a blow he found to the body behind a laser-guided one-two upstairs. Also noteworthy were two straight-lefts out of the southpaw stance; it is to his great credit that Naoya looks as elegant as a lefty as he does when boxing orthodox.
Those blows and that change in stance left Rodriguez slapping his way forwards into a barrel of punches. The second ended soon enough that he was able to survive it, but another thirty seconds probably would have seen the Japanese account for his eleventh knockout. As it was, a minute of the fourth was enough for him to do just that.
Rodriguez was still trying but he looked frightened to commit and with good reason – Inoue stopped his progress with a check-hook before using the left again to deposit him sideways onto the canvas. Rodriguez threw himself to his feet, his right eye already beginning to bruise, but he gathered himself and marched back in, for which we should be thankful; the punch Inoue produced to execute the coup de grace was gorgeous, short, direct, landing right to the point of chin and blessed with a torque that could only have come from his boots but which was thrown with a nonchalance that belied its heft. This kid has an energy chain in his body that seems sometimes to deny the laws of physics.
Rodriguez wore a mask of pain as he tried to lift himself from the canvas once more and did not quit fighting the disaster that had afflicted his nervous system until at least the count of nine.
Naoya puts us in a difficult position as fans. On the one hand he is the divisional number one and a potential pound-for-pound #1 of the future, and he should be matched harder than this. On the other hand he is but 13-0. It is worth remembering that the new darling of the press, Anthony Joshua, was fighting Gary Cornish at the same stage in his own career, a fighter certainly less adept than Rodriguez. Whatever the details, the Japanese love him. He commanded a television audience in the low millions.
So did light-flyweight warrior Akira Yaegashi who boxed chief support. Yaegashi, a blood and guts pressure-fighter and a good one, has given Japan some of her most exciting nights in the ring over recent years but he appears to have reached the end of his spectacular ride against tough Filipino Milan Melindo, a fighter with perhaps the worst healed broken-nose in all of boxing.
Melindo was a much more legitimate opponent than Rodriguez and shows that the alphabets can sometimes get it right when they concentrate. In fact, of the two men he was the higher ranked by TBRB, making this a legitimately tough call in what appeared to be a very evenly matched contest.
Yaegashi boxed early but there is always something a little open about his stance, and it cost him dearly. He circled too tightly, perhaps, before engaging and leaving his right flank open for a left-hook which sent him tumbling untidily onto his backside. I thought Yaegashi looked clear-eyed as he took the count, but the untidy, pawing attack he mounted when action resumed was not comforting. Melindo seemed momentarily bamboozled by this but found two more delightful lefts, the second of which looked the real deal. Again Yaegashi was dropped but again he looked clear-eyed when he rose. Melindo moved in at the restart and showed wonderful composure in using a hurtful jab to marshal his opponent around the ring before finding another glorious punch, this time a booming right hand. The referee started the count but waved off the struggling Yaegashi while he peered up from the canvas. He drops 25-6 and probably from top-flight competition while Melindo rises to 36-2. The Filipino’s defeats came in a technical decision after a clash of heads and on points to the mercurial Juan Francisco Estrada. Light-fly is not without depth, but it is without a dominant name – Melindo, who grabbed himself a strap here, could go on to make some waves, and is certainly worth a watch.
Naoya Inoue will hopefully pay heed to the fate suffered by Akira Yaegashi this weekend. Yaegashi, too, once fought for a title after just a handful of fights. He, too, was once the darling of Japan. The sad truth is even the great ones usually end up on the ground looking up. If Naoya is to dare to be great it should be sooner rather than later. You never know when a Milan Melindo might emerge from a dark alley and straight up take what you got.
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