Boxers around the world ate fancy dinners and cheered with glasses of champagne on the last days of the past year. But dozens of Japanese pugilists and their opponents first sweated in saunas then got gloved up and walked into prize rings to perform on the island’s traditional year-end boxing shows.
A total of five world title fights were staged in two different cards in the last two days of 2017. On December 30, super flyweight WBO champ Naoya Inoue headlined a card in Yokohama with WBC 108-pound titlist Ken Shiro in the co-feature bout with a couple of prospects and contenders also on the card.
The next day at the Ota-City General Gymnasium in the capital of Japan, WBA junior flyweight ruler Ryoichi Taguchi (pictured with referee Marc Nelson) aimed to become his country’s third unified champion when he faced IBF belt holder Milan Melindo with two more world title bouts on the undercard.
Let’s see what happened in Yokohama and Tokyo and which direction the participants are likely headed.
Bunka Gym, Yokohama, Dec. 30:
Former 2012 London Olympic bronze medalist SATOSHI SHIMIZU faced journeyman Eduardo Mancito in his first OPBF title defense at featherweight. The 31-year-old Shimizu (5-0, 5 KOs), who is a tall fighter for his weight class with his 5-foot-10.5-inches height, chose to stay close and brawl with his Filipino rival whom he ultimately stopped in seven one-sided rounds. The performance of the Japanese prospect, however, was a far cry from a statement victory.
Shimizu struggled to settle the distance and pace for his offense and was painfully inaccurate with his blows in the opening third of the bout. Once Mancito (15-8-2, 9 KOs) felt the physical power of his large-framed opponent, he became more of a stationary target and that helped Shimizu land his trademark looping right hooks more effectively. The Yokohama-based titlist dropped Mancito in round one and again in the seventh en route to a TKO win, thus becoming the second fighter who was able to beat the Pinoy boxer inside the scheduled distance.
Shimizu is already rated No. 11 with the WBC and No. 13 with the IBF at 126 pounds, but before taking on world-ranked contenders he had better further polish his defense and accuracy. 2018 could be a year in progress for him to try to be the best of himself while increasing his ranking positions by sanctioning bodies.
22-year-old TAKUMA INOUE won his second straight since his hand injury prevented him from fighting for his first world title in December 2016 against then WBO bantamweight ruler Marlon Tapales. The Japanese contender had a tougher-than-expected bout with countryman Kentaro Masuda (27-9, 15 KOs) but secured a clean unanimous decision after ten fast frames.
Inoue (10-0, 2 KOs) started well using his well-established jabs and straight rights to keep his distance. In the middle rounds, the unbeaten contender had some issues with his focus when he let his willing opponent reach him with power shots. The younger brother of P4P shortlisted Naoya Inoue got a second wind in round eight and finished the fight being the matador. Scores were 98-92, 97-93 and 96-94 all for Inoue.
Takuma is currently ranked No. 11 with the WBC and No. 14 with the WBO at bantamweight while the other two major sanctioning bodies, the WBA and the IBF, rank him at super flyweight No. 11 and 12 respectively. The talented Japanese contender is expected to collect another pair of wins before he will challenge one of the belt holders in the loaded 118-pound class.
After having beaten two top 10 rated athletes in Ganigan Lopez and Pedro Guevara by close decisions in the junior flyweight division, unbeaten WBC champion KEN SHIRO got a softer touch in the second defense of his title reign. The soon-to-be 26-year-old belt holder settled his distance and controlled the bout with his jab over Gilberto Pedroza before landing a left hook-right hook combination that rocked the Panamanian challenger early in the fourth.
Shiro (12-0, 6 KOs) immediately turned up the volume of his aggression and ultimately dropped Pedroza (18-4-2, 8 KOs) with a left hook to the body followed by a right uppercut and a right hook to the head. The wounded fighter rose at two and continued to fight only to get dropped for the second time by a string of massive body blows.
The WBC 108-pound titlist previously told this writer that he would love to face the winner of the anticipated WBA/IBF unification fight between Ryoichi Taguchi and Milan Melindo. With the winner turning out to be Taguchi, that could be as big of a super-fight in Japan as it can be. But first Shiro has to take care of his mandatory in a rematch against former champion and Mexican veteran Lopez in the spring of this year.
In the main event of the Yokohama card, WBO 115-pound belt holder NAOYA INOUE defended his title for the seventh time with a three-round annihilation over Yoann Boyeaux (41-5-0-1, 26 KOs) in a voluntary defense. Inoue (15-0, 13 KOs) knocked his helpless opponent off of his feet with a huge left hook in round one and floored him three more times in the third with brutal and consistent attacks to the body until referee Raul Caiz Jr stopped the slaughter.
This could very well be the last time we saw Naoya competing at super flyweight. “The Monster,” who has been called the most talented Japanese fighter ever by some publicists in the island, desperately tried to secure a title unification at 115 pounds but both IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas and WBA belt holder Khalid Yafai turned down offers to face the quick-footed knockout-puncher.
If Inoue moves up in weight to the bantamweight division, a fight with current WBO champion Zolani Tete seems to be a natural given the fact that the Japanese also holds the belt of the Puerto Rican-based sanctioning body. Fellow big puncher Tete is scheduled to defend his title on February 10 against mandatory challenger and former Inoue-victim Omar Andres Narvaez at the Copper Box Arena in London, England.
A potential win over Tete could only add to the resume of the fearless Naoya, who is already ranked No. 7 on The Ring’s P4P list.
Ota-City General Gymnasium, Tokyo, Dec. 31:
The narrative of the matchup between WBO flyweight belt holder SHO KIMURA and former lineal 112-pound champ TOSHIYUKI IGARASHI could be a simple question: which Japanese pugilist will repeat the previous successes?
Kimura (16-1-2, 9 KOs) traveled to Shanghai to serve as the opponent on the homecoming event of Chinese superstar Zou Shiming (9-2, 2 KOs) in July of last year. The Japanese challenger, however, decided to take the control of his own destiny when he came from behind to stop the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 11th round. For Kimura, his first defense served as his second challenge in a row to beat an opponent with better overall skills.
Igarashi (23-3-3, 12 KOs) held the flyweight crown after he had beaten Cinderella man Sonny Boy Jaro by a close split decision in July 2012. The Filipino Jaro came in fresh off a huge upset knockout win over long-time WBC/Lineal 112-pound champ Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. Igarashi lost his reign to Akira Yaegashi the year after. Since the defeat to Yaegashi, Igarashi was on a 6-0-2 run and he was planning to continue his momentum against an ordinary opponent.
Well, the former champ got in trouble early after he had to realize his foe is far from being ordinary. Kimura started to implement his physical power advantage early in the fight with offensive waves based on his wide hooks with both hands. Igarashi had to use his feet to somehow stay away from his opponent while his jabs and occasional straight lefts from his southpaw stance felt like nothing to the defending champion.
Round seven turned to be the best heat of the go. Kimura increased his aggressiveness, marching in with huge shots that he threw and landed without setting it up with jabs or upper body movements. Igarashi felt he had to do something dramatic. He opened up with everything he had. Sho withstood whatever he had and kept coming. The challenger completely burnt out in the next frame. Kimura was hunting and ultimately stopped his foe in round nine when referee Katsuhiko Nakamura halted the carnage.
With his impressive win, Kimura proved he is more than just a fighter who had one lucky night in the past. Given his all-out style, he can fit well in any card in Japan in the future while hardcore fans can hope for a title unification match between Sho and knockout specialist and WBC belt holder Daigo Higa in 2018.
After a brave and honest performance, Toshiyuki Igarashi announced his retirement from the sport.
In the first defense of his IBF 105-pound belt, HIROTO KYOGUCHI faced former title challenger Carlos Buitrago. The 24-year-old Kyoguchi (9-0, 7 KOs) settled the pace of the fight early on with his effective footwork, well-placed jabs and right uppercuts over his flat-footed opponent.
The Nicaraguan Buitrago (30-3-1-1, 17 KOs) tried his best to bring the fight to his younger foe but got outworked in all areas. As the rounds progressed, Kyoguchi’s lead became more and more evident. He doubled up on his combinations once he stepped in, landed hard hooks to the body, then escaped untouched.
Referee Roberto Ramirez Jr had seen enough and stopped the bout in the final minute of round eight. All three judges had the fight 70-63 at the time of the stoppage.
Kyoguchi, who won the title in July of last year against tough Mexican Jose Argumedo by unanimous decision, seems to have what it takes to challenge the other belt holders in the division. It would be exciting to see him against Wanheng Menayothin (WBC), Knockout CP Freshmart (WBA) or his countryman Ryuya Yamanaka (WBO) in 2018.
In the main event of the last meaningful card in 2017, fans were about to witness unfolding history in the junior flyweight class. This was only the third time in the division’s 42-year history that two titlists were brave enough to challenge one another.
Despite the four-inch height advantage enjoyed by Taguchi (27-2-2, 12 KOs), Melindo (37-3, 13 KOs) had a better start using his quick footwork and precise jab to set up his strong hooks to the mid-section of his Japanese foe. The WBA titlist kept up the pace in round three and started to push his Filipino opponent back thanks to his larger frame and physical power.
Melindo abandoned his best weapon in his jabs and tried to adapt to the fight he was forced into by his counterpart. The Pinoy fighter, who got badly cut above both of his eyes in round three and five, had a strong round nine after blood from a gash over the hairline bothered Taguchi.
The Japanese fighter was advised in the corner that he needed to win the championship rounds to secure the win and that is exactly what he did when he came through his mental block caused by his wound and clearly outworked his fading opponent.
Taguchi won by unanimous decision by scores of 117-111, 117-111, and 116-111. The Tokyo-based pugilist has become the third ever Japanese champion who was able to unify titles since the separation of the WBA in the 1960s.
The new WBA/IBF champion will most likely have a mandatory defense in the spring before he can go after another possible historic encounter, a three-belt unification with WBC titlist Ken Shiro.
As always, 2017 came to a noisy and busy end in the Land of the Rising Sun. Let’s hope it sets up an even better 2018.
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Also you should read Tamas Pradarics’ previous articles HERE: