By Derek Bonnett: Located in the Pacific Ocean, Japan is a country comprised of over three thousand islands in East Asia. Four of these islands, Honshu, Hakkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, actually make up 97% of the country’s entire land mass. The Japanese symbols that represent the country’s name actually translate to “sun-origin”, which is where the moniker “The Land of the Rising Sun” is derived.
Japan is known for many things, such as their economic power, focus on education and technology, martial arts, sumo, cuisine, anime, and, of course, karaoke. Japan is also the first country to be featured in Each Nation’s Best for a second time around with the first going back to 2008.
Japan’s boxing history has largely been written in the sport’s lightest weight classes, but there have been some exceptions along the way. In total, this nation has crowned eighty-eight world champions since 1952 and will continue to produce elite boxers. It should be noted that since Each Nation’s Best: Japan, July 2008, this number has climbed from fifty-two. That’s thirty-six additional champions in seven and a half years. The first Japanese fighter to hold a world title strap is Yoshio Sharai. Japan’s most recent is Yukinori Oguni, who scored a major upset in dethroning then IBF super bantamweight champion Jonathon Guzman as the clock wound down in 2016.
Japan is still claiming world championships at a consistent pace and currently had nine reigning titlists from super bantamweight down to strawweight until the recent retirement of Hozumi Hasegawa, who was rated Japan’s second best back in the 2008 volume. Currently, three of the four major world titles at 108 pounds are held by Japanese boxers. Once again, all four featured fighters from Japan are in world championship form. In this Golden Era of Japanese boxing, this elite class of fighters is mostly at the start of their respective primes. Two are easily top ten Pound for Pound talent with the other two knocking on the door.
4.) Kosei Tanaka, 8-0-0 (5), is a two-division world champion at the age of twenty-one. On December 31, Tanaka won the biggest match of his young career with an easier than anticipated fifth round of Moises Fuentes. The victory gave Tanaka the WBO belt at 108 pounds. He had previously vacated the 105 pound version of the same title. In quick time, Tanaka has established himself as one of the best fighters in Japan and among the lighter divisions in the sport. He was matched sternly early on and dispatched Crison Omayao in the first rounds of his third bout; that’s three rounds sooner than Naoya Inoue. He won his nation’s minimumweight title in his next bout after prevailing in a tough slugfest with legitimate top ten contender Ryuji Hara, who was unbeaten in eighteen bouts. Tanaka became champion in just his fifth bout, again topping Inoue, with a decision over tough Julian Yedras. Tanaka, hailing from Nagoya, Aichi, gained valuable experience in his first defense of that title as he rallied to stop Vic Saludar in six rounds after falling behind and absorbing more punishment than previously observed or collectively in his other seven bout to date. Tanaka was already a hot commodity, but he ignited his career with the win over former champion Fuentes just a week ago. Tanaka will eventually grow into a flyweight, but before that he has two fellow Japanese champion in Akira Yaegashi and Ryoichi Taguchi nestled beside him at 108 pounds. Feelers have already been put out for showdowns with each man. Look for one or both to materialize in 2017. Tanaka’s big right hand and debilitating body attack will be earning him belts for some time.
3.) Kazuto Ioka, 21-1-0 (13), won his first world title back in 2011 in just his seventh pro bout. The nephew of Japan’s much loved Hiroki Ioka has done well in filling the shoes belonging to the family name and then some. Ioka, 27, dethroned Oleydong Sithsamerchai, dropping the Thai boxer twice in five rounds. Ioka, also a fierce body puncher, systematically broke down the more experienced champion quickly and asserted himself over him. Sithsamerchai stands at 62-1-1 (24) today. Ioka won a comfortable decision over Juan Hernandez in his first defense. Since then, Hernandez has become a major player at both 112 and 115 and looks to become world champion at 112 shortly. Ioka, who hails from Osaka, has benefitted from residual earnings with victories over Akira Yaegashi, in a fight for the ages, and Felix Alvarado. Yaegashi has won two world title since his defeat to Ioka and Alvarado still contends legitimately. Ioka owns the only defeat among Japan’s four top fighters today after losing by decision to Amnat Ruenroeng back in 2014. Yet, Ioka has outlasted and surpassed Ruenroeng since the defeat. For his part, Ioka won a narrow decision over Juan Carlos Reveco to become a two division champion. The battle of body-punchers was close and more emphatically decided in the rematch late in 2015 which saw Ioka stopping Reveco in the championship rounds. Ioka finished 2016 by dispatching a nice-looking fighter on the rise in Stamp Kiatniwat, who is just nineteen. Ioka showed resolve getting off the canvas in round two and then working an improved jab to find his hellacious left hook to the body over and over again before stopping Kiatniwat in the seventh. The flyweight ranks are thinning, but there are still a handful of meaningful bouts for Ioka, who has really settled in at flyweight. A mega-fight with Donnie Nietes would be most desired, but a rematch with Hernandez would be interesting should the Mexican become a titlist. Daigo Higa is also rapidly climbing the prospect ladder to take on contender status.
2.) Naoya Inoue, 12-0-0 (10), may be the boxer in the game whom most lives up to his moniker. "Monster" has paved a trail through the light flyweight and super flyweight divisions in such a short span of time that the Japanese boxer even has captured the imagination of American fans. Inoue made his debut in 2012, defeating Crison Omayao by stoppage in four. In just his fourth bout, he defeated future world champion and still reigning Ryoichi Taguchi with a comprehensive unanimous decision. Although inconsistent, Taguchi has beaten talented fighters in Yu Kimura, Albert Rossel, and Ryo Miyazaki. Inoue, born in Zama, Kanagawa, won his first world title in just professional bout number six with a complete reckoning of WBC champion Adrian Hernandez, who was then the top fighter in the division. After winning each round, in the face of Hernandez windmill assault of uppercuts to the body and head, Inoue dropped the champion with a brilliant one-two which immediately open up a geyser above Hernandez’ left eye. The champion rose, but he was clearly wondering what he got himself into as he staggered to the ropes for reprieve. Inoue defended that belt only once before jumping two weight divisions to capture his second world title in only eight bouts. This time, Inoue humiliated Argentina’s Omar Andres Narvaez, the a legitimate Pound for Pound candidate on the fringe. Just seconds into round one, the defensive whiz, who lasted twelve rounds with a prime Nonito Donaire, was on the canvas and already in serious trouble. Inoue’s long right hands and short left hooks couldn’t miss en route to a second round stoppage for the WBO strap. Hand injuries and some less than motivating opposition stalled Inoue for just a moment, but the Japanese phenom proved he brings his A-game when the best opposition is in front of him once again last week when he stopped Kohei Kono in six rounds to defend his 115-pound crown. Inoue became the only man to stop Kono and he did so after walk through a torrent of heavy thunder, which would have been good enough to best most super flyweights today. If Inoue, 23, were to never fight again, the Japanese boxers victories over Taguchi, Hernandez, Narvaez, and Kono are probably good enough to punch his ticket to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Because of this, Inoue is on a collision course with Roman Gonzalez, who next meets Srisaket Sor Rungvisai on March 18. It is likely, but far from certain, the two will meet in 2017 for a legitimate Super Fight the caliber of Carbajal-H. Gonzalez.
1.) Shinsuke Yamanaka, 26-0-2 (18), is one of the old men of elite Japanese boxing at the ripe age of thirty-four. Yet, Yamanaka continues to shine. Since winning the title in 2011, Yamanaka has been building a P4P and HOF caliber career in Japan. Defenses against Vic Darchinyan, Tomas Rojas, and Malcolm Tunacao established Yamanaka as the man to beat at bantamweight. In total, Yamanaka has scored twenty-two knockdowns of challengers and champions during his reign. Alberto Guevara, who went the distance with Leo Santa Cruz, fell before Yamanaka in nine. Suriyan Sor Rungvisai, although never stopped as a pro, fell three times in his bout with the Japanese boxer. Yamanaka, a native of Konan, Shiga, built his resume with a narrow and even debatable decision over Anselmo Moreno in late 2015. He followed that with a twelve round war with Liborio Solis in 2016. Yamanaka looked in serious trouble after hitting the deck twice in round three, but his championship heart lifted him past Solis for an impressive twelve round win. Later the same year, Solis endured a horrific robbery against Jamie McDonnell, which further enhances Yamanaka’s resume. To close out his 2016 campaign, which unfairly received little consideration for Fighter of the Year honors, Yamanaka exacted revenge on Moreno for their close call the previous year. Yamanaka thoroughly dismantled Moreno this time, dropping the Panamanian boxer four times en route to a seventh round stoppage. Yamanaka rose from the canvas himself to secure the win. Even though he received a gift over Solis, Yamanaka’s natural next foe is Jamie McDonnell in 2017. If not him, then Lee Haskins. Both British boxer have scored some of their biggest wins when facing Japanese talent, but neither has shared the ring with talent like this future Hall of Famer.
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January 9, 2017