By Jake Donovan
Akira Yaegashi had a close-up view to his future when he and Román ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez shared a card together this past April in Japan. Still the reigning flyweight king chooses to run towards the sound of gunfire.
Gonzalez was there purely in stay-busy capacity, dispatching overmatched Juan Purisma to pick up his 5th straight knockout since moving up to flyweight last May. Roughly an hour or so later, Yaegashi was celebrating his one-year anniversary (give or take a couple of days) as flyweight king with a 9th round knockout of Odilon Zaleta.
Their placement on the show was designed to help drum up interest towards an eventual clash together, which was finally confirmed in late June. From the moment it was formally announced, the belief was that September 5 will spell an end to Akira Yaegashi’s title run, officially ushering in the era of one of the most acclaimed lower weight class fighters in Gonzalez.
The defending champion hears the talk. He even knows first-hand what he’s up against this Friday in Tokyo, Japan. So don’t mistake his confidence as a lack of awareness.
“It’s a very tough fight, but I know I can win,” Yaegashi insists, spoken like a man who has been in his share of tough fights.
A relatively modest amateur career was capped by Yaegashi claiming the championship in the 2004 National Sports Festival of Japan before turning pro in 2005. An ambitious path was taken, challenging strawweight champ Eagle Kyowa in just his 7th pro fight. It marked the only time in his career to date in which Yaegashi was dominated in the ring, dropping a landslide decision.
Still, the bout was not a complete loss. Yaegashi drew accolades from the defending champ, who praised his challenger as a future threat.
“Yaegashi is a speedy fighter and I’m sure he will be a dangerous opponent in the future,” Kyowa said immediately after their June ’07 clash. The bout marked Kyowa’s last successful title defense, dropping a decision to Oleydong Sithsamerchai in his next figbt before calling it a career.
Meanwhile, Yaegashi was looking for a fresh start to his still young career. It would be another 4½ years before his next title fight, winning nine of ten bouts over that stretch. A loss in July ’08 – just two fights following his failed title bid – threatened to stall his career progress, but Yaegashi pushed forward.
A win over pro debuting Srisaket Sor Rungvisai would garner greater meeting as time went on, with the Thai boxer going on to win a super flyweight title. Yaegashi’s title win would come at strawweight, where all he had to do was walk through hell and back in his Oct. ’11 slugfest with Pornsawan Porpramook, scoring a 10th round knockout in BoxingScene.com’s 2011 Fight of the Year.
His title reign was short-lived, though lasting just long enough to take part in a watershed moment for the Japan boxing scene. A June ’12 clash with fellow strawweight titlist Kazuto Ioka marked the first time ever that two defending titlists from Japan faced each other in a unification bout. Ioka escaped with a narrow points win in yet another Fight of the Year-level entrant from Yaegashi.
The bout was his last at 105, moving up to flyweight, where he has since won five straight. Four wins came in a 2013 campaign that saw his return to the title picture. Yaegashi bravely marched towards a showdown with lineal flyweight champion Toshiyuki Igarashi, scoring a hard-fought 12-round decision to earn a championship in his second weight class.
Three defenses have followed, including a Dec. ’13 points win over Edgar Sosa, thus ruining his challenger’s chances of entering the Fighter of the Year race. His first defense came in a 12-round points win over Oscar Blanquet, which came last summer.
More specifically, it came three months before Gonzalez decided to begin his pursuit towards a flyweight title. The fire-breathing Nicaraguan returned to Japan – where he is co-promoted by the legenday Akihiko Honda – last November, tearing through Blanquet in less than four minutes of ring action. The placement was initially intended to serve notice to Ioka, who at the time was a 108 lb. titlist whose only criticism was his avoiding a showdown with Gonzalez.
Ioka went in a different direction, though a move that prove costly as he dropped a decision to Thailand’s Amnat Ruenroeng this past May. The setback canceled out rumors of a potential rematch with Yaegashi, which once again would have featured two major titles at stake.
Instead, Yaegashi proudly embraced the toughest possible challenge he could take as he puts his title – and at age 31, perhaps his career – on the line against Gonzalez, who is considerably favored to claim a title in his third weight class. Title reigns at strawweight and junior flyweight were highlighted by his level of dominance, but marred by the lack of challenges against the division’s best, although due to such fighters’ unwillingness to step to him.
All of that changes for Gonzalez come this Friday. The unbeaten two-division titlist has the opportunity to claim a belt in a third weight class at age 27, with such a feat having come against the true flyweight champion should he emerge victorious.
Therein lies the challenge awaiting Yaegashi – one he embraces with open arms, just as he’s done throughout his career.
“I know perfectly well the difficulty involved with Gonzalez,” Yaegashi acknowledges. “I am confident in my ability and the training that we've had, to beat him and retain my crown.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox