By Cliff Rold
One of boxing’s biggest myths is ‘the best don’t fight the best.’ Look all over the landscape and one can find evidence to the contrary. The Super Six ended, only for Carl Froch-Lucian Bute and Andre Ward-Chad Dawson to get to the dotted line. Bantamweight hosted a hellacious tournament and then managed some more critical matches as epilogue. Jr. Welterweight has been a round robin of high quality for at least the last three years.
The truth is boxing, with its seventeen weight classes, has and will always have pockets of hot activity and pockets without.
Strawweight, or 105 lbs., has had a lot of without. Since the WBC kicked the division off in 1987, only three times have two of its titlists shared a ring: Ricardo Lopez-Alex Sanchez, Ricardo Lopez-Rosendo Alvarez I and Ricardo Lopez-Rosendo Alvarez II.
And, before some smarty pants points out Alvarez losing his belt on the scales before the rematch, Lopez still left with two straps.
The division has had its moments for sure. Leo Gamez won the first of four divisional belts at Strawweight. Ratanapol Sor Vorapin put together a notable reign and so did Ivan Calderon. The second fight between Miguel Barrera and Roberto Leyva was one of the best fights, at any weight, in the 2000s. A war between Rodel Mayol and Eagle Kyowa wasn’t too bad either.
Still though, after all these years, 105 is still Lopez and everyone else. His mark was that indelible, his claim to having fought the best so far in front of the rest of the field, there just hasn’t been much to follow since “Finito” moved on.
Wednesday, we may see the beginning of the next indelible era at 105. In a fight rich with history, and indeed history making, Kazuto Ioka and Akira Yaegashi put their respective belts on the line in what could be an explosive affair.
The best are fighting the best (minus IBF tiltist Nkosinathi Joyi but, hey, only two can fight at a time).
Let’s go the report card.
Titles: WBC Minimumweight (2011-Present, 2 Defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Height: 5’4 ½
Weight : TBA
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 106.1 lbs.
Hails from: Osaka, Japan
Record: 9-0, 6 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #2 at Strawweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 3-0, 2 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 1 (Oleydong Sithsamerchai)
Titles: WBA Minimumweight (2011-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Height: 5’2 ½
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 104.9 lbs.
Hails from: Yokohama, Konagawa, Japan
Record: 15-2, 8 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #4 at Strawweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 1-1, 1 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 1 (Pornsawan Porpramook)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlist Faced in Defeat: 1 (Eagle Kyowa)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Ioka A; Yaegashi B+
Pre-Fight: Power – Ioka A; Yaegashi B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Ioka B+; Yaegashi B-
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Ioka A; Yaegashi A
Before digging into what the grades represent, let’s look at some of the subtext of the battle.
As pointed out by ESPN’s Dan Rafael and Hall of Fame Japanese scribe Joe Koizumi when the fight was signed, Ioka-Yaegashi represents the first time two Japanese fighters have ever faced off in a unification clash. Early Japanese greats like Yoshio Shirai (Japan’s first world champion), Fighting Harada, and Hioryuki Ebihara, fought when there was still mostly one world champion per class.
The bulk of Japan’s titlists have come since and predominantly in the lower weight classes. The almost permanently split title era stretches from the late 1960s to today. It took fifty-plus years for their market to align at this moment.
Two former Japanese titlists who just missed each other generally (though unification was not an issue) add another element to this contest. Their shadow on this contest gives the bout a feeling of a circle drawing closed.
Ioka is the nephew of Hiroki Ioka, a man who etched his place in two unique spots in boxing history. Hiroki Ioka was the very first champ in the modern 105 lb. class (separated from long ago battlers like Pedlar Palmer and the ‘Paperweight’ Championship that gave way to the Flyweight class).
Just 8-0, an 18-year old Hiroki bested Mai Thornburifarm over twelve to birth a new spot of the boxing map. He’d keep the title for only two defenses and by the early 1990s had settled in at 108 lbs. There he upset Korea’s great Myung Woo-Yuh in 1991, Yuh’s only professional loss.
Hiroki would defend twice before losing the crown back to Yuh. Three tries at Flyweight titles, and an attempt at a 115 lb. belt, fell short and Ioka retired in 1998. His nephew bested his race to a crown, striking gold in only his seventh pro fight. Now he tries to exceed his uncle in another regard.
One of Hiroki’s contemporary rivals, and a man he never faced, will also be a presence on Wednesday. Yaegashi is managed and promoted by Hideyuki Ohashi. Ohashi, stopped twice in 108 lb. challenges of Korean Hall of Famer Jung Koo Change, dropped into the fledgling 105 lb. class and snared the WBC crown in 1990.
Ohashi’s only successful title defense came against the man who defeated Hiroki for the 105 lb. crown, Napa Kiatwanchai. One fight later, Ohashi became the answer to an important boxing trivia question:
Who did Ricardo Lopez defeat for his first professional title?
See, Lopez is everywhere.
Ohashi would go on to win the WBA belt in 1992, defeated in his first defense and final paid contest. Ohashi was done as a fighter in 1993. Now, from outside the ring, he can hope for another Kiatwanchai moment.
In Yaegashi, he’s got a shot. Yaegashi was relatively unknown last year when he stepped in to challenge Thailand’s Pornsawan Porpramook for the WBA crown last year. Without YouTube, he still might be. Instead, Yaegashi found his hand raised in a bout judged the Fight of the Year by BoxingScene and ESPN.
It was a special battle and the best the class has ever seen, ten rounds of hell for both and pure heaven for the thousands of fans who found the bout by word of mouth. Yaegashi proved his inner steel and showed resilience, bouncing back from some rocky moments to win most of the rounds with a hellacious volume attack.
Yaegashi isn’t quite as quick as Kazuto Ioka, is a hair shorter, and could stand to go to the body more. However, his overhand right is accurate, his left hooks sudden, and he applies a leveraged, sharp uppercut at wise times. Yaegashi is the older man and found his success harder to come by than Ioka has. A 2007 loss to Kyowa in his first title try was no shame, Yaegashi than a veteran of just six fights. A six-round majority decision loss two fights later was one of those things, closely scored and not his night.
Yaegashi comes into this unification clash riding an eight-fight win streak.
Ioka has been groomed like a champion from the start. After a standout amateur run in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” Ioka turned pro with a first round knockout. In nine fights, he’s faced a range of more experienced foes. In his third fight, he earned a decision over Takashi Kunishige (20-3-2 at the time) and won the Japanese Light Flyweight title with a tenth-round knockout of Masayoshi Segawa (then 19-2).
Even with that level of early success, a title shot against a proven veteran like Oleydong Sithsamerchai (35-0-1) appeared too much too soon. A crippling left to the body in round five dispelled those notions.
Two defenses since have been impressive for different reasons. A twelve round decision over Juan Hernandez (18-1) showed Ioka could outbox and dominate a seasoned pro on the scorecards. A first-round knockout of undefeated Yodngoen Tor Chalermchai (8-0) showed the right hand can hurt and the left can finish to the head just as easy as to the body.
Win on Wednesday and he’ll have two world titles in only his tenth professional fight. It does not appear from pre-fight research any fighter has ever unified titles as quickly. The feat is still a dream to be realized.
Ioka has exceptional speed and balance and seems to relish the role of lethal counter puncher, laying in wait for his opponent to make mistakes and then seizing the opportunity for the kill. It is his approach that makes this clash of styles tantalizing. Yaegashi is aggressive. He’s going to come to find Ioka.
Ioka will be waiting. He’s got the edge in power but will he have the will to match Yaegashi? The older man will know he has less time to make his mark, particularly in the lower classes where long careers can be harder to come by. Neither man has ever been stopped. Both would love to change that for the other. The bell is just more than a day away.
Japan has some excellent fighters in their midst right now. Toshiaki Nishioka has earned his place as the best in the world right now at 122 lbs. Takashi Uchiyama has a case as the best in class at 130. After Wednesday, only one of Japan’s champions will have straps on his waist.
When the final bell rings, the thinking here is the sharpshooting Ioka will be the man with glove raised. Ioka hasn’t had his resolve tested the way Yaegashi did last year, at least not yet, but his schooling and pedigree should be enough to absorb any rough moments. Yaegashi made the mistake against Porpramook of occasionally being too offensive. He got so absorbed with his own attack he left himself open. Against the quicker Ioka, it will be a lethal error. The fight should go some rounds, and may even start a little tense given the pressure of the moment, but when they warm up fans should get their money’s worth. Ioka’s left will make the difference sometime around the ninth round.
Ioka will still need to face, and defeat, Joyi to make clear the ruler of their class and that fight or may not ever happen. Joyi (22-0, 15 KO) is a South African and the IBF is not recognized in Japan. Still, big fights tend to be contagious and the best seems to be all in on Ioka.
Don’t bet against an Ioka era at 105.
Report Card Picks 2012: 31-10
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com