By Jake Donovan
Regardless of what occurs in the next 10 or so days, Kazuto Ioka can still take tremendous pride in winning the first-ever all-Japan title unification bout.
A strong finish was the difference in a nip-and-tuck affair, as Ioka managed to retain his unbeaten record with a close unanimous decision over countryman Akira Yaegashi in their 12-round war Wednesday evening in Osaka, Japan.
Official scorecards were 115-113 (twice) and 115-114 for Ioka, who makes the third defense of his WBC title in addition to adding the WBA strap to his collection.
Yaegashi was the underdog coming in but went balls to the wall from the opening bell. Ioka struggled to establish a rhythm, which played perfectly into Yaegashi’s hands as he applied pressure throughout the first and second round.
Ioka managed to get his offensive attack going in the third round and in the truest form of effective aggression. The moment Ioka found a home for his power shots, Yaegashi’s left eye began to rapidly swell shut. The momentum carried over into the fourth as Ioka punched his way back into the fight.
WBC open scoring revealed that all three judges had the fight dead even at 38-38 through four rounds. Yaegashi, nearly unable to see out of his left eye, seemed disinterested in winning a decision at this point and began to go for broke.
The result was his best offensive output since the opening round, including a right uppercut that put Ioka on the defensive. The crowd rallied behind the underdog, with chants of “AKIRA” filling the venue.
Ioka rallied back in the sixth, using his jab as a range finder for his right hand. For the first of two consecutive rounds, time was called to allow the ringside physician to examine Yaegashi’s eye – and more importantly his vision. On each occasion, Yaegashi passed the unofficial eye test, allowing action to resume.
The frequent visits from the doctor instilled a sense of urgency in Yaegashi, who ramped up the attack in the middle rounds. The attack was right on time, as he fell behind on two of the three scorecards through eight rounds.
Both fighters had their share of moments in a furiously paced ninth round. Ioka scored with an uppercut, but a Yaegashi right hand stunned the unbeaten fighter late in the round. As telling a blow as it was, the damage was minimal and actually inspired Ioka to pick up the pace down the stretch.
As the rounds reached double digits, both fighters somehow seemed more energetic. The end result was the sensational war that most believed would be the case – or hoped for, at the very least. Neither fighter gave an inch, leaving the judges to split the rounds down the stretch.
The crowd continued to rally behind the wounded Yaegashi, whose left eye somehow managed to improve as the fight went on. Still, Ioka left nothing to chance, going all in during the championship rounds. The strategy proved sound, surging ahead in the boxing equivalent of a photo finish once all was said and done.
The final scoring was close but unanimous in favor of Ioka, who advances to 10-0 (6KO). The win marked Ioka’s third successful defense of the title he won with an eye-catching 5th round knockout of Oleydong Sithsamerchai last February.
Even more noteworthy is his accomplishment on Wednesday evening, a watershed moment for the Japanese boxing scene. Sadly, the feat will be short-lived. Pre-fight contract stipulations called for the winner – in this case, Ioka – to vacate at least one of the belts within the next ten days.
Despite the loss, Yaegashi’s stock skyrockets. The 29-year old has now been involved in back-to-back wars, taking this fight eight months after his sensational 10th round knockout of Pornsawat Porpramook in what was hailed by many as the 2011 Fight of the Year.
The 12-round war with Ioka – while a terrific battle – didn’t quite carry the same feel by fight’s end. However, it entertained throughout, not to mention that Yaegashi (15-3, 8KO) was forced to fight with one eye from the third round onward. That he even lasted the distance is miraculous.
However, it wasn’t enough to surge ahead on the scorecards. As a result, Yaegashi’s strawweight title reign is one-and-done.
There’s a chance he finds himself right back in line should Ioka choose to vacate the WBA belt and continue on with his WBC reign. Whatever happens in the near future and beyond, both fighters continue to prove themselves as must-watch viewing.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox