By Cliff Rold
There is often just a little something extra when two reigning titlists meet to unify their crowns. Saturday night at the Arena Monterey in Monterey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, over 9,000 fans in attendance got more than something extra.
They got what was clearly the best of 2014 to date and only the fourth unification bout since 105 lbs. was inaugurated in 1987.
Over twelve rounds of breathless action, 21-year old WBO 105 lb. titlist Francisco Rodriguez Jr. (15-2, 10 KO) of Monterey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico and 31-year old IBF titlist Katsunari Takayama (27-7, 10 KO) left their hearts in the ring in a battle rich with leather, movement, shifts of momentum, and nary a wasted moment. In the end, Rodriguez rode a knockdown in the third round to a unanimous decision to send the hometown fans home happy.
Both men weighed in right at the division limit. The referee was Samuel Viruet.
Both men were well warmed up and lathered in sweat before the opening bell, bouncing anxiously in their corners. They got underway and Takayama wasted no time bringing the fight to Rodriguez, letting his quicker hands go and then beginning to put his legs to work. As is his pattern, Takayama circled constantly while working his left jab, stepping in with flurries and single right hands. In the last minute, Rodriguez began to time Takayama with left hooks upstairs to make his early statement.
Takayama missed with two wild haymakers to start the second but found success to the body as the frame wore on. Both men were letting their hands go but having a hard time landing much clean. Takayama was getting in more but in the final thirty seconds Rodriguez caught him with a solid left and appeared to stun the Japanese veteran.
In the first minute of the third, the thudding power shots of Rodriguez broke through, a left hook sending Takayama to the seat of his trunks. Takayama must have felt a sense of déjà vu having been dropped in the same round of his title winning effort over Mario Rodriguez in Mexico last year.
He responded the same way he had then.
Takayama leapt up, indicated he could go on and seemed to argue a slip. Referee disagreed but let it continue after finishing the mandatory eight count. Takayama immediately went to work, firing at Rodriguez to get his point back, staying on top of Rodriguez and handling the left hooks he left himself open for.
Round four was three minutes of sustained warfare as both men took turns landing in multiple. While Takayama was the more active man, it was Rodriguez landing the harder blows. Takayama closed the round strong, landing a flurry on Rodriguez against the ropes.
The relentless pace continued in round five, Takayama boxing and moving just a little bit more than in the last couple rounds and controlling the action for much of the round. Rodriguez found him late in the round and they exchanged wildly into the bell of an increasingly pitched battle.
Scrapping forehead to forehead early in the sixth, both men winged away to the body. A little space gave both room to aim upstairs and the punches kept flying until a slight lull two minutes in as Takayama used his legs to slow things down and find spots for haymakers. Rodriguez kept pressing forward and closed the gap to resume the firefight as they worked towards the welcome respite of the bell.
Perhaps fatigued by the ceaseless onslaught of Takayama, Rodriguez appeared weary in the first minute of the seventh as he was backed to the ropes and left to cover up. After taking the worst of it for the first half of the round, Rodriguez landed a jarring left to the face to push Takayama back for a moment and then aimed his attack downstairs. As the round closed, Takayama was again landing more and in volume with Rodriguez pressing for a bomb.
Round eight opened with Takayama landing a flush right to the side of the head. Undeterred, Rodriguez fought on with more energy than he’d shown in the seventh. Waiting for Takayama to lead, Rodriguez used countering rights and lefts to rock Takayama and keep him often on the back foot, putting together his best round since the fourth.
Crossing himself on the stool before the start of the ninth, Rodriguez came out with fire again and landed some hard right hands. Toe to toe they stood, taking the measure of one another through the first minute before Takayama wisely began to move. Rodriguez taunted him, daring him to return to the trenches, and then chased him down and made him do it. In the closing seconds it was all out war as neither man gave an inch and more punches flew than could seem to be counted.
Refusing to stop punching, Takayama willed himself to an edge in the tenth even as Rodriguez continued to paste him with the single hardest shots of the round. The sheer volume of offense was Takayama’s boon.
He got a little carried away with it to start the eleventh, earning a warning when he charged Rodriguez and forced him to the floor in the corner prematurely. Enraged, Rodriguez came after him hard but it was Takayama who briefly forced Rodriguez to the ropes. Battling at mid-ring near the halfway mark, Rodriguez blasted Takayama with power shots and it was Takayama fighting off the ropes in the closing minute. Rodriguez landed the last significant flurry of the round and they went to the corner with three minutes left to stake their claim.
Takayama was off the stool first for the final round. Rodriguez’s face was a bruised mass but he could see his target. A Takayama slip in Rodriguez’s corner was followed by a right hand, Rodriguez receiving a warning for hitting a down man. Takayama appeared none the worse for it and they resumed action. Hurting Takayama with a right hand near the minute mark, Rodriguez was tied up and Takayama quickly cleared his head. In the final minute, it was Rodriguez landing more and trying to put his man away. Takayama fittingly came up with one last assault, working Rodriguez on the ropes with one last salvo.
The power shots of Rodriguez ultimately told the tale on the judge’s cards, though one score was egregiously unfair to the valiant effort of Takayama. Rodriguez won by tallies 115-112, 116-111, and a patently absurd 119-108 to unify two of the four prominent sanctioning body titles.
BoxingScene scored the bout 114-113 for Rodriguez.
Takayama loses his title in what was his third attempted defense. He previously held the WBA crown at 105 lbs. in 2005. He’d fallen short in four title shots over the years before breaking through last year.
Rodriguez adds a second title belt in only his second title bout and extends his win streak to four since a stoppage loss at Flyweight to undefeated former 105 and 108 lb. titlist Roman Gonzalez. Rodriguez stopped then-undefeated Merlito Sabillo in ten rounds in his previous fight to win the WBO crown.
Oswaldo Novoa (14-4-1, 9 KO) of Mexico holds the WBC belt in the division while the highly regarded Hekkie Budler (26-1, 9 KO) of South Africa holds the WBA title. Budler has expressed a desire for unification and a match with Rodriguez would be an exciting prospect. So too would a rematch with Takayama who gave everything he had for every round of the fight.
It was a special night in Mexico. Unification battles often are.
The televised portion of the card in the US opened with action in the Featherweight division.
Making it five in a row since a brutal seventh round knockout loss to WBC Bantamweight titlist Shinsuke Yamanaka, 34-year old former WBC Super Flyweight beltholder Tomas Rojas (44-14-1, 29 KO), 127, of Veracruz, Mexico, picked up ten rounds of work in a dominant unanimous decision victory over 28-year old Irving Berry (22-6-2, 9 KO), 127, of Panama City, Panama.
Rojas controlled the fight throughout, using his long arms to dictate the range of the fight and battering Berry to the body. After a couple moderately competitive rounds, the fight became violently one-sided as Berry was forced continually to the ropes where he took hard shots to the head. Berry bravely survived but was simply outclassed. Rojas received scores of 98-92 and a pair of shutout 100-90 tabs.
While a former titlist, Rojas is currently unrated by any of the major sanctioning bodies.
The card was broadcast in the US on BeIn Espanol, promoted by Zanfer.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]