By Jake Donovan
Katsunari Takayama embraced the treat of a rare home game, though the implications of what potentially lies ahead could have him once again updating his passport.
The 30-year old made the first defense of his strawweight title, effortlessly turning back the challenge of Vergilio Silvano of the Philippines. Scores were 118-110 (twice) and 120-108 in their title fight Tuesday evening in Osaka, Japan.
Well before the fight began, talks surfaced of a massive unification bout with Xiong Zhao Zhong, who recently turned away the challenge of overmatched late sub Lookrak Kiatmungmee. Takayama did his part to keep alive such rumors, nearly dropping Silvano in the opening round and cruising to victory from that point onward.
Two of the three judges found two rounds to score in favor of Silvano. Round two was the closest to a clear cut advantage for the challenger, who recovered well from a poor start to take the fight to the defending champion.
Takayama regained control in round three, performing like a fighter grateful to be home for the first time in four years. The IBF title he pursued since 2010 was previously not recognized in Japan, forcing the veteran to travel to the likes of South Africa, Philippines and Mexico in order to realize - and extend - his dream of becoming a major champion.
A change of heart by the Japanese Boxing Commission proved right on time for Takayama, who exhibited in the middle rounds why - despite his unflattering ring record - many consider him to be the best strawweight in the world. His footwork and endurance are unrivaled by most in his weight class, a lesson Silvano would quickly and painfully learn.
Takayama went on the attack in round six, banging his challenger's body like a drum in pursuit of his first knockout in more than three years. That moment never occurred, but a point was emphatically made that an upset had no chance of happening.
If there was a silver lining to be found for Silvano, it's that he was able to avoid a knockout loss without ever giving up. Rather than settling to last the distance, the visiting Filipino dug deep and fought hard for all 12 rounds. His misfortune was being massively overmatched by a resurgent veteran who couldn't have hit his stride at a better point in his career.
The win was just Takayama's second straight, though enough to put him in line for an epic unification match in 2014 if talks properly materialize. His record now at 26-6 (10KO), the plan for 2014 is a unification bout with Zhao Zhong, China's lone titlist and the most recent favorite son of the WBC, who seems content on allowing him to remain a champ at all costs.
This past weekend saw Zhao Zhong defend his own strawweight title against one of the worst title challengers in boxing history, even if as a late sub. That win, coupled with Takayama's performance on Tuesday, set the stage for what would be the first clash ever between titlists from China and Japan.
Such a fight comes in the wake of another watershed moment for the strawweight division. Kazuto Ioka and Akira Yaegashi engaged in a 12-round war in June 2012, the first - and to date, only - time ever that two reigning titlists from Japan met in a unification match. Ioka emerged victorious by way of majority decision, only for both fighters to move up in weight in their next respective fights.
Zhao Zhong benefited from such a move, collecting a vacant title just over a year ago. Takayama's road to championship glory was a far greater task, though one of the stranger tales in recent memory. Having won just one of his previously five contests (1-3 with 1 no-contest), Takayama ended a three-year road trip with an upset win over Mario Rodriguez this past March in Mexico.
The fight came on the heels of a disputed points loss in the Philippines, and a trio of fights in South Africa, including a pair of title fights with then top-rated strawweight Nkosinathi Joyi.
With one of the more successful comeback stories of 2013 now in the books, Takayama can now look to what figures to be a lucrative future.
The win over Silvano, who falls to 17-3-1 (10KO), marked the opening bout of a championship tripleheader aired live on TBS Japan.
Also on the show, Tomoki Kameda makes his first defense of a bantamweight belt versus Immanuel Naidjala. The main event pits Tomoki's older brother Daiki Kameda in what is now a one-way 115 lb. unification bout against Venezuela's Liborio Solis, who lost his title on the scales after missing weight on Monday.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as the Records Keeper for the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a member of Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox