by Cliff Rold
One week later and it’s still the fight worth talking about.
Sandwiched between Keith Thurman’s coming of age win over Diego Chaves, and Jesus Soto Karass’s long in coming validation against Andre Berto, Omar Figueroa took a step towards Texas folk hero status in a Lightweight classic.
He didn’t do it alone.
One of the great thrills for any boxing observer is the moment of discovery. Nihito Arakawa has been a professional since 2004 but, in 27 previous fights, only one had been outside Japan. There were hardcore fight fans in the US who knew him but for most of the crowd last Saturday, for most of the televised audience, it was a debut.
It was a discovery.
The moments when Arakawa came off the deck in rounds two and six, rallying to stave off a knockout loss, were downright revelatory. Arakawa didn’t win, but he left new eyes outside his native Japan wanting more.
There are more discoveries to be had.
The age of YouTube has significantly shrunk the visibility gap of era’s past. For instance, Yoko Gushiken, Jiro Watanabe, and Masao Ohba were all standout champions in their time. Only one of the men mentioned, Ohba, ever had an appearance in the US and that in a non-title affair. YouTube only shrinks the world so much. It takes an Arakawa-like televised appearance (if not quite the same inhuman effort) to truly bridge the gap and broaden an audience.
Japan, like many spots on the globe, has never been short of excellent prizefighters. Thailand, Korea, and South Africa are just a few other locations that regularly turn out exciting fighters.
Plenty get their cracks at larger global stages by way of mandatory title fights that cross over with international audiences. Often the very best stay home. It pays better, particularly in smaller weight classes where even the boldest travel isn’t likely to end in massive riches.
Here, looking specifically at Japan in the wake of Arakawa’s valiant stand, it is wondered who else from the land of the rising sun the US audience would be bettered by in seeing live.
Each of the five selected stands out as a titlist in their class. In a couple of cases, they are already seen objectively as the best in their divisions. Others may get there. Is it too much to ask that their paths cross these shores?
It might be selfish. Wishes often are. All of these men are worth wishing to see try to expand their title dominions with greater exposure in the US.
1) Takashi Uchiyama (20-0-1, 17 KO): The WBA champion at 130 lbs. might be, pound for pound, the king of Japan right now. A lights out puncher with genuine boxing skill, Uchiyama has wracked up seven defenses of his belt, six by knockout. His lone decision came in a cut shortened affair. The names he’s done it against will be familiar to many. He defeated Juan Carlos Salgado for his belt, Salgado going on later to claim the IBF belt in the same division. Takashi Miura, the current WBC champ at 130 was stopped in 2011, Uchiyama coming off the deck for the win. His knockout of Jorge Solis was one of the best finishes in 2011. Already 33, Uchiyama would be an outstanding foe for Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa, soon rising Featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia, fellow titlist Argenis Mendez, and anybody competing one class above him at Lightweight (including one Adrien Broner). The clock is ticking, meaning Uchiyama may be the least likely wish to come true, but time hasn’t run out yet.
2) Shinsuke Yamanaka (18-0-2, 13 KO): The WBC titlist at Bantamweight emerged at the tail end of a magnificent run for the class and proves that, in terms of talent, the loss of Abner Mares and Nonito Donaire wasn’t a complete decimation. His title-winning knockout of Christian Esquivel hinted at his potential. The 30-year old realized that potential in his very first defense, an expert boxing display against veteran Vic Darchinyan where he showed poise and the whiskers needed at the elite level. Subsequent knockout defense of Tomas Rojas and Malcolm Tunacao furthered his credentials. A showdown with the other best man in class, WBA “Super” titlist Anselmo Moreno, would be a marvelous display of class. Even better would be a move up the scale to face former IBF Bantamweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz at 122 lbs. before Santa Cruz inevitably moves up again.
3) Tomoki Kameda (28-0, 18 KO): The newly minted (as of Thursday) WBO titlist at Bantamweight completed a family hat trick when he defeated Paulus Ambunda for the belt. Kameda is the third and youngest of the three professional Kameda brothers to win a major title. Koki Kameda, the former WBA 108 lb., and WBC and lineal Flyweight king, currently holds the WBA’s non-Super belt at 118. Brother Daiki is a former WBA champion at 112 lbs. with a title shot looming at 115. Of the three, Tomoki may have the most appealing style in terms of travel, able to box and fight. As an encouragement, unlike the two men before him he’s already been abroad with a significant number of fights in Mexico. Only 22, time is definitely on his side. Of course, he could also stay home and fight Yamanaka. That would be worth skipping travel for.
4) Akira Yaegashi (17-3, 9 KO): The current WBC and lineal Flyweight king is the most likely man on this list to leave an Arakawa-like impression. He’s a fast-handed warrior who has already made a global impression with ardent followers of the sport. His hand was raised in the BoxingScene and ESPN 2011 Fight of the Year versus Thailand’s Pornsawan Porpramook, a breathtaking brawl at 105 lbs. Last year, he came up short in a unification contest at the weight, battling through a badly swollen eye to come up just short of a decision win. As HBO2, and the development of You Shiming, creates more opportunities for what is rapidly becoming a stellar run at Flyweight, the 30-year old Yaegashi might not even need to travel. It would be enough to hope to see him on significant US airwaves against men like Juan Francisco Estrada, Brian Viloria, Tyson Marquez, and Edgar Sosa. Finally, there is the man who defeated Yaegashi in their Strawweight unification contest…
5) Kazuto Ioka (12-0, 8 KO): Before Guillermo Rigondeaux defeated Nonito Donaire earlier this year, Ioka was hands down the most accomplished fighter in the sport with less than 15 fights. The 24-year old has already won belts in two divisions, unifying in one of them; he is currently a WBA titlist at 108 lbs. He’s faced only one fighter with a losing record, has defeated two world champions, and is set to defend against a third in September (former WBA 105 lb. titlist Kwanthai Sithmorseng). Including Sithmorseng, the record of his opponents in title fights is a staggering 190-13-4. Oh, and Ioka, the nephew of former two-division titlist Hiroki Ioka, is only 24. Like Yaegashi, it’s not so much a need to travel as be seen on US air against the plethora of talent available if, and when, he makes the move to 112. In the meantime, it would be great to see him settle up with WBA “Super” 108 lb. champion Roman Gonzalez (35-0, 29 KO). To date, Ioka’s seemingly been managed away from Gonzalez, an admission that even this 12-0 dynamo might have obstacles he isn’t ready for yet. Let’s hope the rest of the world gets a better look at what might be a special career developing in Japan.
Even in a shrinking world, the boxing landscape remains massive with talent enough to go around for all. That doesn’t mean any spot on the globe can ever get enough. There are more Arakawa’s out there, new discoveries for the world outside their native lands to experience.
These five would all be great choices to expand their, and our, horizons.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]