For all the talent in his weight division, Joshua Franco always banked on landing a significant opponent for his next fight.

There was a point where he thought it would be a title consolidation clash with Juan Francisco Estrada, who instead opted to vacate his version of the WBA junior bantamweight crown. The move left Franco—previously a secondary titleholder—as the lone WBA 115-pound titlist, but also without an opponent after having already not fought since last August.

By that point, Franco just wanted to punch anyone for pay.

“Once I upgraded from the regular champion to the main champion, I was just ready to fight,” Franco admitted to “It really didn’t matter who it was, I just wanted to defend that title.”

Fortunately for the 27-year-old San Antonio native, his team was already hard at work to line up the best available opportunity.

Manager Rick Mirigian saw the writing on the wall even after Golden Boy Promotions—Franco’s promoter at the time—won a purse bid to secure promotional rights for Estrada-Franco. Once the fight was initially stalled, it was apparent that the bout would never see the light of day.

The next phone call was overseas. The team surrounding four-division and reigning WBO junior bantamweight titlist Kazuto Ioka sought a significant matchup for his traditional New Year’s Eve headliner in Japan. Franco (18-1-2, 8KOs) was always keen on unifying the belts and facing the division’s biggest names, with this fight allowing him to kill two birds with one stone as he will face Ioka on December 31 at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo.

“I was happy when they told me this fight was going to be next,” Franco said of landing the unification bout. “A win on December 31 makes waiting for this all worth it. I’ve been off 16 months but I’ve always been ready for a fight like this, a moment like this.

“My whole team is confident, we’re ready to go in there and get this win, then let’s see where it takes us.”

At worst, Franco is a live underdog for his first fight overseas. Online sportsbook bet365 has the Mexican-American listed at +125, while Ioka is presently at -175 to become the first-ever Japanese boxer to unify titles in two separate weight divisions.

For now, Franco is simply in search of his first title defense as a full champ. He won the secondary WBA ‘Regular’ title in a twelve-round, unanimous decision over then-unbeaten beltholder Andrew Moloney in June 2020. His two defenses of that version of the title also came versus Moloney, with the two fighting to a No-Contest in November 2020 and Franco claiming another unanimous decision in their trilogy clash last August 14 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The forced 16-month ring absence saw Franco’s younger brother, Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez (17-0, 11KOs) win the WBC 115-pound title and defend it twice before vacating to set his sights on the flyweight division.

Estrada (44-3, 28KOs) has since regained the WBC belt that he previously held prior to vacating last spring in exchange for WBC ‘Franchise’ title status. The division’s lineal champion added the WBC strap in a repeat win over legendary former four-division champ Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez (51-4-1, 41KOs) in their rubber match on December 3 at Desert Diamond Arena in Glendale, Arizona.

Franco was ringside for the occasion, admittedly with mixed emotions knowing that an Estrada fight was once in his grasp. A similarly big opportunity is now on his plate, which commands his undivided attention in lieu of dwelling on the past.

“I respect Kazuto Ioka. He’s had an amazing career,” noted Franco. “I respect him for all the titles he’s won and everything he’s accomplished. I’m excited to go over there and fight on this big holiday.

“I know boxing on New Year’s Eve is a big tradition over there. It’s an honor to be a part of It and will be a bigger honor when I leave as the unified champion.”

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox