Kazuto Ioka couldn’t be more thrilled with the circumstances under which he continues his annual boxing tradition.
The four-division and reigning WBO junior bantamweight champion headlines a New Year’s Eve boxing event for the eleventh time in his storied career. This Saturday will mark his tenth such occasion to take place in Japan, with his WBO/WBA unification bout versus San Antonio’s Joshua Franco topping the year-end bill at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo.
“New Year’s Eve is a special day for me, whenever I fight,” Ioka told BoxingScene.com through translator and promoter Yusuke Ninomiya. “Every fight I have on this day is a special memory.”
Ioka (29-2, 15KOs) all but launched the tradition in 2011, during his first year as a major titlist when he held the WBC strawweight title. The 33-year-old Osaka native—who now lives and trains in Tokyo—made his second defense of that belt on New Year’s Eve 2011, scoring a fifth-round knockout of Yodgoen Tor Chalermchai (birth name Weerawut Yutmitr). The bout took place in his Osaka hometown, which housed his first five year-end fights.
Saturday will mark the fourth New Year’s Even bout to take place in Tokyo, all at Ota-City Gymnasium where he will fight for the sixth straight time overall. The run at the venue began with a December 2019 points win over undefeated challenger Jeyvier Cintron in the first defense of his WBO junior bantamweight title he claimed six months prior to become Japan’s first male four-division champion.
The following year’s performance on the same date and at the same location came without a crowd due to Covid restrictions. Ironically, it marked what remains a career-best performance for Ioka, who scored an eighth-round knockout of unbeaten former three-division champ Kosei Tanaka in December 2020.
Last year’s edition was to have been in a title unification bout with then-IBF champ Jerwin Ancajas. An agreement was reached for the IBF/WBO clash, only for Ancajas to be forced to withdraw once Japan closed its borders to foreign travelers to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant. Ioka settled for a voluntary title defense versus countryman Ryoji Fukunaga, whom he outpointed over twelve rounds.
The lone defeat on the holiday for Ioka was also the only New Year’s Eve headliner to take place outside of Japan. The occasion came in 2018, when Ioka dropped a split decision to Donnie Nietes in their vacant WBO junior bantamweight title fight. The pairing of three-division titlists saw Nietes net his fourth divisional crown, only to vacate less than two months later. Ioka snatched the belt in a tenth-round knockout of Aston Palicte in June 2019, having made five title defenses including a revenge-fueled win over Nietes in their July 13 rematch in Tokyo.
With that out of the way, Ioka was able to revisit past plans to give his fans a title unification bout to celebrate the end of 2022 and ring in the new year. It came to fruition once Franco (18-1-2, 8KOs) was upgraded to full WBA titlist, after which both boxers successfully petitioned the WBO to allow the two-belt clash to proceed with the promise of the winner next facing WBO mandatory and former flyweight titlist Junto Nakatani.
“I’m happy to be able to do this fight,” Ioka said. “It’s what I wanted for (New Year’s Eve) last year and I’m happy this fight is happening this year.”
With a victory will come a new year-end memory to cherish along with the previous ten occasions.
Ioka-Franco will air live on TBS-Japan (5:00 p.m. local time/3:00 a.m. ET). There is no U.S. outlet carrying the fight as this goes to publish.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox
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