Kazuto Ioka and Joshua Franco are cleared to unify the junior bantamweight division.
Plans for the terrific WBA/WBO unification bout was formally approved by the WBO, the final hurdle in finalizing plans for a December 31 showdown in Tokyo. As previously reported by BoxingScene.com, the already-agreed upon bout was subject to confirmed sanctioning by the WBO, who blessed the fight Thursday morning during its annual convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The winner will be required to face the WBO-named mandatory challenger within 180 days of the unification bout. That opponent will likely be Junto Nakatani, who vacated his WBO flyweight title Thursday morning and was unanimously approved to be named as number-one contender at junior bantamweight.
Ioka will risk his WBO title, while Franco put his WBA ‘Super’ belt on the line in a terrific matchup awaiting final approval before being formally announced. The news is a double pleasure to Franco, which comes as he celebrates his 27th birthday.
It will also mark the eleventh time that Ioka will headline a New Year’s Eve show, including his tenth in Japan as part of a tradition he all but helped launch.
Japan’s only-ever male boxer to win major titles in four weight divisions, Ioka topped a New Year’s Eve event during his first title reign in 2011, making the second successful defense of the WBC strawweight title he acquired earlier that year. He’s since fought on New Year’s Eve every year except for 2017, when he momentarily retired from sport before returning in 2018.
The year-end plans for 2021 called for Ioka to face then-IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas. The bout was scrapped due to another national lockdown to help prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid, which in turn disallowed foreign travelers from crossing Japan’s borders.
Ioka instead fought and defeated countryman Ryoji Fukunaga over twelve rounds, followed by his most recent win—a dominant unanimous decision win over former four-division titlist Donnie Nietes on July 13 in Tokyo. Ioka avenged a prior defeat to Nietes in the process, having dropped a split decision to the Filipino on New Year’s Eve 2018 in Macau—the only time Ioka has fought outside of Japan on the date, and also his lone defeat on the holiday.
Franco (18-1-2, 8KOs) has not fought since a repeat win over Andrew Moloney last August 14 in Tulsa. The win saw Franco go up 2-0 with one No-Decision in their odd trilogy that began with a twelve-round decision win over a then-unbeaten Moloney in June 2020 to win the secondary WBA ‘World’ (Regular) title.
An upgrade has since followed, as Franco is now the lone recognized WBA titleholder in the division. He was due to challenge lineal/WBA ‘Super’ champion Juan Francisco Estrada in a title consolidation clash that was targeted for June or July but which never materialized as Estrada opted to head in a direction that would lead to a rubber match with legendary former four-division champion Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez.
The development ended with Estrada stripped of his title, the second belt he had given up during his championship reign. He cashed in the WBC belt for ‘Franchise’ title status, with Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez—Franco’s younger brother—claiming the physical belt in a win over former champ Carlos Cuadras in their February 5 vacant title fight.
The significance in the move with the WBA strap is that Franco—as a recognized full titlist—was then able to explore unification bouts, as the other sanctioning bodies do not recognize the WBA’s secondary titles. The San Antonio native—who turns 27 later this month—landed a career-best opportunity which will mark his first pro fight outside of North America.
The upcoming clash with Franco will mark the sixth attempted defense of the WBO junior bantamweight title Ioka claimed in a June 2019 knockout win over Aston Palicte. The feat saw Ioka make history for Japan as the only male boxer to win titles in four weight divisions.
Even more history is sought with this bout. A win will leave Ioka as the only-ever Japanese boxer to claim unified title status in two weight divisions. He unified the WBC and WBA strawweight titles in a June 2012 decision win over countryman Akira Yaegashi, an event that marked the first unification bout between reigning titlists from Japan.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox