A hosting venue has been secured for the final title fight of the year.
Kazuto Ioka will once again headline at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo, which has landed his already confirmed December 31 junior bantamweight title unification bout with Joshua Franco. Ioka will attempt the sixth defense of his WBO junior bantamweight title, while Franco makes his first official defense as a full WBA titlist after being upgraded from his secondary title reign earlier this summer.
The show marks the sixth consecutive appearance at this venue for Ioka (29-2, 15KOs), and his eleventh time headlining a New Year’s Eve card in Asia. Ioka helped launch the year-end fight card tradition in Japan, which will host his tenth New Year’s Eve show in country—five in his original Osaka hometown, one in Kyoto and now his fourth straight in Tokyo.
Ioka first topped a New Year’s Eve card in 2011, also his first year as a reigning major titleholder. He has headlined such a show every year since then except for 2017, when he was briefly retired from the sport. His ring return in 2018 restored the tradition, though it took place in Macao and featured his only defeat on the festive holiday when he dropped a split decision to The Phippines’ Donnie Nietes in their vacant WBO junior bantamweight title fight.
The setback was since avenged in Ioka’s most recent fight, soundly outpointing the former four-division titlist on July 13 at Ota-City Gymnasium. The win was his sixth in a row, the run beginning with a tenth-round knockout of Aston Palicte in June 2019 to win the WBO 115-pound title, becoming Japan’s first-ever male boxer to win titles in four weight divisions.
San Antonio’s Franco (18-1-2, 8KOs) fights outside of North America for the first time in his career. He also enters the highly anticipated unification bout on the heels of a career-longest inactive stretch, having not fought since a repeat win over Andrew Moloney last August to close out their bizarre trilogy.
Franco claimed the WBA ‘Regular’ junior bantamweight title in a June 2020 win over Moloney in Las Vegas. Their November 2020 rematch ended in a No-Decision after two rounds, when Franco was unable to continue from a swollen shut eye as the result of a ruled headbutt. The final ruling came after an absurdly long delay to review the injury-causing sequence before the Nevada commission ultimately upheld the in-ring verdict delivered by referee Russell Mora.
Overall, Franco is unbeaten in his last eight starts since a ninth-round stoppage of Lucas Fernandez in March 2018. Franco floored Fernandez in the opening round and was well ahead on two of the three scorecards after eight rounds before getting buzzed in round nine at which point referee Jose Hiram Rivera elected to stop the contest. His current streak includes trilogies with Moloney (2-0, with one No-Decision) and Oscar Negrete, the latter whom he defeated once and fought to split decision draws in their first and third outing.
Ioka-Franco bookends a December featuring the division at the highest level. The month begins with the long-awaited rubber match between lineal champion Juan Francisco Estrada (43-3, 28KOs) and former four-division champion Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez (51-3, 41KOs). The fight headlines a December 3 DAZN show from Desert Diamond Arena in Glendale, Arizona and will feature the WBC junior bantamweight title vacated by Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez (17-0, 11KOs), Franco’s younger brother who has returned to the flyweight division.
The showdown with Franco provides Ioka with a second chance at his first New Year’s Eve unification bout. Such plans were targeted one year ago, as Ioka and then-IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas agreed to terms to meet at Ota-City Gymnasium. The fight was scrapped due to Japan closing its borders to non-residents to help prevent the spread of the Omicron Covid-variant.
Ioka wound up facing and defeating countryman Ryoji Fukunaga over twelve rounds. The feat ran his record to 9-1 on New Year’s Eve.
In addition to the history achieved in his claiming a fourth-division title, Ioka looks to further etch his name in Japan’s record books. A win over Franco will leave him as the nation’s only-ever fighter to unify titles in two separate weight divisions. Ioka previously held the WBC/WBA strawweight titles, outpointing Akira Yaegashi in their June 2012 Fight of the Year-level slugfest. The event marked the first time in history that two reigning titlists from Japan met in a title unification bout.
As previously reported by BoxingScene.com, the bout was approved by the WBO on the condition that the winner next faces Junto Nakatani, the former WBO flyweight titlist who is now the sanctioning body’s mandatory challenger at junior bantamweight.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBoxf