Joshua Franco and Kazuto Ioka will begin 2023 the same way as this year ended—with their respective title reigns intact.

The final title fight of 2022 failed to produce a winner as the pair of junior bantamweight titlists fought to a twelve-round, majority draw. Franco managed to win by score of 115-113 on the dissenting card, overruled by matching scores of 114-114 to produce a stalemate in the WBA/WBO unification bout Saturday evening at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo, Japan.

Franco was steady with his jab in the opening round, not showing any signs of ring rust after being out of the ring for more than 16 months. Both boxers traded left hooks at the midway point of the round, with the San Antonio, Texas native getting the better of the sequence and also landed the cleaner combination. Ioka looked for an opening for his right hand, which was often picked off and met with left hook, straight right combos by Franco towards the end of the round.

Ioka settled into a groove early in round two but continued to struggle with Franco’s superior hand speed. The locally based champ—originally from Osaka but who now lives and trains in Tokyo—drew modest applause from the respectable crowd after he landed a left hook downstairs and right hand up top. Franco took the shot well but was short with a combination in the closing ten seconds as Ioka displayed terrific defense to avoid the incoming.

Terrific two-way action was featured throughout round three. Franco repeatedly drove Ioka to the ropes with higher volume combination punching. Ioka found his moments with singular power shots which caught the attention of the visiting titlist. Franco remain unbothered, as he cornered Ioka and rattled off a series of power shots.

Ioka connected with his best punch to that point of the fight in round four, landing a long right hand over the top of Franco’s guard. It wasn’t enough to keep the 27-year-old at bay, although a brief breather was provided when time was called after Franco’s mouthpiece was dislodged.

Ioka relied on his superior defensive skills in round five. The 33-year-old used ring movement to get Franco to follow him around, slipping right hands as he rattled off power shots from the outside. Franco managed to drive Ioka into a corner but was met with a straight right and a left hook to the chin.

Momentum remained with Ioka in round six. The four-division champ found repeated success with his left hook to the body. Franco proved his mettle in barely flinching but was also consistently beaten to the punch for the first time in the fight. Both fighters landed straight right hands as Ioka’s back was pinned to the ropes. Ioka pushed the action to center ring, where he landed a left hook to the body before coming back upstairs with the same shot.

Franco came flying off his stool to begin the second half of the fight, ripping a right hand and left hook. Ioka minimized the impact but was forced back on the defensive as a result. Franco pumped his jab as Ioka was forced to fight off the ropes. A left hook by Franco visibly affected Ioka, who stopped punching and tightened up his guard as Franco continued to walk him down.

Momentum remained in favor of the visiting Texan, who was able to hook off the jab and force Ioka to fight in reverse in round eight. The action was fierce along the ropes when Ioka found room to let his hands go, producing two-way exchanges to the delight of the crowd.

Ioka stormed back to land the cleaner shots in a much-needed bounce back round in the ninth. Franco’s longer reach served as a deterrent in the round, overextending as Ioka slipped punches and countered with a left hook to the body and uppercut.  

Both boxers put in work to the body in round ten. Ioka fired off consecutive uppercuts which Franco absorbed and responded with a combination. Franco’s career-long trainer Robert Garcia was overheard at ringside insisting that Ioka was tired, though the four-division champ in fact appeared to have found a second wind as he landed the more telling blows.

Franco had Ioka in trouble at the end of round eleven, coming after both fighters struggled to get the lead over the other. Franco charged forward and looked to land a right hand. Ioka responded quick enough for both to simultaneously land left hooks. Franco connected to the body and then to the chin in the final ten seconds, forcing Ioka to the ropes and into a defensive shell.

Ioka used movement in an attempt to slow down Franco’s attack in the twelfth and final round. He found just enough space to fire off a flurry of punches, most of which missed the mark but were effective enough to prevent a response from Franco in the moment. Franco forced the action back towards center as he saw the finish line in sight in search of a career-best win that seemed to be well within his reach.

Two of the three judges didn't quite see it that way, as another draw is added to Franco's hard-luck record. He retained the full version of the WBA junior bantamweight title for the first time since being upgraded from secondary titlist. However, he was denied the WBO strap as his record moved to 18-1-3 (8KOs).

Franco previously held the WBA ‘Regular’ 115-pound title which he claimed in a twelve-round win over then-unbeaten titlist Andrew Moloney in June 2020. The fight sparked an odd trilogy spanning 14 months, with a No-Contest wedged in between a pair of wins for Franco who ended the series with a repeat victory last August 14 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Much of 2022 was spent by Franco waiting on a title consolidation bout that never materialized. Juan Francisco Estrada was ordered to defend his WBA ‘Super’ title against the Texas native, with Golden Boy Promotions winning a purse bid for the fight which was eyed for June 11 or July 16. Neither date produced the matchup, as Estrada (44-3, 28KOs)—who was seated ringside on Saturday—vacated the belt in favor of a rubber match with legendary Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez (51-4, 41KOs), whom he defeated via majority decision in their December 3 lineal/WBC championship fight in Glendale, Arizona.

Ioka was denied a bid to become first-ever Japanese fighter to unify titles in two separate weight divisions. However, he lodged the sixth successful defense of the WBO belt he's held since June 2019, with his record now 29-1-1 (15KO), including 9-1-1 in bouts held on New Year's Eve dating back to 2011 when he launched the year-end tradition as a defending WBC strawweight champion.

Ioka has since added titles at junior flyweight, flyweight and junior bantamweight to become Japan’s only male boxer to win titles in four weight divisions.

The bout aired live on TBS-Japan.

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox