By Jake Donovan
The belts still matte to plenty of fighters –and sometimes for very good reason.
Just ask Katusnari Takayama, a former strawweight champion who is so excited about the thought of fighting for the IBF strawweight title that he and his team are making their second straight trip to South Africa in hopes of making that dream a reality.
His third try at a second title reign comes Saturday evening when he squares off against defending titlist Nkosisnanthi Joyi at Carnival City in Gauteng, South Africa.
The venue represents hostile territory but at the same time familiar grounds to the Japanese boxer, who just four months ago scored a knockout win over Tshepo Lefele in a sanctioned title eliminator.
He returns this time with a bigger crew in tow. His entourage –which runs nine deep, including a local reporter – is particularly excited for this road trip. It’s an opportunity that Takayama (24-4, 10KO) wouldn’t ordinarily receive at home, since IBF titles aren’t recognized by the boxing commission in his native Japan.
A win over Joyi will make Takayama just the second fighter in his nation’s history to have won an IBF belt. The only other instance came nearly 27 years ago when Satoshi Shingaki captured the vacant bantamweight title to begin a reign that lasted just over a year before losing his crown to the great Jeff Fenech.
That’s not to say that the Land of the Rising Sun lacks a shortage of champions. Quite the contrary – Takayama became the 50th fighter from Japan to capture a major title when he won a strawweight belt in 2005.
But that he’s fighting for a belt that he can’t even defend in his home country leaves Takayama perhaps a bit more excited than the actual fight itself.
“I want to be a sports pioneer, like Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki,” states Takayama, speaking on the anomaly of what will occur with a title win on Saturday night.
While the history of such a win is important, so too is the fact that it will come against Joyi (21-0, 15KO), widely regarded as the best strawweight in the world.
It’s a familiar storyline to Takayama, who came up short against then-strawweight king Roman Gonzalez in his native Japan last July.
A rematch with Gonzalez is still high on his to-do list, although the likelihood of it occurring anytime soon isn’t very strong. Their first fight was decisive enough to where a second fight isn’t in demand, not to mention that Gonzalez is now campaigning as a junior flyweight and with an eye on moving further up the scales.
In the meantime, Takayama is offered a shot at redemption, as a win over Joyi will go a long way towards restoring credibility in his once-promising career.
“We wanted this fight because we firmly believe Joyi to be the best 105 lb. fighter in the world,” insists Sato Garo, Takayama’s manager. “We weren’t sure if this fight would happen so soon, but we didn’t hesitate once we received the opportunity to fight for a title that he can’t win back home due to the Japanese Boxing Commission not recognizing this title.”
The opportunity on which Mr. Garo speaks was a title eliminator, which came just seven weeks after the loss to Gonzalez. It resulted in Takayama fighting outside of his native Japan for the first time in his 10-year career, though well worth the risk as he stopped Lefele in six rounds to earn the title shot he will receive later this evening.
Tonight’s bout marks his second straight trip outside of Japan, though there could be plenty more to come. Having signed with Filipino promotional outfit ALA Boxing Promotions last May, Takayama now has an avenue to not just win a title not recognized by his local commission, but to also actively defend it without fear of serving as the proverbial man without a country.
High on their list of future opportunities – a potential unification bout with the winner of the March 12 showdown between defending titlist Donnie Nietes and former champ Raul Garcia, as well as a revenge-seeking rematch with Gonzalez somewhere down the road.
Of course, none of that happens without leaving Carnival City with a win and title in tow.
“At first we need to beat Joyi, who is a very good boxer. It’s not easy to win, no matter where the fight takes place,” Garo admits. “All things start from here. We hope to fight strong boxers from here on out. We’re not interested in fighting on the regional champion level in Japan. We want to be known as the real champion at strawweight and want to fight the best in order to prove that.”
That dream begins with making a little bit of history.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .