By Jake Donovan
Kazuto Ioka is now 3-0 in fights on New Year's Eve. The 24-year old managed third - and perhaps final - successful defense of his 108 lb. belt on the last night of 2013 with a unanimous decision over Nicaragua's Felix Alvarado in Osaka, Japan.
Scores of 115-113 and matching tallies of a far too wide 119-109 all landed in favor of Ioka, who literally ends the year on a high note - the third straight year in which he can claim that.
Strong rumors swirled in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's headliner that the bout would be Ioka's last in the junior flyweight division. The 24-year old has flirted with the idea of moving up to flyweight, where at least two notable challenges await. That day will conceivably come in 2014, though on this particular occasion he chose to end this year the same way 2012 concluded - in a 108 lb. title fight.
Ioka captured a vacant, splintered version of the 108 lb. title last New Year's Eve, dominating overmatched Jose Rodriguez en route to a 4th round stoppage. Three successful title defenses have followed, though Tuesday's win over Alvarado was by far the most grueling of the bunch.
The outcome of the bout was never quite in doubt, but Alvarado never took a backwards step at any point in the contest. Ioka was ready for the challenge, remaining a step ahead and landing enough shots to cause Alvarado's left eye to swell early in the bout.
Time was briefly called prior to the start of round four, in order for the ringside physician to examine Alvarado's eye and ensure that his vision wasn't compromised. Action eventually resumed, with the two unbeaten fighters trading power shots for virtually the entire fight. Ioka was effective with his uppercut and right hand, neither of which Alvarado was ever able to find a proper equalizer.
A solid action fight through six rounds quickly erupted into a war of attrition over the course of the second half of the contest. Ioka began to tire, while Alvarado dug deep to find his second win.
The power-punching Nicaraguan vowed before the fight to unleash a vicious two-fisted body attack like Ioka had never before experienced. That never quite transpired, but it was enough to win rounds at a point when Ioka lost a little something off of his fastball.
Alvarado enjoyed perhaps his best moments of the fight in a dominant ninth round, but unofficially proved to be his last hurrah. Time was once again called to examine the challenger's eye at the start of round 10, the second time in the fight he was looked at by the ringside physician following a strong showing in the preceding round.
Once action resume, Ioka unloaded. Displays of brilliance were far more evident earlier in his career than since his move to junior flyweight, but a return that level of excellence was on display in this fight. Properly pacing himself through the middle rounds, Ioka closed the fight strong, teeing off on Alvarado in round ten and fending off his determined challenger in the championship rounds.
The crowd was given its full moneys worth over 12 rounds of non-stop action, particularly the final minute of the fight in which both fighters unloaded as it drew the capacity crowd off of its feet.
As the final bell rang, the outcome was hardly in doubt. If Tuesday's bout was Ioka's last at junior flyweight, he goes out with a bang. The 24-year old advances to 14-0 (9KO) with the win, going a perfect 4-0 in the 108 lb. division after moving up in weight last year.
Alvarado suffers his first defeat as a pro, though undoubtedly will have his say as the 108 lb. division reshapes in 2014. For now, he heads home to Nicaragua with his head held high despite his record falling to 18-1 (15KO).
All year long, the chatter around the proverbial water cooler called for a salivating showdown between Ioka and Roman 'Chocolatito' Gonzalez. Reasons have varied (none particularly flattering for Ioka) as to why the fight has yet to happen, despite being ordered by the sanctioning body that claimed both fighters as 108 lb. titlists.
Whatever the case, the fight remains high on the bucket list of any boxing fan who pays attention to the sport as a whole. Demand will once again build in 2014, especially if Ioka moves up to flyweight, where Gonzalez - like Ioka, unbeaten and having won belts at 105 and 108 - has already begun competing and is line for a title shot versus Argentina's Juan Carlos Reveco at some point in the year.
There are only two fights that make sense - and dollars - for Ioka at flyweight; a showdown with Gonzalez, and a rematch with countryman Akira Yaegashi. The two waged war in June 2012, in a 105 lb. strawweight championship bout which marked the first time in Japan's rich boxing history that two of its reigning titlists met in a unification contest.
Yaegashi wisely took off the remainder of 2012, moving up two weight classes to flyweight. The move proved effective, as he claimed the World lineal flyweight championship with a decision win over countryman Toshiyuki Igarashi earlier this year. Two successful defenses have followed, including a decision win over Edgar Sosa earlier this month.
A rematch with Yaegashi would put Ioka, who turns 25 in March, in position to become a three-division world champion in just five years as a pro. A showdown with Gonzalez would satisfy the demands of everyone else.
In the evening's chief support, visiting Thai boxer Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr. pulled off one the year's biggest upset with a 3rd round stoppage of a drained Ryo Miyazaki. A full report of the bout can be found HERE.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox