The last big fight of 2022 is here, happening in a division that has delivered the goods as often as any class in the sport over the last near decade.
This year, we found out the Jr. bantamweight golden era isn’t over yet. The New Year’s Eve result from Japan will set the stage for its continuance in 2023. In a year where there have been unification matches all over the place between Jr. flyweight and light heavyweight, two titles can become one here.
It’s a shame US TV won’t be available to enjoy it.
The match is fascinating. In a year when Jesse Rodriguez garnered headlines and votes for Fighter of the Year for his work at Jr. bantamweight, big brother Joshua Franco can garner the biggest win in the family for 2022. Inactive since August 2022, Franco is going straight into the fire, traveling overseas for a chance at glory.
Kazuto Ioka has been a part of the title picture for over a decade, winning belts in four weight divisions. Along the way, he has acquired double digit wins over fighters ranked in the top ten of their divisions. Ioka is one of only a handful of active fighters in the sport to do so, sharing that feat with names like Nonito Donaire, Roman Gonzalez, Naoya Inoue, and Saul Alvarez. Those are all bona fide Hall of Fame entrants waiting to happen.
Ioka, who could partially unify in his second division this weekend, with an eye on a showdown with lineal king Juan Francisco Estrada if he does, is making it hard not to count him in their ranks. Can Ioka further burnish his credentials this weekend? Can he take his New Year’s Eve record to 10-1?
Let’s get into it.
Stats and Stakes
Current Titles: WBO Jr. Bantamweight (2019-Present, 5 Defenses)
Previous Titles: WBC Minimumweight (2011-12, 3 Defenses); WBA Minimumweight (2012); WBA Light Flyweight (2014*); WBA Flyweight (2016-17, 2 Defenses)
Height: 5’4 ½
Weight: 115 lbs.
Hails from: Tokyo, Japan
Record: 29-2, 15 KO
Press Rankings: #2 (Ring, BoxRec), #3 (TBRB), #4 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 12-2, 5 KO (20-2, 11 KO including WBA sub-title fights)
Last Five Opponents: 118-9-7 (.907)
Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Oleydong Sithsamerchai TKO5; Akira Yaegashi UD12; Felix Alvarado UD12; Juan Carlos Reveco MD12, TKO11; McWilliams Arroyo UD10; Donnie Nietes L12, UD12; Aston Palicte TKO10; Jeyvier Cintron UD12; Kosei Tanaka TKO8; Francisco Rodriguez Jr. UD12
Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: Juan Hernandez UD 12; Amnat Ruenroeng L12
*Ioka won sub-versions of the WBA belts at Jr. flyweight and flyweight only to be elevated when primary titlists Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada vacated those belts, respectively. Title reign dates reflect those moves.
Title: WBA Super Flyweight (2022-Present, 1st Defense*)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 114 ¾ lbs.
Hails from: San Antonio, Texas
Record: 18-1-2, 8 KO, 1 KOBY
Press Rankings: #5 (Ring), #7 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 1st title fight (2-0, 1 No Contest including sub-title fights)
Last Five Opponents: 98-6-1 (.938)
Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Andrew Moloney UD12, NC2, UD12
Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: N/A
*Joshua won the WBA sub-title in the division in 2020 from Andrew Moloney in 2020 and has defended it twice. He was elevated to primary WBA titlist when Juan Fracisco Estrada’s claim to the title was vacated in 2022.
The Pick: It’s hard to see where this fight can miss. Both men are well schooled, mod-range fighters who throw heavy leather to the body. Ioka has the better straight right hand and more accurate jab. Franco has a better uppercut and can put together some clever combinations. Ioka is more experienced and has been more active. Franco is younger with presumably less career wear.
This could end up looking a bit like Ioka’s fights with Donnie Nietes. Like Franco, Nietes is a fundamentally sound battler with real craft but Ioka kept it close the first time and won the second by being first with his more precise offense. Japan feels like it has fewer scoring controversies than most places but being at home can’t hurt in a fight that looks close going in. This could be the sort of fight where it’s hard to decide rounds, and that has to favor Ioka. Therefore, the pick is Ioka by decision.
Rold Picks 2022: 59-17
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org