Kazuto Ioka gained his revenge while adding to his Hall of Fame resume in the process.
The four-division and reigning WBO junior bantamweight titlist turned away the challenge of Philippines’ Donnie Nietes, after earning a landslide unanimous decision. Scores of 120-108, 118-110 and 117-111 were in favor of Ioka during their twelve-round rematch Wednesday evening (local time) on TBS-Japan from Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo.
The fight came more than three-and-a-half years after their first meeting, which saw Nietes claim a split decision and the vacant WBO 115-pound title on New Year’s Eve 2018 in Macao. The bout was the second fight into a comeback by Ioka, who’d briefly retired in 2017 before electing to resume his career.
Following the fight, it was Nietes who disappeared from the ring. The four-division titlist from Bacolod City, Philippines vacated the title and sat out for more than two years before returning to the ring last April. By then, Ioka was deep into his title reign after claiming the WBO junior bantamweight belt in June 2019.
The pair of familiar rivals approached with caution in the early rounds, both looking to establish their jab. Ioka was quicker to the draw, as to be expected against the 40-year-old Nietes who has struggled to recapture past glory since returning to the ring last April after being out for more than two years.
Nietes picked up the pace in round two, finding opportunities to land his right hand. Ioka quickly adjusted by crowding the Filipino while doubling up on the jab. The defending titlist scored with straight right hands in round three, though taking one in return from Nietes at close quarters.
Action continued at a measured pace in round four. Ioka gew more comfortable in his offensive attack, working his right and cracking Nietes with left hooks to the body. Nietes took the shots well, shooting jabs and right hands downstairs while boxing from the outside.
Ioka was the clear aggressor throughout round five, continuing with a stellar body attack. Nietes sought to box from the outside but struggled to keep Ioka at bay. Ioka continued to come forward, connecting downstairs along with his jab and straight right hand.
Nietes was forced to stand his ground in round six, with much of the action taking place at center ring. Ioka consistently threw one-two combinations, leaving Nietes on the defensive and unable to set his feet long enough to counter. Ioka doubled up on his left hook, digging to the body and coming back up top while Nietes threw a reactionary right hand of minimal substance or effect.
Nietes found success with counter right hands in round seven. They came as Ioka significantly outworked the Filipino, not always landing and at times paying the price for his defensive irresponsibility during such occasions.
It prompted the 33-year-old to offer a more disciplined approach in round eight, returning to the jab both upstairs and to the body and remaining mindful of the incoming. Nietes often came up short with right hand and left hook counters, as Ioka made the ring a much smaller place for the former four-division titlist.
Nietes enjoyed his best sequence of the fight midway through round nine. A straight right hand and uppercut connected for the visiting challenger. Ioka took the shots well, coming back moments later with a right hand behind a jab that caught Nietes flush on the chin.
Ioka resumed full control in round ten. Nietes was briefly stunned by a right hand following a partially blocked left hook, which Ioka followed with a combination. Time was called midway through the round as the ringside physician was summoned to examine a cut over the left eye of Nietes from an accidental clash of heads.
Action remained in favor of Ioka down the stretch, with Nietes well aware of being dealt his first defeat in nearly eighteen years. He falls to 43-2-6 (23KOs), going unbeaten in 37 fights (32-0-5) in between the lone two losses of his career but the latter coming at a time when he is well past his best.
Ioka registered the fifth defense of his title while avenging a past defeat in the process. The future Hall of Famer advances his record to 29-2 (15KOs) with the win, coming right on time as the 115-pound division is at its most lucrative. His team remains hopeful of a unification bout before the end of the year. One was on tap with then-iBF champ Jerwin Ancajas last New Year’s Eve, only for Japan’s decision to close its borders to foreign travelers to put the fight on ice.
Ancajas has since lost his belt to Argentina’s Fernando Martinez in February, with a rematch likely in store though without a firm update as to when it would take place. Also looming are potential showdowns with lineal/WBA champion Juan Francisco Estrada (42-3, 28KOs), rising star and WBC titlist Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez (16-0, 11KOs) and legendary former four-division champ Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez (51-3, 41KOs).
A fight with Gonzalez would come at the perfect time for the pair of future Hall of Famers, as their past title reigns have overlapped but never resulting in a head-on collision. Gonzalez is the only fighter among the bunch who is not tied to a fight date or opponent. Rodriguez next defends his belt on the undercard of the Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez-Gennadiy Golovkin trilogy clash on September 17 in Las Vegas, while Estrada is on the hook to face Joshua Franco in a WBA title consolidation clash that remains in limbo.
For now, Ioka takes comfort in settling an old score while remaining in the thick of things in one of the sport’s hottest divisions.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox