By Jake Donovan
Kazuto Ioka admittedly doesn’t know how much longer he will stick around as a pro.
Then again, he didn’t even realize more than a year ago that he’d be at the doorstep of making history—or even anywhere near a boxing ring.
The former three-division titiist looks to become the first-ever male boxer from Japan to claim a major strap in four weight divisions heading into Wednesday’s clash with Philippines’ Aston Palicte. The two will contend for a vacant 115-pound title, one which Ioka was denied in a controversial 12-round loss to Donnie Nietes last New Year’s Eve in Macao, China.
His second chance at a lasting impression comes at home, as his bout with Palicte will take place in Chiba, Japan, barely an hour from his Tokyo hometown.
“I’ve never been more hungry to win in my life, Ioka (23-2, 13KOs) told BoxingScene.com of his upcoming bout, which will air live on Fuji TV in Japan and stream live on UFC Fight Pass elsewhere around the world.
The 30-year old has leveled off in recent years, but came flying out the gate early in his career, winning his first major title in just his seventh pro fight—a 5th round knockout win over then-unbeaten and long-reigning titlist Oleydong Sithsamerchai in 2011. Three defenses followed, including his first historic moment in outpointing Akira Yaegashi in their thrilling June ‘12 strawweight war which marked the first-ever unification bout between two defending titlist from Japan.
It was his last fight at strawweight, with less inspiring title reigns following at junior flyweight and flyweight. The latter reign required two tries to ignite, suffering his first career defeat in a 12-round decision to Amnat Ruenroeng in May 2014, before bouncing back 11 months later to dethrone Juan Carlos Reveco.
Five title defenses followed, but none serving as the type of superfight he craved ever since outlasting Yaegashi. Ioka pursued a unification bout with two-time Olympic Gold medalist and reigning flyweight titlist Zou Shiming, even willing to travel to China to make the fight happen. Instead mandated with a short-notice title defense versus Artem Dalakian, Ioka—who at the time was also dealing with personal family issues—instead walked away from his title reign and the sport altogether in Nov. 2017.
A renewed sense of purpose overcame Ioka last year, returning to the sport as a super flyweight with a dominant win over Arroyo last September. The bout came as part of the third and final edition of HBO’s “Superfly” series, as the network closed its boxing doors shortly thereafter.
On that same show was a vacant super flyweight title clash between Nietes and Palicte, which ended in a draw. Nietes was permitted to once again fight for the title, facing and barely—and controversially—edging Ioka last December in a fight where the winner was guaranteed to become a four-division titlist.
Palicte (25-2-1, 21KOs) punched his way back into contention with a 2nd round knockout win in a title eliminator this past January. Nietes wasn’t feeling a rematch, though, opting to vacate the title in favor of bigger fights in the twilight of his career.
Ioka re-entered the mix, convincing Palicte’s side to make the trip to Chiba for their upcoming title fight on Wednesday.
Ioka is presently just one of five boxers ever from Japan to win titles in three weight division. The elite list includes Koki Kameda, Hozumi Hasegawa, Kosei Tanaka (currently a 112-pound titlist) and unbeaten wunderkind Naoya Inoue, whom who became a triple division champ following a two-round destruction of previously unbeaten titlist Emmanuel Rodriguez in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight semifinals this past May.
A win on Wednesday pushes him past some stellar company.
“To become a four-weight world champion is a huge reason why I returned to (the sport),” Ioka admits. “It would be a new record for boxing in Japan and I want to be the one to set this record.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox