Katsunari Takayama rode two knockdowns to a well-earned 12-round decision over countryman Shin Ono in their strawweight title fight Wednesday evening in Osaka, Japan.
Scores were 115-111 (twice) and 117-109. Takayama floored Ono in rounds 10 and 12.
The fight basically came in three stages. Takayama, fighting in his hometown for the second straight time after five consecutive road trips, boxed well early on, keeping the aggressive Ono at bay with a steady jab while using sound head movement to avoid the incoming.
Ono slowly began to close the gap in the middle rounds. The southpaw challenger fell behind on the scorecards, but made things interesting and uncomfortable for Takayama with a persistent body attack. Right hooks continued to score for Ono, who had just two knockouts through 24 pro fights but figured his only shot at winning a title was relentless pressure.
The strategy worked, until it didn't. Takayama regrouped in a big way in round ten, slamming home a straight right hand that froze Ono in his tracks. The 30-year old defending titlist kept attacking before willing his challenger to the canvas. The initial reaction from referee Larry Doggett seemed to suggest no knockdown was scored, but the official scorecards indicated otherwise.
Ono dusted himself off and came back strong in round 11, but paid the price for his aggression as he was back on the canvas in the 12th and final round. Takayama had knockout on his mind - despite just 10 stoppage wins in 32 pro fights prior to Wednesday - as the crowd rallied behind its champion.
The knockout wouldn't come, but Takayama instead picks up his third straight win as he improves to 27-6 (10KO).
Ono falls short in his first title bid, as his record drops to 17-6-2 (2KO).
It's been a long and winding road to the title picture for Takayama, who at one point spent 2 1/2 years fighting away from home in pursuit of a title. Because the Japanese Boxing Commission didn't previously recognize the International Boxing Federation (IBF) as a world title - only sanctioning title fights held by the "original two" World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Association (WBA) - Takayama was forced to fight in his opponent's backyards in hopes of becoming a champion.
This meant fighting in South Africa, Philippines and Mexico after failed title bids at home in Japan versus Roman Gonzalez and Yutaka Niida. Takayama was nothing if not persistent, twice coming up short against Nkosinathi Joyi in South Africa, and dropping a decision to Mateo Handig in their Oct. '12 title eliminator in the Philippines.
Despite the title eliminator loss, Takayama still managed to land a title fight while Handig was strangely pushed towards a non-title fight with Ganigan Lopez - one which he would lose a decision. Takayama made the most of his opportunity, outpointing Mario Rodriguez on the road in Mexico to claim a strawweight title in his fourth attempt.
Two defenses have now followed, having outpointed Vergilio Silvano last December before Wednesday's big win over Ono.
The bout served in chief support to the flyweight title fight between Thailand's unbeaten defending titlist Amnat Ruenroeng and undefeated former two-division champ Kazuto Ioka, who moves up in weight.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox