By Jake Donovan
Another night, another road win for Moruti Mthalane.
The latest traveling adventure found the ageless South African retaining his flyweight title after stopping former three-division titlist Akira Yaegashi in nine rounds Monday evening at Yokohama Arena in Yaegashi’s hometown of Yokohama, Japan.
An accumulation of punishment left referee Mario Gonzalez to step in and stop the contest at 2:54 of round nine.
Yaegashi’s last appearance on the title stage ended in disaster, suffering a shocking 1st round knockout to Milan Melindo in May 2017 to end his junior flyweight title reign. The former three-division champ has since won three straight as he sought his second run atop the flyweight division.
The local hero put his best foot forward in the early going, using constant lateral movement and punching in combination against a poised Mthalane, who was economic with his punches but mostly fighting behind a tight guard as he sought to extend his current flyweight title reign. Yaegashi darted in and out, shooting off rapid fire right hands and left hooks. Not many were getting through Mthalane’s defense, but his activity played well to his adoring local fans if not necessarily with the judges.
Mthalane opened up his offense in round three, scoring to the body while also shooting his long right hand whenever Yaegashi stayed inside for too long. Yaegashi quickly adapted, reverting back to in and out movement, scoring with a right hand and sliding back when the defending titlist sought to counter.
Two-way body punching opened up round four, with both flyweights enjoying early success and offering a reminder as to why year-end awards should never take place until the all of the action is done for the year. The penchant for free-swinging action served as a detriment to Yaegashi, who was suddenly less mobile as Mthalane was able to dictate the pace at close quarters. Long, looping right hands frustrated the local challenger, who continued to fire back but with fatigue threatening to settle in at the wrong time.
Mthalane patiently stalked Yaegashi throughout round five, beating the challenger to the punch but his own increase in activity also leaving himself open for counter shots. Yaegashi found his second win in round six, timing the defending titlist’s long right hands with jump-uppercuts, literally bouncing off his toes and throwing power shots from odd angles and always remembering to bring the attack downstairs as Yaegashi enjoyed a 9:1 advantage in body shots landed through six rounds.
Two-way action poured over into the start of the second half of the fight. Mthalane used it to his advantage, seizing full control by the end of round seven after scoring repeatedly upstairs. The veteran road warrior had Yaegashi hurt in round eight, using a right hand upstairs to set up a wicked left hook to the body. Yaegashi was briefly stunned but managed to keep himself steady and make it out of the round.
Mthalane did something about that in a big way in round nine.
A purposeful jab split the guard of Yaegashi, clearing the path for a head-snapping right hand from Mthalane. The sequence proved to be the beginning of the end, with Mthalane going on the attack and Yaegashi quickly on the defensive in hopes of riding out the storm. It wasn’t enough as referee Mario Gonzalez jumped in to rescue the former multi-division champ after a brutal two round stretch which saw Mthalane land 53 power punches. .
Mthalane (39-2, 26KOs) registers the third defense of the title he reclaimed in a decision win over then-unbeaten Muhammad Waseem just last July. Each of his four title fights in his current reign have taken place on the road, including his second straight in Japan after outpointing Masayuki Kuroda this past May in Tokyo.
Monday's win leaves Mthalane in prime position atop a loaded flyweight division. His current run has proven far more memorable than his first title reign, which ended only due to the ugly side of the sport's politics and which have also crippled his ring activity for much of the decade. New life is breathed into his incredible career, now developing a reputation as a road warrior while extending a 16-fight win streak dating back to 2009, following a 6th round injury stoppage to Nonito Donaire way back in November 2008.
On the other side of the equation, it could spell the last call for Yaegashi (28-7, 16KOs), who will celebrate his 37th birthday in February but who will have to give retirement a long hard consideration. His strawweight title reign began and ended with Fight of the Year-level wars, knocking out Pornsawan Porpramook in the 10th round of the best fight of 2011, before conceding his title to countryman Kazuto Ioka n their June 2012 instant classic which marked the first-ever unification bout between two reigning titlists from Japan.
Yaegashi landed back on the title stage with a 12-round win over Toshiyuki Igarashi to capture the lineal flyweight championship, which he defended three times before suffering a 9th round knockout to then-unbeaten pound-for-pound entrant Roman Gonzalez (who won on Monday's undercard).
A subsequent knockout loss to Pedro Guevara in a failed 108-pound title bid was thought to be the end of his career, only for Yaegashi to put a junior flyweight belt around his waist on New Year's Eve 2017. the title reign lasted 17 months before running into Melindo, and with Monday's loss perhaps forever closing the door on his hopes of another title run.
It's been a hell of a ride along the way, as continues to be the case for Mthalane as the winner and still champion.
The bout served as part of a title fight tripleheader, streaming live on ESPN+ and topped by Ryota Murata’s first defense of his second reign of a secondary 160-pound title as he faces Canada’s Steven Butler.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox