There aren’t too many things you can count on in boxing, but Kazuto Ioka fighting on New Year’s Eve is one of them. Since his third year as a pro, Ioka headlining on the final day of the year has been an annual event, save for a brief retirement in 2017. The end of the year and the beginning of the new one is a particularly exciting time for Japanese sports, when international football friendlies, the Ekiden relay race, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom, various MMA and kickboxing events and more are always scheduled. In boxing, its biggest stars fight at the end of the year, and in present day, that means Naoya Inoue and Ioka, the country’s most popular fighters and two of its most accomplished ever. 

The New Year’s sport is a badge of honor for Ioka, one he wasn’t willing to relinquish just because negotiations with Juan Francisco Estrada fell through. Ioka and Estrada were expected to meet in a highly-anticipated clash on December 31, a bout between two Hall of Fame-bound lighter weight fighters who have orbited one another for over a decade but never collided. Those negotiations broke down in November, and after reportedly considering a fight in the United States, Ioka decided to find a new opponent and keep with tradition. 

Instead, Ioka faced former flyweight title challenger Josber Perez at the Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo last night, blasting the Venezuelan underdog out in seven rounds. The victory marked his 22nd triumph in a world title fight, giving him sole possession of the lead in that category among male Japanese boxers. Given his status and pedigree relative to that of Perez, whose lone title challenge against Artem Dalakian was the outlier on a resume populated mostly by opponents with losing records, Ioka was aware that a dreary decision wouldn’t be satisfactory. "As the defending champion, I have to show that I'm on a different level and win by a landslide," Ioka said during the introductory press conference in late November.

The last knockout victory Ioka scored came in 2020 against Kosei Tanaka, another New Year’s Eve bash. Ioka wasn’t quite as forward leading up to that bout regarding his intentions, but he most certainly downplayed the threat of his opponent. The situations were vastly different, of course—Tanaka was a borderline pound-for-pound list talent at the time, whereas Perez was a +1200 underdog or more depending on the sportsbook. 

But Ioka’s conveyance of sheer relaxation inside the ring on both nights was similar. Whereas against Tanaka, Ioka calmly waited in the pocket to pounce on his opponent’s mistakes, against Perez he nonchalantly shuffled forward and worked primarily on the inside. As he said following the bout, this caused him to eat some punches in the early going, but also opened up lanes to the body which ultimately dropped Perez’s hands sufficiently for a right hand to stop him for good. As Ioka’s right hand connected on his right eye in the seventh round, Perez collapsed to the canvas with the palms of his gloves open clasping his face, writing in agony from the pain of the blow. 

"Right from the start Perez landed some good punches, and it was a tough way to start the fight, but I was resolved to show everyone I could battle to the end," Ioka told Kyodo News following the bout.  "I'm not usually concerned about getting knockouts, but I did want one here so the fans in this venue could savor it on New Year's Eve." 

The performance once again illustrated the level of talent that has kept Ioka at a world championship level for 13 years, and on the fringes of pound-for-pound consideration for the past few at the very least. At the championship level, Ioka has won fights in nearly every way imaginable. Just in the last three years, he’s used precision and sheer power to knock out Tanaka, matched speed and volume with Joshua Franco, outfoxed Donnie Nietes, and then used pressure and aggression to overwhelm Perez. And at the age of 34, Ioka not only shows no signs of slowing down, but feels he’s still adding to his game. In particular, he told reporters that he and trainer Ismael Salas focused primarily on timing in this camp, an attribute he’s always seemingly been blessed with anyway. As he always does, Ioka was also sure to mention his diligent pilates routine, to which he attributes his longevity, offering that it’s “too late (to start) after you’re already breaking down.”

"I wanted to show my fighting spirit to fight until the end. I'm glad I was able to fight without wavering," Ioka told Nikkan Sports. "I don't know how far I can go. It's miraculous and a blessing to be able to train with fighters in their 20s and have fun with them."

Although sparring the 20-year olds is a confidence boost for Ioka, it’s a real fight against the 33-year old Estrada that he seems most interested in moving forward still. There are complicating factors, such as Estrada’s expressed desire to face Bam Rodriguez, or a proposed flirtation with the bantamweight limit. However, there’s still a full year to go before Ioka has to fill the coveted slot of opponent on December 31, 2024. 

"Keep fighting. If you don't step (up) as a champion, you won't grow. I don't want to stop growing,” Ioka told Masashi Takarada of the Sankei Shimbun following the bout regarding is intentions. “I want to see what comes next if I keep trying.”