For most fans, in the US and the world, the fight of the month will happen when Saul Alvarez faces Jermell Charlo. Everything else is playing for second best.
This month, what might be second best on paper is pretty damn good. In the wee hours of the morning stateside, a pair of junior flyweights will lock horns in a fight both significant in the moment and to what has quietly been an excellent era for their division.
Live from the Ariake Arena next Monday (ESPN+, 5 AM EST), 31-year old lineal, TBRB, Ring, and WBC/WBA unified champion Kenshiro Teraji (21-1, 13 KO) will defend against 35-year old former Ring Magazine and unified titlist Hekkie Budler (35-4, 11 KO).
For Budler, also a former strawweight titlist, it’s not just a fight that could be his last, best chance at a title but also the opportunity to derail the intentions of the best fighter in his division.
Kenshiro was supposed to be a step closer to completing the unification of the division by now. 2022 was the best year of his career, a reminder that, while Naoya Inoue is king in Japan, Kenshiro is right there on the next tier with the likes of Kazuto Ioka. A stunning stoppage loss, in an outstanding fight, to Masamichi Yabuki in September 2021 shook the established order of at 108 pounds. Kenshiro reset the foundation with violence.
In March 2022, he avenged the Yabuki loss in three rounds to regain the WBC title. A November pick ‘em unification heading in with undefeated WBA and Ring Magazine titlist Hiroto Kyoguchi turned into a clinic. Punctuated with a nasty knockdown in round five, Kenshiro won every round on all three judge’s cards before forcing a stoppage in round seven.
The follow-up appeared to be set up on the undercard when WBO titlist Jonathan Gonzalez kept his strap with a decision over Shokichi Iwata. The date was set for April 8th but pneumonia forced Gonzalez to cancel. Kenshiro was left with a spirited challenge in what still ended up largely a stay busy fight against inexperienced Anthony Olascuaga and while more unification remains the goal, an intriguing mandatory obligation must be met.
It would have been easy to assume Budler was done at the title level after a rough stoppage loss to Kyoguchi in 2018, the first and only stoppage defeat of his career. Budler stayed out of the ring for all of 2019 and 2020 before embarking on what stands as a three-fight win streak. It was the second of those wins that indicated the rest served him well.
Budler went on the road in June 2022 to beat Elwin Soto by close decision in Mexico. Soto was coming off a split decision title loss to Jonathan Gonzalez and found himself outworked and outwilled by the South African veteran. It wasn’t the career victory Budler experienced in 2018 when he upset unified titlist Ryochi Taguchi in Japan but it kept his career alive and positioned him for a return to the land of the rising sun.
Kenshiro has amassed a record of 12-1 with 8 KOs in title fights, beating championship winners like Ganigan Lopez, Pedro Guevara, Milan Melindo, Yabuki, and Kyoguchi along the way. Budler is one of the most significant names of his era he hasn’t seen yet. A win here, if followed by completing his unification journey, would secure Kenshiro a place among junior flyweight immortals alongside the likes of Jung Koo Chang, Myung-Woo Yuh, Michael Carbajal, and Chiquita Gonzalez.
A Budler win wouldn’t get the South African into that air but it would recast his career in its twilight. It’s another bout worth waking up at odd hours for and another rock-solid matchup in line with one of boxing’s best years of the twenty-first century.
The Junto Nakatani-Argi Cortes title clash at 115 pounds in the co-feature makes for two reasons to get up early. Nakatani might already be the best fighter in the division but he’s going to have to wait a little longer to get a chance to prove it. Cortes gave lineal king Juan Francisco Estrada a tough challenge. Can he do it again? Nakatani was last seen nearly decapitating Andrew Moloney…Staying in Nakatani’s division, ESPN’s Salvador Rodriguez reported Estrada-Ioka is getting close for New Year’s Eve. It’s one of the best fights of this golden era of little men we haven’t seen yet…Luis Lopez-Joet Gonzalez this weekend should be a fun featherweight scrap but it could also serve as a tryout for a future showdown with Inoue when the current junior featherweight leader makes his next move up the scale…Last week, this column space commended the positives for the sport in the announcement of Shakur Stevenson-Frank Martin. Um, about that…
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com