By Cliff Rold
Fighters with one loss, on an eight fight winning streak, titles in two weight classes and WBA sub-title in a third, don’t retire before the age of 30 very often.
If they do, they rarely stay retired.
Circumstances weren’t the same but featherweight great Vicente Saldivar was only 25 years old when he shocked the boxing world in October 1967 following a knockout of rival Howard Winstone. It was their third contest, Saldivar’s third win, and the only knockout in the series. Saldivar, having made his eighth defense of the featherweight championship, announced his retirement.
Two years later, he returned and within two fights was the featherweight champion again. Saldivar would lose two of his next three before he finally stayed gone for good.
When Japan’s Kazuto Ioka announced his retirement last December, few who follow the lower weight classes saw it coming. He’d been elevated to the full WBA crown at flyweight only two fights prior, following Juan Francisco Estrada’s move to Jr. bantamweight, and was considered by many the leader of the division.
Two Saturday’s from now, Ioka’s abrupt retirement comes to an end. He enters a new stage of his career in more ways than one. Ioka (22-1 13 KO) will be making his debut in the still-hot 115 lb. division. He will be fighting a non-title fight for the first time since 2015.
And Ioka will be making his international debut as part of the SuperFly 3 card at the Great Western Forum (Saturday September 8, 9:45 PM EST).
To date, Ioka has fought his entire career in Japan. He won’t make his US debut in the main event but on paper he appears to be in the best match on the card. Ioka, who hasn’t fought since April 2017, will be matched with twice-failed flyweight title challenger and 2008 Puerto Rican Olympian McWilliams Arroyo (17-3, 14 KO). Arroyo enters off the best win of his career, a decision over former 115 lb. titlist Carlos Cuadras in February on the SuperFly 2 card.
It’s the sort of real challenge that can put Ioka right back into the title mix. He is already technically a contender in his new weight class. The WBA has installed him as the number two contender to WBA titlist Khalid Yafai (24-0, 15 KO). Arroyo, who came up just short against the only man to defeat Ioka (Amnat Ruenroeng) and who gave a good account against Roman Gonzalez, is rated number three by the WBC and WBO.
The winner of this one could have a crack at somebody with a strap sooner than later.
For a lot of the American audience, Ioka is a new face. This is, in a sense, the reintroduction of a fighter who, with the same credentials in a higher weight class, would likely need no introduction at all. Fans seeing him for the first time may be surprised to find out how much he has already accomplished.
Ioka, before the even more talented Naoya Inoue created an electric buzz out of Japan a couple years later, arrived as a player shortly after he turned professional in April 2009. He won the WBC belt at 105 lbs. with a knockout of undefeated Oleydong Sithsamerchai in February 2011 in only his seventh pro fight. After two defenses, Ioka added the WBA belt with a thrilling decision over eventual three-division titlist and lineal flyweight champion Akira Yaegashi.
Ioka immediately moved up and won a WBA belt at 108 lbs. He defended it three times, though he never challenged Gonzalez who was the WBA “super” champion for much of the same time, Gonzalez left to spend their shared time campaigning at flyweight. Ioka would never be installed as the full champion, electing instead to move up and challenge Ruenroeng.
The cagey Thai Olympian outfoxed and outfought Ioka on his turf, his lone setback to date. Every contest that followed at flyweight was a win for Ioka, including two impressive defeats of Argentine Juan Carlos Reveco. In their first fight, Ioka again won a WBA belt and in the rematch he became the first man to knock him out. Ioka did all this without again facing a “super” champion already in place (Juan Francisco Estrada), eventually being installed as full champion when Estrada vacated in 2016.
The momentum Ioka built at 105 lbs. was stalled by the failure to find ways to make fights like Gonzalez and Estrada. There could be a feeling the reins had been pulled back. It could also have been a reflection of how hard it has been to make consistent top fights in the lowest weight classes over the years because of geography and disparate markets.
Ioka’s US debut gives him a chance to turn the engine back on full charge. He’ll be on the undercard with Estrada in the main event. Donnie Nietes, who also worked his way through the three divisions below 115 lbs. will be fighting on the card for a vacant WBO title in his fourth. TBRB and Ring Magazine champion Srisaket Sor Rungvisai is expected to rejoin the SuperFly festivities in 2019.
A win, or even a compelling loss, keeps Ioka in position to carve a place in a new market and in fights that can allow him a chance to live up the early excitement he generated. At 29 years old, Ioka’s career starts again in earnest.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]