By Alexey Sukachev
Japan’s Ryoichi Taguchi out-pointed the Philippines’ Milan Melindo in their 12-round, 108-pound title unification fight Sunday night in Tokyo.
Taguchi (27-2-2, 12 KOs) won a unanimous decision over Melindo (37-2, 13 KOs) in their fight for Taguchi’s WBA light flyweight championship and Melindo’s IBF title at Ota-City General Gymnasium. The scores were wide, 116-112, 117-111 and 117-111, for Taguchi.
BoxingScene.com had it even wider for the Japanese champion, 118-111.
The opening round produced little action during the first 2½ minutes, but then Melindo exploded with a series of punches, including a major left uppercut and several body shots to get the attention of the WBA titleholder. Taguchi was relatively effective before that, using every inch of his four-inch height advantage and two-inch reach advantage.
Taguchi was more aggressive in the second round, peppering Melindo with his jab and letting himself into a rumble several times, with Melindo being clearly content to oblige. Taguchi, however, finished the second round stronger than his Filipino opponent, with a left to the body and a wise move out of the short-fire range of Melindo.
Taguchi continued to stalk Melindo in the third, but the Filipino used elements of the peek-a-boo defense and his jab to keep Taguchi honest. The Japanese boxer had some success with his right cross and also landed some body shots.
Melindo was a bit less successful, but landed some shots of his own. Body shots were clear during the first half of the fourth – until Melindo exploded with a series of punches, which connected to the Japanese champion’s head. Taguchi answered with right hands of his own, then moved back to avoid a counter.
He repeated this trick a couple of times before the bell, while Melindo struggled with the distance.
Sensing the fight was slipping away from him, Melindo jumped aggressively at Taguchi at the beginning of the fifth, landing numerous body shots, which were taken well by his opponent. Taguchi repelled challenger with his jab and also went at the distance.
A cut was produced over Melindo's left eye on what seemed to be an accidental clash of heads. Taguchi did better at the end of the round in another set of exchanges, although the last word belonged to the IBF titlist.
The Filipino tried different tactics in the sixth. He attempted to connect with some body shots, then tried to grab Taguch in order to prevent him both from moving out of his range and from landing shots of his own. However, Taguchi proved his mettle in close quarters as well, using body shots and uppercuts to frustrate the visiting fighter.
A sophisticated chess match continued into the seventh, with neither boxer getting the better of the other. There was some grabbing early on, but both boxers got back to fencing after that.
The eighth round was different. Melindo, possibly due to earlier body shots of Taguchi, started to show fatigue, and Taguchi was suddenly right there in his face, with an assortment of jabs, uppercuts, body shots and whatever one can imagine. The Japanese was sharp, while Melindo missed widely with his swings.
Taguchi clearly got better as the rounds progressed, although Melindo attempted a late and fruitless comeback.
Action continued into the ninth, as did Taguchi's dominance. His reach and height advantages were once again crucial. It got more complicated during the last minute of the round when Melindo, moving forward, clashed heads again with the WBA champion, producing a major cut on the left side of Taguchi's skull.
Blood affected Taguchi mentally, and it was a positive change. The Japanese fighter suddenly went to war with Melindo in the wild 10th round, and the Filipino, presumably trailing on the judges' scorecards, had no other option but to rumble.
Both were throwing everything but a kitchen sink at each other, as the crowd roared with enthusiasm. Taguchi was clearly busier and better than Melindo.
There were more clinches in the 11th round, when both boxers appeared tired. Taguchi also butted his opponent, worsing his overall look and also the cut over his left eye. But the Japanese champion also produced a valiant effort at the end of the stanza, hurting Melindo several times.
Both competitors gave their all during the 12th and final round, though Taguchi had more gas left in the tank. Melindo was forced to seek refuge in clinches several times.
Taguchi also inflicted more damage to the Filipino's face, opening up another deep cut – this time over his right orbital bone.
Taguchi, 31, is one of the least appreciated champions in all the weight classes. Against Melindo, he was making the seventh defense of the WBA belt, which he earned exactly three years ago against Peruvian Alberto Rossel in Taguchi's coming-out party.
Part of his lesser recognition could have been attributed to the earlier loss to the rapidly rising mega-prodigy Naoya Inoue (just 3-0 at the time against Taguchi, who was 18-1-1) in a bid for a vacant Japanese light flyweight title.
The other part, however, could hardly be justified, as Taguchi had quite a run with just a single blemish, a draw versus Venezuelan Carlos Canizales on the last day of 2016, and wins over former champions Juan Jose Landaeta and Ryo Miyazaki along the way.
Melindo, 29, was himself considered a prodigy, racking up a solid record in his native Philippines. Unfortunately for Melindo and his fans, the first two world title challenges for “El Metodico,” were unsuccessful, as he was soundly beaten by Mexico’s Juan Francisco Estrada in July 2013 for the WBA/WBO flyweight titles, and then again by Mexico’s Javier Mendoza in a bid for the IBF 108-pound championship.
It wasn't until the end of 2016, when Melindo, by virtue of his solid win against Teeraphong Uthaida (then 31-4-1) for the IBF interim belt, got himself back into contention.
He had an impressive 2017 before winning Sunday night, first by making a splash with his first-round destruction of the veteran champion Akira Yaegashi in May. Then he barely kept his belt against former WBA/IBO minimumweight titlist Hekkie Budler in September.