This golden era at Jr. bantamweight got its latest chapter on Wednesday.
In dominating fashion, 33-year old four-division titlist Kazuto Ioka (29-2, 15 KO) avenged a 2018 loss to now-40-year old four-division titlist Donnie Nietes (43-2-6, 23 KO). Nietes suffered his first loss since 2004 while Ioka notched his fifth defense of the WBO belt at 115 lbs.
Revenge, especially of a debatable narrow defeat, is always sweet. There’s still something missing.
Ioka has certainly had his share of accolades, spending the bulk of his career as part of the title scene. Ioka won a strawweight belt in his seventh fight, partially unified in his tenth, and has added titles in every weight class he’s competed in since. Nietes is now added to a list of notable wins that also includes Oleydong Sithsamerchai, Akira Yaegashi, Felix Alvarado, Juan Carlos Reveco, McWilliams Arroyo, and Kosei Tanaka.
Take note of the names that aren’t there though.
Four years into his tenure in the division, Ioka hasn’t yet shared the ring with any of the hardcore four that drove the engine of the division for the last seven years: Carlos Cuadras, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Juan Francisco Estrada, and Roman Gonzalez. To his credit, Ioka’s win over Arroyo came on the heels of Arroyo beating Cuadras but Estrada and Gonzalez in particular stand out.
Estrada and Gonzalez have shared divisions with Ioka off and on for a decade, well before any of them were winning belts at Jr. bantamweight.
Ioka, in part due to the way his career was managed prior to his move to Jr. bantamweight, and in part due to the twin obstacles of timing and geography, didn’t see Gonzalez at Jr. flyweight or flyweight. At flyweight, there was no battle with Estrada.
There could have been.
At Jr. flyweight, Ioka briefly overlapped with Gonzalez as a WBA sub-titlist while Gonzalez was the WBA’s primary champion. His team seemed at the time to convey they didn’t think their charge was quite ready for Gonzalez yet. They were probably right. At flyweight, the same thing occurred while Estrada was both primary WBA titlist while also holding the WBO belt. It made sense only as part of a economy of WBA belts that allowed fighters to make money on their respective islands alone where at another time the mandatory situation could have forced a fight.
Regardless of reasons, the fights didn’t happen then.
They haven’t happened since.
It’s not too late to rectify that. Fans waited almost a decade for a rematch between Gonzalez and Estrada and their wait was rewarded with a breathtaking classic. Estrada remains the lineal king at Jr. bantamweight, if mired in more than a year of inactivity, while both Gonzalez and now Ioka have looked excellent in their most recent outings.
While it might not be too late, the clock is certainly ticking.
Estrada-Gonzalez III may ultimately be the destination in 2022 if Estrada’s mandatory WBA title defense against Joshua Franco implodes for good. It’s unclear what direction things will go there. If it does end up being Estrada-Franco, and with hot young WBC titlist Jesse Rodriguez now booked for Israel Gonzalez in September, Ioka and Gonzalez could be without dance partners.
The timing has never been better and this era will be incomplete without the fight. It might never be as complete as it should be. Ioka, Gonzalez, and Nietes have all won belts in the same four weight classes as peers. At 40, and coming off the loss to Ioka, Gonzalez-Nietes may forever be out of reach. Ioka-Gonzalez is not. Now 35, Gonzalez (51-3, 41 KO) was last seen tuning up the much younger WBC flyweight titlist Julio Cesar Martinez.
It was similar in its level of schooling to what Ioka did to undefeated Kosei Tanaka in 2020.
Gonzalez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Ioka probably has the credentials for Canastota at this point but there is still room to grow his case. Gonzalez-Ioka is one of the best fights we haven’t seen yet and a fight that would fit in perfectly with what has been a banner year for the sport.
If there isn’t a richer option for either man, there won’t be a better option for the sport in the second half of this year than a showdown a decade in the making.
There is no time like the present for this one.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org