By Jake Donovan
Shinsuke Yamanaka was given the toughest test of his career in his previous title defense and was considered fortunate to prevail.
All he had to do this time around was climb off the canvas to retain his title. The reigning bantamweight champ did just that, recovering from a pair of 3rd round knockdowns to twice drop Venezuela's Liborio Solis en route to a 12-round decision Friday evening in Kyoto, Japan.
For years, Yamanaka has served the de facto king in a bantamweight division that hasn't claimed a true lineal champion since 1987. The unbeaten southpaw has held a title since Nov. '11, tearing through opposition largely on the strength of his natural punching power.
It helped him surge ahead in an otherwise stiff challenge from former 115 lb. titlist Suriyan Sor Rungvisai in Oct. '14, but proved ineffective against the crafty ex-bantamweight champ Anselmo Moreno last September. Many considered Yamanaka to have benefited from generous scoring in escaping with a split decision and his unbeaten record and title still intact.
Nothing was left to chance in his first fight back, with Yamanaka immediately forcing the action against his visiting challenger. The last time Solis came to Japan, he missed weight by more than two pounds and was forced to leave his title at the scales in an eventual 12-round win over Daiki Kameda in Dec. '13.
On this particular night, Solis was forced to rally from an early deficit. The former 115 lb. champ struggled to keep pace with Yamanaka in round one and found himself at odds with referee Ian John Lewis over a knockdown call in round two.
Realizing his brief protest fell on deaf ears, Solis fought like a man who knew a knockout was the only way to win.
Yamanaka had only been on the canvas once before - trading knockdowns with Christian Esquivel before ultimately scoring an 11th round knockout to begin his bantamweight title reign in Nov. '11. Solis doubled down on that, putting the defending champ on the canvas twice in round three.
A right hand shot put Yamanaka on the deck, spending most of the round trying to regain his senses against a relentless Solis. A second knockdown in that same frame suddenly turned a rout into a dead-even fight.
Then came the bell.
Whatever shot Solis had at pulling off a monumental upset disappeared once the worst round of Yamanaka's career came to a close. The defending champ put his ego aside, realizing that skills and speed were the right tools for the job on this particular night.
A main event that began as a rout that turned into a coin-toss matchup returned to the lopsided fight that most expected. It was never from a lack of trying on Solis' part, as he tried in vain to force an aggressive pace over the long haul.
Yamanaka took a few lumps as a result, but remained on his feet and - for the most part - at his desired distance for the duration of the contest. A one-point lead through four rounds (37-36 on all three cards, as revealed through open scoring) grew into a five point lead by the end of round eight.
Realizing a knockout was his only shot, Solis turned up the intensity in round nine. It had an adverse effect, as he was sent to the canvas for the second time in the fight. However questionable the call, it removed any chance of his winning, save for a miracle shot to either stop Yamanaka or ignite a rally that would leave him defenseless.
Solis threw enough right hands to make that happen against a lesser opponent. Yamanaka was resourceful enough to avoid getting caught with anything fight-altering. also landing enough straight left hands to minimize and offset any damage.
Yamanaka could have danced around the ring in the final three minutes and cruised his way to victory. Instead, he chose to stand his ground and prove that he is in fact the best bantamweight in the world.
It made for a thrilling conclusion, with both boxers trading bombs until the final bell.
Solis didn't stand a chance on the scorecards, but was at least provided a fighting chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It never happened, of course, as scores of 117-107 came in across the board for Yamanaka, who racks up his 10th title defense, improving to 25-0-2 (17KOs).
Valiant in defeat, Solis nevertheless comes up short in efforts to win a title in a second weight class. He falls to 23-4-1 (10KOs) as a result, the loss snapping a 14-fight win streak dating back to 201l.
The bout aired live on Nippon TV in Japan. In the televised chief support, Ganigan Lopez powered his way to a 12-round title winning effort over exiting junior flyweight champ Yu Kimura.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox