It’s not often that “exciting” and “top quality” go hand-in-hand in boxing, but two of the world’s best strawweights managed to marry the two on Wednesday in Japan.
Kazuto Ioka unified the WBA and WBC 105-pound world titles with a hard-fought victory over Akira Yaegashi by scores of 115-114 and 115-113 (twice).
Die-hard boxing fans had the bout circled on their calendars for months with the hopes that the sharpshooting Ioka and hard-charging Yaegashi would produce fireworks, and they were not disappointed. The contest played out exactly how the scouting report suggested it would.
In the early going, Ioka (10-0, 6 knockouts) tested the waters of being the aggressor, but the roles were quickly reversed to appease the suggested plot. Yaegashi (15-3, 8 KOs) appeared to be the warmer of the two at the opening bell, letting his hands go with more regularity than his younger opponent, who was happy to wait and counter.
Ultimately, it was a counter right hand that appeared to be the difference maker. Yaegashi’s eye started to swell grotesquely in the third round, and seemed to be all but closed by the fifth round. No indication was ever made by referee Yuji Fukuchi of anything other than a punch producing the damage, so arguably the world’s best little action fighter went into desperation mode immediately.
With his eye ballooning by the second, the 29-year-old Yokohama resident, appeared to take the fifth round on sheer hustle. However, as his activity picked up, Ioka rose to the occasion and took advantage of the increasing number of counter opportunities, and his opponent’s depleting vision for the remainder of the fight.
Despite the gruesome swelling, there could have been an argument for the valiant warrior in most rounds. One of the Tokyo Broadcasting System’s ringside scorers even saw the bout in his favor. One does have to wonder if the result might have been any different if Yaegashi had full vision, and wasn’t forced to slip exclusively to his right to compensate for his closed eye.
To suggest that the result was entirely contingent upon the condition of Yaegashi’s eye would be to ignore a fine performance by Ioka, though.
In just his 10th professional fight, the 23 year old dealt with the resolve and pressure of not just an elite strawweight, but his own hometown crowd in Osaka chanting his opponent’s name instead. Despite the fervent approach of Yaegashi, Ioka stood firm and never strayed from his jab from the outside or a solid left hook to the body in close.
This was the first time two Japenese world champions had met in a unification bout, and was generally regarded as one of the most important events in the sport’s history in Japan.
In commemoration, prior to the main event, former bantamweight titlists Joichiro Tatsuyoshi and Yasuei Yakushiji were honored. The two met in 1994 when Yakushiji held the WBC’s strap and Tatsuyoshi adorned the sanctioning body’s “interim” strap.
Given the thrilling nature of the fight and its perceived success in Japan, a rematch would certainly be welcome. However, if Ioka, THE RING’s No. 2 strawweight were to meet No. 1 Nkosinathi Joyi, it would be the first time a RING strawweight champion has been named since the 105-pound division’s inception in 1987.
Photo / AFP
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