Sidney Boquiren takes a look at the dilemma facing Japanese based American boxer Charlie Ota (story continued after the jump). For more Japanese boxing updates, you can follow Sidney on twitter: RingwalkNippon@Twitter
Japan has a long tradition of offering world-class talent to boxing, primarily the sport's lower weight classes. Currently, five of the nation's top fighters hold world titles and thirteen** are listed in Ring Magazine's ranking among the bottom nine divisions. However, super featherweight seems to be the limit as not a single Japanese name is to be found in the ratings north of 130. Junior welterweight Yoshihiro Kamegai may lead a group of bigger Japanese prospects, but it will be a while even for the standout Teiken blue chip to crack the world rankings. The domestic front above 140, in particular, seems to be stagnant – particularly due to a lack of quality competition – but also as the top names have seen better days in lower weights.
So what do you do if you are Charles Bellamy?
The American junior middleweight, better known as Charlie Ota (17-1-1, 12KO), is the present owner of both the Japanese and regional OPBF titles. For those readers who did not catch the long interview at The Boxing Bulletin last year, Ota is a former US Navy serviceman that made Japan his permanent residence after finishing his tour. Based in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, the 29-year old had a late start in the sport. However, in the brief five-years since his debut in 2006, he is on the verge of converting what was once a hobby into a potential career.
With an amateur record consisting of just seven bouts, the naturally athletic Ota made due in his earlier fights on the strength of his physical abilities. But in the past couple of years, the Maryland native has shown exceptional improvement in the ring, honing his craft to become a better well-rounded and versatile boxer-puncher. An arduous student of the sport, not only has Ota refined his technique, he appears to be much more relaxed in the ring, showing better method and patience in his assault.
Fellow national champion Nihito Arakawa described his gymmate’s progress as "exponential," while a local veteran boxing writer expressed amazement at the skills Ota has shown in recent performances.
Ota’s expanding arsenal makes him a threat with both hands.
(Photo courtesy of Bushido Boxing)
Unfortunately, without a foil of comparable ability, it has been difficult to judge Ota’s true level of talent. The champ has already twice beaten the most popular fighter in the weight class, former three-division titleholder Tadashi Yuba (38-7-2, 28KO). The JBC’s top rated contender at the moment, Akio Shibata (16-6-1, 8KO), is the man that Ota stopped in March 2010 to claim his current throne. This January, Ota sent former OPBF welterweight king Taisei Marumoto to retirement after pummeling the slugger for six one-sided frames.
If a shortage of respectable opponents was not enough, to compound Ota’s predicament, simply getting anyone to sign a contract has proven to be a difficult task.
"I take whatever I can get. I see some guys who can fight whoever they want. They pick this guy or that guy. They can pick and choose their battles. I have never been able to choose my opponent. Even now, even though I’m the champion, it’s still that way. I have to ask them if they want to fight the champion."
Ota’s frustration is understandable.
The biggest name in Japan at 154 is, of course, Nobuhiro Ishida. Attempts by Ota’s handlers to set up something with the former interim WBA champ in the past were unsuccessful. After Ishida’s unexpected one round drubbing of James Kirkland, a shot is even more unlikely.
Yuki Nonaka (21-8-2, 7KO), who once held the titles that Ota now possesses, breathed new life into his career by beating previously undefeated Ukrainian Dmytro Nikulin last September. The thirty-three year old veteran was given a top ten ranking by the WBA for his upset but has done very little since. Ota and company have tried to work out a contract with him to little avail.
So it is that the American proceeds with his career matched with aging warriors and mandatory opponents. Ota longs for the opportunity to test himself against top flight competition.
"There’s a lot of good guys in the 154-pound division worldwide. I’m just trying to get my foot in the door (to set up bigger fights)."
Ota’s motivation is unwavering - he sees that he needs to keep plugging along in order to create opportunities. Whereas a couple of years ago, the champ viewed boxing as a hobby and was curious to see how far he could go in the ring, his current goals are much more focused. Ota clearly states that he is targeting a world title shot and, despite the less than inspiring roster of opponents, continues to go to work in order to inch toward that goal.
Tonight, Ota will have to come to the ring with that motivation as he is set to face Shibata for a second time. The American will be a heavy favorite, but the challenger presents a style that could pose problems for the incumbent. Yuba found success by employing a hit-and-run strategy in his rematch with Ota this year, and the champ should expect that Shibata will also don his track shoes when they meet in a few hours.
Yuba gave the champ more problems than expected in their rematch, but Ota finally caught up with the veteran in the ninth round.
(Photo courtesy of Bushido Boxing)
While this writer will be one of the first to testify to the improvement in skills Ota has made in the past few years, the champ has not always shown the ability to implement skills learned in the gym to an official contest. Certainly an opponent that is unwilling to come forward or stand his ground limits the styles and techniques that one is able to use. However, until Ota shows that he can effectively cut off the ring and use better position himself to set up punches, elusive/unwilling opponents will always have a shot at outrunning the champ to a decision.
Should Ota take care of business tonight – and he should – he is currently scheduled to make a quick return to the ring next month, as he has been booked to take part in festivities at the US Army base in Zama. While journeyman Yoshihisa Tonimura probably will not be much more than another name to add to his list of victims, the fight gives Ota a good opportunity for exposure in front of American boxing fans.
Beyond the Tonimura fight, unless Ota’s team is able to secure a date with Ishida or Nonaka, Teiken-promoted Daisuke Nakagawa (17-2-2, 13KO), a former welterweight strapholder, is the only person in Japan who might be an interesting dance partner for Ota. On the business end, it could be a decent deal as the showdown could be placed on the undercard of one of Teiken’s world titleholder’s defenses. However, at 33-years old and with a history of injury, one questions whether the veteran has the durability and the motivation to challenge the younger Ota.
Ota’s handlers at Hachioji Nakaya Gym, seeing that their charge’s options at home are becoming more and more limited, are working on plans that could make 2012 the year the American breaks out into the international scene. Moving down in weight (the champ usually gives up several inches in height every fight) and fighting abroad are two options.
While there will be question marks as Ota looks to make a step up in competition, he has already cleared out his division domestically. The fighter believes he is ready for anyone in the top ten, and while this writer feels that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it would be interesting to see him in an ESPN or Telefutura-level fight as an introduction to international competition. If he takes care of business tonight and next month, Ota could very well be in good position to make that kind of a move for his next appearance.
**This number includes Malcolm Tunacao, who campaigns - at least part time - in the land of the rising sun, but does not include Takefumi Sakata, who is rated but has officially retired in Japan.
Note on tonight’s card
The promoter of tonight’s show at Korakuen Hall, Hachioji Nakaya Gym, posted on their website that Yuriorkis Gamboa unfortunately will not be able to spar with Japanese lightweight strapholder Nihito Arakawa due to promotional issues. Gamboa will be in attendance as a spectator but will not be in action.
For more coverage of Japanese boxing, follow Sidney on Twitter: RingwalkNippon@Twitter