After a painful, testing 2020 comes some light relief from inside the Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo. The dust may have already settled on the annual Bad Left Hook awards, but, on face value, Tanaka-Ioka is a real sleeper for a genuine Fight of the Year contender with the WBO version of the 115-pound strap up for grabs.
Kosei Tanaka (15-0, 9 KO) is the mandatory challenger for Kazuto Ioka’s (25-2, 14 KO) title having previously held the same title at mini-flyweight, junior-flyweight and flyweight since turning over in 2013. The 25-year-old is making a real splash in Japan and is targeting a changing of the guard against his countryman who has held the title since the summer of 2019.
Ioka has been keen to push the buttons of Tanaka in the lead up to this end of year showdown. Talking to the world’s media upon the fight being announced, the 31-year-old declared that he “wasn’t particularly impressed” by anything the challenger does inside the ring and that he is “ready to show the difference in skill and technical level” between himself and the “Monster of Chukyo”.
I caught up with Tanaka this week through help and translation from his manager, and the challenger is in high spirits just over two weeks out from a Japanese mega-fight.
“New Year’s Eve in 2020 will be an unforgettable day for Ioka, even if he wants to forget it,” he tells me cooly, with a cold glint in his eye. Tanaka is unbeaten as a professional and is quickly building a reputation in the West. Naoya Inoue has crossed over into the mainstream having gatecrashed the pound-for-pound rankings, and Tanaka believes he will be the next to enjoy similar recognition.
Tanaka’s childhood was hampered by illness. He suffered from Perthes disease aged six and was forced to wear a leg brace to help the blood flow to his femur. Bullying from classmates followed and proved an obvious incentive for him to begin crafting his art in karate. Tanaka is reluctant to divulge much further information on his troubled youth but believes that his success in karate gave him a combat base to thrive as a boxer.
2020 has been a struggle for everyone. Tanaka, also, but he’s used it as a time of self-reflection. “I’ve had more time to look at myself,” he explained. “In that sense, it was an exciting year even if I didn’t get a fight. I’ve changed my outlook on what’s important, but also added things to my boxing technique that I haven’t previously had the time to do.
“I’m very well prepared for this fight on December 31,” he continued. Ioka shared the New Year’s Eve billing with Tanaka last year in a successful defence over Jeyvier Cintron, enabling the youngster to take a closer look at his future foe. “Ioka does various things well,” he admitted. “He fights with good control of the distance that he has managed to develop over years of experience. His body attacks are impressive, also, and he’s always shown real heart in battle. Ioka is a man of pride.”
Tanaka tells me he has managed to get some good sparring to mimic the style of Ioka and is highly motivated to get the job done on a historic evening for boxing in Japan.
Known as the “face of boxing in Chukyo”, questions have been asked of Tanaka’s hunger to sign with a ‘bigger’ more established gym in the future, perhaps in Tokyo, Hyogo or Osaka. He tells me there is “no motivation” to move gyms in the near future and is happily building his fierce reputation in Nagoya.
Instead of a move within Japan, Tanaka is eyeing the United States of America for future success. “I’d love to go overseas to expand my opportunities in the future,” he tells me, adding a desire to also fight one day in the United Kingdom – perhaps just to please me. But there is no doubt who he wants to face if such an opportunity would arise in 2021.
“I want to fight Juan Francisco Estrada. With a recognised name like that on my record, I will be able to get more respect in the pound-for-pound rankings for sure. At the moment the best win of my career was in 2018 against Sho Kimura (MD-12) for the WBO flyweight title, but I am hungry for more defining nights.”
Wrapping things up, I ask Tanaka if there is a pressure to fight with an exciting style. His reputation is fast-growing as a “must-see” attraction, but to him, it’s all-natural. “I feel no pressure to perform. It’s just natural for me to fight this way. I am naturally exciting and always put on a show.”
If Tanaka’s career trajectory continues at its current pace, the 25-year-old will be turning heads across the globe over the next couple of years.
Don’t blink. Don’t miss it.