The strong tradition of New Year’s Eve boxing in Japan continued in 2020, with a fantastic main event that saw Kazuto Ioka stop Kosei Tanaka in the eighth round to retain the WBO 115-pound title.
Ioka (26-2, 15 KO) became Japan’s first-ever four-division titlist when he won the then-vacant WBO junior bantamweight belt in 2019, beating Aston Palicte six months after a controversial loss for the same belt against Donnie Nietes in Macau. Like Ioka, Tanaka had already won belts at 105, 108, and 112 coming into this bout, and was hoping to add a fourth division to his record, but it was not to be.
The 25-year-old Tanaka (15-1, 9 KO) fought well in many ways, and he and the 31-year-old Ioka were pretty much nip-and-tuck through four rounds. Tanaka wanted to be the aggressor, and he had success with that, but Ioka stayed calm, worked off of a good jab, and was also working hard to counter and time Tanaka, particularly with left hooks.
The hooks were, indeed, the difference. Tanaka went down late in the fifth round on a counter left hook, and was dropped again with about a minute left in the sixth. Tanaka fought really hard in the seventh to try and slow Ioka’s momentum, but he was blasted yet again with a counter left hook midway into the eighth round, and referee Michiaki Someya caught Tanaka before he could fall, calling an end to the fight. It was the right decision; Tanaka was out on his feet and the referee was holding him up. If he’d gone to the canvas, Someya would have been right to just stop the fight, so basically all he saved Tanaka was a fall.
After the bout, Tanaka congratulated Ioka, showing great respect for the titleholder, and received a deserved applause from the crowd. He dared to chase another belt here, went after a really good fighter at a higher weight, and just came up short in a very good fight. Tanaka will be back. He could, in theory, drop back down to 112, but he’s kind of been there and done that. I’d expect him to look to rebound at 115, but I could be wrong, of course.
As for Ioka, he has probably not received all of the respect and press he’s deserved over the years outside of Japan. Part of that is he’s mostly fought in Japan and time zones and lack of availability for live viewing keep the American media at bay for the most part — including us, this is no shot at anyone else — but with that sort of thing expanding more and becoming more widely available, future Japanese fighters are likely going to enjoy the admiration he sometimes has not. But Ioka is a fantastic fighter, has been hugely successful in his pro career, and I know maybe this sounds wild because he hasn’t been a big-time star, but he already has his argument for the Hall of Fame. Not saying he’s a lock or shoo-in, but he’;s won world titles in four weight classes and is still competing at a very high level.
Daigo Higa KO-5 Yuki Strong Kobayashi
Entertaining fight while it lasted, but it was mostly one-way traffic. Higa (17-1-1, 17 KO) is a former WBC flyweight titlist who missed weight and then lost his belt via stoppage to Cristofer Rosales in 2018, and last time out in October, he struggled through a 10-round draw against Seiya Tsutsumi.
This time, he was his old, aggressive self, shaking Kobayashi (16-9, 9 KO) early in the first round and winning every round on our card until the end, and the official judges all had it the same.
But Kobayashi, 29, was a tough dude, and took a lot of big shots, notably clean right uppercuts. Starting in the second, he did his best to stand his ground, and he landed some because Higa, 25, is defensively leaky.
But the big stuff was mostly from Higa, the stuff that was doing clear damage, and he finished things with a double right uppercut. It was the money punch for him for four rounds and it ended things in a hell of a KO.
It seemed for a bit that maybe Higa just doesn’t have the power at 118 that he had at 112 — and he probably doesn’t have 100 percent of it — but he can definitely crack still. Will he be a serious contender at bantamweight? Time will tell, this was the first time in a few fights that he looked like the pre-Rosales version of Higa. Basically, I think at 118 Higa’s quality may vary from fight to fight and opponent to opponent, but I’m also never going to argue with watching him fight at this point. He’s great fun when he’s on his game.