Cards on the table: I’m no boxing historian, but I am fairly certain you’ll be hard-pushed to name too many contests in our sport between two four-weight world champions. And even if you can, fights involving Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao will be doing most of your heavy lifting.
Sure, recognising a “champion” in boxing is becoming a more arduous and conflicting assignment as sanctioning bodies continue to run roughshod over common-sense, but you’d be a braver person than I am to disregard the admission of both Kazuto Ioka (28-2, 15 KO) and Donnie Nietes (43-1-6, 23 KO) into this exclusive club.
The pair of now-115 lb fighters are deep in preparations for their rematch on July 13, as Ioka puts his WBO junior bantamweight title on the line in Japan. It’s the same title Nietes won (when it was vacant) against the Japanese fighter in their first bout in 2018, a controversial victory for the the Filipino.
Nietes would retire following that victory, which secured his spot as a four-weight world champion, only to return in 2021 at age 38, beating Pablo Carillo and drawing with Norbelto Jimenez over 10 rounds.
Revenge is on the mind of Ioka as he tussles for top spot in the competitive division, and confidence is brimming from the camp of the 33-year-old as he speaks to Bad Left Hook from Tokyo.
“Right now, I am in the best and strongest condition of my career,” Ioka tells me.
“I am training at my own gym called SHISEI Boxing Gym in Tokyo, so I’m very comfortable while keeping the camp very challenging. Also, I have [trainer] Ismael Salas via video conference going over details of all my spar and training along with my trainer here, [Shuhei] Sasaki.”
It’ll be over three-and-a-half years between the 12th and 13th rounds in the Ioka-Nietes rivalry by the time they enter the ring, and Ioka believes this gap will favour him as the younger fighter.
“Many things have changed since 2018,” he explains. “For me, 2018 was a year I was coming off my retirement and I was training in Las Vegas. Since then, I have become a father to my son, Manato, and my preparation now involves my family. So my focus and responsibility to be at my best is at its highest level in my life. I am much stronger and better than I was in the first fight with Nietes.”
Ioka has gone unbeaten since that second blot on his career record, defending the WBO title four times after winning it — when it once again went vacant — against Aston Palicte in 2019. A win against Jeyvier Cintron followed, but it was a KO win in 2020 over the highly-touted Kosei Tanaka that turned the most heads in the division.
Ioka is respectful of challenges of all shapes and sizes that come his way, and holds no ill feeling towards Nietes despite the controversy surrounding their first fight.
“I never felt any grudge against Nietes,” he added. “I’ve always had high respect for him as a fellow four-division world champion. Although, I feel that both of us did not dominate that fight or hurt each other, and never did I feel that I lost that fight.
“Nietes is a top-tier fighter and I expect him to be in peak condition for this fight as he is a professional. It’s hard to pinpoint any real weaknesses in the game of Nietes, but I do feel that I took his best punnches three-and-a-half years ago, and I feel that I have taken much stronger punches since then while winning and defending the WBO belt. So, I believe I can exploit this by not just by countering, but by being aggressive also.”
Ioka is no spring chicken himself at the age of 33, as the body battles the strain of another long and arduous training camp. The marginal gains he chases down may well be mental rather than physical this time around.
“I have always worked hard on my condition, speed, and power, as well as training mentally to be intelligent in the ring during the fight,” he explains. “So, if I had to say one thing that I have focused on specifically this time around, it would be working on the mental aspect of a fight. My fighting style is not based on one-punch power but pinpoint attacks, so we’ve also been working on that.
“I am lucky to be 28-2 and become a four-division world champion, so I have nothing in mind that points to one thing to improve on in camp. But I am always striving to become a better boxer in general as I get deeper into my career.”
The 115 lb landscape is fascinating. The top ten junior bantamweights are littered with talent and Ioka sees himself at the very top alongside esteemed company.
“I see myself lined up with [Juan Francisco] Estrada, Chocolatito, and [Srisaket] Sor Rungvisai,” he says. “But Estrada is probably the biggest challenge because simply he has proven to be the best in this division over the last few years. It just seems hard for him and I to get together for a fight.
“Also, of course, I have the highest respect for Roman Gonzalez and his skills are always going to be a challenge for any fighter. Sor Rungvisai presents unbelievable power; in boxing, that is always challenging to go up against.
Ioka is keen to express his reluctance to overlook Nietes, but he can’t resist a hypothetical look into the future.
“I would like to fight a unification fight next,” he adds. “So, whoever has the other belts would be my preference. Of course, I would never overlook Nietes, so first I must prove that I am who I am: the WBO 115 lb champion.”