Kumamoto Japan’s favorite son, former WBO mini-flyweight champion and current WBC #9 ranked minimumweight Tatsuya Fukuhara (20-6-6, 7 KOs), returns to action this Sunday (July 29th) as he takes on countryman Naoya Haruguchi (15-8, 6 KOs) in an eight round fight in his hometown of Kumamoto, Japan. Although ranked in the top ten by the WBC, the former WBO champion is not rated in any other sanctioning organization, something that a dominant win over Haruguchi could rectify. However, few are counting out the cagy 29-year old from Kagoshima. Haruguchi has won seven of his last eight fights, with his only loss coming by way of majority decision to former world title challenger Riku Kano back in November of 2017. Fukuhara, who is keen on positioning himself back into the WBO rankings for a potential clash with newly crowned champion Vic Saludar, also recognizes that a loss could effectively end his run as a contender and would almost certainly close the book on a potential clash with the young Filipino champion.
In the co-main event Dr. Tomoya Ikeda (5-2-1, 4 KOs) will take on one of his toughest opponents to date as he steps in with the undefeated 21-year old Kazuki Nakazono (3-0-2, 3 KOs). The 21-year old prospect is seen as the favorite over the medical doctor, who at 36-years old is admittedly running out of time for a serious run in boxing. But Dr. Ikeda’s compelling personal story, which included volunteer work with an NGO in Afghanistan, has made him one of the most popular fighters in Southern Japan. Even in Japan it is rare to find a prizefighter who co-authored a highly cited medical report such as Dr. Ikeda’s December 2016 report on “Age estimation by ossification of thyroid cartilage of Japanese males using Bayesian analysis of postmortem CT images.”
Rounding off the card is popular super bantamweight Yuki Hirashima (8-2-1, 2 KOs) squaring off against South Korean veteran Jong-Won Jung (5-6-1, 3 KOs). Jung will be stepping in the ring for the first time since April of 2013.
The fight card will take place at the City Sogo Gym in Kumamoto, Japan. Doors open at 11:30 with the fight fight kicking off at noon. Tickets start at 5,000 yen.
There are tough towns, and there are tough towns. Places that just make you think of gritty, hard, salt of the earth type of people who eat adversity for breakfast.
Philadelphia. Detroit. Barrow, Alaska.
I know, I know. Japan doesn’t feed into the narrative of a hard and resilient place. Sure you can get free katana lessons in Nikko, which is pretty badass, but free katana lessons aside, it tends not to fit that narrative. And Kumamoto, Japan doesn’t exactly sell it self as a city full of some of the toughest SOBs you’ll ever meet. It’s like most Japanese cities. Clean, polite, and hospitable. They even adopted a loveable bear as their mascot, and oddly enough this bear has become something of a national phenomenon. Needless to say, you could almost picture the scowl on Clint Eastwood’s face when you first see Kumamon the Bear.
But underneath it all is a city that has proved itself more then able to step up in the face of adversity. A city of hard ass people who refused to be held down. A city, dare I say, of champions.
I know this may feel forced, but stay with me here…
I was in Japan for the second time in 2017 when I flew out to cover the WBO mini-flyweight world title fight between Tatsuya Fukuhara and Ryuya Yamanaka. I had been in Japan in February, to cover the Fukuhara-Moises Calleros fight, and it was moment that left an indelible mark on me as a boxing journalist. And it was my first introduction to the city of Kumamoto, which was recovering from a devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake just ten months prior. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, I’ve been to cities on the mend before and Kumamoto (I assumed) would be similar. But Kumamoto showed me something…something special. The city rallied behind their contender, Tatsuya Fukuhara. He became the face of the city, overcoming adversity. Made homeless by the earthquake, Fukuhara became a symbol of the resiliency of the city and seemed to exemplify it in his career. He did well early in his career, going undefeated in his first seven fights. But as the competition got tougher the losses started peppering his record and in December of 2013 it looked like the Cinderella story was over: he lost a lopsided six round decision to a debuting fighter named Takuma Inoue. I had covered boxing for many years, since 2000, and I could not recall an instance where a fighter clawed his way back from such an inglorious loss. Contenders don’t lose to rookies. Period. There is a reason why Olympians never fight for world titles in their first fight or even take on ranked fighters in their first fight (Vasyl Lomachenko aside). Because it is a recipe for disaster. Fukuhara lost to a kid who never even fought before as a pro. How could any fighter bounce back from something like that?
But I digress, this isn’t a boxing story…it’s about the city of Kumamoto.
Fukuhara would go on to win the world title in February of 2017 in a fight that could have been featured in the movie Rocky. I got my first taste of Japan, and of Kumamoto, that month and with the newly crowned champion making his first defense of his belt I had the opportunity to go back. I was back in Kumamoto to witness the comeback kid, and the comeback city, push the envelope just a little further. I was back to see if the city that lost to a rookie only to win the world title could continue to overcome the odds.
I bumped into referee Eddie Claudio and judge Carlos Ortiz Jr. at the airport waiting for a connecting flight out of Tokyo and we were soon picked up by Loren Goodman, an American poet who relocated to Japan and then Korea and who was working closely with the promoter of the fight: Mr. Kenya Honda of Honda Fitness Boxing Gym. Interestingly enough, my arrival in Kumamoto had me staying in the nearby suburb: Yatsushiro. I would spend a few days in the Select Royal Yatsushiro. I already discovered that I have something of a love-hate relationship with hotels in Japan. I love the service, hospitality, and cleanliness. But I hate the fact that I’m six inches too tall and fifty pounds too heavy for everything in the country. But the Select Royal was very much on the love end of the spectrum. The room, while still small by American standards, was positively spacious by Japanese standards and the continental breakfast was absolutely incredible. Judge Eddie Claudio was a great travel partner as he proved to be very adventurous and he was determined to try a staple breakfast of Japan: Nattō, or fermented soybeans. His adventurism was contagious and after some lighthearted assurances from Loren, I decided to try what I was told was the best way to eat nattō…on rice with a raw egg.
After the raw meat in Ethiopia I think fermented soybeans shouldn’t have had me so skittish, particularly considering I’m half Korean, but to the westerner it takes some getting use to the smell (which I would compare to rotten eggs). But hey, If Eddie Claudio was willing to jump in head first then who was I to back down. Besides, what sort of boxing writer would I be if I didn’t try raw eggs once in my life.
I ended up enjoying the Goodman Special, a name I gave to the breakfast of nattō on rice topped with a raw egg (since I would discover it wasn’t really a common breakfast in Japan after all but rather a personal favorite of Loren) and decided I would stick with it for the duration of my time in Japan, although I couldn’t really say if I liked nattō since the raw egg sort of covered the taste up.
With breakfast behind me and a morning to kill before we went to the weigh-in I decided to explore Yatsushiro and get a quick run in to start off my day. I was not sure where I was going, but I figured a short run of a little under a mile would give me a chance to see a little bit of the city. To my delight, I stumbled on the Yatsushiro Castle Ruins, which was an awesome and unexpected discovery.
The ruins were enough to get me to end my morning run and enjoy the tranquility of the uncrowded site, and I spent about half an hour just wandering around before I made my way back to the hotel.
From there we caught a shuttle and made our way to the Shiroyama Sky Dome in Ashikita-gun, where the fight would take place that weekend. It was a scenic drive of around thirty minutes and I realized that the venue would be an ideal one for boxing. Although somewhat far and out of the way, it was a nice sized auditorium that that would be perfect for capturing the energy of the event. And located on top of a hill overlooking the town it also provided me some stunning views while we waited for the event to kick off.
We entered the small stadium next to the arena where the press conference was to be held and were soon greeted by Kumamon, who seemed to me out of place in a boxing press conference. Boxing press conferences tend to be case studies in hypermasculinity, where threats and posturing are the norm. Even the drama free press conference featuring low key fighters with mutual respect seem to have an aura of tension in the air. I always pictured it to be comparable to the banter across the front lines during the First World War. Sometimes there was real venom in the words. Sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes they joked and sometimes they threatened. But at the end of the day there was that unmistakable tension in the air. The acceptance that in the end their job was to neutralize each other. The acceptance that all the suffering and sacrifice would only bring one man victory. Even the personable former junior welterweight champion Victor Ortiz, who made the light-hearted press conference his forte, couldn’t quite shake the tension.
But I’ll be honest: for a few minutes…that bear pulled it off.
I had already discovered that Japanese boxing is just as prone to factionalism and politics as American boxing (to be honest, maybe more so). And I knew that there was no love loss between the two fighters, even if they were soft spoken and respectful. But at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if both Fukuhara and Yamanaka had stopped being soldiers trading barbs across the trenches before the final assault.
It was now time to make our way back to the hotel and I had the afternoon off after sending in my report on the press conference. I decided to explore the town of Yatsushiro a little more and I would discover what would quickly emerge as my favorite spot in Japan: Papa Yoko’s.
Don’t bother looking for it on Google. That was the name the American boxing crew affectionately gave to the small restaurant called Ran Kan. Ran Kan was a small family owned restaurant operated by one “Papa Yoko” who was about as welcoming as any restaurant owner I ever encountered. And he looked the part.
He was a smiling bear with a welcoming face and a friendly laugh whose house specialty was a variation of one of my favorite treats: shave ice. But as is often the case in Japan, they took something that was already amazing and cranked it up to eleven. Papa Yoko bought a high priced ice maker and used sweet milk as opposed to water. The end result was a sweet, fluffy snow like ice which he then covered with fresh fruit. The American in me could envision the marketing campaign in my head, hundreds of Papa Yoko’s popping up all over the country selling a superior snow cone and totally Starbucking the competition. Papa Yoko even looked like a marketing dream: one part Chef Boyardee and one part Colonel Sanders sprinkled with a touch of the “Where’s the Beef” lady. Of course I’m sure the marketing team would conclude that the inside of the restaurant wasn’t as inviting as Papa Yoko himself as it looked more like a cluttered living room rather than a restaurant…but in a moment that would run contrary to every episode I ever saw of Bar Rescue, it actually added to the appeal of the place.
We went ahead and ordered one of the shave ice specials and ended up so impressed that before long we ordered two more.
The place was such a hit with us that Papa Yoko even took our picture and put it up on his “Wall of Fame” next to a guy dressed as some sort of clown or something.
The following day was the day of the weigh-in, and again we took the shuttle to the Shiroyama Sky Dome in Ashikita-gun where this time I was able to take a selfie with what I assumed were the Japanese version of Civil War reenactors.
One of my favorite traditions with Japanese boxing was the dinner after the weigh-in. In the United States you are sometimes handed a voucher for a free buffet at the casino. When I covered the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey fight in Arlington Texas in 2010 the promoter (Bob Arum) had an awesome self service buffet in the press room with Texas brisket. But in Japan it’s something entirely different. In Japan you are treated to a feast unlike anything you could imagine. Fresh seafood (that at times is still moving) and a thankful promoter who makes the rounds pouring drinks for those in attendance. We were heading to have dinner but first we were going to tour the town of Ashikita first. We made a quick stop at the Jissho-ji Temple, a quiet and tranquil stop that we all enjoyed.
We then made a quick stop at the Sashiki Suwa Shrine, arguably the most famous site in the town. More than just a religious site, it also seconds as a place where young sumo wrestlers hone their skills in front of the shrine.
But now it was time for dinner. It was time for the time honored tradition of having the best meal of your life the day before the Japanese boxing show. We made it to the local restaurant where we were served some of the freshest sushi and best shrimp I ever had.
The following day was fight night, which I reported on here. With the fight now behind us we would relocate to Kumamoto where I would have a day to explore the city of champions. I spent my last day in Yatsushiro jogging through the town and stumbled across a few hidden gems including another temple and a face on the side of a building that brought back memories of the front of the truck from the movie Maximum Overdrive.
After jumping on the train to Kumamoto I quickly reached out to a friend I made on my previous visit to the city: Ayaka Ohzeki. I wanted to see Kumamoto from a locals perspective and I wanted to try the one dish that eluded me in my previous visit: basashi. She agreed to meet up that night and we made our way to a local hot spot famous for their raw horse meat. I had already had one bad experience with raw meat while travelling but I was determined not to pass up this opportunity. So I gave it a shot…
In the end I wasn’t exactly blown away. But hey, I can check raw horse meat off my list of weird foods I’ve tried while travelling.
Ayaka and I then toured the nightlife in Kumamoto and I won’t lie: I was surprised at how diverse it was. We stopped at Celts Irish Pub where I met Herve, a Haitian born bartender who had relocated to Kumamoto. It was something I wasn’t expecting to experience in Japan: here we were: and American of Korean descent hanging out with a Japanese of Korean descent at an Irish bar with a Haitian born bartender. It didn’t fit my image of the insular nation of Japan. It felt like something you’d experience in LA.
The next morning I decided to try and tour the city one more time. It was my second visit and the city proved full of surprises. But I had one more stop to make: Kumamoto Castle. I was close to the castle, my hotel was maybe a mile away. And I had several hours before I had to catch the bullet train to the airport. But I wanted to see how the castle repairs were going since the earthquake. And I wanted to experience the hustle and bustle of a weekday morning in Kumamoto. I decided to go for a jog to a favorite stop Loren had showed me: a French bakery in Kumamoto (did I mention how diverse the town was) and soon made my way up to the castle.
I could tell the Castle had come a long way since my last visit and I couldn’t help but feel sad. The fighter I had come to cover, Tatsuya Fukuhara, had lost his title and I realized there was a strong possibility that I would not be able to come out to Kumamoto again. Boxing is a fluid sport. There would be other fights and other cities but I somehow knew that this wasn’t going to be one of them.
But as I wandered to the nearby monument to Tane Tateki I suddenly realized that I was counting out both Fukuhara and Kumamoto. Tatsuya Fukuhara had bounced back from bigger setbacks than this…and Kumamoto had as well. The city was bustling and moving, and perhaps more importantly, it held itself up with an aura that you only find in champions. It didn’t look back. It didn’t dwell. It didn’t ask you to feel sorry. And it didn’t just pick up the pieces and move on. No. That’s not how champions roll. Kumamoto was showing us that it was the kind of place that only got stronger with each setback. The earthquake didn’t slow it down. Rather, it only showed the rest of the world what they already knew: this was an amazing city and no earthquake was about to change that. The setback put a magnifying glass on the city of Kumamoto and the city showed itself to be up to the challenge. It was a city whose resiliency was now forever weaved into the fabric of it’s identity. Kumamoto was a city that wasn’t going to let you forget it anytime soon.
I had to smile as I made my way back to the hotel. I realized as I saw the people of Kumamoto on their way to work that that the city of champions had gotten to me. I would be back.
Because I was a boxing writer…and deep down I knew that there was still a few great fights left in this city.
Boxing, like life, is often about being at the right place at the right time. And for popular Japanese minimumweight Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-5-6, 7 KOs), he is now very much in the right place. Just three months after the former WBO champion dropped his belt to countryman Ryo Yamanaka, Fukuhara is set to take on the biggest name in the 105-pound division: Thailand’s Wanheng Menayothin. Fukuhara is slated to take on the undefeated Thai champion on November 25th in Nakhon Ratchasima Thailand in a fight that could propel Fukuhara back on top of the minimumweight division.
After all, Menayouthin is arguably the most recognizable champion in boxing smallest weight division since Ricardo Lopez…thanks in part to a former heavyweight champion from Brockton, Massachusetts. Rocky Marciano’s record of 49-0 was thrust back into the spotlight when Floyd Meaweather took on Conor McGregor in a glorified exhibition match that saw “Money” improve his record to 50-0. It was enough to create interest in the little known Thai champion who himself was inching towards tying Marciano’s mythical record. But unlike Mayweather, who broke the record against a fighter making his professional debut, or even the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez (whose 50th fight was a non-title affair against a fighter with a 1-15 record) Menayothin seems determined to take on the toughest opponent out there for his 49th fight. Fukuhara is widely seen as one of the most dangerous fighters in the WBC rankings and although he will be stepping into hostile territory he nonetheless is regarded as a tough fighter who has the tools to give the Thai champion problems.
He also is keenly aware of the history of Japanese boxers stepping into the ring against Thai champions in Thailand.
“I’m aware of the situation, but I’m not worried about it.” Fukuhara said of fighting in Thailand. “I’m fighting to win. Out of the 22 times Japanese have fought in Thailand for world titles, we’ve got one win, one draw and 20 losses. My record in Thailand is one win, one draw.”
Nonetheless Fukuhara recognizes that there are some factors that may actually work in his favor.
“The matchmaker for this bout is the same one who matched the one world title bout when the Japanese boxer won,” Fukuhara added. “I have heard that the supervisor and one judge will also be coming from Japan. This is a big chance for me, so I’m going to put it all on the line. I’ve been training hard, and I’m excited. This is a big chance for me, and I’m going to win.”
Fukuhara may also have one other interesting historic factor working in his favor as well. When champions close in on the Marciano record, more often then not they stumble. Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes ran into Michael Spinks in his 49th fight. Former light heavyweight champion Dariusz Michalczewski was derailed by Julio Cesar Gonzalez in his 49th fight. Even former IBO champion Brian Nielsen stumbled in his quest to break Marciano’s record, getting stopped by Dickie Ryan in fight number 50. For world champions with 48 or 49 wins, unless they are fighting a journeyman with a 1-15 record or a debuting MMA fighter, they tend to stumble just as they close in on 50-0.
Still, titles are won in the ring and Fukuhara knows he will have his work cut out for him on November 25th.
“He’s a fighter, a slugger, so this is going to be a brawl.” Fukuhara added. “We are going to go at it. I’ve been training to increase my punching power.”
As Fukuhara showed in his WBO world title winning performance against Moises Calleros, a brawl is something that would suit him just fine…and more than likely it would suit boxing fans as well. After all, if a record of Marciano’s is going to be broken or derailed, it is just appropriate for it to be decided in a Rocky-esque slugfest.
I don’t want to gloat, but if you’ve been following my boxing reports here on The Finger Post, you’ll have noticed that we were first to predict two of the biggest developments in the lighter weight classes in October.
Well, it’s official. The Thai champion will go for his 49th victory against the Kumamoto native.
Then, on October 9th I speculated that during the WBO 30th Annual Congress we might see Isaac Dogboe or Marlon Tapales take on Cesar Juarez for a WBO interim belt. At the time Juarez was slated to fight Jessie Magdaleno, the WBO junior featherweight champion on November 11th but the fight was scrapped when Magdaleno was forced to bow out with an injury. Well, at the WBO Congress it was announced that Magdaleno would not be ready to defend his title in the near future and that Cesar Juarez would in fact be taking on the next available contender in a bid for the interim title.
If you haven’t already guessed by now, I’m a big fan of boxing’ smallest weight division. And I won’t lie; I’m a fan of Kumamoto’s Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-5-6, 7 KOs).
He’s a throwback: a fighter who wasn’t handed anything on the way up and clawed his way to a WBO world title thanks to grit, determination, and perseverance. He’s an exciting fighter whose fight with Moises Calleros was arguably one of the best 105-pound championship fights of all time. He may not have a flashy record, but in a way that only adds to his appeal. How many 18-4-6 fighters can you name who not only earned a title fight but then capitalized on it?
For Fukuhara, his loss to Ryuya Yamanaka last month ended his brief title reign, but there is already signs that the gritty former champion may have another shot at a world title before long. The latest WBC rankings have just been released and Fukuhara is currently ranked #10 in the world. This sets up an intriguing matchup that I for one would love to see: a clash between the former WBO champion and the reigning WBC minimumweight champion Chayaphon Moonsri, aka Wanheng Menayothin. Moonsri has an impressive record of 48-0, 17 KOs, but as it stands now he isn’t even ranked as the top fighter in the division. According to Boxrec.com that distinction goes to his countryman, WBA 105-pound champion Knockout CP Freshmart.
Nonetheless Moonsri is closing in on tying Rocky Marciano’s mark of 49-0 and may surpass Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0 by early 2018. He does show a fondness for non-title fights to pad his record (his last fight was a six rounder against journeyman Jack Amisa back on August 25th. But for fight 49 and 50 he would be better served fighting a higher profile fight and as it stands now Fukuhara fits the bill better than anyone else in the top ten. A former champion with a reputation for fireworks is just the kind of fight that could have the world paying attention as the undefeated Thai champion attempts to tie one of boxing’s most prestigious records. Here’s hoping for one more title fight for the Kumamoto native. In the end the biggest winner of a Moonsri-Fukuhara fight will be the sport of boxing.
If there is one piece of advice I would give to an aspiring boxing writer it’s this: go to as many locations to see fights. Every country has a it’s own special relationship with the Sweet Science, and you often learn more about a place by watching their fight fans then you often can by visiting their tourist sites.
And nobody does boxing quite like the Japanese. There is a natural politeness and organization in Japan that surprises the Westerner. But for fight fans it’s not just the politeness…it’s the special appreciation Japanese boxing fans seem to have towards the fighter. It’s a unique form of admiration: not as a warrior but as a master of his craft. They cheer when the fight turns into a crowd pleasing brawl, as boxing fans in Kumamoto did when Tatsuya Fukuhara and Moises Calleros engaged in one of the best mini-flyweight fights in recent memory back in February. But they also seem to appreciate the boxer who treats the ring not as a battlefield but as a chessboard. He is an artist and the ring is his canvas, and whereas the American fight fan might grow impatient with his mastery, the Japanese fight fan will often sit back and simply…appreciate.
And on August 27, 2017 boxing fans in Kumamoto were treated to a true artist of the ring: Kobe Japan’s Ryuya Yamanaka (15-2, 4 KOs). Yamanaka, the WBO #1 ranked contender at 105-pounds took on local boy Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-5-6, 7 KOs) the recently crowned WBO mini-flyweight champion and fellow chess master of the squared circle. It was a fight that promised to be less exciting that the one that preceded it, where Fukuhara brawled with Mexican contender Moises Calleros to win the vacant interim title. But in the end, it was intriguing in a different way. As the aggressive Fukuhara chased the fleet footed Yamanaka around the ring one thing was becoming clear: this was a chess match where neither man would be saying “checkmate.” This was a fight where a single jab here or a lone pawn there would be the deciding factor. This was a fight where every punch was going to count, even if it wasn’t as jarring as the heavy punches of the Mexican brawler from Monterrey who fought Fukuhara in February.
And in the end, it was the flashy Yamanaka who edged a close unanimous decision against the aggressive Fukuhara. All three judges had the fight for Yamanaka, by scores of 115-113 (Surat Soikrachang and Carlos Ortiz) and 116-112 (Salven Lagumbay). For the record TFP scored the fight 114-114, but with that being said I have no complaint about the official score. It was undoubtedly a fair decision on a close and competitive tactical fight. And in the end, the close rounds made the fight a difficult one to score. All three official judges were in agreement for only three rounds: round one (which all three gave to Fukuhara), round seven (which they all scored for Yamanaka) and round ten (which they also scored unanimously for Yamanaka).
Nonetheless, there was no question that Yamanaka boxed brilliantly and although majority of the rounds were won by the slimmest of margins, it was also clear that Yamanaka did frustrate the champion with his hand speed and defense.
The opening round immediately set the stage for the night as Yamanaka used his superior footwork to keep away from Fukuhara. Although Yamanaka caught Fukuhara upstairs with a picture perfect counter as Fukuhara came in, it looked like the dogged aggression of Fukuhara might carry the night as the opening round came to a close. But by round two Yamanaka started to better gauge his distance from Fukuhara, staying just outside of the punching range of Fukuhara while catching the local boy with a pair of overhand rights. Yamanaka continued to give Fukuhara angles in the second before a straight right landed for Fukuhara late in the round, seemingly putting the second round back into play. Nonetheless Yamanaka boxed well in round three and four, although Fukuhara did seem to rattle Yamanaka with a solid combination upstairs in the closing minute of round four. Fukuhara seemed to find his range again in round five, closing the gap ever so slightly. But the tricky Yamanaka revealed another weapon in his arsenal, as he landed a counter uppercut as Fukuhara tried to bull rush his way inside. Fukuhara seemed enraged and fired back with gusto, pounding away at the body of Yamanaka with some effectiveness. But the effective body attack was not utilized enough in round six, as Fukuhara seemed determine to try and sneak in overhand rights instead. Although Fukuhara seemed to bother Yamanaka on several occasions in the sixth with the body attack Yamanaka, he soon began to resemble to bull against Yamanaka’s matador: chasing the sick boxing Kobe boxer but never quite reaching him. Round seven would go on to be Yamanaka’s best, landing right hands against a bull rushing Fukuhara while using superior footwork to frustrate the champion. But although Yamanaka continued to box well in round eight Fukuhara seemed to goad him into a brawl of sorts by the end of the round. It was enough to prompt some ringsiders from asking if Fukuhara had finally worn down his slick opponent. But in round nine it was Fukuhara who showed early signs of fatigue as Yamanaka outworked and outboxed him. Although Fukuhara rallied in the closing seconds of the ninth round, it appeared to be too little, too late. Yamanaka continued his brilliance in round ten, catching Fukuhara on several occasions with solid shots as the aggressive Fukuhara marched in. Although Fukuhara seemed to rattle Yamanaka in the closing minute of the round, there was no question that Yamanaka was boxing well and that he had edged the last two rounds going into the championship round.
But the warrior who brawled with Calleros back in February began to emerge in the corner after round ten, as Fukuhara yelled in the corner and came out in round eleven with more aggression. Fukuhara still walked into some counter punches, but his aggression seemed to steal the eleventh. It seemed like anyone’s fight going into round twelve, and both fighters fought accordingly. Yamanaka boxed brilliantly and energetically, which Fukuhara stalked relentlessly. A solid right from the champion seemed to rattle Yamanaka midway through the round, and Fukuhara literally ran after Yamanaka to determine if he was hurt, but Yamanaka was able to step aside from danger. Fukuhara then returned to the strategy that could have turned the fight…had he employed it from the early rounds on: the body attack. Several hard body shots seemed to briefly rattle Yamanaka, and although the body attack did open up Fukuhara to hooks upstairs, there was little question that when Yamanaka was hit to the body it had an impact. Yamanaka threw a left hook upstairs but Fukuhara, looking to make a statement as the fight came to a close, threw caution to the wind. Both fighters threw punches with gusto as the bell sounded ending the fight with Fukuhara seemingly stealing the round.
In the end, the judges went with the slick boxing Yamanaka, who clearly fought the fight of his life against the champion. The baby faced 22-year old from Kobe now becomes the third consecutive Japanese boxer to hold the WBO mini-flyweight title. At 15-2, with only four knockouts it is clear that he isn’t a knockout puncher. But he is one of the more impressive boxers in the division and does possess impressive hand speed and ring generalship. But as Fukuhara can attest, winning the title is often not as hard as holding onto the title. Yamanaka impressed boxing fans back in November of 2016 when he defeated veteran Merlito Sabillo for the OPBF minimumweight title by unanimous decision. But he also was upset by lightly regarded Roque Lauro (13-22-5, 3 KOs) of the Philippines just three months before he won the OPBF belt. He also suffered a stunning loss to Kenta Shimizu (8-5-1, 4 KOs) by way of first round KO back in 2013, although in his defense, he was only 18 years old at the time. The #2 contender in the WBO is undefeated Panya Pradabsri (18-0, 10 KOs) of Thailand. Pradabsri has already won the PABA title and the WBC Asia Boxing Council belt and would have to be seen as a very tough opponent for the young champion’s first title defense. At #3 is another undefeated prospect in Robert Paradero (14-0, 9 KOs) of the Philippines. The 21-year old Filipino won the WBO Asia Pacific Youth title back in October of 2016 against Ronie Tanallon with an impressive decision, but unlike with Pradabsri it is a little tougher to gauge how tough of a contender he is as the rest of his resume is a little thinner. Although the WBO has him ranked at #3, Boxrec.com lists seven other fighters from the Philippines higher, and has Paradero ranked at 33 in the world at 105-pounds. Nonetheless he would be a dangerous opponent for Yamanaka’s first title defense. Just because he hasn’t fought as many solid guys as Yamanaka doesn’t mean he isn’t a dangerous opponent.
At #4 is another Filipino in Vic Saludar (15-3, 9 KOs). Saludar already was stopped in 2015 in his first title fight against Kosei Tanaka, and has recently lost to Toto Landero (8-1-2) back in June. Saludar looks to be Yamanaka’s safest option for his first title defene, at least on paper. Below Saludar is Puero Rican Janiel Rivera (16-2-3, 10 KOs) who was stopped in three rounds in his only other world title fight back in 2014 agaisnt Adrian Hernandez of Mexico. Rivera wouldn’t be a bad option for Yamanaka either, although it is doubtful that Yamanaka would be able to test the chin of Rivera like Hernandez did. At #7 is Moises Calleros, a fighter that is arguably the most dangerous man in the division. Although Calleros could theoretically be David Tua to Yamanaka’s Chris Byrd, it is just as likely that the hard punching Mexican could test the chin of Yamanaka just like Kenta Shimizu did back in 2013. In the end it would also be an inadvisable fight for Yamanaka. At #7 is fellow Kobe native Reiya Konishi (14-0, 5 KOs). Although the all Kobe battle would seem intriguing, it almost certainly wouldn’t happen as Konishi is a stablemate of Yamanaka.
At #8 is Namibian Japhet Uutoni (12-2, 5 KOs), who was knocked out in his last fight back in February by undefeated Angel Acosta.
But there is one other option for Yamanaka for his first title defense: the former champion himself. Tatsuya Fukuhara will most likely enter the rankings now that he is no longer a world champion and another all-Japan battle (this time in Kobe) could be the perfect optional title defense for Yamanaka. He already knows he can beat Fukuhara, but the fight was close enough to warrant a rematch. An option defense may be the best step for Yamanaka, who will most likely be looking at a mandatory defense against the Thai contender in early 2018.
Picture this: Floyd Mayweather, fresh of his win over Andre Berto, doesn’t retire. He decides to defend the WBC and WBO welterweight title and add another world title belt in the process. His opponent: the man widely seen as the second best fighter in the division. This kid is a young, hungry, 26-year old undefeated champion with a 7-0 record in championship fights. He’s coming up on a reign of three years as champion and has beaten some of the top fighters in the division.
You can stop scrambling to Boxrec.com to count the number of title defenses Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, or Kell Brook had when Floyd fought Berto. It’s not any of them. I’m talking about Thai fighter Thammanoon Niyomtrong, aka Knockout CP Freshmart.
Now right off the bat, I’m not sure what the meaning of his nom de guerre is, although I will note that American boxing fans have always been intrigued by the ring names of several Thai fighter’s. Several notable fighters from Thailand used the ring name “3-K Battery” (Yodsanan 3-K Battery, Fashan 3-K Battery, Medgoen 3-K Battery, Pandang 3-K Battery, and Chokchai 3-K Battery) after the motorcycle and automotive battery company based in Thailand. Now, before we start knocking them, just remember that it wasn’t that long ago that fighters stepped into the ring with Goldenpalace.com painted on their backs. Besides, unusual nicknames are as old as the sport. If I want to get really deep in the weeds, these guys have nothing on a guy from 1895 from Colorado who fought Young Peter Jackson. His name was Professor Snowball and on that warm July night in Colorado he set a record that has held up longer than any other in the annals of sports: least intimidating nickname ever. Although it should be noted that Professor Sunshine gave him a run for his money in 1902. Nonetheless Sunshine earned some bonus points for winning his only professional fight in Salt Lake City against Professor Pistol. I am not sure what institution of higher learning gave Pistol, Sunshine, and Snowball their doctorate degrees, but I’m leaning towards Ohio State. (Go Blue).
Now Niyomtrong (15-0, 7 KOs) has been completely unknown in the United States, through no fault of his own. Unfortunately fighters in the minimumweight division have been ignored by American fight fans ever since Ricardo Lopez retired. I don’t know what it will take to fix the exposure problem for him since he’s certainly earned some respect based on his accomplishment in the ring. I don’t know, maybe a new and even catchier nom de guerre. His Boxrec photo sort of looks like Keanu Reeves, and his last name starts with “Niyo”, so I don’t know; maybe he should call himself “The Matrix” and come out into the ring in a black trench coat. That might actually start trending on YouTube.
But as awesome as it would be to have a fighter named Neo fight as “The Matrix”, let’s be honest, it won’t happen. Unfortunately Niyo is going to continue to get a lot less attention than his skills warrant.
And that’s a shame, because right now the minimumweight division looks poised to enter something of a renaissance. Niyo may be a great fighter, but he is nonetheless forced to play second fiddle to the man regarded as the best minimumweight in the world: his countryman, Chayaphon Moonsri (47-0, 17 KOs).
Now I’m not knocking that fact. I think Moonsri should be ranked as the best fighter in the division. But it’s by an inch, not a mile. Moonsri has a record of 8-0 in world title fights, and some Western eyes are going to be looking toward Thailand in the coming months as he closes in on one of the last great records in boxing: Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Yeah, Floyd tied it and looks poised to break it in September when he takes on Conor McGregor. But wouldn’t it be a statement if Moonsri can get to 49-0 and then challenge his undefeated Thai opponent in a unification bout? That would be an appropriate fight for such a legendary record. I don’t know if it is a pipe dream or not, I don’t know what boxing factions in Thailand it would involve. And as I have zero knowledge of what theThai boxing scene looks like I really don’t know if the parties involved would even be open to fighting each other. Maybe this unification fight would involve too many diverse factions in Thai boxing.
But if Mayweather-Pacquiao taught me anything, it was that money talks. And I would think (hope?) that a Moonsri-Niyo fight would have the potential to be very lucrative for everyone involved. Who knows, maybe the 3-K Battery company can swoop in and make it happen.
And I should add, that would just be the beginning. The best part of a unification fight is the excitement wouldn’t have to end there.
Whoever comes out of that fight could then step into the ring against a fighter who may very well be the second incarnation of Arturo Gatti: Japan’s Tatsuya Fukuhara (19-4-6, 7 KOs). Fukuhara, the WBO 105-pound champion, doesn’t have as flashy a record as the two Thai fighters, but what he has plenty of is heart and grit. Any fight with him would be an all out war and if American boxing fans could get the opportunity to see a Niyo-Fukuhara fight, or a Moonsri-Fukuhara fight, I have no doubt that it would revitalize interest in the division.
But all of that is dependent on Niyomtrong winning this Saturday as he defends his title against Rey “Hitman” Loreto (23-13, 15 KOs) of Davao City, Philippines. Now on paper this looks like it should be an easy win for Niyomtrong, but I wouldn’t completely count out the Hitman just yet. He has only been stopped once in his career and he is coming into the fight on the heels of a seven fight win streak which includes a first round KO over South African contender Nkosinathi Joyi (whose record at the time was 24-3, 17 KOs). The Joyi fight was for the IBO light flyweight title in Joyi’s backyard. The Hitman is a naturally bigger man, usually fighting at 108-pounds, and as he showed against Joyi, he can win in hostile territory.
So what will happen in Thailand this weekend? Most likely Niyomtrong, aka Niyo, aka The Matrix, aka CP Freshmart will come out on top. He looks like he could be the total package and despite the Hitman’s KO in South Africa and his 6 knockouts in his last seven fights, I still think Niyomtrong has enough skill to shut down Loreto’s offense.
From there, big things may be coming to the sport. If Niyomtrong wins we might just end up seeing the biggest fight to ever hit the 105-pound division before the end of 2018.
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