The final title fight of 2021 is officially set.
Kazuto Ioka and Ryoji Fukunaga both easily made weight ahead of their WBO junior bantamweight title fight, which headlines the annual New Year’s Eve show from Ota-Cty General Gymnasium in Tokyo. Ioka weighed 114.9 pounds, slightly heavier than Fukunaga who came in at a trim and fit 114.8 pounds.
Ioka (27-2, 15KOs)—an Osaka product now based out of Tokyo—attempts the fourth defense of the 115-pound title he claimed in a June 2019 tenth-round knockout of Aston Palicte. The feat saw Ioka become the first—and only—male boxer from Japan to claim major titles in four separate weight divisions, having previously held the WBC/WBA strawweight, WBA junior flyweight and WBA flyweight titles.
In his most recent start, Ioka fended off a stubborn challenge from Francisco ‘Chihuas’ Rodriguez Jr.—a former strawweight titlist and current top junior bantamweight contender—to claim a well-earned unanimous decision victory this past September 1 also at Ota-City General Gymnasium. The upcoming main event this Friday will mark Ioka’s fourth straight appearance at the venue, three of which have taken place on New Year’s Eve.
The event will also mark Ioka's tenth career New Year's Eve headliner, nine of which have taken place in Japan. The future Hall of Fame helped launch the tradition in 2011, capping his first year as a major titlist when he still held the WBC strawweight title. Ioka topped the bill in his Osaka hometown every New Year's Eve from 2011 through 2015, before heading to Kyoto for the 2016 year-end event. A brief retirement in 2017 interrupted the tradition before returning to the ring in 2018, with that New Year's Eve show taking place in Macau. It was his only year-end fight outside of Japan and the only time that Ioka lost on the date, a split decision defeat to Donnie Nietes in their vacant WBO junior bantamweight title fight.
Fukunaga (15-4, 14KOs) enters his first career title fight, accepting the assignment on short notice. The 35-year-old southpaw was brought in as a replacement opponent when IBF junior bantamweight titlist Jerwin Ancajas (33-1-2, 22KOs) was unable to enter Japan due to the country’s government closing its borders to foreign travelers effective November 30. The extreme measure was rolled out to combat the spread of the Omicron variant, which greatly impacted the planned title unification bout.
Efforts to salvage the year-end show prompted event handlers to scramble for a ranked opponent on short notice. The search led to Fukunaga, a 35-year-old southpaw from Tokyo currently riding a five-fight win streak.
The weigh-in session was accompanied by a condensed press conference and glove selection. Ioka will wear black Everlast gloves, while Fukunaga will go with black Cleto Reyes gloves. Both boxers then addressed the assembled media during a brief Q&A session before going about the rest of their final day before fight night.
The main event will air live on TBS-Japan and will stream live on the network’s YouTube channel as a one-fight telecast, beginning 6:30pm local time (4:30am ET/1:30am PT).
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox