Kazuto Ioka survived the toughest test of his current title reign.
The only male boxer from Japan to win titles in four weight divisions, Ioka fended off a determined Francisco ‘Chihuas’ Rodriguez to retain his WBO junior bantamweight title. Judges Yuji Fujuchi (116-112), Nobuto Ikehara (116-112) and Michiaki Someya (116-112) were unanimous in awarding the fight to Ioka in an entertaining twelve-round main event Wednesday at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo.
The bout was the first for Ioka since going to battle with the Japanese Boxing Commission over a number of issues from his previous fight—an eighth-round knockout of countryman and unbeaten former three-division titlist Kosei Tanaka last New Year’s Eve. He overcame a drug testing scandal when faulty testing practices ultimately cleared his name, though he was forced to enter Wednesday’s bout concealing his numerous visible tattoos which remain outlawed in fights taking place in Japan.
Ioka also entered as the betting favorite, though someone forgot to tell Rodriguez he was supposed to play the role of opponent. The former WBO strawweight title landed the more telling blows in the opening round, snapping back Ioka’s head with a right hand and driving the defending titlist into the ropes. Ioka was able to establish his jab and left hook to the body, though fighting at a measured pace.
Both boxers exchanged jabs in round two. Rodriguez continued to enjoy success with his right hand, while Ioka looked to control the distance. The trend continued in round three, a physically taxing frame for the four-division titlist as Rodriguez continued to apply relentless pressure. Rodriguez once again caught the attention of Ioka, connecting with a left hook at close quarters.
Ioka took the lead in round four, timing Rodriguez’s punches and responding with heavy left hooks. Rodriguez continued to press the action, doing his part to make things as uncomfortable as possible for the local favorite. Ioka had a response for most of the incoming, effective with his jab and left hook during most of the exchanges.
Rodriguez upped the ante in round five, at times taunting Ioka with his left before firing off right hand, left hook combinations. Ioka took the shots well and doubled up on his jab, though forced to contend with a bloody nose.
Ioka slowly began to take control as the fight entered the second half. Body work was key for the defending champ, as Rodriguez showed signs of fatigue following a strong start. A left hook downstairs clearly had Rodriguez in trouble, though able to survive the round.
Rodriguez was also forced to deal with blood from his nose along with a cut atop his left cheek. Ioka gained confidence as the fight progressed, landing flush jabs and heavy left hooks as the challenger sought to find his second wind.
The tide turned midway through round nine, with Rodriguez freezing Ioka in his tracks during an exchange at center ring. Ioka proceeded with caution, tightening up his guard against Rodriguez’s incoming right hand.
A furious exchange at center ring saw Ioka get the better of the action in round ten, dodging a right to connect with a counter left hook. Rodriguez took the shot well and kept coming forward, landing right hands and left hooks while Ioka pushed through wear and tear to punch and land in combination.
Blood flowed from a cut just outside of Rodriguez’s left eye during round eleven, where action comparatively slowed. Ioka focused on his jab, while Rodriguez did his best to bob and weave the incoming and disrupt the champion’s rhythm.
Neither boxer relented in the twelfth and final round, both proceeding as if the fight was very much on the table. Ioka pumped his jab and boxed from the outside while Rodriguez charged forward, his face a bloody mess but with a second championship well within sight. It was not to be in the end, as the fight was too far out of reach by that point in the eyes of the three judges.
Rodriguez remains winless on the road, now 0-3-1 away from Mexico and falling to 34-5-1 (24KOs). The loss snaps a fifteen-fight win streak dating back to 2016, after suffering back-to-back losses including a twelve-round decision to Donnie Nietes in a failed WBO junior flyweight title bid in July 2015.
Ioka made the third successful defense of his WBO junior bantamweight title as he improves to 27-2 (15KOs). The feat comes eight months after his previous win, also in this venue as Ioka solidified his Hall of Fame credentials following a one-sided eighth-round stoppage Kosei Tanaka last New Year’s Eve.
Ioka previously held belts at strawweight, junior flyweight and flyweight. A tenth-round knockout of Aston Palicte in June 2018 saw Ioka make history in becoming a four-division titlist—the only male boxer from Japan to do so and joining Naoko Fujioka (five) as the only boxers, regardless of gender, from Japan to win four or more divisional crowns.
The bout aired live on TBS-Japan and on ESPN2 in Latin America.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox