Kazuto Ioka continued a time-honored boxing tradition in his native Japan.
The four-division titlist successfully defended his WBO junior bantamweight title with a twelve-round, unanimous decision win over countryman Ryoji Fukunaga, a late replacement for IBF junior bantamweight titlist Jerwin Ancajas. Scores were 115-113, 116-112 and an unacceptable 118-110 in favor of Ioka atop the New Year’s Eve boxing event at Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo.
Fukunaga (15-5, 14KOs) accepted the assignment on short notice, stepping in once Ancajas was unable to travel to Japan whose borders were closed to foreign travelers in efforts to minimize the spread of the Omicron variant. The rangy southpaw sprinted out to a strong start, befitting a longshot underdog liking his chances in a year loaded with wild upsets. Ioka all but refused to let his hands go in the opening round, allowing Fukunaga to work his jab for much of the frame before moving in to attack in the final fifteen seconds of the round.
Ioka worked the body of his rangy southpaw challenger, digging with left hooks downstairs in the final minute of round two. Ioka would follow up with straight right hands upstairs. Fukunaga was once again the more active of the two in the ring, connecting with a straight left hand and an uppercut to catch the attention of the defending champion.
The same pattern played through throughout rounds three and four. Fukukaga threw far more punches, peppering Ioka with his long right jab and causing fits for Japan’s only male fighter to win titles in four divisions. Ioka landed the more telling blows, especially in the second half of round four when he was able to work his combinations and catch Fukunaga with a clean left hook upstairs. Fukunaga attempted to catch Ioka with straight lefts, which Ioka slipped and countered with a heavy right hand.
Ioka jumped out to a strong start in round five, disrupting the preceding trend. The 32-year-old Osaka native came straight forward, shooting his jab and a right hand behind it. Fukunaga adapted, tightening his defense and landing with straight left hands and right hooks.
Fukunaga looked to take the lead in round six, but clearly felt the power of Ioka who was able to double up on his left hook. Fukunaga was not without his moments, landing his jab and overhand left but clearly felt the power of Ioka as he offered far more movement in the round. Ioka adjusted, cutting off the ring and continued to target his challenger’s lean frame.
Ioka had Fukunaga hurt on several occasions in round seven, though never to the point of being on the verge of a stoppage. Fukunaga was rocked by a left hook, along with a combination by Ioka who fought in spurts but was clearly the aggressor as Fukunaga resorted to headhunting and committing less to his punches.
A committed body attack saw Ioka slowly wear down Fukunaga, firing off left hook combinations downstairs. When Fukunaga adjusted, Ioka would respond with straight right hands to his challenger’s midsection. Fukunaga tried to compensate by increasing his workrate in round nine, throwing more jabs but never fully committing to the weapon. Enough left hands got through to where Ioka had to contend with a small mouse under his right eye.
Ioka remained calm in the pocket in round ten, all but daring Fukunaga to work his way inside. Fukunaga took the bait, catching chopping right hands for his trouble. The challenger avoided a repeat sequence, using side-to-side movement to dodge Ioka’s right hands to connect with a series of jabs and occasional straight right.
Fukunaga took the lead to begin round eleven, punching in combination and with conviction. Ioka took the shots well and immediately responded with a right hand. Fukunaga lets his hands go but at the expense of abandoning his defense. Ioka caught the challenger with a clean left hook on the inside along with a jaw-rattling overhand right.
Ioka slowed down in the twelfth and final round, still landing the more telling blows but a little more deliberate in his attack. Fukunaga offered one last spurt in his best effort to pull off an improbable upset, though his fate was already sealed on the official scorecards.
Ioka (28-2, 15KOs) made the fourth defense of the WBO junior bantamweight title he’s held since June 2019. Next up is the fight he was supposed to enjoy on this evening, a planned unification bout with Ancajas who first has to win a voluntary title defense scheduled for this coming February in the United States.
Plans for their New Year’s Eve two-title tilt were thwarted when Japanese government officials—in response to the global spread of the Omicron variant—elected to close its borders to foreign travelers effective November 30. The rule came without exception, leaving Ancajas two weeks shy of being able to enter the country from the Philippines.
The hope is for the world to be a safer place in the coming months than is the case in present day, at which point Ioka aims to enter his second career unification bout. The lone other occasion for the future Hall of Famer came in a thrilling twelve-round win over countryman Akira Yaegashi to unify the WBC and WBA strawweight belts in their June 2012 slugfest. The fight marked the only time in history that two reigning titlists from Japan met in a title unification bout.
Ioka added to Japan’s rich boxing history with his tenth-round stoppage of Aston Palicte to claim the WBO junior bantamweight belt in June 2019, becoming the nation’s only male boxer to win titles in four divisions. Friday’s title defense was another footnote in a career bound for the International Boxing Hall of Fame, headlining his tenth New Year’s Eve card—a tradition he helped launch in 2011.
The fight aired live on TBS-Japan.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox