Kazuto Ioka has made the best out of an undesirable situation to salvage a decade-long tradition.
The four-division and reigning WBO junior bantamweight titlist will move forward with a New Year’s Eve headliner, though no longer in a title unification bout. Ioka will now face countryman Ryoji Fukunaga, with the event taking place December 31 at Ota-City Gymnasium in Toyko. The fight will air live on TBS-Japan, who formally announced the event Thursday morning.
Fukunaga (15-4, 14KOs) enters his first career title fight while riding a current five-fight win streak. The 35-year-old southpaw from Tokyo was already training for a regional title fight on January 15 when he got the call to face Ioka as event handlers were determined to move forward with the show. Fukunaga replaces IBF junior bantamweight titlist Jerwin Ancajas (33-1-2, 22KOs), who was unable to go through with the fight due to Japan closing its borders to foreign travelers since November 30.
The nationwide travel restriction was enforced to prevent the spread of coronavirus variant Omicron, resulting in two significant year-end boxing events taking a hit. It hasn’t stopped Ioka from moving forward with his tenth career New Year’s Eve fight, nine of which have taken place in Japan.
The nation’s only male boxer to win titles in four weight divisions, Ioka began the tradition in 2011—his first year as a major titlist when he won the WBC strawweight belt earlier that February. The 32-year-old from Osaka—who is now based out of Tokyo—is 8-1 on the date, his lone loss coming in a split decision defeat to Donnie Nietes in their December 2018 vacant WBO junior bantamweight title fight in Macau, the only New Year’s Eve fight for Ioka to not take place in his home country.
Ioka claimed the belt in his next fight, stopping Philippines’ Aston Palicte in the tenth round of their June 2019 clash in Chiba, Japan. Ioka made history for Japan, becoming the nation’s first and only male boxer to win titles in four or more weight divisions and just the second Japanese boxer overall to do so, joining female boxing legend and five-division titlist Naojo Fujioka.
This upcoming bout marks Ioka’s fourth in a row at Ota-City Gymnasium and third straight New Year’s Eve headliner at the famed venue. Ioka secured probably his best career win at this location one year ago, a one-sided eighth-round knockout of countryman Kosei Tanaka, an unbeaten three-division titlist who aimed to join Ioka in Japan’s record books.
In his most recent start, Ioka outpointed former strawweight titlist Francisco ‘Chihuas’ Rodriguez in a mandatory title defense this past September 1 at the same location that will house his fourth attempted title defense.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox