TOKYO – Takuma Inoue had to climb off the floor to retain his WBA bantamweight title, having made a terrible start against veteran Sho Ishida.

The challenger stepped in behind a left hand that dropped Inoue two minutes into the first round, and while the 28-year-old Inoue (20-1, 5 KOs) tried to stay low and burrow inside his taller opponent, he was struggling with the range.

But the champion finally switched on in the third. He changed the metrics of the fight, where and how it was fought, by pulling Ishida inside and making him box at close quarters. 

Inoue began to score freely with his right uppercut as Ishida submitted his height and reach advantage and accepted the invitation of boxing on the inside – but it was to his detriment.

A fine Inoue left to the body was followed by another uppercut, and the 32-year-old Ishida’s nose started to pump blood. 

Inoue really started to do damaging work in the fourth. There seemed only one winner on the inside, and Inoue lashed out right hands as Ishida tried to escape his clutches.

Even with a little distance between them in the fifth, Inoue had started to time and control Ishida (34-4, 17 KOs) at range, and the challenger’s face started to tell an increasingly one-sided tale.

Inoue was able to step back to avoid Ishida’s jab but would then pounce forward with left-hook or right-hand counters. And while the action was competitive, the fight had seemingly turned irreversibly in the champion’s favor.

Inoue appeared composed and confident, boxing with a heightened alertness, and he was still able to land the occasional thumping uppercut with Ishida unable to contain him behind little more than a pawing jab.

Both, however, had moments of give-and-take in the eighth, and Ishida tried to impose himself in the ninth and force Inoue backwards, with some success, to the point that Inoue sported fresh swelling below his right eye. But still Ishida couldn’t defend against the right uppercut.

It was gritty, hard and close, and the 11th was all of those things and clearly thrilling the absorbed crowd at the Tokyo Dome, which roared its approval when the fighters came out for the final session and, as it turned out, more of the same. Ishida slipped near the bell and finished the fight on the canvas, but it was a terrific round and had been a good fight.

Kazunobu Asao and Pinit Prayadsab both scored it 118-109, while Michiaki Someya handed down a 116-111 scorecard.

Inoue made his second defense, having picked up one of the crowns his brother, Naoya, vacated by beating Liborio Solis and defending against Jerwin Ancajas.

Ishida, the WBA No. 1, lost to Kal Yafai on points in Wales in 2017 for a WBA belt at junior bantamweight but had been on a run of five wins.

Takuma Inoue’s only loss was a 2019 decision to Frenchman Nordine Oubaali.