Young Bloods: Japanese Boxing’s High-flying Prodigies


Young, Strong, and Japanese

On April 6, Kanagawa-born boxer Inoue Naoya defeated the Mexican Adrian Hernandez in six rounds to win the WBC light flyweight title. In an impressive victory, Inoue confidently and quickly broke down and stopped his experienced opponent, who had been in possession of the WBC belt for most of the last three years and was making his fifth defense.

Indeed, Hernandez had won all but three of his 32 prior fights, stopping 18 opponents in the process. This makes Inoue’s triumph all the more amazing: Not only did he take his first world title four days before his twenty-first birthday, he did so with his fifth stoppage in only his sixth professional bout, in the process setting a new Japanese record for the quickest march from rookie debutant to world champion.

Having scaled such heights so early, where does Inoue go next? Fighters do tend to move up and down relatively freely between the lower weight classes, where the individual divisions are separated by much finer margins on the scales, so Inoue does have plenty of options. But the fact remains that the young man known as “The Monster” has set a dauntingly high bar for himself.

This is not an isolated case in Japan. In February 2011, Osaka native Ioka Kazuto, previous holder of the record shattered by Inoue, took the WBC minimumweight crown shortly before his twenty-second birthday in only his seventh fight as a professional. He went on to unify titles by taking Yaegashi Akira’s WBA belt in their June 2012 classic, a fight that was also historic as the first ever unification match between two Japanese titleholders in the same division. Still aged just 25, Ioka—who combines fast hands and crisp, accurate combination punching with considerable defensive mastery—has since won, thrice defended, and subsequently vacated the WBA light flyweight title. Next month he will challenge 2008 Thai Olympian Amnat Ruenroeng for the IBF flyweight belt. If Ioka wins, it will cement his fourth world championship in three weight divisions, an achievement that would put him in some esteemed company.

And then there is Nagoya’s 18-year-old Tanaka Kōsei, currently 2–0 as a pro and now being marked as a potential challenger for the light flyweight world title in his next fight. With a win the Japanese teen would equal the world record of Thai light welterweight Saensak Muangsurin, who in 1975 became WBC champion in only his third bout.

Climbing Too Rapidly?

Novice boxers customarily make their way into the physically demanding professional game through a series of shorter contests. These three whiz kids, however, swiftly progressed to the 10- to 12-round deep end. Inoue in particular made his debut in an 8-round contest, and was up to the full 12 after just five fights. The Kanagawa boxer’s first two fights ended short without testing his stamina, but when he finally did go the distance, he passed with flying colors, busting up seasoned professional Sano Yuki before stopping him in the tenth and final round.

Tanaka is a different sort of boxer—long and rangy, with alarmingly fast hands, but perhaps lacking the power required to end bouts early. He may have benefitted from the fact that his first two fights, both against experienced, highly ranked opponents, went the distance, giving him a valuable chance to get a sense of what being a professional prizefighter is all about.

All this goes against a recent trend in world boxing of fighters with long amateur pedigrees turning pro. Fighters like the Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux (who won 374 and lost 12 as an amateur), and the Kazakhstani Gennady Golovkin (345–5) honed their craft for years before being unleashed as pros.

One wonders what the motivation might be for rushing the development of these young Japanese fighters. Perhaps it’s born of a desire to cash in on the boxing gold rush that was sparked by the JBC finally sanctioning bouts for IBF and WBO titles early last year, effectively doubling the number of belts available. The most lucrative market for Japanese fighters is still the domestic one, and the more champions we have here, the greater the excitement to be generated by bouts between them. Prolonging this cycle by ensuring the titles stay in Japan is an added benefit for the Japanese sport.

With eight current world champions across all divisions, and the chance to add several more over the coming months, this is certainly a very exciting time for Japanese boxing. If the present momentum can be maintained, we may even see some fighters who manage to follow in the footsteps of the country’s top soccer and baseball players who have become household names not only in their home country, but also overseas.

(Banner photo: Inoue Naoya after winning the WBC belt, with his younger brother Takuma and father Shingo. Courtesy Jiji Press.)

youth sport boxing Inoue Naoya Ioka Kazuto Tanaka Kosei