Asian Scene special: ones to watch

Marcus Bellinger
26/01/2018 1:30pm

Marcus Bellinger brings us his annual Asian Scene special in which he guides us through five fighters from the continent to look out for in 2018...

1. Tsubasa Koura, Japan (-0, 8 KOs)
After a short and modest amateur career which ended with a record of 19-10 (with 6 KOs) Koura was certainly under no pressure when turning pro - unlike recent fighters from Japan such as Naoya Inoue, Kosei Tanaka and Kazuto Ioka. Under the guidance of the E&J Cassius Gym Koura made his professional debut in August 2014 and the hard hitting strawweight quickly turned heads with his raw power. 2015 saw him claim the East Japan Rookie of the Year title with a five-round decision over Hizuki Saso and then in December of that year he grabbed the All Japan Rookie crown, dominating Ryusei Kitamura also over five.

With expectations around him now growing the 23-year-old further enhanced his reputation with a two-round blowout of former world title challenger Jeffrey Galero in December 2016. Galero had gone the full 12 rounds with reigning WBC 105lbs king Wanheng Menayothin but was bullied by Koura and taken out with a huge right hand. Whilst things were looking highly promising Koura still had questions to answer and hadn’t yet fought for his first title but that changed in July 2017 when he drilled Jaysever Abcede in four for the vacant OPBF minimumweight strap.

His biggest test to date came four months later when he squared off against once beaten Masataka Taniguchi in his so far only defense of his OPBF title. The bout was keenly contested and Taniguchi had taken the initiative during the middle rounds but Koura rallied, showed he had a good gas tank and the ability to dig in when required and took a narrow majority decision against a quality opponent.

At the time of writing there is no news of Koura’s next move but a world title tilt looks likely for the second half of 2018 and he certainly has a solid shot against any of the four belt holders with a clash against IBF champion Hiroto Kyoguchi seemingly the most difficult.

2. Junto Nakatani, Japan (14-0 11 KOs)
Like Koura, Nakatani didn’t have an extensive amateur career but the 20-year-old flyweight prospect hasn’t let that prevent him from so far flourishing since turning pro in April 2015. The MT Gym southpaw is listed as 5' 7" on Boxrec so has a huge height and reach for a fighter at 112lbs and he certainly possesses a real dig and loves to target the body. His first real success came in November 2016 when he stopped Daisuke Yamada in a round to claim the East Japan Rookie of the Year title. A month later he took on undefeated Masamichi Yabuki in the All Japan Rookie of the Year final and prevailed via unanimous decision.

The Youth title was a new concept that was introduced into Japanese boxing in 2017 and tournaments in various weight divisions were constructed. Nakatani took part in the flyweight bracket and won a majority decision over Yuma Kudo in May to book his spot in the final. His opponent in the August final was unbeaten Seigo Yuri Akui and we were set for a fascinating encounter. Nakatani could have used his substantial extra height and reach over the much shorter Akui but he was instead happy to engage and close quarters. Nakatani broke Akui down round by round, eventually forcing the referee to step in, in the sixth round completing a highly impressive display.

An opening round knockout of Geronil Borres on 20 January which was televised on G+ gave his profile a valuable boost and the future certainly looks bright for a man who will be aiming to add to Japan’s success at flyweight in recent years. Given his age, room for growth and limited amateur experience there is absolutely no need to fast track Nakatani and a shot at a domestic or regional belt against an appropriate opponent should be the aim for 2018.

Click here to watch Nakatani’s bout vs Borres

3. Mark Anthony Barriga, Philippines (8-0, 1 KO)
Barriga enjoyed a productive amateur career and is without doubt one of the most successful Filipinos in the unpaid ranks from recent years. He competed in two world championships and at the London 2012 Olympics in the light flyweight division. The 24-year-old won gold at the 2013 South East Asian games and Bronze at the 2014 Asian Games and he also was involved in both of AIBA’s spin off competitions, the WSB and APB.

Barriga was intent on going to the Rio Olympics but was beaten to qualification by the excellent Rogen Ladon and it was now time for the gifted southpaw to give the professional route a go, which he duly did in July 2016. So far as his record would indicate, Barriga isn’t blessed with heavy hands but he’s more than made up for that with exceptional boxing skills but may need to sit down on his punches a bit more as he goes up in levels.

He fought for his first title last September in Beijing when he squared off against former Akira Yaegashi and Naoya Inoue foe, Samartlek Kokietgym for a WBO regional belt at strawweight. The Filipino had no issues in scoring a ten-round shutout over the Thai and had announced himself as a rising contender in boxing’s lightest division.

Barriga is handled by Joven Jimenez and Sean Gibbons and Gibbons isn’t shy about heaping praise on his young charge. “I see Mark as the Matrix at 105lbs. He is a cross between Ivan Calderon and Vasil Lomachenko.” That’s high praise indeed and there are definite similarities between Barriga and the former two-weight world champion from Puerto Rico. Next up is a true examination of Barriga’s world title credentials when he tangles with tough as nails Mexican and former world champion Jose Argumedo in an IBF eliminator on a date and venue to be confirmed.

Click here to watch Barriga vs Samartlek

4. Jhack Tepora, Philippines (21-0, 16 KOs)
Manny Pacquiao, Nonito Donaire, Brian Viloria and Donnie Nietes have carried boxing in the Philippines on their backs for the last decade but all four men’s careers are drawing to a close which means there is room for new blood to come through.

There is no shortage of talent in the country and Tepora is among a cluster of exciting Pinoys ready to usher in a new dawn. Having had around 100 amateur contests and won two golds and a Bronze in national tournaments Tepora turned pro in March 2012.

The 24-year-old came from humble beginnings, a familiar tale with fighters from the Philippines. He’s been developed slowly by promoters Omega Pro Sports International, facing average opposition mostly in his native Cebu City and picking up a few minor belts along the way. Tepora was beginning to garner plenty of attention but was still lacking that breakout victory to solidify the hype surrounding him.

Then the hard hitting southpaw went on the road in September 2017 to take on puncher Lusanda Komanisi in East London, South Africa. Tepora dealt with the occasion with aplomb as he dispatched Komanisi in two rounds, finishing proceedings with a brutal right hand and grabbing the vacant WBO International featherweight crown in the process.

Without doubt his biggest challenge came just before the weigh in against Komanisi as a standard pre-fight test came back with a positive HIV result. Given he has 2 sons and with his boxing career In jeopardy, thankfully follow up tests both in South Africa and at home proved negative.

Having come through a potentially life altering experience and prevailing in style in his toughest bout away from home Tepora showed huge mental resolve and character to maintain his composure despite the circumstances.

There’s no news on his next move but with limited opportunities at home a link-up with an established international promoter would be ideal or otherwise venturing on the road may be the way forward but there’s no doubt if provided the right platform Tepora has the ability to go along way.

Click here to watch Tepora vs Komanisi

5. Lu Bin, China, (1-0, 1 KO)
China is still in the formative stages of attempting to become a true hub for professional boxing and the sport in the country took a hammer blow last year with Zou Shiming losing his WBO flyweight title and subsequent serious eye injuries potentially ending his career. With attention now needing to turn to the future light flyweight Lu Bin could be the man to take Chinese boxing forward.

Having begun boxing at the age of 12 Bin’s first notable success came when he claims silver in the Chinese elite national championships in 2012. In the same year he went on to take gold at the world Youth championships in Armenia, overcoming top Uzbek Murodjon Akhmadaliev in the final. A bronze at the Asian continental championships was to follow in 2013 and he bettered his silver in both the 2015 and 2017 nationals.

Bin won Aiba’s professional style APB competition in 2015 at light flyweight and also had a few bouts in the WSB but the 23-year-old was eliminated early on in the Rio Olympics via a poor decision versus Kenya’s Peter Mungai. Bin had a taste of the professional game when he faced forma WBC 105lbs champion Xion Zhao Zhong in a ten-round cross code bout as part of a big Chinese New Year show in February 2016. Bin dominated China’s first ever professional world champion winning by scores of 97-92 twice and 100-89.

His official debut in the pro ranks came last September as he easily took out Chatchai Or Benjamas in three rounds for a minor WBC trinket. There is no update of Bin’s next contest but given his amateur background expect him to be fast tracked pretty quickly.

Click here to watch Bin vs Chatchai