Seven Samurai

Mark Butcher
08/11/2015 12:45pm

It’s not just in the UK where boxing is booming. The vibrant Japanese fight scene is positively bristling with talent including nine reigning world champions and a number of phenomenal prospects bursting onto the world scene.

Sadly, these stars of the East are rarely seen on UK television or coaxed out of Japan, which is a tragedy given their flair and high energy fighting style, but a simple search on YouTube will regale you with some of the most compelling fighters on the planet. 

Record padding may as well be outlawed Japan; if you’re good enough you have to prove it and fast - with prodigious talents like Naoya Inoue and Kosei Tanaka each lifting world titles after a mere handful of contests while Takashi Uchiyama, Shinsuke Yamanaka and Inoue are widely regarded as the premier fighters in their divisions.

“Uchiyama probably has the highest popularity of the champions in Japan,” Japanese fight expert Kakuji Ishida told Boxing Monthly over the phone from Tokyo. “He has an extremely high level of technique and power. Uchiyama is now 35, but amazingly his straight right is getting much sharper and more powerful. He is a late bloomer. In my view, he was not so good a boxer when he turned professional, even when he won the [OPBF] title. Honestly, at that time, I thought he could not be a world champion. Now Uchiyama is almost the perfect combination of offence and defence. Most Japanese boxing fans hope that Uchiyama will fight against a big name like Nicholas Walters or Vasyl Lomachenko in the near future.”

In Japan, every boxer belongs to a gym that owns his exclusive management and promotional rights and two fighters from the same gym are prohibited from fighting one another unless one chooses to switch gyms.

“Japan has a very deep boxing culture and tradition. Around Tokyo, there are over 100 boxing gyms, probably near 150,” Ishida told BM. “The biggest change in Japanese boxing in the last ten years is the wide prevalence of kids boxing. It was very important that a nationwide U-15 tournament, officially supported by the Japan Boxing Commission, started in 2008. The [harvest] of that tournament is ‘The Monster’ Naoya Inoue. I saw Inoue for the first time at the opening U-15 tournament. I was so surprised to see his splendid jab. He was totally unusual from the other fighters of that time. He is undoubtedly the biggest hope in Japanese boxing history.”

So, with a nod to the seminal Akira Kurosawa movie, Boxing Monthly has selected its ‘Seven Samurai’ causing a stir in Japan as well as the red-hot prospects following in their wake. 

Naoya Inoue

Status: WBO super-flyweight champion

Age: 22

Record: 8-0, 7 KOs

Promoter: Ohashi Gym

The aptly nicknamed ‘Monster’ is arguably the best young fighter in boxing today. The heavy-handed Inoue was fast-tracked to glory in 2014 to become a two-weight world champion in only eight pro contests. Established WBC 108lbs champion Adrian Hernandez was brushed aside in six rounds before the precocious Japanese jumped two weight divisions to crush long-time WBO 115lbs title-holder Omar Narvaez in two. Inoue should have been named the 2014 ‘fighter of the year’ yet his crushing win over Narvaez happened on New Year’s Eve when Terence Crawford had already been proclaimed by the U.S. media. Power, speed, shot selection and an unerring maturity are among southpaw Inoue’s many attributes though he has been sidelined throughout most of 2015 by an injury to his right hand. A 29 December return against Warlito Parrenas will hopefully provide the springboard to a highly anticipated fight with brilliant Nicaraguan Roman Gonzalez.

Shinsuke Yamanaka

WBC bantamweight champion

Age: 33

Record: 24-0-2, 17 KOs

Promoter: Teiken Gym

Widely regarded as the No.1 bantamweight in the world and Asia’s premier fighter outside Manny Pacquiao, Yamanaka has reeled off nine successive title defences (six inside the distance) since halting Christian Esquivel in 11 rounds in November 2011. He has subsequently derailed former world champions Anselmo Moreno, Suriyan Sor Rungvisai, Vic Darchinyan, Tomas Rojas and Malcolm Tunacao in cementing his reputation. Inspired to box by watching former WBC 118lbs champion and national hero Joichiro Tatsuyoshi in the 1990s, Yamanaka would grow up to win the same title and exceed his idol’s achievements. After a sluggish start to his pro career, the tactically astute Yamanaka refined his talents, often adjusting mid-fight to wear his opponents down. Known as the ‘God of the Left’ - a nod to his supreme southpaw skills – Yamanaka rallied late to squeak past Panama’s former WBA ‘Super’ champion Moreno in September though beyond that the 33-year-old has been talking unification. His stellar talents deserver a wider stage.

Takashi Uchiyama

Status: WBA ‘Super’ super-featherweight champion

Age: 35

Record: 23-0-1, 19 KOs

Promoter: Watanabe Gym

A venomous puncher, Uchiyama’s fearsome power was in evidence in an early ‘Knockout of the year’ contender against fancied Thai Jomthong Chuwatana in May. One clinical right hand dropped Jomthong as if he had been felled by a sniper shot from the bleachers. Referee Roberto Ramirez could have counted to 100 but immediately waved the fight off with the Thai challenger lying eerily prone on the canvas. Yet Uchiyama is far more than just a puncher – he possesses an under-appreciated boxing skillset that has allowed him to reign as champion for over five-and-a-half years in an electric 10-fight title reign. WBC champion Takashi Miura was the pick of those victims with Uchiyama rising from a knockdown in the third to dominate behind a masterful jab, closing his rival’s right eye and forcing an eighth round retirement in January 2011. Uchiyama has recently recovered from having cartilage removed from his left elbow and next defends his crown against an as yet unnamed opponent in Tokyo on 31 December. 

Kosei Tanaka

Status: WBO Minimumweight champion

Age: 20

Record: 5-0, 2 KOs

Promoter: Hatanaka Gym

The lesser known of the two Japanese wonder kids, Tanaka outdid Inoue by winning his first world title in just five fights while still a teenager. The 2013 Asian Youth Championships silver medallist has not been held back or disappointed. He made his debut against the WBO No.6 ranked Oscar Raknafa illustrating the immense belief the Hatanaka Gym had in his qualities. The gifted Tanaka then won the OPBF title in only his fourth contest – a record for a Japanese fighter – by outhustling the world-rated 18-0 Ryuji Hara. A world title beckoned and, though the highly skilled Tanaka found his stamina tested against doughty Mexican Julian Yedras, he won emphatically on the scorecards to lift the WBO crown at a ludicrously young age (19). The phenomenon from Nagoya has been described by Japanese fight doyen Joe Koizumi as a ‘young and small Sugar Ray Leonard.’ High praise indeed.

Takashi Miura

Status: WBC super-featherweight champion

Age: 31

Record: 29-2-2, 22 KOs

Promoter: Teiken Gym

The ‘other’ Japanese world champion at 130lbs. The dangerous Miura decimated former IBF 126lbs title-holder Billy Dib with chilling ease in May – destroying the Australian with a brutal, head-swiveling left hand in the third round. This was Miura’s third stoppage win in four defences since overwhelming Gamaliel Diaz in nine rounds in April 2013. A strong southpaw with bludgeoning power, Miura floored rival Uchiyama with a peach of a left hand in a WBA title tilt in January 2011 before retiring with a damaged right eye after eight rounds. Unbeaten in nine subsequent contests, the younger (and arguably fresher) Miura craves a rematch. Yet a unification between rival Japanese world champions has only happened on one previous occasion (Kazuto Ioka’s wafer-thin 12-round decision over Akira Yaegashi in June 2012). Next up for Miura is a tricky mandatory assignment against Mexican Francisco ‘Bandido’ Vargas on the 21 November Cotto-Alvarez undercard in Las Vegas.

Kazuto Ioka

Status: WBA flyweight champion

Age: 26

Record: 18-1, 10 KOs

Promoter: Ioka Gym

More seasoned fight fans may remember Kazuto’s uncle Hiroki as the WBC 105lbs and WBA 108lbs champion back in the late 80s and early 90s, but his nephew has eclipsed those achievements to become a three-weight world title-holder after a career blip in 2014. Having won titles at 105lbs (WBC/WBA) and 108lbs (WBA), Ioka was the first of a number of high profile fighters to fall foul of Thai trickster Amnat Ruenroeng who upset him via split decision in Osaka in May 2014. After much soul-searching, Ioka rebounded in April to eke out a controversial majority verdict over Juan Carlos Reveco to win the WBA’s regular bauble and become Japan’s second ever three-division champion after Koki Kameda. Ioka schooled Argentine Robert Domingo Sosa in September (W12) ahead of a mandated rematch with Reveco on 31 December in Osaka.

Ryota Murata

Status: Middleweight contender

Record: 8-0, 5 KOs

Age: 29

Co-Promoters: Teiken Gym/Top Rank

The London 2012 Olympic Gold and 2011 World Silver Medallist is an anomaly - few Japanese fighters touch world class beyond 130lbs. Murata possesses the looks, charisma and a blue chip amateur pedigree, allied with stifling power and sharpness, to make waves in the pro game. Watching Murata at ringside in Macau last year, I was impressed by his poise and finesse against former world title challenger Carlos Nascimento (more than the Chinese audience who rooted for ‘the other guy’ given the history between their two countries). Murata is a genuine crossover star in his homeland, but at 29 years old time is not on his side. Already rated in the Top 10 by the WBC, IBF and WBO, expect Murata to be manoeuvred into a title shot soon with the latter route most likely. Whether he will emulate former WBA 160lbs champion Shinji Takehara (Japan’s only ever middleweight world champion) and prosper in a division laden with pure punchers, remains to be seen. After recovering from a shoulder injury, Murata made his U.S. debut on the Bradley-Rios card in Vegas in November and prevailed on points after 10 against capable Kiwi Gunnar Jackson. 

Rising stars 

Takuma Inoue (Ohashi Gym): The surname should be familiar. Naoya’s younger brother is on a similar swift path to glory. Takuma (5-0, 1 KO) outscored highly experienced Filipino Mark Anthony Geraldo to win the OPBF 115lbs title in July despite suffering a flash knockdown in the final round while a mile ahead on the scorecards. The 19-year-old does not possess his brother’s power but has been blessed with a pure boxing skillset. He next defends his OPBF crown against Filipino Rene Dacquel on 29 December in Tokyo.

Ken Shiro (BMB Gym): Light-flyweight Shiro (real name Kenshiro Teraji) has greatly impressed in his first year as a pro, seamlessly adapting to all styles. The 23-year-old dissected the durable Takashi Omae in four rounds in August, having outclassed and stopped unbeaten prospect Katsunori Nagamine five months earlier. The diminutive son of towering former Japanese and OPBF 175lbs champion Hisashi Teraji, Shiro (5-0, 3KOs) looks a bona fide star of the future, which in Japan probably means six months’ time.

Ryo Matsumoto (Ohashi Gym): The wiry 5ft 8ins Matsumoto (16-0, 14 KOs) has spiteful power and fast hands. A win over grizzled four-time world title challenger Hiroyuki Hitsataka in April 2014 served noticed of the 21-year-old Yokohama prospect’s huge potential. The big-hitting bantam subsequently crushed former WBA 112lbs and WBA interim 115lbs champion Denkaosan Kaovichit in two and won the OPBF title by halting plucky Rusalee Samor in 12. A world title shot at either 118lbs or even 122lbs appears imminent.

Shohei Omori (Woz Boxing Gym): Yet another world class Japanese southpaw, Omori (15-0, 10 KOs) is on the brink of a world title shot in the division led by WBC king Yamanaka and also featuring former WBO champion Tomoki Kameda. A modest amateur, Omori’s style was always more suited to the pro ranks. Tall and rangy, the 22-year-old has emerged from nowhere to halt former WBC title challenger Christian Esquivel in just four rounds, in faster fashion than Yamanaka. Omori belongs in that company. He faces Filipino Marlon Tapales in a WBO title eliminator on 16 December in Kyoto.

Rikki Naito (E&J Cassius Gym): Kakuji Ishida recommends 24-year-old half-American super-feather Naito (13-0, 5 KOs). “I watched [southpaw] Naito’s latest fight at Korakuen Hall on 8 June and his performance was so impressive,” Ishida told BM. “He beat Nihito Arakawa, who fought Omar Figueroa and Jorge Linares. Arakawa is a very aggressive and tough southpaw, but Naito dominated the fight with skilful footwork and an effective left uppercut, and won by unanimous decision. He showed high potential and strong determination to be a world champion.” Naito next defends his Japanese 130lbs title against Kenichi Ogawa on 14 December in Tokyo.