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ANALYSIS | Three of Japan's Best Boxers Showcased in a Triple World Title Delight

An important fight card took place in Tokyo on February 24, and three Japanese boxers enhanced their reputations in front of a global audience.

GLASGOW — The eyes of fight fans across the world were on Tokyo's splendid Ryogoku Kokugikan, which normally hosts sumo tournaments, on Saturday, February 24. In the Japanese capital, three boxers put on three world title fights on a card that will be hard to match for value for money the rest of the year.

Three home fighters were given the opportunity to showcase their skills against tough opponents. For two of them, the assignment was to win a world title in a new weight class. And for the other, it was a title defense against a former world champion.

Japanese Boxers in the Spotlight

First up was Kosei Tanaka. Tanaka, 28, was aiming to become the third Japanese man to win a world title in four weight classes. Kazuto Ioka and Naoya Inoue are the others who have achieved this.

Facing Tanaka was Christian Bacasegua of Mexico. Bacasegua (22-4-2, with nine knockouts heading into the fight) was ranked second by the WBO in its super flyweight rankings. Tanaka was ranked first by the organization whose vacant title was up for grabs for the winner.

Following that tussle, two-weight world champion Junto Nakatani was hoping to lift a world title in a third weight division when he took on defending WBC bantamweight champion Alexandro Santiago.

Santiago, from Mexico, (28-3-5, 14 KOs entering) arrived in Japan holding the title he won by beating Nonito Donaire in July 2023. He wanted to retain his title and slow Nakatani's path towards the pound-for-pound top 10 in the process.

In the final fight of the evening. Kanagawa Prefecture native Takuma Inoue was making the first defense of his WBA bantamweight title.

Inoue was in tough against former IBF super flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas of the Philippines. Ancajas (34-3-2, 23 KOs as the opening bell rang) was boxing in Japan for the first time and had experience on his side. It looked like a tricky title defense for Inoue.

With major sports channels in America, Mexico, South Africa and Australia carrying Saturday's card, a large audience from most of the major boxing markets on the planet watched to see how the title bouts would unfold.

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Christian Bacasegua absorbs a punch from Kosei Tanaka in the 12th round. (©SANKEI)

Tanaka Wins WBO Super Flyweight Title in Points Decision over Bacasegua

Although he spoke of winning by stoppage before the fight, the main thing for Tanaka was to win and become a four-weight world champion.

Bacasegua tested Tanaka, especially early in the contest when his aggressive come-forward style saw him land a few notable punches on the home fighter.

Great fighters adjust, though. From the third round on, the 28-year-old Tanaka fought a clever and controlled fight. He engaged at close quarters with Bacasegua, finding a regular home for his right uppercut.

Bacasegua wanted to match fire with fire, but after the opening rounds, it seemed like Tanaka knew exactly what was coming from his Mexican opponent. Most of the punches from Bacasegua were avoided or blocked by Tanaka's arms.

Tanaka's dominance was underlined when he sent Bacasegua to the canvas in the eighth round with a combination of head and body shots. 

To his credit, Bacasegua fought gamely until the final bell. But Tanaka had him hurt in the penultimate round and showed no mercy in the final session as he closed strong.

The scorecards read 116-111, 117-110 and 119-108 in Tanaka's favor.

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Kosei Tanaka is declared the new WBO super flyweight champion as he stands next to Christian Bacasegua after the fight. (©SANKEI)

It's just a shoe!

Analysis and What's Next for Tanaka

Tanaka's composure under fire was the most impressive thing about this showing. He gave Bacasegua the opening two rounds but then used the confidence the visiting fighter took from that against him.

By demonstrating sensible distance control and superior footwork, Tanaka was able to manage the remainder of the fight on his terms. While the stoppage didn't arrive, Tanaka tried to deliver it for his fans. That type of effort is always appreciated by boxing fans.

With this win, Tanaka moved his record to 20-1 with 11 knockouts. He also achieved his goal of joining Ioka and Naoya Inoue as a four-weight world champion. A fine achievement.

Ioka wasn't far from Tanaka's thoughts after the fight. The current WBA super flyweight champion is the only man to have defeated Tanaka. That bout took place in December 2020.

Could a 2024 rematch take place in what would be a unification fight between two modern greats of Japanese boxing? Keep your eye on this space. 

"This belt was everything I wanted tonight," Tanaka said, according to BoxingScene, in summing up his effort on Saturday.

He continued, "These past three years have been a rough time for me since I was defeated but I'm happy to be where I am tonight."

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Junto Nakatani knocks down Mexican opponent Alexandro Santiago in the sixth round of their WBC bantamweight title bout. (©SANKEI)

Nakatani Conquers Santiago in the Sixth Round

Having previously won world titles at flyweight and super flyweight, Nakatani — now 27-0 with 20 wins by stoppage — became the WBC bantamweight champion with Saturday's impressive showing against defending champion Santiago.

The tall, rangy, 26-year-old southpaw possesses everything that is required to become a star attraction in boxing. 

Footwork, an absolute nightmare jab out of the southpaw stance for opponents to overcome, a height advantage over most 118-pound fighters and a monster 67-inch reach are just some of Nakatani's assets.

He can also mix shots to the head and body and, perhaps most importantly from a fan-friendly perspective, Nakatani is a great finisher. As his high KO percentage tells us, the Mie Prefecture native knows how to close the show.

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Junto Nakatani, the new WBC bantamweight champion. (©SANKEI)

Saturday's Win and What's to Come for Nakatani

Moving into a new weight class and immediately winning a world title in dominating fashion is only possible if you are a special fighter. Nakatani is exactly that.

Except for a nice left hand, which Santiago landed near the end of the second round, Nakatani controlled every aspect of Saturday's contest.

The defending champion had no answer to Nakatani's power, his beautiful jab-hook combinations with his right hand and he couldn't get close to the home fighter. Nakatani used all of his resources to look head and shoulders above his foe.

It was probably something of a mercy for Santiago when a straight left hand dropped him in the sixth round. Getting up and attempting to fight on saw him met with a right hook, one that sent the soon-to-be former champion down once more.

That would signal the end of the fight as Santiago's corner stepped in to stop the punishment.

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Junto Nakatani (right) punches Alexandro Santiago in the face in the second round. (KYODO)

Commentating to the American audience on ESPN+, former WBO 140-pound world champion Chris Algieri described Nakatani's performance as "very special, nearly flawless."

"Coming up to this fight, I spent many hours training in Los Angeles and Japan," Nakatani said after his win, according to Kyodo News.

He concluded, "I want to fight at bantamweight from now on. Thank you so much for your support."

With an eye on that last statement, future opposition for Nakatani should be focused on the other bantamweight title holders. Jason Moloney, Emmanuel Rodriguez and Takuma Inoue hold the other recognized belts at 118 pounds. Matchups with any of them would be a logical next step for Nakatani.

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In the eighth round, Takuma Inoue (left) eyes a knockout of opponent Jerwin Ancajas in their WBA bantamweight title showdown. (©SANKEI)

Inoue Defends WBA Bantamweight Title by Stopping Ancajas in 9th Round

The night ended with a third home win, which came with an exclamation point.

In detonating a right uppercut to the body of Ancajas in round nine, Inoue became the first man to stop the proud warrior from the Philippines.

Inoue — now 19-1 with five stoppage victories — had started the contest well and timed his finishing shot perfectly. Ancajas was staging something of a revival as the fight approached its final quarter.

It continued the theme of the evening — a good standard of opponents bringing a challenge, but the Japanese fighters finding a way to win.

While Ancajas enjoyed small moments of success in the early stages of the fight, it was Inoue's eye-catching counter-punching and distance control that was accumulating points on the scorecards for him.

Ancajas seemed to have the upper hand when the boxing was taking place at close quarters. With the rounds ticking down and both fighters tiring, this may have been the style of the closing rounds. That potential problem was erased by Inoue's thudding ninth-round body shot.

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Takuma Inoue celebrates his ninth-round knockout of Jerwin Ancajas. (KYODO)

"Coming in tonight, I knew my opponent would be the best I had faced," Inoue stated after the fight as reported by Kyodo News.

The winning boxer concluded, "He [Ancajas] was so skilled and so strong. Winning against him has really given me confidence."

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From left, undisputed super bantamweight world champion Naoya Inoue, WBA bantamweight champ Takuma Inoue and their father/coach Shingo Inoue. (©SANKEI)

Next Up for Inoue

Like Nakatani, unification bouts with any of the other bantamweight title holders are now possible for Takuma Inoue.

Perhaps the best fight to pursue from a financial point of view would be an all-Japanese showdown with Nakatani.

Without knowing the politics of the WBA, its top brass may want Inoue to defend against one of their highly ranked contenders. This could see him potentially face another domestic rival, Sho Ishida (34-0, 17 KOs) or American Antonio Vargas (18-1, 10 KOs).

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Takuma Inoue (right) and Jerwin Ancajas vie for victory in the eighth round. (©SANKEI)

In Closing….

While what comes next in boxing is always uncertain, what we can be certain of after Saturday is that Tanaka, Nakatani and Takuma Inoue are up there with the current crop of elite Japanese boxers who collectively have Japan as one of the top boxing nations on earth at the moment.

With Naoya Inoue, Ioka, Kenshiro Teraji and the Shigeoka brothers — Ginjiro and Yudai — also currently active and giving can't-miss performances in the ring, Japanese boxing is in an extremely good place.

What we witnessed on Saturday underlined that statement. The world watched and enjoyed the show. It's a great time to be a boxing fan in Japan.

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Author: Colin Morrison

Morrison is a freelance sportswriter. Find his stories on SportsLook. Writing since 2016, his byline appears on boxing website NYFights.com and multi-sports platform Spitballingpod.com. His main areas of interest are boxing, soccer, golf and rugby union. Morrison is from Scotland and can be found on X (formerly Twitter) @Morrie1981.

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