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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Naoya Inoue Chases History in Title Unification Fight

Super bantamweight Naoya Inoue takes on Marlon Tapales and aims to become the first undisputed world champ in two weight classes in back-to-back years.

When he steps into the ring at Ariake Arena on Tuesday night, December, 26, Naoya Inoue will attempt to accomplish something no professional boxer has ever done before. 

His quest? To become an undisputed world champion in two weight classes in consecutive years (actually, a 13-month period) in the four-belt era (since 2004).

Inoue (25-0, 22 knockouts) puts his WBC and WBO super bantamweight title belts on the line against Filipino champion Marlon Tapales (37-3, 19 KOs), who owns the IBF and WBA titles.

Known to his legions of fans as "Monster," Inoue relinquished his four bantamweight title belts in early 2023, a few weeks after unifying the division by dismantling Paul Butler with a flurry of punches in the 11th round on December 13, 2022. 

Without a doubt, Inoue was ready for new challenges in a heavier weight class. 

Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue is crowned WBC and WBO super bantamweight world champion on July 25 in Tokyo. (ⒸSANKEI)

In an interview with NHK's "Backstories" feature series in January, Inoue shared some insights about his thoughts on this phase of his legendary boxing career.

"I think it's important to stay motivated," Inoue told NHK. "If you don't motivate yourself, you won't be able to improve. That's why it's important to fight against strong opponents and take on new challenges."

He's had no trouble staying motivated in the months that followed.

In his first fight as a super bantamweight, Inoue dethroned American Stephen Fulton, the WBC and WBO champ, on July 25 at Ariake Arena, winning via an eighth-round technical knockout.

That set the stage for a high-profile encounter with Tapales, who was inside the Tokyo venue in July when Fulton lost his title belts.

Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue trains on December 15 in Yokohama. (KYODO)

Naoya Inoue Reflects on His Preparations for Tapales

Since his impressive win over Fulton five months ago, Inoue has dedicated himself to getting ready for one more fight to close out the year.

Speaking to reporters on December 15 at Yokohama's Ohashi Boxing Gym, the 30-year-old fighter said he's pleased with pre-fight preparations.

"I'm more motivated than before, and that has exceeded my expectations," Inoue was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

He went on: "I've been training on the premise that I'll be facing a skilled all-around boxer, [and] I've gotten myself into better condition than I was for the Fulton bout."

Not wanting to suffer the first defeat of his career the day after Christmas, Inoue said he's well aware of Tapales' mindset heading into their title unification bout.

"Tapales is looking to pull off an upset, so I'll be careful," Inoue said, according to Kyodo News.

In a recent workout attended by the media, Inoue gave some interesting details about his approach to training in the run-up to his fight against Tapales.

"For this fight, I am dealing with a different training regimen, making adjustments, and building up an image in my mind of myself as a boxer who is dexterous and can do anything," Inoue said, according to The Philippine Star.


Former Orix Buffaloes pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto is a three-time Sawamura Award winner. (KYODO)

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Dodgers Reach Agreement with Yamamoto on a 12-Year Deal

Three-time Sawamura Award winner Yoshinobu Yamamoto is joining the Los Angeles Dodgers on a 12-year, $325 million USD (about ¥46.3 billion JPY) contract. It is the largest contract ever for an MLB rookie. reported on Saturday, December 23 that the Dodgers had not yet made an announcement while the club waited for the results of a physical.

News of Yamamoto's long-term contract arrives just days after the Dodgers handed two-time American League MVP Shohei Ohtani a 10-year contract worth $700 million USD (about ¥100 billion JPY), an all-time record deal for an athlete in a team sport.

Yamamoto, 25, owns a career win-loss record of 70-29 in seven seasons with NPB's Orix Buffaloes. The hard-throwing right-hander, who helped Orix advance to the Japan Series in three straight seasons through 2023, went 16-6 with a minuscule 1.21 ERA this past season.

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani addresses the media during his introductory news conference on December 14 at Dodger Stadium. (KYODO)

Ohtani Named AP Male Athlete of the Year 

For the second time in his illustrious career, Ohtani has been named The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, it was announced on Wednesday, December 20.

This prestigious honor for 2023 follows his headline-grabbing feat in 2021 when he won it for the first time.

Since 1931, AP has presented annual awards to a top male and a top female athlete, with sports editors in the United States voting for the winners. 

For the 2023 Male Athlete of the Year balloting, there were 87 first-place votes, according to published reports. Ohtani was listed first on 20 ballots. Soccer star Lionel Messi and tennis dynamo Novak Djokovic each received 16 votes.

With his selection coming days after signing his record-shattering contract with the Dodgers, Ohtani joins an elite list of 11 athletes who've won the Athlete of the Year award more than once. Those multiple winners include names such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

Among his noteworthy feats in 2023 as MLB's lone two-way superstar, Ohtani led the American League with 44 home runs in his sixth and final season with the Los Angeles Angels and he struck out 167 batters in 132 innings as a starting pitcher. He held batters to a .184 average, the lowest among the AL's starters.

Former Angels manager Phil Nevin spoke with glowing praise of Ohtani's all-around skills during the 2023 MLB season. Nevin was relieved of his duties in early October.

"There's nobody like him, and there's nothing that you would say he can't do," Nevin said, according to The Associated Press. "Anything is possible with Sho. I don't know who else you could say that about in baseball history."

Ohtani was the MVP of the 2023 World Baseball Classic.


The J.League's board of directors holds a meeting on December 19 in Tokyo. (KYODO)


J.League to Shift Start of Season to the Spring in 2026

Starting in the 2026-27 season, the J.League calendar will have a summer start and the campaign will conclude in the late spring. This alters the league calendar, which under the current model has a mid-February start and an early December conclusion.

The decision, which has been under discussion and debate for considerable time, was officially finalized on December 19, when an announcement was made

In approving the plan, the J.League's board of directors outlined a calendar for 2026-27, with the season getting underway in the first week of August and concluding at the end of May. A break from the second week of December to the third week of February is a part of the overhaul.

The J.League put forth the proposal to alter its calendar to be in line with the summer-to-spring format used by the overwhelming majority of pro leagues around the world. This is seen as a way to help the J.League have smoother dealings with overseas clubs for player transfer to Japan and from the J.League to foreign leagues.

Urawa Finishes Fourth in Club World Cup

The Urawa Reds lost their two final matches of the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia and had to settle for fourth place.

Tournament champion Manchester City defeated the Reds 3-0 in the semifinals on Tuesday, December 19 in Jeddah.

In the third-place match on Friday, Egyptian club Al Ahly, which qualified for the tournament as the African champion, beat Urawa 4-2.

The Reds evened the score at 2-2 on an Alexander Scholz penalty kick in the 54th minute before Al Ahly netted two more goals to ensure victory.

Urawa booked a spot in the annual tourney by winning the Asian Champions League in May.

Brighton's Kaoru Mitoma (left) in action with Crystal Palace's Nathaniel Clyne on December 21 in London. (Toby Melville/REUTERS)

Brighton's Mitoma Sustains Ankle Injury 

Kaoru Mitoma, a left winger for English Premier League squad Brighton, is sidelined with a left ankle injury.

Mitomoa, who also plays for the Japan national team, hurt his ankle in a game against Crystal Palace on Thursday, December 21 in London. The injury occurred in the 83rd minute.

Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi spoke about Mitoma's injury after the match, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

"With Mitoma, I hope it won't be a big injury for him and for us," De Zerbi was quoted as saying by numerous media outlets. "But I don't know. We will see in the next few days."

The injury raises serious doubts that Mitoma will be able to play for Japan at the 2024 Asian Cup, which will be held from January 12 to February 10 in Qatar.


Former Samurai Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama (right) receives the Prime Minister's Cup from Fumio Kishida, the Japanese Prime Minister, during the 2023 Japan Professional Sports Awards ceremony on December 21 in Tokyo. Kuriyama led the Japan national baseball team to the World Baseball Classic title in March. (ⒸSANKEI)

General Sports

Samurai Japan, Javelin Thrower Kitaguchi Honored at Sports Awards Ceremony

Samurai Japan, winner of this year's World Baseball Classic, and female javelin thrower Haruka Kitaguchi, gold medalist at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, were selected for the top prizes of at 53rd Japan Professional Sports Awards show. They were recognized for their achievements at a ceremony held on Thursday, December 21 in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended the ceremony for the presentation of the Prime Minister's Cup, which was awarded to the Japan national baseball team.

"I believe that each of the athletes who received an award at the Sports Awards today is a missionary of sports in their own right, and I think that they are evangelists who give dreams to children," Kishida said during his speech at the ceremony.

The Prime Minister added, "I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations to each of you for your achievements, and I hope that you will use this honor as a source of encouragement for your continued success. So, I would like to express my congratulations. Congratulations." 

Kitaguchi received the Distinguished Service Award during the ceremony.

Haruka Kitaguchi holds the Distinguished Service Award at the ceremony on December 21. (ⒸSANKEI)

Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.



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