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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Naoya Inoue is The Ring's 2023 Fighter of the Year

Unbeaten Naoya Inoue unified the super bantamweight division with an impressive performance against Marlon Tapales in only his second fight in the weight class.

In 2023, Naoya Inoue became an undisputed world champion in a second weight class, an accomplishment only one other man has achieved in boxing's four-belt era (since 2004). His name is Terence Crawford, the current world welterweight king.

Inoue whipped Stephen Fulton on July 25 (an eighth-round technical knockout) and stopped Marlon Tapales on December 26 (a 10th-round knockout). Both fights were staged at Ariake Arena in Tokyo.

With a perfect 26-0 record (23 KOs) in his illustrious career, Inoue's feats in the ring are legendary. And he's being recognized by some of the biggest names in sports media for his accomplishments in 2023.

On Friday, January 5, The Ring magazine named Inoue its 2023 Fighter of the Year. He is the first Japanese boxer to be chosen for the prestigious award. Global sports media giant ESPN also named Inoue its Fighter of the Year.

Since 1928, The Ring, the venerable American boxing publication, has presented its Fighter of the Year award, an honor first bestowed on heavyweight champion Gene Tunney.

Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue sits in front of a display of sports newspapers at Ohashi Boxing Gym in Yokohama on December 27, 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

Among Asian boxers, Filipino Manny Pacquiao was the last to claim the award (in 2006, 2008 and '09).

Reaching the Top as an Elite Fighter

In 2022, Inoue, known to his fans as "Monster," confirmed what many boxing insiders have been saying for years ― that he's one of the world's elite fighters.

Inoue, who was born in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, and heavyweight Tyson Fury were named the WBC's 2022 Fighters of the Year. Just like in 2023, Inoue had two triumphant title bouts the previous year, dismantling Nonito Donaire via a second-round TKO in June and scoring an 11th-round KO of Paul Butler in December. Those victories gave Inoue sole reign in the bantamweight division (53.5 kg, or 118 pounds, weight class) as he held all four titles after the latter fight.

Naoya Inoue
Boxer Naoya Inoue is 26-0 with 23 knockouts in his pro career. (KYODO)

For Naoya Inoue, 2023 Marked a Fresh Start

But after conquering the bantamweight division, Inoue yearned for new challenges. So he relinquished the four bantamweight titles and moved up in weight in 2023 to super bantamweight (55.3 kg, or 122 pounds).

The timing was right.

Inoue's combination of punching power and speed is suited for the super bantamweight division.

Looking ahead, there's speculation that Inoue will fight as early as May against Mexico's Luis Nery. Inoue's handlers, including Ohashi Boxing Gym president Hideyuki Ohashi, have not announced official plans yet for 2024.

But Inoue said he'll put his faith in his management team to line up his next opponent.

"I'll just give my all to the bouts that get decided, [and] I entrust Ohashi-san with matchmaking and I'll look forward to whatever bouts I get," Inoue told reporters after his victory over Tapales.

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Kazuto Ioka punches Josber Perez in the third round of their WBA super flyweight title fight on December 31, 2023, at Ota City General Gymnasium in Tokyo. (ⒸSANKEI)

Ioka Keeps WBA Super Flyweight Title Via a 7th-Round KO

Veteran champion Kazuto Ioka knocked out Venezuelan challenger Josber Perez in the seventh round of their WBA super flyweight title fight on New Year's Eve in Tokyo.

As a result, Ioka improved to 31-2-1 (16 knockouts).

Perez fell to 20-4 (18 KOs).

Ioka, 34, was making his first title defense at super flyweight. He previously earned world titles at minimumweight, light flyweight and flyweight.

At Ota City General Gymnasium, Ioka produced two fifth-round knockdowns of Perez, a sign of things to come.

Late in the seventh round, Ioka landed a straight right that hit Perez in the middle of his face, a punch that dropped him to the canvas. The fight was declared a KO 2:44 into the round.

"Right from the start Perez landed some good punches, and it was a tough way to start the fight, but I was resolved to show everyone I could battle to the end," Ioka was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

It was Ioka's first stoppage victory since December 31, 2020, against Kosei Tanaka, who lost on a TKO in the eighth round.

"I am very pleased by my being able to show a KO victory for the first time in a long time," Ioka told Boxing News. "Though Perez had a punching power, I really wanted to earn a KO victory for my fans.''

Naomi Osaka competes in a second-round match at the Brisbane International on January 3. (KYODO)

Tennis

Osaka Falls in Second Round of Brisbane International 

Making her comeback after maternity leave at the Brisbane International, Naomi Osaka won her first WTA Tour match in nearly 15 months on Monday, January 1 in Australia.

Osaka, now 26, defeated German opponent Tamara Korpatsch 6-3, 7-6 (11-9) in the opening round of the Australian Open tuneup tournament.

Returning to tennis, Osaka admitted she's been reinvigorated by the sport.

"The last couple years that I played before I had my daughter, I didn't return as much love as I was given," Osaka was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "So I really feel like that's what I want to do in this chapter.

"I just really appreciate people coming out and people knowing me and cheering for me."

Two days later, Osaka, a former world No 1, faced another former top-ranked player in the second round. Karolina Pliskova ousted Osaka 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.

Pliskova has a 4-2 career record against Osaka.

"Even though it's super disappointing today, I know that if I keep training and if I keep putting in the work, then I'll eventually get to where I want to be," Osaka told reporters, according to Kyodo News.

Liverpool's Wataru Endo (left) in action with Burnley's Zeki Amdouni on December 26, 2023, in Burnley, England. (Phil Noble/REUTETS)

Soccer

Liverpool's Endo Receives Team's Player of the Month Accolade

Midfielder Wataru Endo's veteran leadership and playmaking skills were on display for Liverpool in December 2023. Fans selected Endo as the team's Player of the Month, it was announced on Thursday, January 4.

Receiving regular playing time (seven starts, including six in Premier League matches), Endo rewarded Liverpool with productive overall play in the month. 

He scored his first Premier League goal on December 3 against Fulham. This tied the score at 3-3, and Liverpool went on to win 4-3.

"I'm so glad to be chosen as the Player of the Month," Endo said in a news release. "I hope this is just one of many!

"December is a very important month, also for me, because we had so many injured players and I knew I needed to show why I'm here.

"It's a very tough month but the way we played and how we showed on the pitch was great, in my opinion."

The 30-year-old Japan national team captain played for German club VfB Stuttgart from 2019-23, then joined Liverpool on a four-year contract.

Japan's Ao Tanaka scores a goal against Thailand in the second half on January 1 at Tokyo's National Stadium. (ⒸSANKEI)

Samurai Blue Rout Thailand on New Year's Day

In preparation for the upcoming Asian Cup (January 12-February 10), the Japan men's national team faced Thailand on New Year's Day at National Stadium.

After a scoreless first half before a crowd of nearly 62,000 spectators in Tokyo, the Samurai Blue pounced on Thailand in the second half to earn a 5-0 victory on Monday.

Ao Tanaka broke the scoreless stalemate in the 51st minute. Keito Nakamura doubled the lead in the 72nd minute. 

In the 82nd minute, an own goal made it 3-0. 

Takumu Kawamura and Takumi Minamino rounded out the scoring.

Insights from Manager Moriyasu

Japan manager Haijime Moriyasu said he was pleased with the team's overall performance.

"Although we struggled to create chances against a tenacious Thai defense in the early stages of the match, the persistence and aggression of our players wore down the opponents and led to the five goals scored in the second half," Moriyasu told reporters.

"We didn't have enough time to work on the tactics thoroughly, so we knew it would be a challenge to get everyone on the same page. But the players did a great job of communicating with each other in training, on and off the pitch, about what the team needed to do and how to get the best out of each other, which I think led to this win." 

Japan opens its Asian Cup campaign against Group D opponent Vietnam on January 14 in Qatar.

Shimane Susanoo Magic's Perrin Buford made 21 of 30 shots against the Osaka Evessa on December 30, 2023. (B.LEAGUE)

Basketball

Buford Shines in Shimane's Final Series of 2023

Starting small forward Perrin Buford, one of the B.League's best players, had a sensational 50-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist triple-double on December 30 against the Osaka Evessa.

In the hosts' 111-82 win over the Evessa, the Middle Tennessee State product made 21 of 30 shots from the floor, finishing with a career-high total for points. He sank 7 of 8 free-throw attempts, made two steals and blocked a shot in 37 minutes, 41 seconds of court time.

Shimane Susanoo Magic forward Perrin Buford controls the action against the Osaka Evessa on December 30 in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. (B.LEAGUE)

"We came out, we played hard," Buford said in a postgame news conference. "I got it going early. We got off to a big lead, we shared the ball and played hard defense and that got us a victory."

Looking back on his scoring output, Buford said he was unaware he had a chance to set a personal record.

"You only get a chance to get 50 or a high number like that so many times," the 29-year-old said, "so I just wanted to relish the moment, and when I hit it I was overcome with joy."

Perrin Buford (B.LEAGUE)

Focus on Team's Offensive Rhythm

Buford is averaging 22.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 21 games this season. He described himself as a "pass-first individual," saying this helps set the tone for the team's offense.

Buford also credited teammates, including Seiya Ando and Nick Kay, for their key scoring contributions.

"Those guys just make it easy for me," Buford said, "because they are playing at such a high level it frees up teams on me so I can get it going when those guys are making shots and we are in a rhythm offensively."

In the Susanoo Magic's final game of 2023, Buford led the club with 32 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists in an 89-83 decision over Osaka on New Year's Eve in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.

Shimane ushered in the New Year with a 16-10 record, including three straight victories.

Buford was selected by fans to start in the 2024 B.League All-Star Game on January 14 in Okinawa City,

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University of Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga shoots a jumper against Indiana University on January 3 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (NEBRASKA ATHLETICS)

Nebraska Sharpshooter Tominaga Scores Season-High 28 Points 

The University of Nebraska men's basketball team is off to its best start through 14 games since the 1990-91 season, and senior guard Keisei Tominaga is one of the Cornhuskers' keys to success.

Tominaga scored a game-high and season-high 28 points in an 86-70 home triumph over Indiana University at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday, January 3. He made four 3-pointers in the win, the Cornhuskers' first victory over the Hoosiers since 1999.

The 2023-24 Nebraska squad improved to 12-2. In the 1990-91 campaign, the team was 13-1 at this stage of the season.

Cornhuskers head coach Fred Hoiberg said he was delighted that Tominaga's family was able to witness his strong performance during their visit from Japan.

"It was great to see Keisei get it going [on offense]," Hoiberg said. "I love that his family was in the building. It's a special thing being away from his family for as long as he has the last few years. For them to witness this event, I told them they need to find a place over here. He seems to be pretty good when they're in the building."

Proud of his performance, Tominaga pointed out that he felt comfortable on offense as the game progressed.

"Once I started making the shots, I started moving well, too. It's what makes me special," Tominaga told reporters. "I also have to start from the beginning. Once I get in rhythm, I have 100 percent confidence."

Tominaga is averaging 14.0 points in his 12 games to date.

Hakone Ekiden
Aoyama Gakuin University's Shunya Udagawa crosses the finish line to clinch the Hakone Ekiden victory for his school on January 3 in Tokyo's Otemachi district. (ⒸSANKEI)

Track and Field

Aoyama Gakuin Wins the 100th Hakone Ekiden

Aoyama Gakuin University captured its seventh Hakone Ekiden title and first since 2022 on Wednesday, January 3 in Tokyo's Otemachi district.

The Tokyo-based university, one of 23 from the Kanto region competing in the two-day, 10-leg distance relay event, set an overall race record of 10 hours, 41 minutes, 25 seconds.

Komazawa University, the 2023 race winner, placed second in 10:48:00. 

Josai University earned a third-place finish (10:52:26).

After the first day of the competition officially known as the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, Aoyama Gakuin held a 2-minute, 38-second lead over Komazawa University.

Then, on the 109.6-km return leg from Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Tokyo, the lead expanded. It was a credit to the collective work of Aoyama's five Day 2 runners, who picked off where the team's first-day participants left off.

Hakone Ekiden
Members of the Aoyama Gakuin University squad react after winning the 2024 Hakone Ekiden on January 3. (ⒸSANKEI)

"I'm happy to have run in this Hakone Ekiden and won the title, which was my dream since I entered this school," said Kento Yamauchi, an Aoyama Gakuin senior who ran the seventh leg of the race, according to Kyodo News.

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Baseball

MLB Eyeing a 2025 Season-Opening Series at Tokyo Dome

Talks have begun between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball officials about holding an MLB season-opening series at Tokyo Dome in March 2025.

NPB Commissioner Sadayuki Sakakibara acknowledged discussions have started. 

"We are on track to hold the series, but it's undecided which teams are coming," Sakakibara said, according to Kyodo News, on Friday, January 5.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, whose star-studded roster includes two-time American League MVP Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, are believed to be one of the top candidates to play in the season-opening series.

Briefly…

The 2024 JLPGA Tour season begins with the Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament (February 29-March 3) at Ryukyu Golf Club in Okinawa. On the men's side, the Japan Golf Tour season kicks off with the Token Homemate Cup (March 28-31) at Token Tado Country Club Nagoya.


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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