Crossroads for Yamanaka

By notching defense number 12 of his WBC bantamweight title earlier this month against little known Mexican Carlos Carlson, Shinsuke Yamanaka took another step towards equalling countryman Yoko Gushiken’s record for title defences in the Land of the Rising Sun, but the fighter they call “God’s Left” finds himself at a career crossroads.

A quick glance at the undefeated Yamanaka’s record is more than enough to show he is the pre-eminent bantamweight in the world right now. His reign has been an intriguing one and there’s no doubt he has bested some serious opposition, but the majority of his wins have come against former super flyweights. While it’s not uncommon for fighters to move up in weight, the fact remains that, with the exception of his two victories over Anselmo Moreno, there’s a significant lack of quality wins against other bantamweights.

"God's Left" batters Carlson.
“God’s Left” batters Carlson.

As the famed English poet, T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” In the case of Yamanaka this is intrinsically true. The crossroads he now stands at could very well determine his legacy. He must decide: will he steer the ship through calmer waters, continue to fight his mandatory challengers and surpass Gushiken’s record? Going that route, he may even equal the all-time bantamweight record for title defences held by Orlando Canizales. Or will he risk potentially rough waters and seek to unify the bantamweight title belts?

The three other champions at 118 pounds certainly pose challenges for Yamanaka, but not insurmountable ones. History has generally been kind to those who have unified and the champion needs to decide very soon if that’s the path he will take. Sure, there’s perhaps been some regression in his technical skills in recent times, but even so, he has that great equalizer, his murderous left hand, “God’s Left.” But the choice of Carlson as his most recent opponent leads many to believe that Yamanaka is in fact taking the path of least resistance and attempting to best Gushikan’s record. But when asked about the milestone after the bout, the Japanese pugilist declared otherwise.

Yamanaka's wins over Anselmo Moreno were huge.
Yamanaka’s wins over Anselmo Moreno make induction in Canastota likely.

“I’ve repeatedly said this, but I’m not dwelling on the record,” stated Yamanaka in The Japan Times. “I’d just be pleased if my fans have fun with my fights.”

Yamanaka’s fights have been highly entertaining through the years and the fans have undoubtedly witnessed some great battles, but one can’t help thinking he is likely chasing the record. It’s true that a champion must face his mandatory opponents should he wish to keep his belt, but is defeating a fighter like Carlos Carlson really the best move for a 34-year-old champion whose skills seem to be on the decline?

Carlson was ranked ninth by the WBC before his shot at the title but had never before fought a scheduled 12 round match. He hardly represented a stern test for a champion who has reigned for several years. Instead Carlson was intended to be a routine title defense and that’s exactly what we saw when “God’s Left” battered and stopped him in round seven. One can forgive Yamanaka for taking a stay busy fight against a less than stellar opponent like Carlson, especially after the war against Moreno which occurred six months prior, but what he does next will show how he plans to finish up his career.

Yamanaka has already secured his place as one of the best bantamweights of this era; that can’t be taken from him but he finds himself at a crossroads with a big decision to make. One can only hope the next title defense will feature an impressive foe, and preferably one who possesses some championship hardware of his own. Lee Haskins, Marlon Tapales or Zhanat Zhakiyanov, should Yamanaka be brave enough to take the risk, would fit the bill nicely.

When all is said and done, Yamanaka is likely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Canastota. He is an accomplished champion and his number of title defences, along with wins over Vic Darchinyan and Moreno are enough to get him there, but should he truly desire a legacy that compares to that of Japan’s best ever boxers, then he must risk the record and take on the strongest opposition his division has to offer.          — Daniel Attias 

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