For the mainstream US boxing networks who failed to showcase this matchup between two of the best little men in the game — one a four division world champion and another striving to become one — it proved to be a missed opportunity of grand proportions. But for the American fight fans who woke up before 4 AM to follow the action live, it was well worth not hitting the snooze button as Kazuto Ioka turned in a career-best performance with a spectacular eighth round TKO over an extremely game and courageous Kosei Tanaka.
Ioka, the WBO super-flyweight champion, was making his second defense of the title in front of a lively crowd in Tokyo against the reigning WBO flyweight champ Tanaka, who brought the fight to the bigger man from the very start. The previously unbeaten Tanaka was eager to make his punching power and natural athletic ability a factor early on, and had a very strong first round, keeping Ioka on the back-foot and at the end of several well-timed straight rights and left uppercuts.
Ioka came back strong in the second, establishing his presence with strong left hook counter shots as well as crisp combinations in close. This didn’t discourage Tanaka, however, who continued taking the fight to the champion, digging some heavy leather to the ribcage. The fight exhibited excellent back-and-forth action in the early rounds, with the kind of momentum swings that would lead one to conclude that whoever could make better adjustments down the stretch would emerge victorious. It wasn’t until late in round five that we saw any separation between the two warriors, as Ioka beat Tanaka to the punch with a vicious left hook that sent the challenger to the deck.
But the knockdown wouldn’t take away from Tanaka’s fight plan, as he got up and continued to pursue the champion. However, that tenacity would backfire on him as he walked into a nearly identical left hook in the following round that put him on the canvas again. This time, Tanaka was in serious trouble, but despite the two knockdowns, Ioka maintained his composure, continued to employ what was working and did not rush the finish.
The seventh round really showcased Tanaka’s heart as, despite the abuse he had suffered, the challenger continued to walk Ioka down and even landed some fierce body shots. Both men’s faces showed the wear-and-tear from a pitched battle thus far, but there was no give in terms of the fight’s intensity. But Ioka was really beginning to show his class as the rounds wore on, and midway through round eight, a left hook practically knocked Tanaka out on his feet and prompted referee Michiaki Someya to immediately step in and save the challenger.
With the victory, Ioka improved to 26-2 (15 KOs) and solidified his position among some of the best fighters at 115, which is a truly stacked division in its own right. If Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez have anything left after their eagerly awaited rematch in March, a unification between the winner and Ioka could be one of the best matches to be made in all of boxing, as each of those three pugilists is a pristine technical fighter who doesn’t shy away from a high-contact affair. Former kingpin Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and reigining IBF champion Jerwin Ancajas are also great future matchups for Ioka, who proved against Tanaka that he is truly a force to be reckoned with in the super-flyweight division. — Alden Chodash