In boxing, there are few things that are certain, but one thing that has remained tried and true is Japan finishing the year on a strong note.
The history of Japan’s New Year’s Eve show (or at least for the past decade) is full of classic fights, world championship bouts, future Hall Of Famers and more. This year’s show, while heavily affected due to COVID-19, is no different. Headlining the 2020 show in Tokyo is Kazuto Ioka vs. Kosei Tanaka for the WBO super flyweight title.
On paper, the fight not only has the makings to be a Fight Of The Year contender, but an instant classic. Both fighters possess an incredible array of fan friendly styles and punches and have been a part of classic bouts. The narratives and stakes heading surrounding this fight are also just as fascinating as the in-ring aspects.
Ioka, the nephew of former world champion Hiroki Ioka, is just one of less than roughly two dozen men in history to win world titles in at least four weight classes and the first Japanese man to do. After a successful run as a flyweight champion, Ioka had a reported falling out with his father and promoter Kazunori Ioka after Kazuto got married to pop singer Nana Tanimura. The drama surrounding the issue was elevated when Ioka suddenly retired at just the age of 28. Ioka would go on to come back nearly 18 months later as a super flyweight and eventually won the WBO title in June 2019.
Outside of Naoya Inoue, Kosei Tanaka has become the international darling for hardcore boxing fans. Tanaka has an offense-first style that blends together a mix of ferocious punching and speed while allowing himself to get hit, making for amazing clashes and fights. None was more spectacular than Tanaka’s win over Sho Kimura in 2018 for the WBO flyweight title in what was an all-time great flyweight world title bout.
Like Ioka, Tanaka has made history in the pro ranks in Japanese boxing. Tanaka is the fastest Japanese man in history to win a world title in three weight classes, doing so in just 12 fights. Amazingly, Tanaka is just entering his prime at 25 years old and is only becoming a bigger star in his home country. Headlining the New Year’s Eve show against Ioka will most assuredly elevate Tanaka’s star power. For so long, Tanaka has been mainly a regional star in Chubu, with his promoter Kiyoshi Hatanaka cornering the Japanese market in Nagoya for Tanaka. However, Tanaka still hadn’t reached the status that fellow countrymen such as Inoue and Ryota Murata currently stand in.
This was a fight that was months in the making. When Tanaka vacated his flyweight title to move up to super flyweight, a fight against Ioka seemed inevitable. The coronavirus pandemic initially seemed to derail this all-Japanese superfight, but even that wasn’t enough to stop it from happening.
The winner of this fight not only makes a strong case to be considered in the pound-for-pound top 10 but also get to that Inoue/Murata star level in Japan. More so than that, the winner will have a career-defining victory, especially for Tanaka, who has one of the highest ceilings in the sport today.
Come hell or high water, Ioka and Tanaka were destined to clash in a big stage in Japan. No bigger stage in Japanese boxing exists than the New Year’s Eve.
However, this wouldn’t be the first time these two fighters shared a show on New Year’s Eve. In fact, their history with fighting on December 31 goes back nearly a decade with the two of them delivering incredible performances on that day. It’s worth looking back on each of their performances on New Year’s Eve before they write the next chapter in Japanese boxing history.
2019: Ota-City General Gymnasium in Tokyo:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Jeyvier Cintron by unanimous decision to retain the WBO super flyweight title
- Kosei Tanaka defeated Wulan Tuolehazi by KO to retain the WBO flyweight title
Last year’s New Year’s Eve show properly set the stage for the epic fight closing out 2020. Ioka was making his first title defense after beating Aston Palicte earlier the year to capture WBO super flyweight title. Standing in his way was Jeyvier Cintron, a young Puerto Rican fighter with a solid amateur pedigree but had yet to fight any major names in the paid ranks. Some believed Cintron was moving up way too quickly to the world title picture and had not been developed properly. However, Cintron proved to be more than capable of handling himself against the upper echelon of fighters at 115 pounds. Ioka outboxed Cintron, but it was a competitive bout for several rounds.
In the co-main event, Tanaka competed in what was his last fight at flyweight. Tanaka’s run as a WBO flyweight champion ended with an emphatic and dominant performance over Chinese contender Wulan Tuolehazi. Overwhelming Tuolehazi with tremendous pressure punching, Tanaka knocked him out in the third round. Afterwards, it became abundantly clear that Tanaka had his eyes set on both the super flyweight division and on Ioka.
2018: Wynn Palace Cotai in Macao, China:
- Donnie Nietes defeated Kazuto Ioka by split decision to win the WBO super flyweight title
Although this fight took place outside of Japan, the whole event had the spirit and the depth of a New Year’s Eve show in Japan. Following the departure of Naoya Inoue to the bantamweight division, Ioka got a chance to be a four-division titlist. Standing in his way was Donnie Nietes, who was also looking to join the quadruple champion’s club. The both engaged in a dramatic back-and-forth affair that was almost too close to call. However, a late rally from Nietes and his right hook in the championship rounds helped get the split decision title win. The loss was a momentary road block for Ioka, who would go on to win the title in his next fight.
2016: Memorial Center in Gifu:
- Kosei Tanaka defeated Moises Fuentes by TKO to win the WBO light flyweight title
By this point, Tanaka has emerged as a young fighter with the abilities to become a potential pound-for-pound star. Fresh off his run as a minimumweight champion, Tanaka sought to become a two-division titlist when he faced Moises Fuentes. It was on this fight where the Japanese audience further saw Tanaka’s potential as an aggressive and entertaining fighter. Fuentes couldn’t handle Tanaka’s power and speed and was dropped in the fifth round. Tanaka continued the onslaught and stopped him just seconds later to win his second title.
2016: Shimazu Arena in Kyoto:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Yutthana Kaensa by TKO to retain the WBA flyweight title
While Tanaka took that year’s show to cement himself as a champion at light flyweight, Ioka’s flyweight title reign remained strong in Kyoto. Having already held the WBA title since 2015, Ioka faced previously-unbeaten Thai fighter Yutthana Kaensa. The fight came together after Kaensa won a pair of fights against Gregorio Lebron to win the WBA’s interim title at 112 pounds. Despite a spirited effort from Kaensa, Ioka proved to be too much and too experienced for the then-18-year-old fighter. Ioka emerged victorious with a seventh-round stoppage victory.
2015: Aichi Prefectural Gym in Nagoya:
- Kosei Tanaka defeated Victorio Saludar by TKO to retain the WBO minimumweight title
Tanaka’s first New Year’s Eve fight saw him face his toughest test so far as a pro. Saludar has often been a considered a stalwart of the minimumweight division for the past several years. This was Tanaka’s first test as a world champion, having won the WBO 105-pound belt in his last outing, which was also his fifth pro bout. In that fight, Tanaka proved he can fight 12 rounds in a championship level fight, but now the question was can he do so as a champion? Although Tanaka was the champion, it was Saludar who dictated the pace and clearly outboxed Tanaka.
The fight reached its highest point of drama when Saludar dropped Tanaka in the fifth round with a devastating right hand. Despite the odds stacked against Tanaka up to that point, he was able to not only bounce back but do so seconds later. Tanaka managed to score a TKO victory over Saludar with a massive body shot that left Saludar unable to keep fighting. Tanaka needed that stoppage as he was down on the scorecards with scores of 50-44, 50-44 and 49-45.
2015: EDION Arena Osaka in Osaka:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Juan Carlos Reveco by TKO to retain the WBA flyweight title
In the spring of 2015, Ioka finally became a three-division champion when he scored a majority decision over Reveco to win the WBA title. This was a notable win as Reveco had held the title for nearly three years up to that point. Still, it didn’t mean that Ioka and Reveco were done facing each other that year. Headlining that year’s New Year’s Eve show in Osaka, Japan, Ioka delivered a more definitive result in the rematch. Ioka and Reveco traded punches back-and-forth, but Ioka still won out with an 11th round TKO victory.
2014: Bodymaker Colosseum in Osaka:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Jean Piero Perez by KO
Seven months prior to this fight, Ioka suffered a controversial split decision loss to Amnat Ruenroeng with the IBF flyweight title on the line. It had been the first time Ioka lost as a pro, but his goal of becoming a three-division champion didn’t stop with that loss. In his first New Year’s Eve fight that wasn’t for a world title, Ioka demonstrated his power against journeyman Jean Piero Perez. Ioka knocked Perez out in the fifth round in Ioka’s second victory and his last one before he would go on to win the WBA flyweight title months later.
2013: Bodymaker Colosseum in Osaka:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Felix Alvarado by unanimous decision to retain the WBA light flyweight title
Before Ioka’s loss to Ruenroeng, he took on then-unbeaten Nicaraguan fighter Felix Alvarado in his first world title fight. Alvarado came into the fight as a solid knockout puncher at 108 pounds, but even he couldn’t dethrone the champion. On the one-year anniversary of his win over Jose Alfredo Rodriguez, Ioka was impressive once again, outboxing Alvarado for most of the 12 rounds contested. Alvarado was able to get some good shots in, but Ioka was more than skillful enough to win a fairly lopsided 12-round decision in Osaka.
2012: Bodymaker Colosseum in Osaka:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Jose Alfredo Rodriguez by TKO to win the WBA light flyweight title
By this point, Ioka had been riding a massive high in his boxing career. Six months prior to this bout, Ioka defeated Akira Yaegashi to unify the WBA and WBC minimumweight titles in a thrilling and close fight. That ended up being Ioka’s last bout at minimumweight as he moved up to light flyweight. In his first title bout at light flyweight, Ioka dominated former interim titlist Rodriguez. In the first round, Ioka dropped Rodriguez in the first round. Afterwards, Ioka kept overpowering Rodriguez, sending him to the canvas twice more before stopping him in the sixth round.
2011: Prefectural Gymnasium in Osaka:
- Kazuto Ioka defeated Veerawut Yuthimitr by unanimous decision to retain the WBC minimumweight title
Long before Wanheng Menayothin held the title throughout the entirety of the mid-to-late 2010s, Ioka was the WBC champion at 105 pounds. In February 2011, Ioka won the title in just his seventh pro bout and became a fighter to watch out for years to come. Ioka proved that he wasn’t a champion in men’s boxing’s lightest weight class, but a champion with tremendous power. That power was on display as Ioka decimated Yuthimitr in just 98 seconds to retain his title for the second time. Little did people know at the time that this was the first of eight New Year’s Eve fights for Ioka in the 2010s.