By Joe Koizumi
Photos by Naoki Fukuda
Unheralded underdog Masamichi Yabuki (13-3, 12 KOs), 107.75, surprisingly captured the WBC 108-pound belt as he survived a crisis in the ninth and caught up with previously unbeaten defending champ Kenshiro Teraji (18-1, 10 KOs), 107.5, with a flurry of unanswered punches, which finally prompted the referee Yuji Fukuchi’s intervention on Wednesday in Kyoto, Japan. Prior to the stoppage, Yabuki was leading on points: Hisatoshi Miyazaki 86-85, Masahiro Noda 87-84 and Yoshikazu Furuta 88-83. All were Japanese judges because of the coronavirus pandemic that prevented any foreign officials to enter this country.
Originally slated on September 10, the champ Kenshiro tested positive for Covid in a PCR test in the end of August, was forced to stay at home for ten days and resumed training from September 6. Even if he recovered well and was confident enough, was his only 16-day preparation truly enough for him to regain his best shape? His father/manager and ex-OPBF light heavyweight champ Hisashi Teraji replied after the bitter defeat said, “His condition was good, if not best.”
The challenger Yabuki had a good reputation for his power punching, having scored eleven victims out of twelve victories, but his three defeats diminished our evaluation on him–by current WBO flyweight champ Junto Nakatani (L4 in 2016), by current Japanese national 112-pound titlist Seigo Yuri Akui (TKO by 1 in 2018) and by Cuban Daniel Matellon (Split decision L8 in 2018).
Masamichi used to be such a bad boy as he confessed, “I was taken into protective custody some fifty times in the teens.” He might be described as a small Rocky Graziano due to his go-for-broke style of life and fighting. Despite the champ’s temporary COVID-19 infection, only few expected a possibility of Yabuki’s upset victory over Teraji, unbeaten and technically superior with eight successful defenses to his credit. Teraji was highly expected to beat Yoko Gushiken’s Japanese record of thirteen consecutive title defenses.
From the outset Teraji, 29, made good use of his faster footwork, circling to avert Yabuki’s opening attack, which often missed the target. The second saw Masamichi, also 29, stalking the champ with roundhouse but less accurate blows, while Teraji, a baby faced graduate of Kansai university, still kept his fast-moving bicycle busy all the way. A bit taller, Yabuki threw more shots but couldn’t connect with them with precision in the third, when Teraji kept sticking and moving side to side. The fourth was also a difficult round to score, as Yabuki was more aggressive but his punch at a time was least accurate to the elusive champ.
The WBC open scoring system showed the interim tallies after the fourth, which stunned the champ’s corner as well as the audience—40-36 twice for the challenger and 38-38.
“When I heard 40-36, I then thought Kenshiro was winning,” recalled the new champ Yabuki. A couple of the judges favored Yabuki’s aggressiveness regardless of precision, while many adherents of Teraji (born here in Kyoto) then believed the champ had been controlling the fight.
To put it simply, Kenshiro wasn’t a Willie Pep that would win a point merely with his defensive skills, without throwing punches to his opponent. He should have been more aggressive to win a point.
Obviously encouraged by the open scoring in his favor, Yabuki turned looser in round five, throwing long lefts and rights to the fleet-footed champ. The sixth saw the champ change his strategy from outboxing to pressing the action with busier jabbing, while Yabuki responded to his attack with a big shot at a time. The sixth might be another difficult round to score, as a couple of judges gave a point to the lazy but big-punching challenger, while one favored the light but busier-punching champ.
The seventh was clearly taken by Teraji, who controlled the round with constant jabs and occasional rights, while Yabuki threw back fewer wild punches without precision.
It might be true that the challenger then could more often catch the previously elusive champ in middle rounds since Teraji realized he was behind on points, and he had to be become aggressive even by sacrificing his policy of hitting without getting hit.
The second announcement of the open scoring might be more shocking to the champ’s party—79-73, 78-74 and 77-75. Should Teraji win all the remaining four rounds by 10-9, he could barely retain his belt—by a split draw at best. So, the champ went all-out to knock him out.
Teraji, in round nine, remarkably turned very aggressive, battering Yabuki to the punch. Pinning the challenger to the ropes, he effectively dug strong shots into the belly and connected with solid punches to the face. The challenger looked groggy on the verge of a knockdown. Yabuki had a very narrow escape as the bell came to his rescue. The champ, however, sustained a bad laceration over the right eyebrow by Yabuki’s legal shot in this round. It was rare that Teraji suffered facial damage since he usually displayed his excellent defensive reflexes in any fight.
The tenth might be a good candidate of Round of the Year. The champ desperately went forward to finish his challenger to bring home the bacon. Forcing him to the ropes, Teraji threw power punches to the badly fading Yabuki. The champ had him double up his body with persistent body shots, but abruptly ceased punching probably due to his sudden exhaustion caused by his desperate attack from the ninth at a too high pace. Suddenly the challenger, badly hurt, survived to become a go-for-broke boy, swinging big blows to the fading champ after his fatigue.
Yabuki kept punching and punching. Pinning the champ to the ropes, the small Rocky Graziano battered him with a barrage of unanswered punches. The ref Fukuchi declared a well-timed halt to save the ex-champ from further punishment.
Time was 2:59 of the tenth. We witnessed a jubilant victor and new champion in Masamichi Yabuki. His face was badly bruised with his absorption of the champ’s constant jabs and his retaliations in the ninth and tenth. It wasn’t an easy victory at all but a very hard fight.
The new champ (who sometimes likes to express exaggerations) said, “I devoted all my life to this fight. For me, it was a do-or-die battle. I had my children’s names in my trunks as my will (last words) to leave behind. Fortunately I could be alive and victorious. Teraji might not be in his very best shape tonight. We may fight again with both in tip-top shape.”
The crestfallen ex-champ didn’t leave any message but quickly left the arena for a hospital to treat his bad gash. Having tasted his first defeat, his mental damage might be more serious than his physical damage. Instead, his father and manager responded to the press people’s questions. He also looked so dejected at his son’s defeat that he only replied, “Nothing is certain at this moment. Please make my son take a rest for a while.”
The newly crowned champ’s real name is Masamichi (same) Sato. Sato is a household family name such as Smith, Brown or Johnson. Yabuki is named after a hero (Joe Yabuki) in a very familiar comic strip “Tomorrow’s Joe” where the bad boy Yabuki grows up to be a strong and popular boxer.
Born in Yokkaichi city, Mie Prefecture on July 9, 1992, he started to learn how to box at junior high school. But he didn’t score remarkable credentials as an amateur (reportedly just 16-5). Masamichi became a father when seventeen, and now has a daughter Yuzuki, 11, and a son Kappa, 8, with his wife Kyoko. Supporting his family as a waterproof worker, he diligently keeps training at Midori Gym presided by Toshiro Matsuo (who had previously cultivated a couple of WBA 115-pound champions Satoshi Iida and Hideki Todaka).
He made a pro debut at the age of twenty-three at Yakushiji Gym in 2016 and moved to the current Midori Gym in 2018. It was in July of the previous year that Yabuki, already 28, won his first belt, that is, the vacant Japanese national 108-pound title by polishing off Tsuyoshi Sato in the opening session. He stands 5’5” (rather tall as a 108-pounder) and has a power-punching right hand utilizing a good reach. While ex-champ Kenshiro Teraji is an intelligent-looking university graduate, Yabuki is a typical blue-collar worker. They may square off again in a grudge fight next year.
Promoter: Shinsei Promotions.
Attendance: 2,000 (out of the capacity 4,000 at the Kyoto City Gymnasium due to the JBC’s regulation).