Interview: Katsunari Takayama

Photo: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

By David Finger

It has been a long, memorable ride for five-time former minimumweight and mini-flyweight champion Katsunari Takayama (32-8, 12 KOs). But if history is any guide, the cagy veteran may still have a few tricks up his sleeve when he comes to Arlington, Texas tomorrow to take on the heavily favored Elwin Soto (18-1, 12 KOs) in a 12-round junior flyweight title fight for Soto’s WBO belt. Make no mistake, Soto, who is favored by as much as 7-1 to retain his world title belt, is expected by most pundits to retain his title.

But there is something that boxing fans across the Pacific know about the 37-year old former champion: he is a fighter not to underestimate.

After winning his first world title (the WBC minimumweight title in 2005) against Mexico’s Isaac Bustos by 12-round decision, Takayama would go on to lose the belt in his very first title defense four months later. For many boxing fans it seemed like Takayama would, like many smaller fighters, disappear into boxing obscurity. After all, there were no shortages of fighters who would win a world title belt and then drop it in their next fight. Few would ever win it back, and for an intelligent and well-rounded young man like Takayama, there was the added pressure of him walking away from boxing entirely. After all, this was a man with another dream: to become a teacher. He already had a successful and respectable boxing career. Why worry about the grind and the politics of the sport anymore when he could enjoy the benefits of retirement?

Well, Katsurni Takayama didn’t hang it up. He still felt like he had something left in the tank, and four world title belts later there can be no question: the cagy boxer from Osaka, Japan has put together one of the most impressive and memorable runs in the history of the mini-flyweight division and is the only fighter to hold all four major belts in the division, albeit not simultaneously.

But the memorable ride didn’t end there. After his most recent world title fight, a six round technical decision over Riku Kano for the vacant WBO mini-flyweight belt in August of 2006, Takayama decided to retire from professional boxing and shoot for another dream: to win Olympic gold. There has been numerous Olympic gold medalist who would subsequently turn pro and go on to win a world title belt, but Takayama’s goal was for something that had never been done before: to become the first former world champion to win gold after retiring from the professional sport. Until recently such a dream would have been impossible. After all, professional boxers were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. But when that ban was lifted, Takayama saw an opportunity to make history.

Only there was one opponent who was determined not to let him even compete: the Japan Amateur Boxing Association. Steadfast in their refusal to even allow Takayama to compete in the Olympic trials, the JABA took an early lead on the scorecards when they denied Takayama the right to fight as an amateur. But in what would emerge would be one of the most memorable battles of Takayama’s career, the former champion fired back in the later rounds. And in the end, as had been the case for much of his career, he came away with his hand raised in victory.

But as many boxing fans had already discovered, amateur boxing is a much different sport than the pros. Scoring is based on a much different criteria, one that many professional boxing fans find peculiar at best and controversial at worst. For the former champion, his dream of Olympic gold would sadly end in 2019 in Kasamatsu, Japan when he lost in the Tokai regional national championship qualifying tournament.

For the second time, the popular Japanese boxer called it a career, this time to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher.

But the call of the ring is tempting, especially for a former champion who walked away from the sport with a belt around his waist. In 2020 Takayama returned to the ring as a professional, winning a lopsided six round decision over world-ranked Reiya Konishi in Osaka, Japan. Takayama realized that time was not on his side and he wanted one more serious run before he was ready to give up the sport he loved.

Takayama didn’t have to wait long before he got the call to fight the scrappy WBO world light flyweight champion from Mexico. A man 14 years his junior and who has shown the potential to emerge as one of boxing’s “little giants” in the coming years. Not an easy assignment for the former champion. But then again, after five world title fights and a come from behind knockout over the Japan Amateur Boxing Association, could we expect anything else from Takayama?

Katsunari Takayama took a few moments to speak with® about his upcoming fight and his unforgettable career:

Welcome to Texas champ! With only a few days leading up to the fight, how are you feeling?

I am so excited to be fighting in front of such a large audience!

How was your travel from Japan to Texas? Were there any issues with the Covid restrictions?

There was no trouble with the Covid test, but the medical check is very strict here in Texas. As this is the first time (fighting in Texas) in my 20 year boxing career, I am a bit surprised.

This is only your second fight since 2016. Are you at all concerned about “ring rust” or not being as sharp as you might be if you were more active?

I fought in December of 2020, a “test match” against Konishi Reiya, the #11 ranked junior flyweight in the WBA. It went pretty well for me so no, I’m not worried.

This is also your first world title fight at junior flyweight. Your distinguished career saw you do very well at minimumweight (also known as mini flyweight). How has moving up in weight affected your preparation? What are the benefits you see right now in fighting in this new weight? What are the drawbacks?

It’s easier for making weight. And the benefits are that I have truly gained speed and power. To be honest, I haven’t found any drawbacks yet. But I don’t know if this fight will show me some drawbacks (laughing).

What do you know about your opponent? Do you see a particular weakness that you are looking to exploit?

Yes, I saw him fight on Youtube many times. He is very young and aggressive. And I have found some weaknesses. I’ll show you them in the ring.

Many of the online betting sites have you as a big underdog, as much as a 7 to 1 underdog. This is undoubtedly a new experience for you coming into the fight as such a big underdog. Does that give you additional motivation?

I don’t care at all. It’s expected. Who would bet on a 37-year old old-timer? If I were a gambler, I’d bet on Soto. In my career I have always fought against the odds in enemy territory.

You retired in 2016 to fulfill a dream: to become the first world champion to win Olympic gold after returning from boxing. Sadly that did not come to fruition. But it was nonetheless a very inspiring story, and you helped spearhead many changes in amateur boxing in Japan in your quest to become an Olympic gold medalist. What did you learn from this experience? Would you do it again or in hindsight would you have remained a professional boxer?

I learned how important motivation is. And there is no way to go back to amateur boxing.

When we last spoke you talked about becoming a teacher. Is that something you are still working on? Are you currently a teacher and if so what do your students think about you fighting on one of the biggest boxing cards ever?

Since the spring I have graduated University. Sooner or later I’ll be a teacher. And as this fight was arranged on quite short notice, I didn’t really have time to talk about it with any students.

Many Americans boxing fans may be unfamiliar with you. Is there something you’d like to tell them before your fight?

Please enjoy the show and have fun! I’ll try to do my best to give you an exciting title fight. Together let’s enjoy this historic show on Saturday!

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