By Joe Koizumi
Photos by Naoki Fukuda
Japan’s WBO junior bantamweight champ Kazuto Ioka (28-2, 15 KOs), 115, kept his belt as he earned a unanimous decision over #6 southpaw compatriot “Little Pacquiao” Ryoji Fukunaga (15-5, 14 KOs), 114.75, over twelve fast rounds on Friday in Tokyo, Japan.
The official tallies read as follows: Michiaki Someya 118-110, Masakazu Murase 116-112 and Tetsuya Iida 115-113, all Japanese judges in favor of the defending champ.
The four-division champ Ioka, making his fourth defense, demonstrated a safety-first strategy, constantly piling up points without taking a risk by reckless toe-to-toe exchanges of punches. Ioka seldom absorbed the challenger’s less accurate combos but scored with more accurate and more effective combinations upstairs and downstairs. Ioka, 32, would have been able to floor Fukunaga, 35, with more furious combinations, but the champ didn’t accelerate his attacks to the fading foe probably because he was more anxious to safely prepare for an unification bout with IBF counterpart Jerwin Ancajas next rather than go for a year-end knockout that our aficionados had wished for. The ref was Katsuhiro Nakamura.
It was a confrontation of a blue-color carpenter Fukunaga against an elite thoroughbred Ioka, eight-time amateur national titlist whose amateur mark was 95-10, 65 stoppages including some controversial losses on points. He almost became an Olympian representing Japan (it is ironic that both Naoya Inoue and Ioka, our superstars, failed to participate in the Olympic Games). Ioka is also the nephew of two-time world champ Hiroki Ioka with his father Hironori then serving as trainer after he turned professional.
Fukunaga, on the contrary, started to learn how to box late at no earlier than twenty-five, since he, reportedly a low-paid carpenter, too often drank too much and committed street fights. That’s his notorious routine. He had his back wholly tattooed. He therefore attempted to change himself in the paid ranks, and made a professional debut only to taste a bitter defeat on points at twenty-six (with definitely no amateur experience) in 2013.
Fukunaga fought a couple of bouts under Eddie Taunsend Gym in Osaka, and then moved up to Tokyo to belong to Miyata Gym. The hungry lefthander, in 2015, suffered a first-round TKO loss to Ryo Matsubara in a four-rounder at the Korakuen Hall.
Since then, Ryoji scored five consecutive stoppages before he dropped a split eight-round nod to Yuta Matsuo. His persistent combination punching based on his stamina and will power accounted for a string of TKO victories. He then went abroad to Thailand, where he lost a unanimous decision (all 97-93 against him) to Konfah CP Freshmart in a bid for the OPBF Silver superfly belt in Ayutthaya in 2018.
Before he moved to Kadoebi Gym, Fukunaga has been a mediocre fighter. He, however, became a late bloomer as he withstood Filipino Froilan Saludar’s furious attacks and finally scored a come-from-behind stoppage to wrest the WBO Asia Pacific 115-pound belt in February 2020. People began to call him Little Pacquiao since thereafter.
His next showing was against national super-fly champ Kenta Nakagawa in December of the previous year, when the vacant OPBF belt was also on the line. It was Fukunaga that obtained the three regional belts by halting prefight favorite Nakagawa in ten competitive rounds at the Hall.
The really late bloomer Ryoji was victorious in the next two bouts, stopping Takahiro Fujii in eight in June and barely keeping his three belts by a disputed majority nod over previously unbeaten Hayate Kaji in October.
As our government declared a ban on foreign people entering Japan in the end of November because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 virus, the highly anticipated unification bout between WBO champ Ioka and IBF ruler Jerwin Ancajas on New Year’s Eve was abruptly canceled. Then it was Fukunaga to become a very late substitute with just a two-week notice.
The carpenter Ryoji was a good loser that praised the winner Ioka. “He gave me a textbook lesson. No matter how many punches I threw, I couldn’t catch up with the champion who was too elusive for me.” Ryoji, you did a good job despite very one-sided odds.
Ioka said after his predicted victory, “I won’t be injured so that my next fight with Ancajas won’t be put off long. It’s not easy to keep winning in world title bouts. It’s important to be victorious (before the re-scheduled-to-be bout with Ancajas).” Fukunaga was physically just like Ancajas, a taller southpaw than Ioka. What Ioka defeated might be a shadow of Ancajas in a tune-up bout.
Promoter: Shisei Promotions.