Gifu City was the site last Saturday night of the WBO flyweight title fight that saw reigning champion Kosei Tanaka successfully defend his belt against former unified Ring junior flyweight champion, Ryoichi Taguchi. To reach “The Fate” as the fight was dubbed, you’d have to hop aboard the bullet train in Tokyo and take it 90 minutes south before transferring to a local train for another 45 minutes, which is what Taguchi’s Tokyo fans and most of the media pool had to do.
The matchup was a longtime coming as the two were originally supposed to fight in a junior flyweight unification bout on New Year’s Eve 2017 in Tokyo before two broken orbital bones suffered in his successful title defense against Rangsan Chayanram caused Tanaka to pull out of the scheduled affair.
“I didn’t make any plan two years ago,” Tanaka (13-0, 7 knockouts) told The Ring. “To be honest, I wasn’t confident I’d even defeat him two years ago. I didn’t have a particular plan this time either, but I had practiced body shots and upper body combinations for a different approach to those sections. Taguchi keeps his guard high so I practiced one-two’s for the head and body. I was thinking I’d finish him off by putting on a lot of pressure.”
Taguchi (27-4-2, 12 knockouts) meanwhile would wind up having and winning a different unification fight that New Year’s Eve night against the then-IBF champion Milan Melindo. The victory also crowned Taguchi as the Ring Magazine champion of the light flyweight division.
Now more than a year later the tables were turned with Tanaka having the home advantage, the momentum and also the WBO flyweight title to his name. Taguchi moved up in weight and down into the countryside to get his title shot. The fight would also be his first after losing his titles to Hekkie Budler last May.
After taking nearly a year off Taguchi looked fresh and had the swagger that comes with being a former world champion belonging to the famed Watanabe Gym. His team brought with them the star power of former WBA lightweight titleholder Takashi Uchiyama, and current Ring champion, Hiroto Kyoguchi, who called the fight for the Tokyo Broadcasting System.
The lights were brighter, the crowd bigger and the viewership wider as the younger Tanaka clearly gave the aging warrior respect for the opening three rounds. After some clean shots buzzed Tanaka in the third, he soon took control and never looked back.
Taguchi told members of the press after his hard loss last weekend, “I think I had the same strong motivation as [Tanaka], but I couldn’t react well when he connected with several combinations. I was doing better than the Budler fight, but I let [Tanaka] hit me more than expected in the second half of this fight. I had enough stamina but I wish I had shown more of my technique. I can’t think about the next step right now.”
The tone was expectedly different in the winner’s circle. “My hope is for a unification,” confirmed Tanaka. “Being a three-division champion could be my overall goal but it’s not everything [since I’ve already done that].”
Currently ranked No. 2 by The Ring, Tanaka is looking up at Moruti Mthalane in the rankings and covets his top spot. A unification fight with the IBF champion from South Africa could wind up being for The Ring 112-pound championship, should it be made. Mthalane has no qualms about fighting Japanese fighters, or fighting in Japan, as he stopped Masahiro Sakamoto in his last title defense and is currently scheduled to meet his mandatory challenger Masayuki Kuroda in Tokyo on May 13.
Tanaka likes this idea: “Of course I’m motivated to fight him! I’ll watch his fight with Kuroda carefully. I’m very interested in [becoming The Ring champion]. It can be my main motivation. The Ring Magazine championship belt is not for every world title holder so if I have a chance to get the belt, it will motivate me.”
Mthalane also wants the big fights and is looking for a unification after Kuroda. Mthalane’s trainer, and MTK’s South African boss, Colin Nathan, told The Ring: “Tanaka looks easy to hit. Taguchi even buckled him. Mthalane hits way harder than Taguchi. Kuroda first.”
A unification between the young and exciting champion Kosei Tanaka and the veteran technician Mthalane is clearly the best flyweight fight that can be made today. Boxing purists should be clamoring for this one.
One stumbling block to getting this flyweight dream would be money. Mthalane is at the point of his illustrious career where he’s looking for a deserving payday and there’s been discussions about whether or not promoter Eddie Hearn would risk his (WBC) titleholder, Charlie Edwards [should he get by Angel Moreno], in a more challenging fight against the likes of Mthalane or, for that matter, Tanaka. Whether or not Hearn would be willing to foot the bill for either of their services remains to be seen.
Team Tanaka is eager to raise their fighter’s profile and that may mean fighting outside the comfortable confines of the Chubu region, which includes Gifu City, and Nagoya, the site of his war with Sho Kimura last September. Fighting on TBS for fans in Tokyo and defeating a national namesake like Taguchi was a huge first step in the right direction.
Spoken like a true world champion, Tanaka confirmed: “I’d love to fight abroad.”
Nick Skok can be reached on twitter at @NoSparring
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