From a land steeped with the importance of tradition, it’s little wonder that Kazuto Ioka (25-2, 14 KOs) has been searching for his own, unique and storied success. Born into boxing in Sakai, Osaka, the four-weight world champion has closely followed in his Uncle Hiroki’s footsteps. The sport is in their bloodline.
Hiroki, himself a former two-weight world champion, was a young Ioka’s inspiration – but as he prepares to face Kosei Tanaka on the coveted New Year’s Eve fight card, the reigning WBO super-flyweight champion knows it’s now about extending his own legacy. Ioka spoke to Boxing Social from his training camp and preferred looking forward – instead of casting eyes on the past.
“Considering that boxing has a long history in Japan, it is an honour and a source of pride for me [to be a champion again],” explained the 31-year old, now basing himself in Tokyo. “I’m not sure how boxing fans around the world feel about it, but after this fight I hope to be in the position to make my case against the legendary fighters in our weight class, such as [Juan Francisco] Estrada, Srisaket [Sor Rungvisai] and [Roman] Gonzalez. I feel I will have the credentials.
“It was everything to me, becoming the first male, four-division champion in Japan. Especially after I retired briefly, but that was the only goal [when I returned], so it was a great achievement. My fight with Donnie Nietes [L12] was a while ago now, and I wish him all the best. I felt that I won that fight, I could have done things differently to make sure I won that fight. But it’s been almost two years, so I don’t give too much thought to it now. It was a great learning experience for me, which then lead me to the world title in my fourth division.”
It’s been a fascinating journey for the Japanese fighter, who won his first world title in only his seventh contest. Interestingly, the first man to win that world title down at minimumweight was Uncle Hiroki, who toppled Mai Thomburifarm in 1987 and subsequently defended the belt twice. For Kazuto, who captured the title in Kobe, Japan, in 2011, it was three defences – already putting his own stamp on the second Ioka reign.
Nine years and a further three divisional titles later, he continues on his own search for continued greatness. In Tanaka, the younger man and three-weight world champion in his own right, he faces an aggressive come-forward fighter. But Ioka has seen it all before and he believes that the young challenger will have to truly earn his stripes when they meet in the middle of the Ota-City Gymnasium.
“Kosei Tanaka is a good young fighter with fast hands and good combinations,” admitted Ioka, through translator Taku Nagashima. “I cannot tell you how he will do at this weight class; all I know is, he is the challenger and I am the WBO world champion. My training has been very good. Due to the pandemic and the current restrictions, I have been able to focus more than I would normally on the early stages of preparation.
“My usual training has been based on strength and conditioning, but this time, I have been able to add more core training as well as body flexibility. So, I feel great and I feel more prepared than ever before. For the last four fights, I have trained in Las Vegas, but this time I have trained in Tokyo. There is no change to the team, we are planning to have Ismael Salas in the corner on 31/12 [fight night], depending on how the travel, along with the pandemic, goes. But training has been great so far and we are on course to be ready for fight week. Salas has been giving me advice and we plan to discuss strategies as we continue.”
It’s just over a month until the pair square off in Japan and debate rages amongst boxing’s hardcore media. Can Tanaka upset the defending champion and, in turn, match his achievements across four divisions? Will Ioka prove – once again – that he has plenty left to offer the sport of boxing?
Both men have plenty to lose; but after temporarily retiring following his defeat to Filipino great Nietes (L12), it seems plausible that Ioka could call time on a glittering career, should he suffer another defeat. Japan, along with boxing fans across the world, waits with baited breath…
Ioka’s return to boxing in the summer of 2019 rewarded him with a knockout win over Aston Palicte and saw him immediately capture the WBO 115lbs world title he’d lost out on previously. After beating Jeyvier Cintron on points in his first defence, held in the same venue he’s set to face Tanaka, it’s been all quiet on the eastern front. Tanaka also fought on the same bill – in that very gymnasium; their paths have been destined to cross.
But what comes after this second wave of Ioka boxing success has expired? Kazuto – now a father to young Manato – followed his uncle into the boxing gym, but times have changed. The sport now isn’t quite the same as it was then. It will be intriguing to see where the story ends for the Ioka family and the sweet science, regardless of his impending fight at the close of our strangest year.
“My uncle Hiroki was a world champion and I learned a lot from watching him when I was younger,” said Ioka. “My son, Manato, is just one-year old, so it’s too early to say what he will want to study and become. With regards to him boxing, it has not entered my mind.”
For now, there’s more important things to worry about.
Main image and all photos: Hiroaki Yamaguchi/AFLO/PA Images.