A Q&A with Kosei Tanaka
The final championship bout of 2020 – Kazuto Ioka vs. Kosei Tanaka for the WBO 115-pound title on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo – will be a late Christmas gift to boxing fans.
It’s a 50-50 matchup between two of Japan’s most talented and accomplished boxers.
The challenger, Tanaka (15-0, 9 KOs), has won world titles in three weight classes within 12 pro fights, which ties with Vasiliy Lomachenko’s record. The 25-year-old boxer-puncher wants to set a new world record by becoming a four-division titleholder in his 16th pro bout.
Tanaka, The Ring’s No. 1-rated flyweight, made the third and final defense of his WBO 112-pound title a one-sided third-round KO of Chinese challenger Wulan Tuolehazi on the undercard of Ioka vs. Javier Cintron on the last New Year’s Eve event in Tokyo. The doubleheader served to set up this weekend’s showdown, which was finally announced in November after much speculation following the WBO installing Tanaka as Ioka’s mandatory challenger earlier in the year.
Ioka (25-2, 14 KOs), The Ring’s No. 3-rated junior bantamweight, is a 31-year-old veteran who has been a boxing celebrity in Japan since his teenage amateur days. The nephew of former WBC 105-pound titleholder Hiroki Ioka (recordholder for Japan’s youngest world champion), won that same belt in his seventh pro bout in February 2011. In his third defense of the WBC 105-pound belt, Ioka became the first Japanese fighter to unify major belts by outpointing future three-division champ Akira Yaegashi to snatch the WBA version. He won the WBA 108-pound title in his next bout. By 2015, he became a three-division titleholder by winning the WBA flyweight title, but he surprised the boxing world with a sudden retirement announcement in late 2017. He surprised us again by resuming his career under Tom Loeffler’s 360 Promotions, which led to a spot on the HBO-televised “Super Fly 3” card in Inglewood, California in September 2018. Ioka, a master boxer, showed more determination than ever before to overcome Puerto Rican 115-pound contender McWilliams Arroyo by unanimous decision with a knockdown. Ioka won the vacant WBO 115-pound title by stopping bigger, stronger Filipino contender Aston Palicte in 10 rounds in June 2019 to make Japanese history in the 10th year of his professional career.
Tanaka acknowledged Ioka’s accomplishments during a Zoom press conference not long after their bout was announced, but he also exuded confidence.
“I admire Mr. Ioka for a decade of supremacy in Japanese boxing,” he said. “Yes, I accept that he is on different level from me because he’s got the world title and he is the only Japanese four-division world champion. But I will take over everything he has done in this sport. And I am superior to him (in every way) once we’re in the ring – either fighting inside or long range. I have better speed, power, and stamina. This is the biggest fight of my career, in other words, a life-changing fight. I will win. I have no doubt of it.”
Tanaka is in his prime. He brings great speed, tempo, and punch selection to his fights but he sometimes takes too many punches and has experienced knockdowns in fights he should not have been so troubled. But he is fearless and was able to overturn those situations to remain undefeated. Tanka has set “the fastest records” since turning pro in 2013. He won the WBO 105-pound belt when he was 19 years and 11 months of age, in his fifth pro fight (breaking the national record Naoya Inoue set by winning his first title in his sixth fight, which surpassed Ioka’s record of winning his first in his seventh bout). Ioka won the WBO 108-pound title in his eighth fight, and the WBO flyweight title in his 12th bout outslugging defending beltholder Sho Kimura in September 2018. Six months later he defended the belt over Ryoichi Taguchi, the former WBA, IBF, and Ring junior flyweight champion, by unanimous decision.
With those all accomplishments you’d expect him to look for the worldwide recognition that his idol Naoya Inoue has captured. However, when he visited Los Angeles for a sparring camp last November, he was shy to talk about his strengths. “I need to review my fundamentals and mature more before I can say I am strong,” he said. However, one year later Tanaka views himself as a changed fighter – for the better.
I had a chance to interview Tanaka exclusively to ask what happened during this challenging year to make him so confident.
RingTV: After a training camp in America, you knocked out Wulan Tuolehazi in three rounds. What did the decisive performance tell you about yourself?
Kosei Tanaka: It reminded me that I perform well when I prepare well. I thought the challenger from China must be somebody, so I prepared for double, triple tricks in the fight. I did not need them, though, as he could not respond to my simple feint. I finished the fight easily when my corner told me to “Go for it.” That fight was the first time I had appropriate conditioning in a long while. Actually, I always have trouble with making weight, but that time I didn’t because I went along with the best plan to get in shape.
RingTV: I heard you were training in the Philippines in March just before the COVID-19 pandemic affected travelling overseas. Were you already training for Ioka even before you announced that you were moving up to super flyweight?
Tanaka: The business talks with Ioka’s side had already begun at that time, but I believed I would have a non-title bout (at 115) before fighting him. During the camp, I was told about the next fight day by day (whether I would go straight to fight Ioka or do a non-title bout before it). Of course, since I became (WBO) mandatory challenger to Ioka, I recognized the fight would happen before long.
RingTV: I feel weird asking this to a three-division titleholder, but have you learned anything new in your latest camp?
Tanaka: Yes, I have, actually. This camp was a little different from past ones. I’ve been there (in the Philippines) for training countless times at many gyms since I was a high school student. I go there mainly for sparring as there are plenty of quality boxers to work with. This time I visited the prestigious ALA gym in Cebu Island for the first time, but one familiar trainer who’s always been nice to me was there. He let me in on the basic drills he does with his pupils, not only sparring. In the training, he pointed out three things that I’ve felt I need to brush up on in my movement. Those are like missed puzzle pieces to complete a perfect picture. He saw my boxing the same way I did. He gave me ideas to fix my bad habits in my fundamentals to make the most of my own skills. Since I was back from there in the middle of March, I’ve been working on those points. I never got frustrated while waiting during those months of the pandemic as I’ve been busy improving my moves with these new ideas. I used to be careless in sparring, but now I don’t make mistakes. The obvious improvements make me confident. Though I know practice in the gym and true fights in the ring are different, I can believe in myself 100% when I’m in front of Ioka. It’s fortunate for me that I got it when I needed it.
RingTV: So, you have solved the problems that you talked about during your L.A. camp a year ago. What other things have you done in this inactive period, the longest of your career?
Tanaka: Training first. And I got rid of all the negative talk about my boxing. There was a lot time for me to think about myself. I am single and I live separate from my family. I’ve been always double minded – negative and positive. I’ve not talked very positively about my boxing but at the same time I have never thought that I could lose a fight without reason. So, I try to pick up only good thoughts of mine when I talk. That way takes me away from the negative attitude.
RingTV: You have your own YouTube channel now, where you talk about your history and thoughts on others’ fights. You look like you’re enjoying it.
Tanaka: I started it in June, you know, after the pandemic because the chances to appear on shows and talk to the media is limited. I am not talkative, but I found that I wanted to interact with people. Frankly, it is like therapy.
RingTV: You don’t only tell your own story. You posted some interesting reviews on fights such as Juan Francisco Estrada-Carlos Cuadras II, Roman Gonzalez-Israel Gonzalez, and Naoya Inoue-Jason Moloney.
Tanaka: It’s fun and it felt good learning to watch a fight while taking notes and analyzing it. I feel bad saying this, but before now I never bothered to watch other’s full fights just because I was lazy with it. Now I know I should have done this. I could point out good and bad moves in Estrada’s performance that I did not know.
RingTV: You are in the same weight class as Estrada and Gonzalez are now. If you beat Ioka, you will be a possible rival for them.
Tanaka: Right. I’ve looked up to those big names, but now I see them as possible opponents. I watched their latest fights carefully and I’ve got ideas how to deal with them. I have certain tactics I want to try if they work or not.
RingTV: You’re challenging a respected veteran in your first fight at 115 pounds. What did you do to adjust to the new weight?
Tanaka: Nothing special. 115 pounds is perfect weight for me. The merits of conditioning without cutting weight cut are countless. I believe I will be at my peak in this division.
RingTV: During the online press conference you said you are superior to Ioka in speed, power and stamina. You have no doubt about that?
Tanaka: In those three categories, no doubts. But those are just physical factors. What matters in this fight will be more technical. I am excited that I can compete with such a smart fighter with all of my tools. I don’t think I am inferior to him in intelligence. I am looking forward to seeing it in the fight. I am positive.
RingTV: A reporter mentioned a sparring session you had with Ioka seven years ago. Ioka said he did not really remember it.
Tanaka: I agree with him in a sense that the experience has nothing to do with this fight. At that time, I was a high school student and preparing for the national high school championship (2013). I was in a camp for sparring with my team in Osaka. On the final day, my coach (former title challenger Hideyasu Ishihara) took only me to Ioka’s gym to work with him. I was already nervous with the mood there. So, I had no room for impression of Ioka’s boxing. What I remember is that he was big as he did not have a fight scheduled, and that I rushed last 30 seconds of third round as I was told that was the final round, and that there was an unexpected extra round while I was already worn-out and bleeding from nose. I stuck there for three minutes somehow and found a front tooth broken in the end. It was a good experience for a young fighter, but nothing to refer for this time.
RingTV: How do you assess the abilities of the champion now?
Tanaka: He seems to be shifting from a smart boxer to a determined fighter, but he is always a boxer that’s to break down. Coming forward or staying outside, I won’t mind if he takes either way. I don’t see an opponent’s style as easy to handle or not. If I take it easy, I would be careless. I just prepare myself to adjust any way the opponent takes. That was a part of the reason why I did not study opponents’ fight videos so as not to have too much advance information. But I have to study this time. I’m watching Ioka’s fights, as he is one of a kind.
RingTV: This is the biggest fight in your career, you said that in the conference. Is this the beginning of a new chapter to your career?
Tanaka: Right. This fight is the gateway to the world where the big names are competing. At the same time, I call it an end of my first chapter. I will reform my team after this. My father (Hitoshi Tanaka) has been my chief coach since I started boxing just to improve my punching skills in karate as a kid. I would like to put everything that I’ve piled up with my father to win this fight. I want to prove it for my beloved team. Now I believe I can do it.