Kazuto Ioka puts junior bantamweight division on notice, targets undisputed status
On the final day of 2020, Kazuto Ioka scored a thrilling career-best win over previously unbeaten compatriot Kosei Tanaka at the Ota City Gymnasium in Tokyo.
Ioka, who is rated No. 3 by The Ring at 115 pounds, thoroughly trounced his young rival en route to an eighth-round stoppage, turning back his ambitions of matching him as Japan’s only male four-weight world titleholder.
“I never took him lightly, but I never thought it was difficult to beat him,” Ioka (26-2, 15 knockouts) told The Ring through his international manager, Taku Nagashima. “I had much more experience in the junior bantamweight division, fighting very good fighters, so I was very confident. I always had a great visualization of the fight I would have. Everything that I said would happen happened, so I was happy that I was able to back up my words with my performance.”
At the time of the stoppage, all three judges had Ioka ahead by scores of 69-62, 68-63 and 68-63.
The win was so impressive that Ioka gatecrashed The Ring pound-for-pound rankings, entering at No. 10.
“The surprise I got after the match was that my performance was so well received overseas with the boxing world,” he said proudly. “It was a bigger surprise to be voted into the top 10 of The Ring, pound-for-pound. So, in that sense, I’m glad I was able to fight in this match. I’m very happy.”
While many fighters would enjoy their career-best win, Ioka eagerly looked ahead.
“I was thinking about the next match immediately,” he said. “If I can fight any of the champions in the junior bantamweight division, I would like to do that.
“My No. 1 wish is to fight The Ring, WBA and WBC champion Juan Francisco Estrada. My reason is that he is the No. 1 rated and respected fighter in the 115-pound division.
“Estrada’s reputation and respect level is the highest in our division. I want to have my reputation higher and rise higher in the pound-for-pound ranking as well. If I could beat him, then naturally, I would be the No. 1 rated and respected fighter [at 115 pounds].”
Ioka believes that Estrada beat Roman Gonzalez in their hotly contested unification on March 13 and, surprisingly, he wasn’t impressed with either man’s performance.
“I didn’t think it was the best performance in comparison to their past [fights],” he said. “The fight was the same from beginning to the end. I thought I could’ve brought a more exciting match with either of them.”
Renowned writer Joe Koizumi, the doyen of Japanese boxing, also wants to see his countryman share the ring with his fellow 115-pound contemporaries.
“Kazuto Ioka is an excellent sharpshooter who may be called a Japanese version of Miguel Canto, but with stronger counterpunching ability than him,” said the 2008 International Boxing Hall of Fame entrant.
“His latest victory over Kosei Tanaka fully demonstrated his highly technical offensive and defensive potential in averting Tanaka’s furious opening attacks and beautifully connecting with counters.
“Ioka is very willing to fight Estrada in order to prove he is the best 115-pounder in the world. He is so motivated to go and fight in the U.S. or anywhere else.”
Ioka was born into a boxing family. His uncle, Hiroki, held the WBC strawweight and WBA junior flyweight titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He fell in love with boxing, watching his uncle in grade school and took up the sport at the age of 13. During his formative years, he was given an excellent grounding in the sport by acclaimed Cuban trainer Ismael Salas.
Ioka flourished and went on to become an eight-time national amateur champion with an impressive record of 95-10 (64). He turned professional in April 2009 and claimed the WBC strawweight title, previously held by his uncle, in just his seventh fight. He would then unify with WBA counterpart Akira Yaegashi before moving up to junior flyweight, again following in his uncle’s footsteps by adding the WBA title to his collection. After four defenses, he abdicated his throne and moved up to flyweight.
Although he lost for the first time in his pro career – to former amateur rival Amnat Ruenroeng in an IBF title tilt – Ioka rebounded to claim the WBA belt at 112 pounds. However, during his championship tenure, the Japanese star became disillusioned and stepped away from boxing for 17 months.
However, like many before him, Ioka returned and in his second fight back he dropped a razor-thin split decision to Donnie Nietes. Shortly thereafter, Nietes relinquished his crown and Ioka defeated Aston Palicte for the vacant title. He would join Leo Gamez, Roman Gonzalez and Nietes as the only men to hold world championships in boxing’s four lowest weight classes.
“For my family, for me to become a three-division champion was a great source of pride and happiness,” Ioka said. “Since my uncle could not achieve the three-division titles, that was my goal when I became a professional. Then, when I became a four-division champion, it was a surprise to the whole family.”
Although the situation is not fluid, Ioka’s preference is to fight in June or July before closing out the year on the now traditional New Year’s Eve show in Japan.
“My ultimate goal is to become the unified champion of the WBO, WBC, WBA and IBF in the 115 division,” he said. “I would like to show that I am the strongest and best fighter in the junior bantamweight division.
“That is more of a priority than going up to bantamweight. I don’t have any plans to fight [Naoya] Inoue. I’m focused on fighting the great fighters at 115.
“To the boxing world, leave the junior bantamweight division to me, I will take care of it.”
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