Is a stronger junior bantamweight division inevitable?
On Saturday, several thousand miles apart, two junior bantamweight (also known as super flyweight) title fights took place.
First, in Tokyo, Japan, the underrated and under-appreciated Kazuto Ioka (30-2-1, 15 knockouts) used his ring I.Q., ring generalship and superlative boxing skills to overcome the bigger Joshua Franco (18-2-3, 8 KOs) to claim the WBA title by unanimous decision.
Ioka’s win was all the more impressive, given how he was outweighed by 6.5-pounds, which, if you’re a heavyweight, isn’t much but when you weigh 115 pounds, a near-seven-pound disparity can make all the difference. The American cited issues prior to the fight and has subsequently retired, stressing mental health concerns.
While, several hours later, Fernando Martinez (16-0, 9 KOs) retained his IBF title, stopping previously unbeaten Jade Bornea (18-1, 12 KOs), in 11 rounds, on Showtime, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The defending beltholder had to hold off the Filipino, breaking through and turning the tide irrevocably in Round 9 before closing the show two rounds later.
Those wins free up both men for bigger business down the road.
For Ioka, who had vacated his WBO title, to go after a rematch with Franco, it was a ballsy move, one that ultimately paid off. The 34-year-old told this writer in an interview that went out last week that he had studied Franco for six months, such was his desire to get the win this time around. It proved time well spent for the cerebral sharpshooter, who has now won six major titles across four weight classes.
Martinez, who was a good amateur, representing Argentina at the 2016 Olympics, showed his worth with a road win, in South Africa, against Athenkosi Dumezweni (TKO 11) in December 2019. However it took until he out-fought long-reigning Jerwin Ancajas (UD 12) for him to break onto the world scene in February 2022. A repeat win over Ancajas came off late last year in a contractually obligated rematch before he beat Bornea in his mandatory defense.
Both men showed their worth in a talented division led by The Ring champion and WBC titlist Juan Francisco Estrada. Also in the mix in the upper echelon is the always-popular four-division titleholder Roman Gonzalez and the burgeoning star of Junto Nakatani, who recently showed his class by scoring a highlight-reel knockout over gritty Andrew Moloney to win the vacant WBO title Ioka had vacated to secure a second fight with Franco. Three-division titlist Kosei Tanaka has rebounded well after being soundly beaten by Ioka, two-and-a-half-years ago, by scoring four wins and appears ready for another title shot. Two-time WBC beltholder Srisaket Sor Rungvisai still calls 115 pounds home and, though he may be a little past his best, adds depth to the division, as does former unified strawweight titlist Francisco Rodriguez, rising contender David Cuellar and Moloney, who are all ranked in the top 10 by The Ring.
Ioka has long yearned for a fight with Estrada and/or “Chocolatito.” Neither of those little giants have anything lined up and there is the mouth-watering proposition that one of them could face the Japanese standout next. How about on New Years Eve, on the now all-important year-end show in Japan?
Now that Martinez has rid himself of the obligated rematches and mandatories, he could be available for a fight against one of his contemporaries.
There isn’t a bad match-up to make at 115. It seems the Estrada-Chocolatito-Sor Rungvisai-Cuadras quartet, which grew each man’s name, standing and bank accounts, has come to an end but the good news is any of those guys could mix and match with the Japanese trio Ioka, Nakatani and Tanaka and we’d likely get another instant classic. Martinez has shown he is a handful for anyone.
Adding an extra layer of intrigue is the possibility of some of the top flyweights moving up in weight. IBF titlist Sunny Edwards and WBO ruler Jesse Rodriguez will collide later this year. Both are in their twenties and will likely fight at 115 within the next 18 months or so. The winner could be the future of the division.
One must wonder if one or more elite junior bantamweights will look to move to bantamweight, which is undergoing something of a makeover itself. Estrada could look to add another byline to his already impressive career. Chocolatito and Ioka could aim for a fifth division. It appears Nakatani will arrive at 118 pounds in the not too-distant future.
The possibilities are endless.
Hopefully we get more of these big fights between these guys that harken back to HBO’s original “Super Fly” series. The 115-pounders have given hardcore boxing fans more bang for their buck over the past few years than most weight classes. We’re in the midst of a golden era in the junior bantamweight division.
The fighters know that by facing each other, they make themselves bigger names, make more money and improve their resumes so that, one day, some of them will be enshrined in Canastota, in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, alongside the other greats of our sport.
Enjoy them while you can.