By Joe Koizumi
Photos by Sumio Yamada
WBA light-flyweight champ Kazuto Ioka, an unbeaten 24-year-old Japanese youngster, became a two-class world champ last December, and is one of the best boxers here along with WBA super-feather champ Takashi Uchiyama and WBC bantam kingpin Shinsuke Yamanaka in Japan where we currently possess nine male champs and six female titlists. It was in June 2012 that the baby face Kazuto, then WBC 105-pound champ, engaged in a unification bout with WBA counterpart Akira Yaegashi, a much more experienced compatriot, winning a close but unanimous verdict to unify the 105-pound belts to his credit.
Ioka then renounced both belts and acquired the second throne—the WBA 108-pound belt—by impressively halting Mexican Jose Rodriguez in six frames on the last day of the previous year. It was only in his eleventh pro bout that he remarkably registered an achievement. How has he climbed up to the top so quickly?
Kazuto, then only nine years of age, cried with tears when he watched his uncle and two-time world champ Hiroki Ioka fail to win his third belt in 1998. Uncle Hiroki was then a very popular boxer in Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, where he seized the very first WBC 105-pound belt at the age of nineteen, and captured the WBA 108-pound title from Hall-of-Famer Myung-Woo Yuh in 1991. Kazuto always says, “Uncle Hiroki was my first idol, whose influence made me learn how to box.” Kazuto’s father and ex-professional boxer Kazunori, currently his trainer as well as his promoter, began to coach his cute-looking son when he was twelve.
Uncle Hiroki describes his nephew as more talented than he in terms of speed, skills and power. Hiroki acquired the WBC belt in his ninth pro bout, but Kazuto surpassed him by gaining the first belt in his seventh pro outing. We shouldn’t easily use a household word “genius” but Kazuto might be worth being called so thanks to his excellent talents.
Kazuto, a soft-spoken kid, concentrated on baseball when in elementary school. Having entered a junior high school, Kazuto asked his father to coach how to box. Since then, Kazunori has been his main trainer through his amateur and professional career. Kazuto showed his splendid talent by acquiring no less than six national high school championships. Having scored many stoppages, his name was already well-known at that time. Then, his uncle Hiroki said, “Even now, though he’s still a high school kid, he is so vastly talented that he may be stronger than our professional national champ at the same weight.”
He entered Tokyo Agricultural University and had an ambition to become a Japanese representative for the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Kazuto, however, failed to be an Olympian, losing a highly controversial decision in the tournaments to decide the representatives out of the Country of Rising Sun.
Having his Olympic dream broken, Kazuto quickly dropped out of his university in his second grade to return to his native Osaka, where he turned professional early in 2009. His amateur mark was 95-10, 64 stoppages—including several debatable decision losses.
Kazuto belonged to Ioka Boxing Gym with his uncle Hiroki as his manager and his father Kazunori as his trainer. He made a fine debut by dispatching a more experienced Thailander Tongthailek Porworapin in three quick rounds in April 2009. His second victim was formerly world-rated compatriot Hiroshi Matsumoto, a durable southpaw, whom Kazuto needed just two rounds to finish in July. His third pro game saw Kazuto decisively defeat world-rated compatriot Takashi Kunishige by a lopsided decision to enter the world top ten.
People began to watch Ioka’s tremendous speed and sharpness and regarded him as future world champ. Kazuto, however, suffered his first visit to the canvas—through his amateur and professional career—at the hand of Indonesian national champ Heri Amol though he scored a unanimous decision in April 2010. In October that year, Kazuto acquired the vacant national light-fly belt by a final-round stoppage of veteran campaigner Masayoshi Segawa in Osaka.
Kazuto, a legitimate 108-pounder, aimed at the WBC light-fly belt then held by Mexican Omar Nino, and once decided to have a shot against him in Osaka. But Nino unexpectedly lost his belt to Gilberto Keb Baas, who eventually refused to come and fight Kazuto in Japan. Instead, Keb Baas fought compatriot Adrian Hernandez, the official challenger, and lost his throne. Kazuto’s father and promoter Kazunori then shifted his son’s target to unbeaten WBC 105-pound kingpin Oleydong Sithsermerchai of Thailand although he knew Kazuto would have a tough time making the 105-pound class limit.
In February 2011, Ioka, only in his seventh pro bout, seized his first world belt as he halted Oleydong in agony with a single body shot in the fifth round. It was such a beautiful stoppage that even the general public realized his remakable talent.
Kazuto made three defenses of his first world throne to his credit. He defeated the top contender Juan Hernandez by a unanimous decision at the Korakuen Hall, Tokyo, where he contested many amateur bouts. In his second defense, Kazuto again established a new record by polishing off Thailander Yodgun in only 90 seconds, which is the shortest knockout ever registered in world title bouts held in Japan.
In June 2012, Kazuto unified the world belts in the 105-pound category as he battled the WBA ruler Akira Yaegashi toe-to-toe and gained a close but unanimous decision (115-113 twice and 115-114) in Osaka. The total war was named “Fight of the Year” by Japanese Sorts Writers Association.
As Kazuto couldn’t make the 105-pound class limit any longer, he decided to move up to the 108-pound division. His first in the second class was fought in a quest for the vacant WBA belt against Mexican Jose Rodriguez. Kazuto dropped the Mexican three times en route to a fine sixth round TKO victory. Since then, Kazuto, a modest-spoken youngster, already scored a couple of defenses over Wisanu Kokietgym (KO9) and over Kwanthai Sithmorseng (KO7) to show his strength.
Kazuto’s idol is Oscar De La Hoya. He likes the young Oscar’s flexible aggressive style even while moving. He very frequently watched Oscar’s tapes since his childhood. Kazuto explains why he respects De La Hoya, saying that Oscar, in his prime, displayed versatile combinations upstairs and downstairs with his good balance and smooth footwork.
His dream is to conquer four championships in as many weight categories. “I wish to defend this WBA 108-pound belt until I move up to the flyweight division.”
Tomorrow (Tuesday), Kazuto (13-0, 9 KOs) will put his WBA belt on the line against also unbeaten Nicaraguan Felix Alvarado (18-0, 15 KOs), a month older at the same 24, in his native Osaka. It’s a confrontation of the unbeaten stars in Japan and in Nicaragua, which will draw good spectators to the year-end event.
Ioka tipped the beam at 106.5 to 106.75 for Alvarado.
The WBA officials are as follows: referee Eddie Claudio (US); judges Sergio Caiz (US), Carlos Sucre (Venezuela), Pinit Prayadsab (Thailand); supervisor Robert Mack (US).
It is true that Kazuto recently refused to face the WBA super-champ in the same division, unbeaten prodigy Roman Gonzalez of Nicaragua, although our aficionados like him to face Chocolatito in the squared circle. It seems logical that everybody becomes reluctant to exchange punches with the KO artist.
Before Ioka’s crucial time against Gonzalez, he may be satisfied with his highly expected victory of another Nicaraguan Felix Alvarado tomorrow.
This event will be presented by Ioka Promoitons to be telecast nationwide by TBS Television.