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Kosei Tanaka: 5-0, But a “World Champion”

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The quotation marks need explaining: I, like so many other boxing fans, cannot take the proliferation of alphabet belts seriously. As every seasoned Sweet Science reader knows, a man holding a given trinket is never much better than three or four-to-one on to be the best fighter in the division. Still, even in a case where a youngster is scooping up a vacant strap rather than beating an incumbent champion, the speed with which a prospect is matched for one of boxing’s many alphabet belts is telling. It imparts to the fan the confidence in which the would-be-title-holder is held by his management and fistic team. A gym knows a fighter better than a fighter will ever know a gym. Kosei Tanaka’s gym showed the confidence to see him matched for a world title in just his fifth outing last weekend, in Aichi, Japan.

The number is not without significance. Naoya Inoue, aka “The Monster”, currently a dark horse galloping on the pound-for-pound beach after just eight contests, is a two weight world-champion who must name, already, among the most dangerous fighters on the planet. He was allowed to match for a strap in his sixth contest; Tanaka has just broken his record for a Japanese fighter claiming a strap by a single fight. The fact that Inoue was matched for his second title two weights north, at super-flyweight, just eight months later, leaves him as a distant speck on Kosei Tanaka’s horizon, but he has signalled a warning note to his more prestigious countrymen and it is not a discord that will go unnoticed by the former record holder. For all that Tanaka and Inoue are said to like and respect one-another, a future in which they do not meet for every marble the Japanese fight scene can muster does not seem possible.

Tanaka’s opponent for his this prestigious occasion was Julian Yedras. Yedras, out of Campeche, Mexico, is at first glance every inch the ABC setup one has come to expect from occasions that see a valuable commodity like Tanaka anointed champion, and to an extent he was; as a challenge, Yedras represents neither the advanced thuggery of Orlando Salido, who derailed Vasyl Lomachenko’s early attempt at a strap, nor Inoue’s extreme daring in taking on divisional #1 Adrian Hernandez, for his first title outing. But, having now dropped to just 24-2, Yedras brought more than enough to his teenage opponent’s table to make things interesting.

A record populated mainly by journeymen and prospects, the Mexican’s status is clear, and it is not that of a strapholder – but Yedras had matched one outstanding fighter in Carlos Buitrago, currently ranked the #5 minimumweight in the world. The result was a points loss and perusing the scorecards we can see that it is a wide one (116-113, 118-111, 118-110), but as is so often the case the cards do not tell the story.

Buitrago landed combinations often and they were consistently the better punches, but Yedras had his successes also. Wild-swinging and impossible to discourage, he thundered forwards against his slicker, more experienced opponent, popping out a torqueless jab with persistence, shaping himself around a whipping hook and digging in a right hand to the body. A thudding, rather than a stinging hitter, an apparent lack of power handicaps him but Yedras has at least some of the banditry that made Salido so dangerous, even if he lacks certain elements of style and, shall we say, artistry which his fellow Mexican mastered.

Nevertheless, Yedras looked a handful against Buitrago, and early in the fight he put together a rather frightening rush on the cards. In the mid-rounds Buitrago had mastered him, or so it seemed, until the tenth, when it suddenly looked as though the Mexican’s dogged determination and investment in the body might pay off; the round was close, but I scored it for him, making the fight take on a narrow appearance entering the eleventh. Had Yedras taken both remaining rounds he would have made a draw on my card, and according to broadcaster Box Azteca, he would have done enough to win. In the end, I thought that Yedras won the fight quite literally in the final seconds of the twelfth where he rallied and appeared to hurt his man. It was that close.

This fight gave me the impression that Yedras would be dangerous for Tanaka. So it would prove. He was clearly the fresher man in the closing rounds against the more elite Buitrago, and capable of concentrated bursts of consistent pressure yielding consecutive rounds on the scorecards. This is a dangerous combination for a prospect that has yet to do the twelve. Any sudden lapses of will would be exposed; any tiny coughs in his engine would be heard and pounced upon – and any stylistic tics, say, the propensity to exchange unadvisedly or a failure to work to keep a more limited fighter on the outside could be ruthlessly exploited.

As I wrote in profiling Tanaka in February (an article you can read here), Kosei is “a box-mover in the truest sense, a methodology designed to embrace, to the greatest extent, his natural gifts…it works well for a fighter with the necessary speed.” Speed, the kid has, in abundance, and he was able to repeatedly get around the corner on the Mexican with his left-hook and counter his opponent’s best work in the early rounds. Unsurprisingly to anyone who had seen his fight with Buitrago, however, Yedras was able to match jabs with the young Japanese. As it provided countering opportunities for Tanaka this seemed, perhaps, not to matter; but the plot would shortly thicken.

But before we get to Yedras and his inevitable surge, let’s take a moment to appreciate those things that the fledgling Tanaka does so well; the way he can find a three punch combination to the body off a jab to the face; the footspeed that guides him all the way around his back-stepping opponent to find the hook behind the ear without giving up a punching opportunity; the guard-splitting uppercut behind which he vanishes in a cloud of ethereal footwork; the stunning straight, hook, straight combination that sent the granite-chinned Mexican reeling to the ropes in the second. Old men in hard gyms might shed a single tear at seeing such skill demonstrated by an eighteen month professional, but Tanaka already makes them look easy. He is unencumbered by doubt or bulk.

Returning to Yedras and his jab, his surge. While it is true that his jab was absolutely failing to do its most important job, namely keep the spritely Tanaka busy, Yedras embraced this fact which was so detrimental to his scorecard and his face, and slowly, surely, he followed his jab in, and by the middle of the third he found ground zero, his target, the space inside his opponent’s rapier left-hook. Showing an immaturity typical of his age or perhaps even a machismo more typical of his opponent’s national character, Tanaka elected to stay in the pocket and fight.

It led to some fantastic exchanges, as Tanaka’s speed was neutralised by Yedras and his determination to punch regardless of what was coming the other way. It also induced in Tanaka a pause, eschewing the out-fighting at which he was so clearly the better, in favour of infighting, where the competition was hotter. Tanaka was still, clearly, winning the fight and he followed Yedras to the pocket with such savagery in the fifth that it seemed he may be on the verge of stopping him, but he dropped the fourth and perhaps the sixth, as Yedras stepped over the line from heart into sheer bloody-mindedness.

A golden fluidity on offence and defence brought Tanaka firmly back to the box-seat through eight, although fire-fights continued to break out with breath-taking regularity as the Japanese elected to hold his ground rather than move. In the ninth, Tanaka was finally chin-checked by a legitimate counter-right that landed flush and was perhaps momentarily troubled; but within seconds he had brushed the punch off and was back to his foraging attack, his chief weapon that varied, roaming left. Tanaka’s swarm is composed of more fast punches than perhaps anyone in the sport right now. It’s not that he has the out-and-out fastest hands, it’s that he is bringing across the eighth punch in the swarm at the same speed as the first and second; his lack of power is now absolutely confirmed because he was landing so many shots that even a chin like the Mexican’s couldn’t hold up against these shots in volume from any kind of puncher. I would speculate, though, that his punches may have the disorienting qualities of a Joe Calzaghe, the ability to “mix a man’s mind” so aptly described by Muhammad Ali.

While we now know absolutely that Tanaka lacks power, we can confirm, too, that he runs a deluxe engine. This was a fast fight and both men threw many punches but Tanaka is the man on the wrong end of the economy equation; he is a volume puncher who moves a lot, who circles, who forages. This means there will be few fights where he throws fewer punches than his opponent and perhaps none in which he will take fewer steps. Although Tanaka had the look of a tired man come the eleventh, and although he was likely out-worked in that round, he moved more, threw more, landed more, and rather unfortunately, showboated more than an opponent of seeming limitless stamina in the twelfth.

Those who were a little underwhelmed by Tanaka’s belt-winning performance might consider this for a moment, as well as the fact that Yedras is a better opponent than has generally been credited. It is also worth considering that of the official scorecards, the two judges scoring 117-111 are far more a reflection of reality than the third card which read 115-113, and which seems close to unjustifiable. Finally, it should never be forgotten that Tanaka was 4-0 at bell. The aforementioned Muhammad Ali was fighting a late substitute by the name of Jimmy Robinson at that point in his career. Robinson, a career light-heavy, amassed a final record of 11-26. Joe Calzaghe on the other hand was fighting a Cypriot named Martin Rosamond. Rosamond, fighting his last fight, dropped to 10-16 and was stopped that night for the tenth time. Tanaka is ahead of the curve based upon this result, not behind it. Unlike Ali and Calzaghe he will learn his trade against ranked men, not journeymen. It seems likely that his opponent in one of his next two fights will be fellow Japanese Katsunari Takayama, inarguably among the three best minimumweights in the world. A victory over Takayama followed by a successful title-tilt somewhere north of 105lbs, a weight Tanaka is happy to acknowledge he won’t be able to make forever, and Japan will have another fighter breathing down the neck of the pound-for-pound list before he has even had ten fights.

That is all quite far away, admittedly. But there may be a change of wind coming. It blows from the East.

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In Dismantling Povetkin, Joshua Recaptured His Swag among the Heavyweights

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He was in against a very crafty and experienced opponent in former WBA titlist Alexander Povetkin 34-2 (24). And although he was troubled by the dangerous Russian fighting small as he tried to inch his way in and time him, AJ adjusted well and started to take the initiative and dropped and stopped Povetkin in the seventh round, retaining his WBA, WBO, and IBF heavyweight titles and thus becoming the first fighter to ever stop Povetkin, something Wladimir Klitschko failed to do.

During the fight AJ was forced back. He had to adapt to Povetkin making him punch down and that caused him to be a little tentative, especially after being bloodied from a broken nose in the first round. And early on, AJ was a little confused and busy trying to keep Povetkin occupied from outside so he couldn’t get in on him. His most effective weapon in doing such was his left jab, delivered to the head or body, although the fight really turned when he began putting his one-two together. Then after a fairly evenly-paced bout, AJ slowed some with the hope it would lure Povetkin to close in a little harder, and he did.

As Povetkin, who came to fight, became more assertive, he became more vulnerable. AJ found the openings for his big right hand and left hook. With the first really solid right hand that bounced off his chin, Povetkin buckled and instinctively went back. Joshua pursued him and then, with near Joe Louis-like accuracy, put his right hands and hooks together, along with a beautiful right to the body in the middle of the assault and finished his game opponent.

Once again it was shown that trading with AJ is almost certain suicide. Povetkin was in great shape and would’ve been a handful for any other heavyweight in the world because he no doubt brought his A-game. Sometimes it takes AJ a little while to get going, and if you don’t do anything to bother him or wake him up, he doesn’t fight with the urgency of a “Smokin” Joe Frazier. However, when you wake him up and force him to cut loose, he’s so dangerous that he doesn’t need too many clean shots to end it. And making Joshua more lethal is that he has both short and inside power in both hands.

After months of hearing how Povetkin was the most serious threat to Joshua, that’s now finished business. Prior to the bout The Ring magazine rated the top six heavyweights in the world as follows…..Joshua, Wilder, Povetkin, Ortiz, Whyte and Parker, in that order. Now Joshua is 3-0 (2) versus Povetkin, Whyte and Parker which squashes the narrative that he has fought weaker opposition than WBC title holder Deontay Wilder 40-0 (39) who has only faced Ortiz among the top six.

Today, the most widely levied criticism of any elite fighter is that he didn’t fight the best man or men in his division. Fighters can’t control who their contemporaries are but they can control fighting the best of their era. Rocky Marciano’s era wasn’t stellar, but he fought every top fighter who was in line to challenge him. Floyd Mayweather fought in a stout era – the difference is an overwhelming majority of his bouts with big name opponents were strategically manipulated so that he faced them on the downside of their career – and that’s a fact, not a theory.

Forty years after his last victory in a title fight, Muhammad Ali is respected and revered as a fighter even by those who don’t claim to be a fan of his. Why? He wasn’t the most fundamental boxer in heavyweight history nor was he the biggest puncher, and not all of his fights were edge of your seat exciting. The thing that’s often cited as to why he was a marvel is that he fought the best of the best during one of the deepest eras in heavyweight history. There were a few times between 1975-77 that he held a win over every fighter ranked among The Ring magazine’s top-10. Sure he fought a few Brian London’s and Jean Pierre Coopman’s, but London was encompassed by Sonny Liston and Ernie Terrell during the 1960s and Coopman by Joe Frazier and Ken Norton during the 1970s.

Anthony Joshua hasn’t yet sniffed the greatness of Ali on many levels, but he is on the same trajectory in regards to meeting and defeating the best of his generation. By the end of this month, the WBC heavyweight title fight between Deontay Wilder and former champ Tyson Fury will likely become official with them meeting in early December. And regardless of who wins, Joshua, if he really wants to etch a great legacy, must pressure the winner to meet him in their next bout. In addition to that, he must tell his brain, aka Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, to forget about winning the purse war if it is the only stumbling block. If the winner of Wilder-Fury is impressive, he will have earned a 50-50 split.

During the faux negotiations between the Joshua and Wilder camps this past summer the purse split was the focal point. And prior to the prospect of Wilder and Fury meeting, Joshua clearly held the better hand based on his resume and owning three titles to Wilder’s single title.  But the Wilder-Fury winner will have closed the gap and Joshua needs to be next while the fighters are at or near their prime. The fact is Joshua versus the Wilder/Fury winner will be the most widely anticipated fight in the heavyweight division since Lewis-Tyson and maybe even since Tyson-Holyfield I. The onus is on the fighters to make it happen and they both have the clout to make sure it does, especially Joshua.

Interviewed in the ring after dispatching Povetkin, AJ said it didn’t matter to him who he fought next as long as it’s Wilder or Fury, but it was obvious that he preferred Wilder. A lot depends on how Wilder fares with Fury, but until then, here’s what we know…..Alexander Povetkin and Luis Ortiz are about on the same level; having never faced each other, it’s a tossup as to who’d win. Both Joshua and Wilder scored impressive stoppages over Povetkin and Ortiz respectively…AJ needed seven rounds and Deontay needed ten rounds. During his bout with Ortiz, Wilder was knocked around the ring and had to endure a few big exchanges, some of which he came out second-best. Wilder was also nearly stopped in the seventh round but battled back, summoning great courage and reserve to win a fight he was losing. Against Povetkin, Joshua was more troubled than he was beaten up. And once he found his range and pace and began putting his punches together, the fight ultimately ended when AJ got off with his best stuff. In essence, Joshua was more impressive against Povetkin and had fewer close calls than did Wilder against Ortiz.

Between now and the time Wilder fights Tyson Fury, it’ll be debated as to who was more impressive – Joshua against Povetkin or Wilder against Ortiz; the answer is clearly Joshua for the reasons stated. Moreover, when analyzing a fight, A + B doesn’t equal C. Joshua will be favored over either Wilder or Fury, but probably along the line of 7-5 and nothing will change that.

The thing that emerged from Joshua dismantling Povetkin is that AJ recaptured some of the limelight and swag he ceded to Wilder this past March. AJ is again the fighter to beat in the heavyweight division and will probably get the bigger purse split regardless of whether he faces Wilder and Fury.

That said, he better not let the fight fall through over it!

Between 1977 and 1982, Frank Lotierzo had over 50 fights in the middleweight division. He trained at Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia under the tutelage of the legendary George Benton. Before joining The Sweet Science his work appeared in several prominent newsstand and digital boxing magazines and he hosted “Toe-to-Toe” on ESPN Radio. Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@gmail.com

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Tanaka vs. Kimora: A Monday Morning Treat For Serious Fight Fans

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Kosei Tanaka was just 4-0 the first time he was appraised on The Sweet Science back in 2015; the question then was, is Tanaka the world’s brightest boxing prospect? The question now is whether or not Tanaka is about to add a strap at a third weight to an already glittering career that has seen him annex belts at 105 and 108lbs in just his first eight fights.

Now 11-0 with seven knockouts he prepares, this coming Monday, to duel Sho Kimura in Nagoya, Japan and with a lot more than just the WBO trinket on the line.

Hearts and minds, as always, translate into dollars and yen. The winner of this all-Japanese contest will find himself buoyed in fame, glory and gold in his home country, which also happens to be one of the few places on the planet where a boxer can collect a small fortune without ever leaving his native shores. Should the winner dare to dream a wider dream, then that too can be facilitated by the win.  Even fistic denizens of boxing strongholds in Japan and Britain feel a shiver run down their spines when the words “Las Vegas headliner” are whispered into their ear.

The favored man among the hardcore in the west is Tanaka. He is still very young at just twenty-three years old and is slick and quick, what the west expects of a Japanese force. Interestingly enough, however, the Japanese seem to be leaning towards Kimura: older, at twenty-nine, armed with a superb work-rate, good power, limited technique but the conqueror of Chinese superstar Shiming Zou who he stopped in the summer of 2017. Zou may have had his bubble burst by the Thai brawler Amnat Ruenroeng in 2015, but it was Kimura who sent him stumbling into retirement and at a time when the talk was of China stealing Japan’s thunder as boxing’s home in the east.

Kimura was indeed impressive that night in Shanghai. He maintained pressure with wonderful variety, eschewing the jab, perhaps, for spells, but filling those gaps with an assortment of wonderful punches, most of all his body attack, which was persistent, withering, and apparently went unscored by two of the three judges who somehow had the Chinese ahead at the time of the eleventh round stoppage. Zou had shown a skill for flurrying while fleeing and Kimura had shown him how to fight.

Now a strapholder at 112lbs, Kimura staged two defenses in the following twelve months. The first was against Toshiyuki Igarashi, the man who beat Sonny Boy Jaro, the man who had beaten the superb champion Pongsaklek Wonjongkam before a softer fight against Froilan Saludar. He won both by stoppage.

Kimura, then, rather came from nowhere but made the most of his arrival. What he displayed in all three of these fights was a determination to offer pressure and footwork educated enough to do it while taking many fewer steps than his harried opponent. A tad overrated as a puncher, I suspect, he places himself in hitting position often enough that his default fight plan – chase, harass, throw – makes him capable of hurting his opponents by way of persistence and pressure.

He left Zou, Igarashi and Saludar, broken in his wake.

In short, he is the type of opponent Kosei Tanaka has been waiting for.

There have been calls for Tanaka to be considered a pound-for-pound talent should he overcome Kimura this Monday. I understand the impulse. Tanaka, were he to triumph, would become a three-weight world champion and he hails from a boxing territory which has little direct control over the meaningful pound-for-pound lists, if such a statement is not a contradiction in terms.

In short, it is felt he would be undervalued.

Tempering these calls is the fact that he has never beaten a divisional number one and that Kimura would be, by far, the best opponent he would have bested, and the most proven. Some Tanaka opponents have come good after he defeated them, some were ranked in the lower reaches of their respective divisional top tens when he matched them, but none are scalps as impressive as those dangled by the likes of Errol Spence or Anthony Joshua, who populate the nine, ten and eleven spots in reputable lists.

But this is neither here nor there; the key is not what Kimura does not represent, it is what he does represent. He is the best that Tanaka has met and, I would argue, the first truly elite fighter that Tanaka has met. He is the litmus test and he is one with a stylistic advantage.

Tanaka can punch. Here we will find out whether or not he punches hard enough to keep Kimura off him. Personally, I doubt it and that means that Kimura is going to hand him a serious gut check.

Interestingly, it will not be Tanaka’s first. The first time I wrote about him I stressed that his chin was essentially untested. That is no longer true. Tanaka, who is reasonably sound defensively, can be lazy in minding himself and foolish in pursuing the attack.

Thai puncher Rangsan Chayanram checked him in 2017, delivering a serious eye injury among other ignominies before succumbing in nine; puncher Angel Acosta, a ranked fighter if not a great one, hit and hurt Tanaka repeatedly late in their 2017 contest. If Tanaka has been learning these lessons, expectations concerning his potential may be realized. If he is not, he will fall short. Kimura is the man to test him.

Kimura’s experience and seemingly limitless twelve-round stamina are to be pitted against Tanaka’s skill, proven heart and taut footwork. It sees a superior technician – Tanaka – who has shown a propensity for being drawn into a cruder fighter’s wheelhouse matching an aggressive stalker – Kimura – who specializes in drawing technically superior foes into knockdown-drag-out scraps.

It is framed both as a fight that is likely to finish a future pound-for-pounder’s education and a fight where a young pretender is found out by a grizzled veteran.

Best of all, it is a fight that fight fans can watch for free, simply by clicking here.  The Asian Boxing website has secured exclusive international rights to the fight and will broadcasting it, free of charge, to anyone with an internet connection. As can be seen here, the fight is due to start at 4pm Japanese time.

All the reader has to do is find out what that means for timing in their own corner of the globe and a potential fight of the year will unfold before his or her eyes free of charge.

World class boxing being broadcast for free and including two of the best below 115lbs; a stylistic crossroads contest that opens up the on-ramp to pound-for-pound recognition for at least one of the combatants – on a Monday.  All facts worth keeping in mind the next time that someone tells you boxing’s prime was any number of decades ago.

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Fast Results From London: Joshua Takes Out Povetkin in the 7th

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UK sporting

It was a very wet night at Wembley Stadium, but the dampness didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd which welcomed UK sporting hero Anthony Joshua into the ring with a thunderous ovation. And Joshua didn’t disappoint. After six relatively even rounds, he found his range in the seventh and became the first man to stop Alexander Povetkin. A three punch combo that began with an overhand right sent Povetkin sprawling into the ropes. The Russian beat the count, but Joshua smelled blood and as soon as the ref allowed the proceedings to continue he moved in for the kill. The official time was 1:59.

Povetkin started fast and in the eyes of many observers won the first three rounds. A sharp right hand in the waning seconds of round one reddened Joshua’s nose which leaked blood in the next round. The tide began to turn in round four when Povetkin suffered a cut above his left eye.

Povetkin (now 34-2), was the lighter man by 23 pounds. Joshua had a four inch height advantage and a seven inch reach advantage. And it mattered greatly that AJ was the younger man by 10-plus years. Povetkin wasn’t intimidated by Joshua and had several good moments but, at age 39, his reflexes betrayed him once the fight had crossed the midpoint.

Joshua, who owns three of the four meaningful heavyweight title belts, improved to 22-0 with his 21st stoppage. His next fight is penciled in for April 13 of next year against an opponent to be determined. His promoter Eddie Hearn has reserved that date at Wembley Stadium.

Other Bouts

In a 12-round lightweight bout, Joshua’s Olympic Games teammate and fellow gold medalist Luke Campbell (19-2) avenged the first loss of his career with a unanimous decision (119-109, 118-111,116-112) over France’s Yvan Mendy (40-5-1). This was Campbell’s second start since coming up short in a bid for Jorge Linares’s lightweight title and his first fight under his new trainer Shane McGuigan.

In their first meeting in December of 2015 at London’s O2 Arena, Mendy won a split decision that should have been unanimous. Campbell insisted that he had improved greatly in the interim and tonight’s fight bore witness. However, he needs to develop a harder punch to rank among the top lightweights in the world, a list headed by Mikey Garcia. As this fight was framed as a WBC title eliminator, Campbell is next in line to meet Garcia, but Mikey has indicated that he will pursue bigger game.

Lawrence Okolie, a 2016 Olympian who trains with Anthony Joshua, won a Lonsdale belt in only his 10th pro start with a 12-round decision over defending BBBofC cruiserweight champion Matty Askin in a messy fight. The undefeated Okolie had a point deducted in round five for leading with his head and had two more points deducted for holding, but banked enough rounds to get the nod on all three cards: 116-110, 114-112, and 114-113. Askin, who declined to 23-4-1, had won five straight heading in.

A 10-round heavyweight match between Sergey Kuzmin (13-0, 1 NC) and David Price (22-6) ended suddenly when Price retired on his stool after four relatively even rounds. The six-foot-eight, china-chinned Price claimed to have aggravated a biceps tear.

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