By: Jake Donovan
From early in his career, Japan’s Kosei Tanaka was mentioned in the same breath as countrymen Kazuto Ioka and Naoya Inoue as the type of prodigious talent who warrants your undivided attention whenever he steps into the ring.
A mere 12 fights and three division titles into his career, the 23-year old from Nagoya has not only lived up to the billing but doing so while twice entering the record books. The latter entry—a 12-round majority decision victory over Sho Kimura to win the flyweight title last September—gets to make the rounds as the BoxingInsider.com 2018 Fight of the Year.
Tanaka (12-0, 7KOs) knew better than to expect a clear and easy path to his third major title in as many weight classes. A war with then unbeaten 18-0 Ryuji Hara in just his 4th pro fight was designed to brace the Nagoya-bred boxer for a historic run. His very next fight was a 12-round win over Julian Yedras to win the strawweight title in just his 5th pro fight, surpassing Inoue (six fights) and Ioka (seven) as the quickest in Japan’s history.
By the time he was lined up to face Kimura, he’d already claimed titles in two weight classes and survived the scariest moments of his career. Tanaka—just four months removed from turning back the challenge of then-unbeaten Angel Acosta—twice came off the deck to eventually stop Thailand’s Palangpol CP Freshmart in the 9th round of their Sept. ’17 war, vacating his junior flyweight title soon thereafter.
A win over countryman Kimura would give Tanaka yet another record-breaking achievement, joining Vasiliy Lomachenko in becoming the quickest in boxing history to win titles in three weight divisions. Lomachenko’s off-the-canvas stoppage win of Jorge Linares last May put the Ukrainian wunderkind in the annals of boxing history.
On the surface, Tanaka’s task seemed slightly less daunting. In countryman Kimura, he faced a defending flyweight titlist who was knocked out barely a minute into his pro debut before going unbeaten in his next 20 starts.
Among the lot was a rousing 10th round stoppage of Shiming Zou, a three-time Olympic medalist from China who was also fast tracked to the title stage. Kimura’s win at the time was considered a major upset, although his title reign has proven that the feat was no fluke.
Ironically, no greater proof came than in the 12 rounds of war he was willing to storm through versus Tanaka in his damnest effort to retain his title. The bout was Kimura’s third attempted title defense, having scored stoppage wins over former lineal champ Toshiyuki Igarashi and formidable contender Froilan Saludar leading into the September affair.
Tanaka initiated a slugfest from the start, scoring a barrage of body shots and right uppercuts in hopes of wearing down the defending titlist. There would be no such luck, as Kimura came roaring back after the first two rounds to launch a body attack of his own.
The tactic prompted Tanaka to slightly switch gears, doing his best to create some distance between the two whereas Kimura was determined to force an inside brawl. Both would ultimately have their way, with momentum swaying almost as often as punches were flying.
By the time the epic title fight reached the championship rounds, Kimura’s eyes were nearly swollen shut while Tanaka supported a mouse under his right eye. One last blitz from the challenger seemingly put the fight out of reach, but Kimura wasn’t quite ready to concede his crown.
The 12th round was nothing short of breathtaking, a slam dunk choice for Round of the Year up until Tyson Fury’s inexplicable rise from the canvas after what should’ve been a knockout blow delivered by Deontay Wilder in their heavyweight battle last December in Los Angeles.
Equally as stunning was Kimura’s ability to punch non-stop in the final round of his last fight as a defending titlist. Both boxers were dog tired by the time they touched gloves to start the 12th, but it was Kimura who initiated the action throughout the stanza. Tanaka seemed reserve to return fire only when necessary, but was forced to dig deep to find his own second wind when it was clear that the champ wasn’t about to ease off the gas.
Kimura was fighting on pure will, at one point even punching himself into a circle following a wild swing and a miss. Embodying their spirited affair was a sequence where the two simultaneously threw and landed right hand shots on three straight exchanges.
The final bell came with a two-way sigh of relief and a hearty embrace between the two warriors at ring’s center, where nearly all of the action took place with barely a clinch along the way. Judge Don Trella was stumped to declare a winner, his 114-114 card trumped by that of scores of 116-112 and 115-113 in favor of Tanaka.
With the win, Tanaka joined Lomachenko as the quickest in history to become a three-division champion. At 23 years of age, he was the third youngest ever to do so, right behind Tony Canzoneri and Wilfred Benitez.
Lomachenko led arguably the greatest amateur career ever while considered by many as pound-for-pound the best boxer in the world today. Canzoneri and Benitez have long ago gained enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
That’s already some incredible company for Tanaka to serve alongside, in addition to career-long comparisons to countrymen Inoue and Ioka, both of whom became three-division titlists a little bit deeper into their respective careers.
On September 24, he enjoyed some incredible in-ring company with Kimura—a historic night properly recognized by BoxingInsider.com as 2018 Fight of the Year.