By Jake Donovan
If Kosei Tanaka has not yet appeared on your pound-for-pound radar, then you might not be paying close enough attention.
The unbeaten triple-division titlist lodged the first successful defense of his flyweight reign, soundly outpointing former 108-pound champ Ryoichi Taguchi over 12 rounds Saturday evening in Gifu, Japan.
Scores were 117-111 (twice) and 119-109 in a bout that both accurately scored yet not at all indicative of the in-ring action.
Tanaka joined Vasiliy Lomachenko in the record books in becoming a three-division titlist in the fewest amount of fights (12) when he outpointed Sho Kimura last September to win a flyweight strap. The fever-pitched bout was widely hailed as 2018 Fight of the Year.
Saturday’s title defense wasn’t quite on that level, although the intent was clearly there. Taguchi (27-4-2, 12KOs) was hoping to rebound from a heartbreaking loss to Hekkie Budler last May, which saw his unified junior flyweight title reign come to a close. Saturday’s bout was his first since that night as well as first as a full-fledged flyweight.
Known far more for his grit than his punching power, Taguchi attempted to use the early rounds to feel out the defending titlist. The 32-year old challenger worked behind a steady jab, though used more as a range finder than to set up any particular offensive strategy. It proved ineffective, as Tanaka’s hand and foot speed proved too difficult a riddle to solve.
Sensing his opponent’s early hesitation, Tanaka scored with the type of left hooks and uppercuts which frustrate far more than provide sustained damage. To his credit, Taguchi adjusted, offering lateral movement to avoid the incoming which connecting with left hooks of his own in round three.
It didn’t take long for the defending titlist to turn the tide, consistently beating Taguchi to the punch in the middle rounds. Tanaka repeatedly scored with combinations, all while slipping out of harm’s way even before Taguchi had a chance to respond. A counter left hook left the challenger briefly stunned in round five, never to the point of threatening a knockdown but enough for Tanaka to create a wider margin on the scorecards.
Taguchi did his best to turn the tide in the second half, but struggled to battle through fatigue. Long right hands from the challenger prompted to Tanaka to fight on the outside, picking apart his countryman and then making his way back inside to work the body.
With the fight well out of reach, Taguchi let his hands go in the championship rounds. His problem, though, was that Tanaka didn’t have any intention of coasting to the finish line. It made for thrilling—if technically messy—two-way action down the stretch, but the former champion’s last stand not at all enough to make an impact on the final scorecards.
Though valiant in the defeat, Taguchi drops his second straight as his record moves to 27-4-2 (12KOs). Where he heads from here is anyone’s guess, although he’s still only just more than a year removed from serving as the best junior flyweight in the world.
Taguchi is also still on the books for giving the supremely gifted Naoya Inoue his toughest test to date. The two met in Aug. ’13, when Inoue was a rookie prospect entering his fourth pro fight while Taguchi was more than 16 months away from his first title win—and three months away from Tanaka’s pro debut.
Taguchi’s first title win came on New Year’s Eve in 2014, outpointing Alberto Rossel to win a 108-pound title. Seven successful defenses followed, including a title-unifying win over Milan Melindo exactly three years later.
Back-to-back title fight losses put his career in a different perspective, especially in the lower weight classes where competition at the top level remains fierce.
Right at the front of the pack is Tanaka, who has already amassed eight title fight wins in a 13-fight pro career. His first title victory came in just his fifth pro fight, outpointing Julian Yedras to claim a strawweight title. Just one defense came of his reign before moving up to win a 108-pound strap on New Year’s Eve 2016.
Tanaka (13-0, 7KOs) and Taguchi saw their 108-pound reigns overlap for a year before the former elected to once again move up in weight after just two successful defenses. Both came against boxers with ties to major titles, knocking out former titlist Moises Fuentes and then outpointing then-unbeaten Angel Acosta, who would go on to claim the title Tanaka would vacate soon thereafter and whom still reigns as a 108-pound titlist.
Saturday’s win gives Tanaka his fourth over a former, current or future titlist, and with plans to add to his resume. Expectations have the 23-year old fighting at flyweight perhaps through the rest of the year before setting his sights on the 115-pound division.
In his sights is countryman and former three-division titlist Kazuto Ioka, who is eyeing a vacant 115-pound title fight with Philippines’ Aston Palicte sometime this spring. A win in a fourth weight division should firmly establish Tanaka where he arguably already belongs—among the discussion of the best boxers in the world today.
Saturday’s title fight streamed live and legal courtesy of our friends at AsianBoxing.info and airing live on TBS in Japan.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox