By Cliff Rold
Boxing does not have seasons. It does, and has always had, dates or times of the year where the expectation of big time boxing heightens. Today, in the United States, fans know Cinco De Mayo and Mexican Independence Day weekend are likely to have big fights. The dates can shift a bit but the idea reaches back a long way. June used to be a critical month for big fights in New York in the age of radio because it was one of the best times to use the baseball stadiums. Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II, Louis-Billy Conn I and II, and Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott II are just some of the more prominent examples.
For fans of the lighter weight globally, and in Asia (largely Japan) regionally, the very end of the year has become a time for fisticuffs. The last few days of December have become dates where the expectation of a year’s last gasp of high quality boxing has entrenched this decade. This year is no different.
On Sunday, while most of America is sleeping (2 AM EST), ESPN+ will air a solid tripleheader with two major title fights and an interim tilt as well. The headliner, Masayuki Ito vs. Evgeny Chuprakov for the WBO 130 lb. title, should see some leather fly.
The next day in China, the last excellent main event of 2018 will unfold for the vacant WBO super flyweight title. 36-year old three-division former titlist Donnie Nietes (41-1-5, 23 KO) of the Philippines hasn’t lost since 2014 and faces arguably the toughest opponent of his entire career. Japan’s 29-year old Kazuto Ioka (23-1, 13 KO) is a former two-division titlist, partially unified at strawweight, who also held one the WBA excess belts at 108 lbs. After a year away from the sport that included a brief retirement, Ioka returned in September with a win over McWilliams Arroyo.
Ioka looked as sharp as he ever has, his lone loss coming to the incredibly tricky Amnat Ruenroeng in 2014. Nietes appeared on the same card to do enough to win the vacant WBO belt against Aston Palicte only to leave with a draw. A win here would vault Ioka back into the upper echelons of the lighter weight classes at a time when the 115 lb. class is still deep and loaded.
For Nietes, it would be the sort of win he’s managed to miss out on too often in his career. As names like Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada have worked around him, Nietes has always sort of worked in parallel, never getting a chance to show if he belonged with them. Ioka is as close as he’s come.
It’s the sort of fight that is matched well enough to present at least the possibility of still shaking up the race for Fight of the Year. It’s also right in line with the New Year’s Eve boxing tradition. Last year provided similar drama with a 108 lb. unification bout between Ryoichi Taguchi and Milan Melindo to close the year.
One of the wildest examples in recent memory was 2016. There were four cards headline by major title fights in Japan from the 30thto the 31sttwo years ago. Naoya Inoue performed the first day, defending his 115 lb. belt against former titlist Kohei Kono while Jezreel Corrales-Takashi Uchiyama II, Kosei Tanaka-Moises Fuentes, and Yukinori Oguma-Jonathan Guzman headlined the next day.
This year almost feels naked without Inoue. Inoue has fought every December since 2013 before this year and in the last days of the year from 2014 to 2017. The win that secured him BoxingScene’s Fighter of the Year in 2014, a second round knockout of Omar Narvaez to win a major title in his second weight class that year, remains memorable.
New Year’s boxing was already a staple before Inoue came along. Ioka has been a big part of it as well. He returns this year after missing last, and was featured every other year from 2011-16. In 2013, there were three major title fights on two New Year’s Eve cards in Japan and the same the year before.
One would have to go back to 2010 to find a New Year’s season in Japan where there were no major title fights between December 29thand 31st. That allows fans to trace the origins of what has grown to become an expectation. It also shows it doesn’t take long to forge a tradition. If the tradition holds into further decades, the importance of Inoue, Ioka, Uchiyama, and Akira Yaegashi among others will stand out. It took the right group of stars, in matches local fans wanted to see, to put butts in the seats, draw interest from around the world, and leave everyone interested wondering what next year will bring.
The great thing about any sport is that there is always a next year.In boxing, there will always be a next New Year’s. There is no reason to think there is an end in sight.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]