Coming into 2017 the Japanese boxing scene is red hot. At the top of the proverbial table are stars like Shinsuke Yamanaka, Naoya Inoue and Kazuto Ioka, 3 names that genuine boxing fans worldwide should recognise as being among the very best in their respective divisions whilst at the lower level are a host of hotly tipped prospects who could make a major splash over the coming 12 months. Here I’m going to look at 5 of those prospects, with the major rule being that a fighter cannot have had more than 8 bouts, be over the age of 25 or already won a title at a higher level than a youth title.
Hinata Maruta (4-0, 3)
The hottest prospect in Japanese boxing, if not the world, is Hinata Maruta who looks set to break out at either Bantamweight or Super Bantamweight in 2017. The Morioka man had a stellar 2016 in which he went 3-0 (3), claimed the WBC Youth Bantamweight title and was crowned the WBC Youth fighter of the year, and looks to build on that success in 2017 as he hunts yet more gold, potentially breaking out from the youth ranks into the full-fledged world ranks.
The youngster made a statement on his debut, in late 2015 when he beat the then world ranked Jason Canoy, and has slowly built on that success with his 2016 victories. It is, however, going to be a clear step up for Maruta to claim either a Japanese, OPBF or WBO Asia Pacific title in 2017. He has shown all the tools, offensively and defensively, but will need to sharpen up before he starts to look for world title fights. That sharpening is, however, an ongoing process and he ended 2016 by being part of a US training camp and sparring with the likes of Ronny Rios.
With Murata learning English he not only has the size, style and look to make a splash in the west but he may also have the language skills to connect with an American audience by the time he begins to think about fights in Las Vegas.
Hiroto Kyoguchi (5-0, 5)
Fast rising Minimumweight Hiroto Kyoguchi only debuted back in April but has raced out to a 5-0 (5) record, picked up some international experience by fighting in Thailand, scored notable wins over Kenichi Miyazaki, Michael Camelion and Junuel Lacar and been featured on a huge card at home. In many ways, he’s had the perfect year and has gone from talented amateur to hotly tipped prospect in the space of a year and looks likely to be fighting for titles by the middle of 2017, with the Japanese, OPBF and WBO Asia Pacific titles all likely to be his targets for the year.
In the ring, Kyoguchi is a joy to watch, with an aggressive mentality, amazing combinations, lovely speed and the eye pleasing ability to change gears as, and when, he wants. His body shots have proven to be brutal and he’s managed to catch the eye of the Japanese boxing press, whilst impressing his promotional team Watanabe. With Watanabe in need of a new star, following a bad year for the gym, they are likely to do all they can to push Kyoguchi hard and fast towards the top of the sport.
Although potentially limited in his appeal in the West, given he’s unlikely to move above Flyweight, he is still exciting enough to be in some really fun bouts down the line and he’s going to have plenty of interesting opponents from the Orient to test himself against, potentially even fighting in all-Japanese world title bouts in the years to come.
Koki Inoue (6-0, 5)
Probably the most well-known name on this list is Koki Inoue, the cousin and stable mate of Naoya and Takuma Inoue. Like his cousins’ he’s trained by Shingo Inoue and is part of the Ohashi gym who have shown a willingness to test their prospects in interesting assignments on their way up. That’s been the case for Koki, just as it was for Naoya and Takuma, with the 24-year-old having already picked up some international experience with a fight in Korea and having faced Japanese ranked fighter Futoshi Usami in late 2016.
Despite only being a professional for around a year the 24-year-old southpaw is already looking like he’s ready for title fighters on the domestic, and regional, scenes and looks like a man who has been fighting well within himself at times. Despite looking like he has extra gears to go through he has already impressed with flowing combinations, a good work rate, spiteful power and brilliant finishing instincts.
Although Inoue wasn’t ranked, by either the OPBF or the JBC, at the time of writing it would seem almost a certainty that he will find himself in the rankings in the coming weeks and he will almost certainly be chasing both of those titles during the year. If he claims one of those in 2017 we wouldn’t be surprised to see him start to look towards moving into the world rankings in 2018.
Kazuto Takesako (5-0, 5)
We all like punchers and it’s fair to describe Kazuto Takesako as a puncher. The former amateur standout made his debut in July 2015 and instantly made a statement with quick wins against Tomoyuki Yokota and Elfelos Vega. In 2016 we saw him pick up 3 more wins, again all by stoppage, including a 3rd round win over Korean Middleweight champion Kyung-Joon Ahn. The 25-year-old is heavy-handed, a little open and very exciting.
Unlike many Japanese fighters, it does seem like much of his competition will have to be imported as he’s making his name at Light Middleweight and Middleweight, though he has already stated that he’s after titles in 2017 and will likely pursue OPBF champion Yutaka Oishi or Japanese champion Yuyki Nonaka through the year. Although still raw, and with only 10 rounds of professional experience under his belt, he did compete in more than 40 amateur bouts and began his professional career as a B licensed fighter.
Takesako is defensively open but has shown good durability, having taken some big shots from Ahn, and looks like a fighter who is working on his defence, whilst having genuine confidence in his own power and physical strength. Sadly he is unlikely to make a mark on the world scene, given he’s a very short fight for Light Middleweight, but he certainly has the potential to make a big mark regionally this year.
Kazusa Arai (2-0, 2)
The final selection on here is a wild card of sorts in the form of Taisei promoted 16-year-old Kazusa Arai, a stablemate of Riku Kano’s and the next teenager gaining experience in Thailand before getting a Japanese licence. Arai has only fought 3 professional rounds but has already impressed and caught the eye with his blowout against Chanchai Chaiyonggym, a win that saw the youngster show incredible speed and power, hurting his man within seconds and finishing the show soon afterwards. He’s tall, very rangy and although he looks wild he does seem to be unerringly accurate.
Given his age, he won’t be debuting in Japan for a while but by the time he does he could have a handful of bouts under his belt and could well have polished off his defence, and gained valuable in ring experience. He’s going to be one who probably won’t make a mark in Japan until 2018 but by the end of 2017 we suspect he’ll have won a regional title and could well find himself in talks to break Hiroki Ioka’s long-term record as the “youngest Japanese world champion”, something that Kano attempted to do in 2016.
With Taisei Marumoto behind him and a stable that features Riku Kano, Arai has got experienced people he can talk to and get advice from. He knows he doesn’t need to be rushed and he knows that his body will fill out as he matures and develops. At the moment, however, there is something really exciting about him, and with the potential, he has already shown as well as his young age it’s hard not be excited about Arai.
As well as the 5 names mentioned above, in detail, I would also suggest following Tsubasa Koura (9-0, 6) who had fought too many bouts to be considered for this list but is really exciting and rising quickly through the ranks, Naoto Iwai (3-0, 1) who is 19 and has genuinely impressed so far but just missed out on the list, Shuichiro Yoshino (3-0, 2) who is a 25 year old Lightweight puncher, 30 year old Satoshi Shimizu (2-0, 2) who should be fast tracked through 2017 but missed out on the main list due to his age and Kazuki Tanaka (6-0, 5) who looks to be the next Japanese fighter to make a mark at Super Bantamweight.