The Four Kings who are leading a new era of Japanese boxing

We are living in an amazing era for Japanese Boxing.

Whether it is Naoya Inoue, Kenshiro Tejari, or this weekend’s world title fight featuring super flyweight world champion Kazuto Ioka, Japan is creating formidable world-class fighters. 

This is a fry-cry from years past, when brawlers such as Yoshirio Kamegai and Nihto Arakawa might be the most widely known fighters on a global stage. Both had put forth Fight of the Year-type performances. Other Japanese fighters such as Takahiro Ao would be highlight-reel fodder for Ray Beltran (although Beltran failed a drug test for that fight, which is now a No Contest). 

Now, one could say that Japan might be on the brink of being a boxing hotbed entering 2024. That is thanks to three fighters; one current legend, one aging legend and two potential future legends. 

Let’s look at the three pillars of Japanese boxing that are changing the conversation about the four kings of Japanese boxing. 

Naoya Inoue

What Inoue is doing seems unbelievable. He seems closer to a tall-tale like Paul Bunyan than an actual person. He became a world champion at light flyweight and flyweight, defeating arguably the best fighters in each division. 

He skipped super flyweight and then cleared out the bantamweight division. Inoue defeated Nonito Donaire (twice), Jason Moloney, and Paul Butler en route to being undisputed. The only fighter he didn’t stop was Donaire, in their first fight, but he managed to do it in their second encounter.

After becoming an undisputed champion, two fights later Inoue would become the undisputed super bantamweight world champion in 2023. He knocked out WBC and WBO super bantamweight world champion Stephen Fulton, as well as Marlon Tapales, who held the IBF and WBA belts.

Inoue has made moving up in weight and dominating look easy and he has made world-class opponents look like nobodies.

We have a 1a) and 1b) in the sport in terms of the pound-for-pound list. It seems to be Terence Crawford and Inoue. 

Inoue is a once-in-a-generation-type of fighter who should inspire millions from around the world to box from his amazing accomplishments. 

Kazuto Ioka

The OG of Japanese boxing at only 34-years-old, he’s an icon and pound-for-pound fighter who is somehow largely ignored by the US and British pundits. Why? He doesn’t accommodate their schedule. 

Ioka has held five world titles across four divisions, ranging from minimum weight, light flyweight, flyweight, and super flyweight. 

Ioka unapologetically fights in Japan nearly exclusively and is a major draw and is a fighter who should be in the conversation of the best modern lower-weight boxers. But he doesn’t get enough credit. His lone US fight was in 2018, against McWilliams Arroyo, who he beat in Inglewood, California.

It is also important to remember most of his career was at the brink of social media and the start of streaming. He turned pro in 2009. If Ioka were easier to access, he might be viewed as a bigger name in his division. 

He fights on New Year’s Eve against Josber Perez. 

Kenshiro Teraji

Kenshiro seems to be the golden child who took a detour. He’s a brilliant boxer with power in the light flyweight division. Some might say he’s cocky, outgoing and outlandish. He has crazy hairstyles and loves to merge boxing with the pop culture of Japan. Yet, somehow, he is already 31-years-old.

Kenshiro looked to be on the fast-track to stardom until he faced adversity. He got a DUI. Then he was knocked out by Masamichi Yabuki. While he avenged that loss, something else happened; the division has changed.

In a huge upset, Adrian Curiel emerged as a champion, knocking out the IBF light flyweight champion Sivenathi Nontshinga. The WBO light flyweight champion Jonathan Gonzalez returns in February, but not against Teraji. Gonzalez also is now part of Jake Paul’s Most Valuable Promotions. 

Kenshiro, best-known by his nickname ‘Amazing Boy’, holds the WBC and WBA light flyweight world titles and wants to make his own legacy, and part of that is his own undisputed world title reign. 2024 should see him actively look to make the fights to achieve that.

Though he will draw comparisons to Inoue, he simply is not that, but he is a lot of fun. 

His recent run of fights is one of the most impressive in the sport today and he returns on January 23, live on ESPN+, against Carlos Canizales.

Junto Nakatani

Junto Nakatani is extremely impressive. Nakantani seems to endear himself to hardcore fight fans the same way David Morrell does. Even if he isn’t fighting the best fighters (which he often is), he just looks the part of a pound-for-pound fighter. 

Rarely does Knockout of the Year come from the super flyweight division. Yet, this year it did – thanks to Nakatani. His brutal 12th-round finish of Andrew Moloney was a thing of beauty and violence wrapped into one act.

That win made Nakatani a world champion. His next fight saw him outclass Argi Cortes, the man who gave Juan Francisco Estrada a tough fight. 

Now Nakatani is moving up and fighting Alexandro Santiago on February 24 in Japan for the WBC bantamweight world title, held by Santiago. 

Nakatani has impressive wins over Angel Acosta, Seigo Yuri Akui, and Masamichi Yabuki (the man who knocked out Kenshiro) and he passes the eye test at just 25 years of age, meaning he will be around for some time.