New Year will reaffirm old axiom as younger Franco will outlast Ioka.
This hasn’t been the most satisfying 12 months over the course of modern boxing history. When a fight that didn’t happen – the apparently impossible Terence Crawford-Errol Spence to-do – becomes the sport’s biggest news of the last quarter of the year, you know things can only get better.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. At least for the few thousand fans who happen to be Ota-City Gymnasium on New Year’s Eve.
In a battle that will sadly and astonishingly not be televised or streamed (as of now), Kazuto Ioka and Joshua Franco will get it on to unify the WBO/WBA junior bantamweight titles when they meet Saturday in Tokyo.
“THE PROFESSOR” AND “THE DEAN”
When you think of San Antonio, you think of Jesse James Leija, John Michael Johnson, and the Ayala family. Lately, the Alamo City is all about its newest sensation, Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez. All are big-hearted, tough, and talented – if not sometimes overlooked. Such is the case with Franco, 18-1-2 (8 knockouts), who went into his 2020 fight with 21-0 Australian Andrew Moloney as a 12-1 underdog. Moloney was being heavily promoted and featured as a budding star, along with his brother Jason. Franco was more of the bit player, despite a unique trilogy with Oscar Negrete (Franco won the series 1-0-2).
But Franco surprised Moloney and many others that day in a quiet ballroom at the MGM Grand. “El Profesor” – who acquired the nickname because he showed up to his first training session in glasses and dressy clothes – fought brilliantly in his first world title fight. He jabbed, tossed out strong combinations, used his feet, and fought smartly. He boxed when he needed to box and slugged when he needed to slug. He dropped the champ in the 11th and went on to an upset unanimous decision win.
Five months later, they did it again, and the rematch ended in controversy. Referee Russell Mora ruled it a No Contest after two rounds, thanks to what he called an accidental headbutt. Moloney felt the cut on Franco’s eye was caused by a punch, so they fought a third time in August 2021. Franco settled things by winning a unanimous decision.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Franco hasn’t fought since, sitting idle now for 16 long months.
But Franco is dedicated, well-schooled, and trained by renowned Oxnard trainer Robert Garcia. There is no indication that he will come into this, the biggest fight of his career on Ioka’s home turf, anything but well-prepared.
Ioka, 29-2 (15 KO’s), Tokyo, has won world titles in four divisions over a tremendous career that began in 2009. A star in his native land – second only to the great Naoya Inoue in popularity – Ioka has reigned at 105 (2011-2012), 108 (2012-14), 112 (2015-17), and now 115 pounds (2018-present). A future Hall of Famer, Ioka lost his first world title fight at 115 pounds, dropping a close nod to rival Donnie Nietes in 2018. Since then, he is 6-0 (2 KOs), including a revenge decision over Nietes in his last fight in July.
Among Ioka’s victories over the years and over 10 pounds: Oleydong Sithsamerichai (TKO 5), Juan Hernandez (W 12), Akira Yaeashi (W 12) in the first title unification fight among Japanese fighters; Jose Rodriguez (TKO 6), Juan Carlos Revelco (W 12), Jeyvier Cintron (W 12), Kosei Tanaka (TKO 8), Francisco Rodriguez Jr. (W 12) and Ryoji Fukunaga (W 12).
If Franco is “The Professor,” Ioka is “The Dean.”
Ioka is amazing not only because of his offensive arsenal, his vast array of punches (especially a deadly uppercut and signature body shots), and fundamental prowess – he is durable. For a fighter who moved up so many weight divisions over the years, Ioka has remained a rock. He took full advantage of his youth in the Nietes rematch, throwing a ton of punches that kept the 40-year-old on his heels all night.
GO WITH JOSHUA FRANCO
Ioka (33) was the younger fighter vs. Nietes by seven years. This time, he’ll be the older man – by six years (Franco is 27). In boxing, that’s a lot of years.
In many ways, Ioka will be looking at a younger version of himself. Franco is well-schooled, able to fight on the inside and outside, keeps a high guard, and pumps out a solid jab. He throws an array of punches, is consistent, and is tough. With everything else equal – both are 5-foot-5, with Franco having a two-inch reach advantage at 67 inches – the edge goes to the younger man.
We’ve seen it a few times this year – Canelo Alvarez dominating an older Gennadiy Golovkin, Inoue destroying an aged Nonito Donaire, and Ioka defeating Nietes. And we’ll see it again on New Year’s Eve. As we head into 2023, youth will be served. Again.
KAZUTO IOKA VS. JOSHUA FRANCO PREDICTION
Franco by split decision.
Matthew Aguilar may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org