Monday morning in Japan, the fight clock stood still at 38 seconds.
Almost a half-minute left in Round 5, Kosei Tanaka put one foot in front of the other and dipped his left shoulder to throw a hook, coiling into the classic stance: left hand cocked at the hip, slight bend at the knees and waist, right arm connected from elbow to wrist in an acute angle pointing to the opponent’s feet. The target this time was Sho Kimura, the defending champion.
Kimura recognized the ritualized dance.
He raised his gloves in anticipation for a punch that never came. Tanaka continued assuming the position: frozen and textbook: baiting Kimura, who loaded up a left hook of his own. The clock turned to 0:37 and Tanaka parried the blow before smashing a curled punch into his man’s chin.
The feint-and-bait sequence was emblematic of Tanaka’s prodigious perception in the ring. And just one moment of what’s being called Fight of the Year. Though preceding a bloodier affair the next day between Junior Welterweights Anthony Mercado and Victor Vazquez, the flyweight battle was as anarchic as a world-level matchup can be.
Aired by AsianBoxing.com from Japan, a particular kind of stateside fight fan stayed up to watch Tanaka (12-0, 7 KO) unseat Kimura (17-2-2, 10 KO), TBRB’s No. 2 Flyweight in the world, for the WBO 112-pound title, joining Vasyl Lomachenko as the only men to claim three titles in 12 professional bouts.
A week after a majority decision for Canelo Alvarez divided a million pay-per-view subscribers, few protested the decision Tanaka received, composed by the scores of 116-112, 115-113 and 114-114 and three distinct momentum swings—Tanaka to Kimura in the fifth round, Kimura to Tanaka in the seventh, and back to Kimura in the tenth. Covering Rocky Marciano’s first tussle with Jersey Joe Walcott, A.J. Liebling was correct: “In nine rounds the lead changed hands three times… You don’t see many fights like that.”
Kimura, 29, took the center of the ring early and often: both fists oscillating to the flashing stadium lights hitting his bronze musculature. By contrast, the 23-year-old challenger, with a pale face of starved intensity, navigated the ring smoothly and demonstrated every punch in the book.
His second fight at proper Flyweight, Tanaka claimed the first three rounds with combinations as simple as 1-2-3: left-right to the champion’s head and a searing left hook to the body. A stalking Kimura gave it back when he could, finding success with singular left uppercuts.
Halfway through the second period, one of those uppercuts snapped Tanaka’s head back. Kimura prepared to double up on the shot but the prodigious Japanese recovered quicker than expected and returned another left hook that buckled Kimura’s knees.
In Round 3, Tanaka’s left hook exploded onto the side of his opponent’s face, using the moment to pivot to his left. Circling out and away to either side of his man, Tanaka created slits in Kimura’s high guard to stuff straight punches through, like unfurling collapsable brass telescopes between the champ’s yellow gloves. Occasionally a punch or two brushed Kimura backwards.
Tanaka’s agile ways were particularly fluid in the fourth stanza: floating about: seeing more than one of Kimura’s winging punches waft through empty space.
Round 5 was in the trenches. And the crowd loved it. Both combatants pressed their entire weight—all their will—onto one another: glued at the forehead: trading punches into their shared flesh. A querulous voice from referee Mark Nelson repeated, “watch your head,” but the official didn’t have to separate a clinch until Round 9.
Kimura would be warned for low blows but he wasn’t dissuaded, striking in a ferocious pace: shoveling six-, eight-punch combinations at a time. In Round 7, three consecutive digs to Tanaka’s midsection convinced him to reevaluate the phone booth approach. Tanaka separated and kept up his creative attack, interchanging volleys up and down.
The camera between the eighth and ninth rounds gave a closeup of Kimura’s right eye: completely shut: a mauve unbloomed tulip. Tanaka had his own shiner developing under his right eye. And a minute into the ninth, another camera angle revealed the gravity of Kimura’s body assault. There was a crimson fleck of skin tear behind Tanaka’s right elbow.
Round 10 saw Kimura hitting at the younger man with curled punches. With seconds left in the round, Tanaka landed a cross counter over Kimura’s extended left arm. The champion took the blow in stride and hurled back four punches in succession: a stiff left followed by a hook upstairs, then down, and up again. The sudden chain of punches forced Tanaka to wrap up.
These were Kimura’s rounds. One last display of power from a passing king. He ran straight for his man to open the final three minutes of the match, sending a remarkable 12 punches to Tanaka’s body. Not all punishing but relentless. Two minutes to go, Tanaka stuffed an arcing blow on the top of Kimura’s head. He tried it again and Kimura did the same as the two met with opposing overhands.
Almost cartoonishly, they repeated themselves. And another time, ricocheting off each other and stepping back in for more. Four times in all before Tanaka circled away. At 1:17 of the twelfth, Kimura drove his head into his rival’s chest and flung a slashing uppercut that so missed its mark he spun himself 360 degrees. Darker swelling under Tanaka’s right eye now, and blood coming from Kimura’s nose, neither man stopped punching, stretching out those final seconds like an eternity: exchanges that haven’t ceased in the minds of those who witnessed them.
The judges rendered a decision for Tanaka and lo! the contingency of history stirred in Kimura’s heart, suggesting he may retire. As meteoric was his rise from obscure brawler to parvenue (in five months shattering Olympic legend Zou Shiming and former lineal champion Toshiyuki Igarashi) now so is his fall.
Fate, instead, smiled on Tanaka. His early work and sharp punching throughout the middle stages overcame Kimura’s late surge, bolstering a fine ledger that includes wins over the excellent Moises Fuentes and sluggers Vic Saludar and Angel Acosta.
Growing pains along the way have left Tanaka with question marks. Floored twice in his career, his stamina should be addressed, giving up those closing rounds to Kimura after being rattled late by Acosta last year. He’s walking that terrible line between getting hit too much because he’s young and getting hit too often for somebody hoping to survive at the top when he’s closer to 30 than 20. They’re questions and they’ll be answered in due time, sometime in the future.
But at the moment, right now, coiled to strike, frozen into a moment in history, Tanaka is among the 10 or 15 best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
Header photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images