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Wrapping Up 2022: Ioka vs Franco Preview

There is one more major boxing event in the year 2022, and it will take place on New Year’s Eve at the Ota-City Gymnasium in Tokyo, Japan. At stake is the unified super flyweight title, with WBO Champion Kazuto Ioka (29-2, 15 KOs) squaring off against WBA Champion Joshua Franco (18-1-2, 8 KOs). Ioka, the hometown fighter, is a four division world champion who has captured title belts in the 105lb, 108lb, 112lb and 115lb weight divisions. Franco is a San Antonio native, the brother of former WBC 115lb champion and current 112lb contender Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez (17-0, 11 KOs) and the newly minted WBA Super Flyweight “Super” Champion.

This will be Ioka’s second fight of 2022, with his first one taking place in July against fellow four division champion Donnie Nietes (43-2-6, 23 KOs). This was a rematch, the two matched up on New Year’s Eve in 2018 with the vacant WBO Super Flyweight Title at stake. Nietes edged out a split decision victory (116-112, 118-110, 112-116) in a fight that could have gone either way, with many making the argument that Ioka should have had his hand raised at the conclusion of the bout.

Ioka wouldn’t have to wait long for another title shot, as he got an opportunity to fight for the same WBO title after Nietes vacated it instead of facing #1 contender Aston Palicte (28-5-1, 23 KOs). Ioka stopped Palicte in the tenth round of their 2019 matchup and became Japan’s four division champion with the victory. He would go on to make four successful defenses of the title before running it back with Nietes seeking revenge.

Ioka after becoming Japan’s first four division champion (Photo via The Japan Times)

Ioka would once against match up with Donnie Nietes in a fight that took place in July of this year. Ioka avenged that defeat this year in decisive fashion, whereas Nietes was never able to gain any real momentum (117-111, 118-110, 120-108). Ioka really put it on him as the fight went on, bloodying up Nietes in the tenth round and leaving no doubt regarding who was the better man in the ring.

Franco has not fought at all so far in 2022. He was ordered to fight Juan Estrada (44-3, 28 KOs) earlier this year as part of the WBA title consolidation plan but the fight fell apart due to a low purse bid. Estrada vacated the WBA “Super” title as he moved on to the highly anticipated trilogy fight with Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez (51-4, 41 KOs) that took place on December 3rd of this year. Being elevated to full champion status, Franco shifted his sights toward this unification bout.

Franco is mostly known to the boxing public for his own trilogy which took place over the last few years against world ranked Australian contender Andrew Moloney (25-2, 16 KOs). The first fight was in June of 2020, with Franco scoring a late knockdown on route to winning a unanimous decision (114-113 x2, 115-112).

They met in a rematch later in 2020, and the end result was certainly controversial. Moloney started out strong with his jab in the first two rounds and the right eye of Franco began to shut. Contrary to the belief of anyone who watched the fight, the fight was ruled a no contest due to a clash of heads. On replay it was evident that there was no clash of heads, but the ruling stood and Franco retained his title.

Franco raising his hands knowing he had defeated Andrew Moloney in their trilogy (Photo via Mikey Williams, Top Rank Boxing)

That set up a third fight between the pair, which took place in August of 2021. Franco showed a ton of improvements from the second fight and put together the best performance of his career to date. He wore Moloney down throughout the twelve round duration, earning the unanimous decision win (116-112 x3). This showing erased any doubts that surfaced after the second fight, and allowed Franco to move on to bigger and better things.

The stage is now set for the New Year’s Eve showdown, which will most likely produce a unified champion at its conclusion. Ioka comes into this one the slight favorite, which I assume is because of his overall accomplishments and proven ability to beat elite level opposition throughout multiple weight classes.

Franco is the underdog, but he has youth on his side and certainly has a path to victory in this one. Ioka is a pressure fighter and is very calculated with the way he attempts to break down his opponents. Franco does his best work in the mid range and has a nice left hook to the body.

I expect both guys to have their fair share of success, but I think the experience of Ioka could end up making the difference down the stretch. The super flyweight division is one of the few division that continues to deliver compelling matchups, and this fight is no different. The term “50-50 fight” tends to get overused, but this fight has the feeling of one that could really go either way.

Whoever emerges victorious could look to unify in a three belt unification with either Juan Estrada or IBF champ Fernando Martinez (15-0, 8 KOs). Without a doubt the loser is still in the mix in the talent rich super flyweight division and can also be involved in great fights in the future.

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Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly