JAPANESE hero Kazuto Ioka looks to turn the clock back again when he meets Joshua Franco in their rematch in Tokyo on Saturday night. The super-flyweights fought out a majority draw at the same Ota-City General Gymnasium last New Year’s Eve.

Franco, ranked as the fourth best in the world, puts his WBA strap on the line this weekend (no longer the case, unfortunately, after Franco weighed in 6.25lbs over the 115lbs limit) and the career of Ioka – ranked three – could be at stake as well. The four-weight belt-holder – strawweight (105lbs) to super-flyweight (115lbs) – is now 34 years old and a veteran of 23 fights in which a sanctioning body title was at stake (20 wins, two losses, one draw). Though far from ‘shot’, it’s hard to ignore the signs that he’s past his best.

The consensus after the first bout among reporters was that Ioka was fortunate to escape with a draw against the Robert Garcia-trained Texan after an all-action fight. The scores were 115-113 (Franco) and two scores of 114-114. Though never dominant, Franco had the look of the fighter in control. Compubox stats, a useful but not definitive tool, backs that up. They reveal that Franco threw more in every round, but Ioka landed the higher percentage in every session.

According to those Compubox calculations, they threw 2,209 punches at each other, with Franco averaging 117 per round, compared to Ioka’s 66. The stats don’t show that Franco was always on the front foot and when his punches landed, they had greater effect.

Franco, who has fought up at 118lbs, looked the stronger of the two and was able to push Ioka back onto the ropes. Even when there, Ioka wasn’t easy to catch cleanly and always looked to score with counters, notably a whipping right in answer to Franco’s jab and left hooks to the body, and for us, he outpunched Franco in the 10th when they went traded in the centre of the ring before the American went up a gear in the last six minutes.

Watching the fight again last week, Boxing News had Franco winning 8-3-1 in rounds.

Joshua Franco

Soon after the fight, Ioka was ordered to defend his WBO belt against countryman Junto Nakatini, but instead opted to face Franco again, explaining the mandatory defence was “not an option at all… it was very important to settle things with Franco.” That’s to be admired.

Ioka vacated the title before the Nakatini fight went to purse bids.

There’s always the possibility that, given the know how he’s accumulated in more than a decade fighting at the top level and with Ismael Salas in his corner, Ioka can find a way to turn the tables on the 27-year-old from San Antonio, the elder brother of flyweight boss Jesse Rodriguez. We shouldn’t forget how wise old fighters like Azumah Nelson, after a contentious draw with Jeff Fenech in 1991, dominated the return the following year.

After all, Ioka didn’t look like an old fighter against Franco, just a smaller one. Furthermore, he was competitive throughout; unhurried, he wasted little, and looked so smooth when he put his punches together. But he simply couldn’t make much of an impression on Franco and though Ioka didn’t always take clean punches when under fire, spending too much time on the ropes is a risky strategy in a distance fight.

Regardless of how pundits read that first battle, the scorecards show Ioka only has to do a bit more to win this time.

Ioka has avenged one of the other defeats on his 29-2-1 record, to Donnie Nietes, last July. The Filipino went into that rematch aged 40, but in Franco, Ioka faces a fresh, young boxer who’s a good size for 115lbs and can fight at a good pace for the full 12 rounds.

As is to be expected, Ioka claims he underperformed in their first fight yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that the same might well be true of Franco. He had been out of the ring for 16 months going into the fight. Franco had been waiting for a shot at Juan Francisco Estrada and the Mexican veteran’s name came up again in the aftermath of the draw with Ioka.

Franco, who has previously had trilogies with both Oscar Negrete (two draws and a points win) and Andrew Moloney (two points wins and a no decision), heads back to Japan instead where we believe he will outwork the local hero and get his rewards on the scorecards this time.