By Phil Rogers

FAMILIAR nations still dominate territories on the boxing landscape but few can stake a claim on the lighter weight classes quite like the Japanese. Stylistically thrilling but removed from the glare of sport’s spotlight, the likes of Naoya Inoue, Kazuto Ioka, Kenshiro Teraji, the Shigeoka brothers and Kosei Tanaka have, in recent years, provided us with some of boxing’s most enthralling fights. Yet keeping abreast of their exploits in the Far East isn’t always easy, with fights often taking place midmorning during the working week and television broadcasts limited. Making the leap from such a cult following to boxing superstardom isn’t easy but that’s exactly what Junto Nakatani is hoping to do, starting with his fight against Mexico’s Alexandro Santiago for the WBC’s world bantamweight strap.

“It’s like a kind of greed,” he tells Boxing News.

“I’m more greedy, more hungry. I need more. I’m building up my boxing career. It’s very cool right now but I want more. I feel hungry, I want more experience, more glory. Become a world champion but then more, like pound for pound (recognition).”

Nakatani’s ascent through the weights has already seen him pick up WBO sanctioning body titles at both flyweight and super-flyweight. Remaining at 115lbs in order to win all the belts had appeared to be the plan, particularly after his spectacular performance against Andrew Maloney in May 2023, so it was with some surprise that the fight with Santiago up at bantamweight was announced. For those close to him, however, there was little doubt that the southpaw would need to move up sooner rather than later as Nakatani walks around at a natural 140lbs.

“We move into 118 because when at 115 I was working hard to make the weight. I just move up a 118 and directly into the title shot,” he says.  “Santiago, he has a good pace. He throws a lot of punches. So (if) we control the middle of the ring then we control him. If he has his own space then he’s a difficult fighter so we’ll control the ring. When I was a kid I always dreamed of a big fight in Tokyo. So I’m really excited.”

Essential to Nakatani’s plans is experienced trainer Rudy Hernandez. Demonstrating his ambition when he was just 15 years old, Nakatani flew over to Los Angeles to train with Hernandez and the relationship has continued to blossom ever since. Working the corner of such a talented and eager young fighter is clearly a thrill, though Hernandez is very much aware of the threat Santiago poses up in unchartered waters at bantamweight.

“I’m enjoying the ride,” he declares.

“Junto is now the best I’ve ever trained. He’s very disciplined and eager to be the best he can be. We’re training thinking Santiago will be Junto’s hardest fight to date. We’re trying to be ready for the worst. Santiago is a crafty fighter who can fight inside and out.”

For a fighter with lofty dreams his brutal 11th round knockout of the talented Andrew Maloney out in Las Vegas was just the shot in the arm he needed. Recently crowned by Ring Magazine of the KO Of 2023, Nakatani was delighted with the award and hopes it will act as a catalyst to bring more eyes to his fights, whether they be boxing scholars or those less familiar with the sport.

“During the fight I never gave up on focusing on the knockout. I was winning the rounds but I tried to he tried to focus on the knockout because that’s gonna impress more people,” he says.

“I’m happy to get the Knockout Of The Year 2023 but still I’m not satisfied. Still I need more and more. I need to get to more people, to show the people a good fight. Make more (of an) impression, not just the boxing fan. Even the regular (casual) fan.”

Junto Nakatani

Nakatani is just one of a number of Japanese fighters currently impressing fans in the smaller weight divisions. He puts the emergence of this current crop of talent down to the culture within boxing gyms in his homeland, the work that goes into drilling the fundamentals from a very young age, as well as “Yamato-Damashii”, a fighting mind set that translates as ‘Japanese spirit.’

“They’re growing into the environment in Japan right now, so I want to shine like a star in the ring in front of everybody because there are many good fighters in Japan. They have an amateur system, a competition for the under fifteens, so many people studying boxing at a young age. Like Inoue and Ioka, everybody’s the same, studying from less than ten years old.”

His fellow countryman, Naoya Inoue, is, of course, one of the hottest properties in Japanese sport right now, selling out arenas and adorning billboards as he wipes out every opponent in his wake. Nakatani is hugely respectful of the pound-for-pound ‘Monster’, though his aspirations for greatness mean a fight between the two down the line can’t be ruled out. For now, however, domination at bantamweight is the name of the game.

“Right now I don’t deserve to fight Inoue, but in the future if people think, “Oh Junto Nakatani, he should be fighting Naoya Inoue!” If they say that I want to be right there,” he says.

“I want the unification at 118lbs. Then we move up to 122lbs. I’m gonna be world champion on February 24th. Then in the future people will like Junto Nakatani and expect good fights from me. I just want the championship so that people pay attention to me.”