WBO Champ Nao Ikeyama and Hanagata Fight to a Draw Again in Tokyo
By Yuriko Miyata
Championships are not easy to defend, or to capture. That is why they are very valuable and precious.
At the age of 47 years and 10 months, WBO atomweight champion Nao Ikeyama barely kept the belt in her hand against former OPBF strawweight titlist Saemi Hanagata after a spirited 10 round battle ending in a draw at the famous Korakuen Hall in Tokyo Japan on July 11th.
One judge favored Hanagata with 96-94, another had Ikeyama with 96-94, and the last one was 95-95. They tied once again.
There was no winner in the 20 rounds totaled since their first contest in June 2016. The defending champion did not show any triumph but just eased by the closest of margins while the challenger had no complaint, but harbored deep disappointment in failing in her fourth attempt at a world title.
It was like deja vu this standoff between the two tough women. It happened the same way a year ago.
Ikeyama, known as a nonstop fighter, put pressure on the opponent as the first bell rung with busy work of both hands. Fifteen years younger, slugger Hanagata was looking to counter with her straight rights and left hooks to the body. The challenger’s plan seemed to work out in the earlier rounds, but eventually the champion’s rushing power was overwhelming the opponent’s strategy and confidence.
Hanagata could not follow up on the clean hits because Ikeyama retaliated back with doubled and triple counters. It must have been very difficult for the judges to decide between Hanagata’s big single shots or Ikeyama’s continual offence.
Hanagata charged forth even stronger in the seventh round, but it ended up igniting the champion to get even busier in the championship rounds.
“This time I just wanted to show my way of boxing. I always go forward, that’s what I meant. In the earlier half I could not take it easy but I worked hard to focus on doing what I did in the gym. By the way, it was good of me to listen to the advice of my corner to watch out for my opponent’s right counter. In the later half, I think I could have worked better. I can give myself 70 percent on my performance tonight”, Ikeyama said at the post fight press conference with the pink colored WBO belt strapped around her. She has defended it six times now.
Ikeyama is called the “Iron Woman” because she has always performed beyond the people’s imagination. Having fought five years unofficially her career in female boxing includes two challenges for international titles. She was finally licensed by JBC in 2008 at the age of 38. The following year she was shut out by WBC champion Momo Koseki. It was a matter of course to be said that many felt she was too old to become a new world champion.
She decided to retire following her father’s death in 2010, but she came back after three years. She could not give it up despite working full time in the city hall of her home town Okayama, the western side of Japanese main land.
Every weekend she travels three hours to Kyoto for training, then goes back to work in the office on Mondays. Such a super busy lady finally made her dream come true when she won against Jessebelle Pagaduan of Philippines for the vacant WBO atomweight title in May 2014. She was already 44 years and 8 months old at that time.
Although the old new champion has been deemed a ready-made target for younger challengers, she upset the hopes of then OPBF champion Masae Akitaya, former WBA queen Ayaka Miyao, and now Saemi Hanagata twice.
Hanagata spoke a little after the fight, “I believed it was the last chance to challenge for the world title. I practiced my left hook to land during the exchange of punches. I think I did better than last time. But I am not a judge.”
With a very outgoing personality Hanagata has hundreds of supporters around every fight, but she was too depressed to talk to them afterward this time.
Her ring name “Hanagata” was given by her manager Susumu Hanagata, well known as a dauntless man who finally seized the WBA flyweight title in 1974 after four bitter losses.
In 2008, Saemi happened to start training in the very same gym which the ex-champion Susumu Hanagata founded in Yokohama in 1985. Saemi is the first one who Mr. Hanagata decided to give the last name to his boxer. He said the reason was that she was the hardest worker in the gym. “As long as a boxer hangs in there, a chance will come”, this is his belief that he tells to younger ones.
Saemi did not mention anything of her future, but she won’t give up honoring the name of “Hanagata.”