Japan’s Momo Koseki Remains Boxing’s Greatest Secret
By Yuriko Miyata
The highly anticipated 10-round contest for the WBC minimumweight title between the champion Yuko Kuroki and the challenger Momo Koseki is approaching.
What do we know about Momo Koseki, the current WBC atomweight champion?
The skinny southpaw might be the most humble, underestimated or even unknown champion of the world. For nine years and three months Koseki has reigned the 102-pound division. Her control of the world title at the minimum weight class is seven months longer than that of famous undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus of Norway.
While in this weight class she has defended her world title belt against 17 challengers from Korea, Thailand, Philippines, England, Mexico and her native Japan since 2008. It has dawned on her that the thrills and motivation have gone. But now her focus has shifted from how to overwhelm opponents in the ring to how to finish her long career happily. Because of this new shift in philosophy she is totally enthusiastic over the fight against Kuroki, who could be the last rival for her, even in though it is in Kuroki’s hometown.
“It is going to be a very difficult fight but it’s what I’ve been longing for. I’ve kept telling my coach that I want one great opponent who inflames me. Now I got Yuko. I was tired of piling up easy defense fights. I was exhausted.”
Why she has remained rather unknown to boxing experts despite a remarkable record of 17 world title defenses for more than nine years is one of the mysteries of prizefighting. She’s one of the great secrets in boxing.
Koseki started boxing in her early teens, thinking it would improve her soccer performance on a local team. She became fascinated with the fighting sport then moved to a boxing club known for training women seriously when she was 19 years old. While there she met Masayuki Ariyoshi, her all-time coach and manager.
“Momo was not an average girl seen in the gym. She came everyday and did basic workouts without any conversation with others as if she did not want to waste any energy for training. At first I did not think much of her but her earnestness made me serious,” Ariyoshi recalls.
The pair’s first triumph was a victory in an unofficial sparring competition in 2002.
“It was the first and best moment ever for me in my life. That made me more focused on getting better skills”, Koseki said. That further led her to win the title of light flyweight in the first Japanese amateur female championship in 2003.
Controversial Title Win
After realizing at the time that there was no hope for female boxing to make its Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008, she decided to turn professional. Just one year before Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) approved female professional boxing, she debuted in Thailand and had five fights including two losses for the world title in 2007.
It was during her third fight on August 2008 under JBC when she won the world championship by second round knockout over Winyu Paradorngym, who had defeated Koseki in Thailand the year before. But the second fight between them was a very controversial ending.
In that fight a left hand and a simultaneous head butt sent the Thai fighter down for the count in the second round and unable to continue fighting. The WBC concluded it was a legal KO punch and made Koseki the new world champion. Though it was ruled an accidental butt by the sanctioning body, her reputation suffered terribly. Many claimed she became a world champion with a dirty head butt and it aroused negativity from boxing watchers for female professional boxing.
“Because of the way I got the world title, I’ve felt like I owe for the very expensive champion belt since then. I’ve not looked into the Internet to see how people talk about me badly. I’ve not shown off myself inside and outside of the ring because I’ve never thought I deserved it. No gorgeous ring costume. No exposure of myself. Every time I defended the title, I wanted to compensate for the debt. I’ve wanted to prove myself more and more to get credit as a real champion from everybody.”
Keep winning was the way to prove herself. She did not like to stand out but she got attention when she was approaching challenge 13, the record of consecutive defenses for a world title first made by national hero Yoko Gushiken in 1980. It gave her another obstacle especially when her 13th title defense were said to be made with easy opponents and that its value was totally different from Gushiken’s.
“I knew that. It was me who knew the records were not comparable. He is like God for me. So, I wanted people to ignore me,” Koseki said, though Gushiken himself admired her great accomplishment no matter of gender.
When she defeated WBA 102lbs champion Ayaka Miyao in her 16th title defense and unified the titles in 2015, the humble woman finally showed her emotions in the ring and got honored appropriately for the first time. It was real fireworks between the two champions. Koseki got knocked down by Miyao’s right hand in the first round but she rallied back tremendously with a furious assault from behind and won the contest with a narrow but unanimous decision. As her name was announced as the winner,
Koseki could not help sobbing.
“I was devastating during the fight. That was the fight to give it all I have, that I’ve been longing for a long time. I was really happy that I could be proud of my fight,” she said and smiled blissfully having both hands full with two champion belts.
She expected that the big fight might change her career and make it brighter and busier but it never happened. Basically the lightest weight division is always short of talent. But she could not decide to quit the sport just when she had just proved her ability and felt still in her prime.
It took 10 months to get the next fight, which was the first non-title bout for her in nine years. Last November 2016, she had to fight the over-matched Chie Higano who was determined but not experienced in her 17th defense. The TKO victory was too easy and did not satisfy her mind. Before that fight, she had already been looking for another challenging fight to complete her career. She needed a fight to accomplish what she had not done yet in boxing: To obtain world titles in multi divisions and to defeat a southpaw.
Team Koseki told the WBC that she wanted to move up to the 105 pound class and challenge the southpaw champion Yuko Kuroki. Koseki had waited for a long time to hear the good news from the WBC.
“It was really hard to keep training for an uncertain goal which was a fight against Kuroki. Just after the 17th challenge I started sparring with lefties to get ready for the champion without knowing when it might come true. I was afraid of taking a day off because I would not be able to work again if I stopped once. Keeping a routine was the only way to keep myself hoping.”
One day while waiting for the chance her mother took her to a short trip for refreshment to Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, where Gushiken was from. She visited the memorial museum of the hero and kept its ticket like an amulet.
“When I stood in the museum I talked to Mr.Gushiken in my mind that I won’t care how people think of me anymore. I won’t care about the record anymore. I just want to be proud myself.”
After the trip, she found an email from Ariyoshi, on tour with her stable mate, saying that WBC finally approved her as a mandatory challenger for Kuroki and that it was time to start negotiations with team Kuroki.
“I could not help crying. I was really happy for the chance to go burning in the ring. I got a chance to give it all I have.”
She knows it is going to be very hard as the fight is away from her hometown, in the unfamiliar 105-pound division, against a southpaw for the first time, and what’s more, Kuroki is much younger and a promising fighter. But she looks really happy and anxious to return to the ring as a challenger.
“I’ve never been as enthusiastic like now. The more it is challenging, the more I can perform. I must do my best against the best opponent. I just want to say after the fight that I don’t have anything left to do in the ring. I want to go up in flames.”
One last spark is all she wants.