Japan’s Naoko Fujioka Beats Mexico’s Irma Sanchez
By Yuriko Miyata
TOKYO-It was not only a complete victory, it was also a big triumph for the 43-year-old legendary fighter Naoko Fujioka to prove that she’s still developing.
Five weight-division world champion Fujioka (18-2, 7 KOs) defended her current WBA flyweight title by unanimous decision in a 10 round fight against the organization’s interim version titlist Irma Sanchez (30-8-1) of Mexico last Friday at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo Japan.
Fujioka, who took the vacant top spot by defeating Isabel Millan of Mexico in March 2017, finally met the secondary champion Sanchez who got the belt in last October. During the wait Fujioka met and defeated Yokasta Valle of Costa Rica to add a fifth world title to her world championship collection in last December.
Sanchez, 30, who also used to be IBF light flyweight champion, was determined to avoid a knockdown, but the Japanese fighter continually punished the tough Mexican opponent with solid jabs and counter punches all the way through 10 rounds to have all three judges score it 100-90.
“Irma was unbelievably tough, more than I saw in her old fight videos. I hit her a lot, right? I believe I hurt her, but she never broke down and went backward. Anywhere I hit her in the face and head was solid. I felt like I was hitting a big stone. Both my hands were sore and I had to suffer that pain midway through the fight and put up with the pain until the end,” said Fujioka. “I wish I could have knocked her out but now I am happy that she was a quality opponent. What’s more, I am happy with my performance today. I showed I could do a lot things today and also to see if I can do it in a ring with good opponent. I enjoyed what I did there.”
The crowd in the home of Japanese boxing saw an “upgraded” Fujioka that night. She is known for her bold and aggressive style. In other words she does not like to wait and throws a lot punches. This time she watched for openings to hit on the spots with sound and composed movement.
She kept some key words in her mind throughout the fight; patience, control, distance, and accuracy.
Southern California influence
Those were words that veteran trainer Ben Lira gave her when she was training with him in South El Monte, California this past Spring. While Fujioka was in Lira’s gym he examined the prominent woman’s strength and speed and told her to use those tools more effectively.
“You are a champion you don’t need to be hectic. You control the other girl to make openings, then hit there with accuracy,” said Lira who also works as a co-trainer for Gennady Golovkin in Big Bear, Calif.
That’s how she fought this time with control, patience and accuracy.
The aggressive Sanchez came forward with busy one-two combinations from the beginning but Fujioka dodged them and found the right position with a few side steps and put pressure with solid jabs then connected straight rights to the body and right uppercuts to the chin. In the second round she hurt Sanchez with clean shots and sent Sanchez back with a tornado of punches. Fujioka’s offense was smooth and natural something that she learned in the gym to manage balance when connecting combinations. Midway in the fight, she was ready to knock out Sanchez, but the Mexican was never discouraged.
Besides the opponent’s damage, a thing that Fujioka and her team had concern was over the interim champion’s very thin gloves. Sanchez brought and was permitted to use the new “No Boxing, No Life” brand that was not approved for use in the Saul Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin rematch. The Japanese Boxing Commission allowed the unfamiliar gloves to “debut” in the world title fight as Fujioka did not have any objection on the matter while she was going to use Reyes as always.
“I should have complained about it when I saw the new gloves had such a thin cushion on the knuckle part, like one third of Reyes. But Irma and her team were so nice and gave me their traditional dress… the reason was not that bad anyway so I let it go and kept it in my mind on the thinness of her gloves.”, Fujioka recalled.
The caution turned out good. Although Fujioka bled from the nose from some slight hits in the middle of the fight, she got almost no damage throughout. Careful watching of the opponent for openings and shooting accurate hits worked early and then Fujioka put it into top gear from the sixth round on. Despite the lack of a KO finish, the legend’s hardworking domination was enough to excite people till the last second.
“Today I found myself not tired at all as I was able to do what I wanted to do in the ring. Irma has a good sense of distance but she was right in front of me most the time, so it was easy to handle for me. I am very happy this time because I could show my improvement. I practiced what Ben (Lira) gave me in the gym and I did that today in the fight. Be patient, control the opponent, and hit accurately, Ben’s words were totally right.”
After she obtained her first world title as her primary goal in 2011, she had to look for some other goals in boxing to keep motivating herself. She defeated compatriot rivals in Japan, then the big name fighter Mariana “Barby” Juarez, and has collected world champion belts in five weight divisions.
“To be honest, I was wondering what I could do further do in this sport,” she confesses, but now no wondering. When she met Ben she found true pleasure in life. “Ben showed me that I still have a lot room for growth. I still have a lot of things to learn. I found myself enjoying boxing like a child learns something new. He gave me essentials on basic movement. Going back home I worked on them with my other trainers, Takayuki Shibata and Masao Oka, and then I put them to use in the ring this time. I realize I don’t need specific goals. I am enjoying learning something I am not good at. Now I just want be a better fighter than yesterday. Boxing is my lifework.”
This 43 year-old fighter recognized as one of the pound for pound top 10 is always humble and developing. She has been looking for the opportunity to show up in the American ring.
Recently she was told that Amanda Serrano, the only woman of six division world titles has been willing to drop down to 115lbs class to possibly fight against Fujioka. Another possibility is interim WBC light flyweight champion Kenia Enriquez, who already put superb performances in the U.S. five times and fights out of Tijuana, Mexico. The young Mexican fighter could also be a great option for Fujioka to present in a highest level battle for boxing fans. These best vs best match ups are opportunities for fans to see the real quality of female boxing.