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Junto Nakatani faces Alexandro Santiago aiming for his third belt and a shot at making history

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Junto Nakatani (right) cracked the flyweight top 10 and captured the vacant Japanese title by stopping Naoki Mochizuki in the ninth round. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

Skilled boxer-puncher Junto Nakatani will bid to become a three-weight world champion when he challenges WBC bantamweight titlist Alexandro Santiago at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo, on Saturday.

The 26-year-old Japanese southpaw, who enters this fight rated at No. 3 by as The Ring at junior bantamweight, felt moving up in weight was the natural progression for his career.

“I would have to admit that my weight issue was the decisive factor in moving up a weight class,” Nakatani (26-0, 19 knockouts) told The Ring through Hank Hakoda. “I knew I could have stayed at junior bantamweight a bit longer, but when I actually moved up a weight class, I felt my body getting bigger and bigger.

“I don’t feel any change myself, but some of those who come around to the gym eagerly commented that I box faster and sharper. I see these objective observations in a positive light and will try to showcase more of my ability in the fight. To be a bit more precise, I do care about ‘instantaneous’ speed, which I have trained with a particular emphasis on, and I think it is easier to demonstrate this in my new division. With these in mind, I am more determined to build a solid bantamweight body, always with higher expectations of myself.”

Nakatani had taken a warm-up fight when he moved from flyweight to junior bantamweight but decided against that this time against despite facing an impressive titleholder.

“I knew I could adapt to bantamweight whenever I moved up and I knew I definitely had that potential,” he explained. “I’m not worried about going straight to fighting a championship without any tune-up bouts. I am instead focused on getting in shape for this weight class. Since I have never had the experience of challenging a champion in my career, it is easy to get pumped up for the fight to accomplish something completely new.

“Santiago is without doubt a strong champion, but I am eager to greatly surpass expectations of the curious fans, with an impressive showing against him, who wonder how actually my fight against him will play out. I also look forward to the challenge with high hopes for myself.

“He shows particular strength when fighting at his own distance and applies a fierce attacking style. He is a small fighter with a high work rate. He tirelessly makes intense in-out moves.

“In the [Nonito] Donaire fight [when Santiago won the vacant WBC title], Santiago was fighting at the comfortable distance for him. He throws a lot of punches freely when he gets to his own distance, so I have to be prepared to deal with that. I always train with the strong image that he will not let me hit him easily in my mind. I think he has the speed to come in at a moment’s notice, on the other hand, when he feels that he is in range, he employs a solid overhand right. I have to keep in mind that I have to stay focused in such situations. I’m prepared for anything.

Junto Nakatani received the KO of the Year award from The Ring in 2023 -Photo by Yuriko Miyata

“I am a tall southpaw, so I basically keep my positional advantage on the outside firmly and carefully, and even if he responds to that trying hard to close the gap, I am quickly going to respond even more to him. Due to his action-packed fighting style, his flaws should be naturally exposed and visible to me in spots as the fight goes by. I’m absolutely ready to overpower whatever he brings to the table.”

In preparation, Nakatani, as usual decamped to Los Angeles to work under the watchful eye of long-time trainer Rudy Hernandez. During that time Nakatani estimates he sparred around 100-rounds against a Cuban boxer as well as several Mexican fighters before returning home.

“I dedicate myself to undergo all the rigorous discipline both inside and outside the ring, grinding my flesh and bone at the sacrifice of my life,” said Nakatani.

“I am going into this big match with a strong focus on the process. I focus on gaining something meaningful through the process. I believe that when the process is done right, the desired results will naturally follow. In short, my belief is ‘hard work pays off.’”

Nakatani has the added motivation to see his name appear alongside several Japanese greats including Fighting Harada, Joichiro Tatsuyoshi, Hozumi Hasegawa, Shinsuke Yamanaka and Naoya Inoue in the record books.

“I have a special fondness for the WBC bantamweight belt,” he said. “It is widely known among Japanese boxing fans thanks to its long history of being held by the iconic Japanese fighters who captivated worldwide audiences, including myself as a fan. I am passionate about wrapping my first green belt firmly around my waist and it is also a great motivation for me. I want to honor the legacy built by our great predecessors by taking over the venerable green belt myself.”

While he has much work to do at bantamweight he is edging closer to another of his goals up at junior featherweight.

“My first master the late Kozo Ishii fought as a world contender, my memories of when I started boxing in his gym in my early teens come flooding back,” he explained. “He always believed in me, ‘You are supposed to be a world champion,’ which still serves as a source of encouragement and inspiration for me today.

“I am still grateful for his constant belief in me, and it would be an honor to getting closer to my first master Kozo’s footsteps and I hope to make him proud.”

At 122-pounds his countryman and boxing superstar Naoya Inoue reigns supreme as The Ring and undisputed junior featherweight champion.

It is a fight that could be made, even though Nakatani still has plenty accomplish at bantamweight.

“I haven’t seriously taken him as my immediate opponent for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Regarding the comparison between Naoya Inoue and myself, a topic that is often debated these days, I am inspired by him as a top Japanese fighter who has greatly increased the presence of Japanese fighters in the world. I haven’t thought too much about a showdown with him yet, but of course I think I should aim for it. As long as there is a possibility of it happening, I would consider it. I would like to continue to produce convincing results one by one to increase my value and lead the way for such a future to come.

“I know that the media and fans enjoy calling me ‘the Next Monster’ or something like that. I don’t really mind it, but instead, it’s just my honor being compared to such an iconic fighter as Naoya, and actually it’s kind of a catchy nickname. I don’t know what Mr. Inoue feels about it though (laughs). I still have to get some more good results to fully deserve that. I would be happy if I can give fans even a small hope for the future possible big fight. To get to that big stage, I hope I can keep showing good performances to make people want to see more and more of my boxing.”

However, there is a lot of work to be done initially at bantamweight, starting with Santiago.

“I am supposed to become the world champ in this my new division for sure,” he said. “I will aim for a KO victory, and I will take a lot of relentless action to make it happen. At the same time, I am well aware that he is a formidable stalwart champion, so I will try to apply and develop a boxing style that will test his mettle to break his spirits and confidence. I’m thrilled that fighting one of the real-deal fighters in bantamweight serves to be an opportunity to hone my skills.

“I would then like to start thinking about unification bouts. I think I can stay in bantamweight for relatively a long time, so I’m hopefully going to fight big fights as everyone expects me to have.

“I am sure that all of them are reasonably good champions, so I am very determined. I think that having an environment where I can fight against strong opponents like this is a chance for me to grow even more.”

Hernandez, who has worked with Nakatani since the fighter was a teenager, welcomes the new challenge and feels his charge is peaking at the right time.

“By no means do we feel this is an easy fight,” said the trainer. “I think it’s complicated but we’re training to bring the best Junto to this fight. He’s sharp and stronger because weight loss won’t be as significant. Sparring is key for fighting day. I use old ways better than new boxing. I train fighters, not human beings.”

Santiago (28-3-5, 14 KOs), rated at No. 3 by The Ring at bantamweight, has overcome a couple of early setbacks to establish himself as a solid professional. The 28-year-old Mexican is already a 10-year veteran. In his first world title attempt he gave then-IBF 115-pound titlist Jerwin Ancajas (D 12) all he could handle.

He lost a close fight to Gary Antonio Russell (SD 10) in late 2021 and had rebounded with three wins to earn a shot at the vacant WBC title against the legendary Nonito Donaire. In that fight he showed a good chin early to come on late and claim a 12-round unanimous decision to lift the title.

Santiago-Nakatani, plus undercard bouts, will be broadcast on ESPN+ at 5:00 a.m. ET/ 2:00 p.m. PT

Our correspondent Hank Hakoda coordinated and translated this feature.

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected].

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