By Anthony Cocks
IBF flyweight champion Moruti ‘Babyface’ Mthalane 38-2 (25) impressively turned back the challenge of teak-tough mandatory contender Masayuki Kuroda 30-8-3 (16) at the world famous Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Japan on Monday night.
The 36-year-old South African champion was awarded the victory by unanimous decision after 12 gruelling rounds in one of the fights of the year. Judge Ian Scott from New Zealand scored the bout 117-111, while South Africa’s Neville Hotz and Japan’s Masakazu Murase both had it 116-112.
“I’m very much happy because I won the fight,” said Mthalane, who beat Japan’s Masahiro Sakamoto in his previous bout.
“How I won it, it doesn’t matter because I won unanimously. [Kuroda] surprised me because he is very strong compared to how he was watching him on the videos.
“Kuroda kept working. He wanted the belt and gave his best as a challenger.”
Mthalane pressed the action in the opening rounds, backing up the taller Japanese fighter who looked content to look for counterpunching opportunities from the outside. By the third frame Kuroda came to life, landing some hard shots on the champion to the delight of the 1,800 strong crowd.
The fourth saw the underdog continue digging to the body with Mthalane covering up. But in a dominant fifth Mthalane, who hasn’t lost a fight in more than a decade, peppered Kuroda with heavy punches that started to swell the right eye of the challenger.
Working his combinations behind a stiff jab, Mthalane took control in the middle rounds, landing the cleaner and more eye-catching blows. The game Kuroda rallied at stages but was regularly on the receiving end of Mthalane’s left stick and well-timed uppercuts.
The ninth proved to be Kuroda’s last stand as he dug deep to keep pace with the champion, but with his right eye closing and a cut over his left eye, it was clear who was doing the greater damage.
Going into the championships rounds it was Mthalane who had more left in the tank. The evergreen champion stood in the pocket and landed precision blows to the body and head of Kuroda, who was lucky to hear the final bell.
The vastly improved Kuroda was gracious in defeat and admitted Mthalane’s conditioning surprised him.
“Mthalane's style is to box at close quarters, so I fought the way I had planned,” said Kuroda, 32, who lost his only other world title challenge against Juan Carlos Reveco in 2013.
“I was landing body blows, and thought he might drop off (in pace), but (that wasn't the case).
"Compared to six years ago, I think I'm a stronger and calmer fighter.”
Mthalane received high praise from adviser Mike Altamura after the fight.
“Moruti Mthalane may be the best ring technician I've ever worked with,” Altamura said. “Tonight he fought off a tenacious Masayuki Kuroda to defend his world title at the historic Korakuen Hall in Japan.”
With his mandatory title defence now out of the way, the well-travelled Mthalane – who has fought in the US, Panama, Italy, Macau, Malaysia and now Japan – is looking to book his next fight in the UK against WBC flyweight champion Charlie Edwards.
“Charlie Edwards, I’ve been waiting to fight this fight. So now I’m ready, I won this fight so I’m looking forward to fight you,” Mthalane said.
“Come on champ, let’s unify our titles. I’m ready. I will knock you out.”