On the last day of last year, super-flyweight Kazuto Ioka delivered a near-perfect defense of his title, dismantling Kosei Tanaka over eight excellent rounds at the Ota-City General Gymnasium in Japan. That seems an apposite verb too, dismantle, which, according to Merriam-Webster, means:
- to disconnect the pieces of
- to destroy the integrity or functioning of
Tanaka suffered both definitions in a countdown to his defeat. His functioning was destroyed protractedly, skillfully by Ioka, who exploited Tanaka’s defensive flaws with the patience of a master. And then Ioka disconnected Tanaka’s pieces: the ghost wrenched from the machine with a left hook. Tanaka refused the canvas but accepted the stoppage, sanctioning referee Michiaki Someya’s embrace with a smile. It was a final display of honesty in an honest prizefight.
“Honesty” from the Old French oneste, honesté meaning “respectability, decency, honorable action.” How does honesty manifest in a prizefight? Consider Tanaka’s acceptance of the stoppage. He didn’t have to be so sporting: he had recovered from a pair of knockdowns already, and the fight-ending punch failed to floor him. But Tanaka ceded his fighter’s right to protest. He was beaten, he knew it, and so he accepted defeat with a grace that confirmed and preserved the glory of the man who undid him.
The violence too was honest. Tanaka fought to win even when victory seemed impossible. He might have adopted a strategy conducive to survival, but that is not who he is. And so it was a counterpunch, a precise and potent act of retaliation, that jellied him. There may be no more honest outcome in sports than the knockout of an opponent who dares to suffer it. Tanaka dared, and Ioka honored that commitment by responding with his best. No silent contract, no nod and wink; instead, a champion and a challenger ratifying a title in a manner befitting a blood sport.
Writing about Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis divides the author’s endowments into those attributable to genius and those attributable to craft. For Amis, genius is “a God-given altitude of perception and articulacy,” while talent is “technique, and all the skills that come under the heading of Craft.” Does Ioka have the athletic genius’s altitude of perception and articulacy? His brain certainly seems to find solutions faster than most. While Tanaka put his hands on Ioka, he rarely hit him cleanly. Instead, Ioka would catch punches on his guard, with his gloves, his elbows, his forearms, making minuscule adjustments to their placement to deny even the punches that thudded home their full effect. The other techniques comprising Ioka’s defense, the articulacy of those slips, steps, and rolls, pivots, parries, and pulls, might seem the product of technique and therefore of talent. But the intuition in them—their naturalness—speaks to a physical intelligence present long before repetition harnessed it.
There is talent there too, though—Ioka is a craftsman. It takes a lifetime to perfect the combinations Ioka used to unlock Tanaka. When it was the lead uppercut Ioka wanted, he looped a hook around Tanaka’s body. Tanaka responded by shifting his right elbow back, taking the fist connected to it away from his chin, and clearing room for Ioka’s uppercut. When it was the hook Ioka wanted, the body shot preceding it was compact and quick, thrown without a full weight transfer. That punch held Tanaka’s guard low and allowed Ioka to turn the headshot over quickly. On the brink of predictability, Ioka would eschew the left for a right hook. His off-rhythm jab and pinpoint counters tortured Tanaka, who in his zeal let his hands linger too far from his face. He owes much to his trainers, yes, but craft like Ioka’s is also the product of toil, monotony, a capacity to endure suffocating boredom.
Ioka’s performance had a quality that, however dependent it was on his athletic genius, his well-earned craft, could not be reduced to either of these things. Tanaka deserves some credit for that. He provided the danger that imbued Ioka’s movements with a meaning that a series of well-choreographed highlights or gifs cannot capture: poise. Poise, from the Latin pensum “something weighted or weighed,” and meaning a “self-possessed assurance of manner” a “gracious tact in coping or handling.” The etymology is particularly apropos here. Ioka was certainly self-possessed: there was an almost roguish confidence in his movements. He could congratulate Tanaka for his little successes and endure his greater ones without panic; he could take Tanaka for a walk around the ring if only to show that they would fight on his terms. Why? Because Ioka knows his weight, what he is capable of, and so he has poise. Tanaka did not have that blend of attributes to threaten Ioka’s bearing, and even if he had, Ioka would have conducted himself in such a way as to keep that secret.
Within hours of his first professional defeat, Tanaka tweeted: “I am deeply grateful that there was someone who made me feel that much.” Whatever limitations Twitter’s translation function has are likely to have manifested later in the sentence: “Gratitude” at least sounds right, doesn’t it? And it’s the right place to end. Tanaka now knows what he weighs. A prizefight should reveal something about its participants, and it speaks well of Tanaka that what he learned in defeat is something he cherishes. His words bring to mind fellow Japanese fighters Akira Yaegashi and Naoya Inoue. After nine brutal rounds and the first knockout loss of his career, Yaegashi smiled warmly at conqueror Roman Gonzalez. Inoue had his orbital bone broken by Nonito Donaire in a fight he remembers fondly as the one that “answered everything.”
We are thankful too for the fighters that make us feel that much.