NAGOYA – Kosei Tanaka was only a fifth-grader when Kiyoshi Hatanaka first saw him throwing punches.
It only took an instant for the former world champ to spot the kid’s exceptional potential.
“I thought he’d be a world champion in 10 years,” Hatanaka, who was the WBC super bantamweight champion in 1991 and now runs Hatanaka Boxing Gym in northern Nagoya, said in an interview with The Japan Times late last month.
Hatanaka’s instincts were mostly right: Tanaka became a champion, but it didn’t take him 10 years.
On May 30, 2015, at just 19 years old, Tanaka hoisted his first world title belt after defeating WBO minimumweight champion Julian Yedras of Mexico in Nagoya.
It was only Tanaka’s fifth professional bout, making him the fastest Japanese boxer to win a world title after his pro debut.
Four years have passed since then and Tanaka has racked up two more world titles in two different weight classes — WBO light flyweight and WBO flyweight — while remaining undefeated at 13-0 with seven knockouts.
He became a three-division champion after just 12 bouts, tying him with Vasyl Lomachenko as the fastest to reach that distinction.
Now known as one of Japan’s elite fighters, the Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture, native overcame some hardship as a child. At age 6, he suffered from Perthes disease, a rare hip disorder in which blood flow to the head of the femur is disrupted, in his right leg. Tanaka had to spend one year wearing a brace that prevented his leg from touching the ground and was subjected to bullying from his classmates.
He didn’t want to discuss his childhood struggles, perhaps because the media already excessively links them to his current successes. In fact, he said that they were “not as tough as people may think they were,” and that he did not use those experiences as fuel to excel as a boxer.
“I don’t particularly have anger or other emotions about the bullying or anything,” said Tanaka, who had practiced karate since he was five years old and officially joined the Hatanaka Boxing Gym while gaining acclaim as a successful amateur boxer at Chukyo High School. “But whether or not I had the leg disease, whether or not I was bullied, I think the fact that I was going to karate practice every day has led me to where I am now.”
Hitoshi Tanaka, Kosei’s father and trainer, believes his son’s 365-day-a-year karate training was more difficult than overcoming Perthes.
“I think he disliked his karate training more than (the disease and bullying),” Hitoshi said, “Because we were so strict in making him do it.”
Hitoshi, who had overcome Perthes himself, although it is not hereditary, resigned from his job in order to concentrate on training his son. While he has dedicated himself to his son’s career, the elder Tanaka interestingly sees Kosei as just another boxer.
“Right now, my previous image of him is fading away,” Hitoshi said. “Much earlier, I was conscious of him as my son, but now it’s become more natural to see him as a boxer.”
Tanaka, who will turn 24 on Saturday, has no “Ls” in his professional record and has been crowned in three different weight classes. Still, he feels like he hasn’t earned enough recognition or respect.
“I’m often asked how I stay motivated, having achieved all these records and captured titles in three different divisions and all that,” said Tanaka, who beat ex-WBA and IBF light flyweight champion Ryoichi Taguchi via decision in March for his 13th victory. “But I don’t really get why they ask me that, because I’m not satisfied with where I am. I have bigger dreams, there are other competitive boxers out there, even in Japan.
“I almost don’t have any sense of accomplishment, and I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything significant. I feel like I’m still stuck where I am.”
Since he trains far from the Tokyo area, Tanaka has perhaps not received as much media exposure as boxers based in the capital. Tanaka also isn’t a bad-boy type like some others in the sport and has a reputation as a well-behaved young man. Yet he insisted he “would rather not do” what he does if it doesn’t garner attention as a pro fighter.
With that said, Tanaka hopes to step in the ring outside of the Nagoya area from here on out.
But not in Tokyo, nor in Osaka. Tanaka’s sights are set overseas, where greater success and a brighter spotlight awaits.
“By going overseas I’m looking to expand my opportunities, get more recognition and become known by promoters over there,” said the orthodox-style fighter, who has fought all his pro bouts in Japan, including 12 in the Tokai region.
The ascension to global stardom of compatriot Naoya Inoue, a fighter Tanaka has always been conscious of since both turned pro, has certainly helped motivate him.
To him, Inoue, who is dubbed “The Monster,” is on a different planet and is a role model as a professional boxer.
Tanaka eagerly watched Inoue’s bout against Emmanuel Rodriguez in the World Boxing Super Series semifinals in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, in which the Japanese WBA bantamweight king quickly finished the Puerto Rican IBF champ via second-round TKO.
Tanaka, who bears the nickname the “Monster of Chukyo,” admires Inoue because the fellow Japanese fighter has always exceeded people’s high expectations.
“If he would win via a fifth-round KO against his opponent, people would still say, ‘Inoue is as strong as we think,’ still living up to their expectations,” Tanaka said of the Inoue-Rodriguez match. “But he defeated his opponent even quicker, in the second round. So to me, he’s responded to his followers by exceeding those expectations. It’s just been incredible (to watch).”
The 26-year-old Inoue has triumphed in his last four matches via KO within the first three rounds and is currently considered one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
As for Tanaka, Hatanaka hinted that his management was working to realize his wish of a fight in a foreign country.
“We want to do it in the near future,” said Hatanaka, who was nicknamed “Tokai’s Hector Camacho” during his boxing career. “We want to have super fights for him like Naoya. That’s (the standard) we’re chasing.”
Tanaka is also looking to go up in weight class, probably to super flyweight and bantamweight. He said he would likely be competing “in the super flyweight division next year.”
“If I beat those guys, it will give me more chances (to earn recognition) overseas,” Tanaka said.
The super flyweight division boasts global stars such as WBC champ Juan Francisco Estrada of Mexico, who is listed in Ring Magazine’s top 10 pound-for-pound rankings.
Tanaka’s camp has also teased a potential fight against compatriot Kazuto Ioka, who will compete against the Philippines’ Aston Palicte for the vacant WBO super flyweight title in Chiba on June 19.
Tanaka will attempt to defend his WBO flyweight title against Jonathan Gonzalez of Puerto Rico on Aug. 24 at Nagoya’s Takeda Teva Ocean Arena.