When you look through the world rankings there’s always a few names that even the most hardcore of fans will struggle to recognise. One such name is Ryoki Hirai (8-4-1, 3), who really is an unknown, even to fight fans in his native Japan. Despite being unknown he holds a WBO world ranking, a ranking that he got by virtue of a single win over a fighter who was world ranked before he beat him. Despite being obscure however, Hirai is looking like perhaps the next unheralded “one to watch” in Japan and could be a man going places in the next year or two.
The 26-year-old Hirai is managed by the Senrima Kobe Promotions, a Kobe based gym perhaps best known in recent years for promoting Teiru Kinoshita. I say best known for Kinoshita because in recent times they haven’t made any mark bigger than hosting Kinoshita’s 2014 bout with Zolani Tete for the IBF Super Flyweight title. The outfit doesn’t have real stars but does put on regular shows in Hyogo, which often go over-looked despite often having some interesting bouts on them. As a result Hirai never really got much attention during the early part of his career, though he has started to gain some traction recently.
Hirai made his debut on December 7th, 2011 and began his career with some success, winning his first 3 bouts. Sadly though his record took a hit in his first bout of 2013, when he fought to a draw with fellow novice Takeshi Sone. That draw was then followed by a series of setbacks, with Hirai losing 3 successive bouts, including a first round stoppage loss to Kenta Shimizu, and a loss to Naoko Yamamoto on the under-card of Kinoshita vs Tete.
Having fallen from 3-0 (1) to 3-3-1 (1) it looked like Hirai was going to just be another obscure fighter toiling on small domestic cards in front of a handful of fans. The fighter however, had other ideas and in 2015 fought in the Rookie of the Year, fighting in the West Japan section of the competition. It was in that tournament that he earned some attention, before losing a close decision in the West Japan final to Ryusei Kitamura. Although the set back was a 4th loss in 6 bouts for Hirai he would have taken heart from the fact that Kitamura reached the All Japan final, losing to the brilliant Tsubasa Koura in the national final.
Having rebuilt his confidence Hirai began 2016 with a 3rd round KO win over Tatsuya Sakamoto, the man he had also beaten in his third professional bout. That win was followed by a 6 round decision over Jin Katsue. Those wins really began the ball rolling on Hirai going places, but in December 2016 it seemed like he was being thrown to the proverbial wolves as he was matched against the WBO, OPBF and Japanese ranked Takumi Sakae.
Sakae had won his first 13 bouts before losing in a Japanese title fight to Tatsuya Fukuhara, now a world champion. He had also suffered a technical draw with Lito Dante but had been expected to easily over-come the then 7-4-1 (3) Hirai. Surprisingly Hirai was too good for Sakae and took a well-earned 5 round technical decision over his much fancied foe, and claimed Sakae’s world ranking as a result.
Hirai began his 2017 this past weekend and looked like a really talented fighter as he stopped big punching teenager Ryoya Ikema in 3 rounds. Hirai used his skills to avoid Ikema’s bombs in the first round before turning the tables and twice dropping the teenager in round 2 and then closing the show in round 3. Although the bout was a low profile one, the performance was a very impressive one and it’s clear that Hirai is heading towards a title fight of some kind in the years to come.
Although many haven’t seen him, the 26-year-old is a real talent with lovely speed, a good boxing brain and a real penchant for knowing when to strike, with his body shots being a real key asset. In the ring he might not be as destructive as an Hiroto Kyoguchi or Tsubasa Koura, but he looks like the type of fighter who will find his feet at the top of the domestic level. For some that might not sound amazing, but to be a Japanese champion in the domestically red hot Minimumweight division is a notable achievement, and one that Hirai has a great chance of reaching in the years to come.
(Scott Graveson covers the Asian boxing scene for www.asianboxing.info)