Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez is the Boss at 115, but Don’t Sleep on Ioka vs Martinez


By Matt McGrain

The knockout by Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez of ring immortal Juan Francisco Estrada last weekend did more than lift Rodriguez to the top of the 115lb division and close to the top of the pound-for-pound ranking; it also staged a significant interruption to the equally compelling super-flyweight match being staged this Sunday in the Kokugikan, Tokyo. Kazuto Ioka vs Fernando Daniel Martinez was to be a fight between the two best in the world at the poundage until Bam made mincemeat out of a fighter that had seemed impervious to knockout blows. Now Rodriguez stands atop the mountain and Ioka and Martinez will settle who is the best of the rest – and hopefully determine who will face Bam in a showdown for the ages.

Ioka, boxing out of Tokyo, stands five-feet-four-and-a-half with a reach measured at just over sixty-four inches. He is thirty-five years old. With Estrada now collecting himself post-beating, Ioka is also the senior man at the poundage, the oldest of the ten best 115lb men in the world and the one with the greatest longevity on top.

01 - Jesse Rodriguez

02 - Kazuto Ioka

03 - Fernando Martinez

04 - Juan Francisco Estrada

05 - Kosei Tanaka

06 - Pedro Guevara

07 - Carlos Cuadras

08 - David Jimenez

09 - Israel Gonzalez

10 - Andrew Moloney

Ioka, then, takes on the role of Estrada, senior, brilliant, past his prime. Fernando Martinez meanwhile takes on the role of Bam Rodriguez. At just five-feet-two, Martinez all but matches reach with Ioka and it is likely size will not be a problem. Like Bam, Martinez is inexperienced at just 16-0 (Ioka is 31-2-1) but unlike Bam, time is not on his side. By the time his bruises from his tussle with Ioka have healed, Martinez will be 33 years old.

What this means is that while Ioka remains a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, Martinez has it all on the line. If he loses, he is drawn back into the pack. 115lbs is a division of losers, in a literal sense. Andrew Moloney clings on by his fingernails after losing to Pedro Guevara. Guevara is on the comeback trail post his loss to Carlos Cuadras. Cuadras was unlucky enough to be battered by Estrada and Bam in back-to-back fights. Estrada was separated from the lineal championship by Bam last weekend. Kosei Tanaka, David Jimenez, Israel Gonzalez, they all have losses. If Martinez loses, he falls behind many of these men by virtue of his having the most recent loss and because of some of the promotional vagaries that purvey boxing below 126lbs.

These loses, for the most part are a positive: they indicate that the best are fighting the best, and it hasn’t taken Saudi millions to make it happen. Two fights over two weekends to determine the two best fighters at a given weight-class. This is how boxing operated in all eight divisions in 1935; now that we have 17 divisions and a globalised sport, things are more complicated which is fair – but the current white-hot pace of matchmaking at 115lbs shows that it can be done.

Globalised indeed. Martinez left behind his base in Argentina when he struck out for Japan, a round trip of 23,000 miles. Fortunately, fighting far from home is not alien to him, he is something of a road warrior. He has boxed in South America just once this decade, otherwise plying his trade in Dubai, Las Vegas, South Africa, Minneapolis and LA (more precisely Carson). He will be unphased, one would imagine, by fighting in Japan.

The style he carries with him is a good one for the job at hand. Aggressive and direct by nature, Martinez has tempered his high-pressure, high-volume style as he has matured and although he still has a steam-engine in him, he can be seen using his feet to make a twelve-round fight more manageable now. A vaunted body-puncher, in his most recent outing he abandoned the body attack early because he believed opponent Jade Bornea was defensively limited and therefore vulnerable to headshots. Martinez behaves more like a 16-0 boxer than a thirty-three-year-old man, more like a learning fighter than a man at the end of his road, and that bodes well for this fight, and for his future.

Busy in matches, Martinez has been stung with scheduling inactivity. Fighting just once in 2023, and looking a little rusty in the early rounds of the Bornea fight, he has since treated himself to a year out of the ring. Ioka, meanwhile, has not been busy but he has been the busier of the two, out-classing Josber Perez, a fighter who might be relied upon to provide Ioka with reasonable sparring, on the last day of 2023. Ioka was impressive that night, but it is impossible for this writer to say just how impressive given the limitations of the opponent. The year preceding this was mixed.

On the final day of 2022, Joshua Franco out of Texas was rampaging out of a three-fight series with Andrew Moloney when he took Ioka to a draw on Ioka's own patch. The draw was just, and Ioka looked troubled by beltline work. Work was the operative word. Franco was no fistic genius, improvising one-twos and slipping to punch, he was working aggressively in pursuit of control of the range and he achieved this. Historically, this has been very difficult to do against Ioka, who has his own improvisational skills at range, and benefits from pinpoint punching in close, an accurate, weaving puncher. Franco found a Goldilocks zone though and came within about two punches of taking a decision. In the rematch, which I thought Ioka would lose, Franco collapsed utterly, missing weight after ducking training in a disaster of failing mental health. Ioka dominated him.

I am not sure where that leaves the Japanese in terms of his status. He looked vulnerable against Franco to exactly the sort of beltline attack I expect Martinez to lay on him. More than that, in all his big fights against good opposition, Ioka, for all his accuracy, has shown a tendency to get involved in indeterminate squabbles. This was true of his first fight with Franco, his first fight with Donnie Nietes, and against Akira Yaegashi. I have seen Ioka lose fights, against Amnat Ruenroeng for example, where he was clearly the more talented man, even the better boxer, but losing nip-tuck sections of the combat that he didn’t necessarily have to fight, made him a loser.

Truthfully, Martinez has never been tested by a fighter as complete as Ioka and if he struggles to find his range he could lose this fight in a confusion. Ioka is that good when he is allowed to fight the fight he wants. Martinez, however, is built to prevent him from fighting that fight. My guess is that the volume, pressure, and most of all the speed of pressure will win Martinez enough important moments that he will get over the line for the decision. Ioka could startle him early, especially if he is rusty, but Ioka did the same against Franco and Franco came back to all but pip him. A faster start for Franco would have seen a different result in that fight and for me, Martinez is Franco’s superior.

I like this fight, not just because it is the B-side of a 115lb symphony but because each man will act as a truth-machine for the other. Does Ioka still have it? He will need to show his 2021 form to defeat Martinez. That said, is Martinez real? If he isn’t, there is no way he can put one over on a clever, accurate puncher like Ioka. Ioka remains a slender favourite in betting, and on home turf that is probably fair – I’ll pick Martinez to spring a minor upset in a fight full of tempered aggression that fascinates.

Photo credit: Naoko Fukuda