2014 Fight of the Year: Francisco Rodriguez Jr. Decisions Katsunari Takayama

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2014 Fight of the Year: Francisco Rodriguez Jr. Decisions Katsunari Takayama
Alfredo Lopez/Associated Press

Saturday night, boxing's smallest carried the entire sport.

Fight fans tuning into the Danny Garcia-headlined event on Showtime were left wanting. As Boxing.com editor-in-chief Robert Ecksel put it: "Golden Boy Promotions, and Al Haymon presented a trio of mismatches that were as painful to watch as they are to write about."

But 2,000 miles south at Arena Monterrey in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon in Mexico, the best fight of 2014 took place.

In the Fight of the Year, 21-year-old Francisco Rodriguez Jr. (15-2, 10 KOs) unified the WBO and IBF minimumweight world titles with a unanimous-decision victory over Katsunari Takayama (27-7, 10 KOs) to become the No. 1 strawweight in the world.

Anyone familiar with these two knew there would be excitement. But no one saw this coming. 

The bout opened, both fighters were wound up and let loose. They clashed in the center of the ring, and punches bounced off the faces of both men.

Takayama, nicknamed "Lightning," bounced on his toes. He moved his feet, the most active in the sport, hastily. He advanced in, left his mark and then relocated back out of reach without notice

Alfredo Lopez/Associated Press

"El Chihuas" was ready for this. Takayama's punches were nothing he couldn't handle. He's taken worse, courtesy of Roman "El Chocolatito" Gonzalez, the best combination puncher in the sport. But this isn't the same wild, two-fisted berserker who was picked apart by Gonzalez 11 months ago. This was a world-class operator, cut with a penchant for violence. 

He targeted the body often. Most from Mexico do. But his lead left was something divine this night, especially in the first three rounds where he countered Takayama across the face repeatedly with a splendid left hook.

Rounds 1 and 2 could be argued either way. Takayama's high output was frantic. His feet were even faster. But Rodriguez's pace wasn't too far behind. And his punches were doing more damage.

Alfredo Lopez/Associated Press

In the first minute of the third stanza, Rodriguez uncorked a left uppercut that sent Takayama to the mat. The Japanese champion quickly rose, but Chihuas earned a 10-8 score.

Takayama, 31, has been fighting the very best the 105-pound weight class has to offer for nearly a decade now, dating back to 2005 when he beat Isaac Bustos. When Rodriguez slowed down to start Round 4, Lightning struck.

Most of the middle rounds saw Takayama suffocate his young foe with fists, drilling punches into him from every conceivable angle. Action was still high from both sides, but the Japanese veteran got the edge in Rounds 4 through 7, even bullying Chihuas into the ropes.

The fight was beginning to slip away from the hometown Rodriguez. Just 21, he could've retired on the stool and still been applauded for his effort at such a high level of the sport. But the roar of 9,000 Mexican fans surely fueled an appetite for glory. He wouldn't let them down.

Alfredo Lopez/Associated Press

Rodriguez strutted to the center of the ring to begin Round 8. He extended his right fist to his opponent for a customary slap of gloves. Takayama, ever the savvy veteran, accepted his opponent's gesture while simultaneously cocking back a right hand that crashed into the back of the Mexican's ear, forcing Rodriguez to give ground.

Cheap-shotted, Chihuas' punches suddenly looked crisper than ever. He felt disrespected, and violence was on deck.

In the eighth round, this fight went from great to legendary. The final minute in particular is when the ring was engulfed in flames. The exchange of punches by these two men is unparalleled in ferocity and quantity so far this year.

The final four rounds were no different. Forehead to forehead and not a clinch to be had. The fighters traded the center of the ring almost as often as punches thrown. Slinging demonic left hands Takayama's way, Rodriguez's punchers were heavier. 

Alfredo Lopez/Associated Press

To begin Round 12, referee Samuel Viruet brought the two combatants together to touch gloves. This is usually the part where both men, exhausted, coast to the final bell.

But not these two.

Of all the action and terrible warfare through the first incredible 11 rounds, the 12th was unbelievably the best of them all.

Both men planted their feet and lost themselves in a punch-drunk daze like the boxing gods button-mashing their wireless controllers from above. The perfect conclusion to an epic test of will and courage.

The scorecards were read and Rodriguez Jr. was announced the winner by a tally of 115-112, 116-111 and an awry 119-108.

A celebratory corner for Rodriguez lifted their champion above their shoulders and above the entire division. Chihuas has won nine of his past 10 fights, highlighted by a trouncing of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board's No. 10 rated Merlito Sabillo and a scintillating victory over No. 2 Takayama. The young Mexican's resume now includes two wins of more relevance and higher quality than any other active strawweight in the world, including Hekkie Budler (whose best win is over a declining Nkosinathi Joyi).

But Takayama is no loser. Losers don't fight like he just did. His time at 105 pounds seems over. But for one night and 12 glorious rounds, he paired up with Rodriguez Jr. to lift an entire sport and punch their tickets into boxing lore.  

The sport needed a savior Saturday night. 

It got two of them. 

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