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'SuperFly' series has drawn former world champion Kazuto Ioka out of retirement

'SuperFly' series has drawn former world champion Kazuto Ioka out of retirement
Boxer Kazuto Ioka fields media questions during a training session at Wild Card West gym in Santa Monica earlier this week. (Greg Beacham / Associated Press)

It’s nearly impossible for former three-division world champion Kazuto Ioka to venture out in public in Japan and go unnoticed.

On a February retirement vacation through Los Angeles and Las Vegas, however, Ioka relished the freedom of anonymity and decided to purchase his own ticket to the “SuperFly” fight card at the Forum box office, making a run to the snack bar and going to the restroom without security.

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“Nobody knew I was there,” said Ioka (22-1, 13 knockouts) through a Japanese interpreter.

What moved Ioka most was the attention being heaped upon the boxers near his weight class, and an undeniable tug to return convinced him “that I can fight in this platform, and I can fight any of these fighters.”

Ioka, 29, retired following his fifth World Boxing Assn. flyweight title defense in April 2017.

“Before I became a professional, I sat down with my family, many of whom are boxers, and made a goal to be a three-division champion because my uncle {Hiroki Ioka} was a two-division champion. At a young age I accomplished that goal, and even when I first got the third title I was already thinking about retirement, but I went on to defend the third title five times.”

Ioka watched Puerto Rico’s McWilliams Arroyo (17-3, 14 KOs) score a mild upset over Mexico’s former super-flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras at the Forum in February.

On the HBO-televised “SuperFly 3” from the Forum on Saturday, Ioka meets Arroyo with a slew of super-flyweight title opportunities in the offing for the 2019 version of the popular 115-pound fight series.

“I plan to be in SuperFly as long as I can. I want to fight here,” Ioka said. “This is like the major leagues for me and I want to be the first four-division champion in the long history of Japan. I plan to achieve that goal in the SuperFly series and I want to battle champions.”

The two words Ioka spoke in English during his interview were “no problem” when responding to a question about ring rust, considering Arroyo, Puerto Rico’s 2008 Olympic flag-bearer, looked so effective in defusing Cuadras’ fight plan six months ago.

“I’ve followed his career and have high respect for him,” Ioka said. “This a difficult fight, but I’ve trained well and I look forward to winning because of how I trained.”

Arroyo is pleased with the added strength of three pounds the super-flyweight division affords him, and after going 12 rounds against former four-division world champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez at the Forum in 2016, he eyes the Ioka bout as an opportunity to accentuate his progression.

“I respect the sport. I’m up to fight anyone,” Arroyo said. “I’m really happy for this spotlight. I used to watch [countryman] Felix Trinidad on HBO. Me being there for a third time is huge.

“I know this will be a hard fight and it seems like I always come in as the underdog, but I’ll do my best. And I learned against Chocolatito. He was the best in the world when I fought him and I was 1 1/2 years between fights. Once I realized I was at this level, he was already winning. I showed him too much respect. This time will be different.”

Arroyo has the additional motivation, like world-champion countrymen Jose Pedraza and Alberto Machado, to fight in the name of his home territory that is still reeling from the deaths of nearly 3,000 earlier this year caused by Hurricane Maria.

“It was terrifying … I had my boy at home who is turning 10 and my baby boy, and the winds were coming so hard, I said, ‘If the windows come off, we have to go to the bathroom and hide,’ ” Arroyo recalled as the hurricane struck during his training camp for the Cuadras fight.

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“If it wasn’t for the Americans, we wouldn’t have electricity … I am so appreciative for them. In Fajardo, where I work, I saw them working in the streets every morning. Now it motivates us to do the best we can in our fights, to make all of Puerto Ricans happy.”

The Ioka-Arroyo winner will be poised to fight the winner of Saturday’s main event between Juan Francisco Estrada and Felipe Orucuta should World Boxing Council super-flyweight Srisaket Sor Rungvisai opt to vacate his belt and move to 118 pounds. Meanwhile, three-division champion Donnie Nietes (41-1-4, 23 KOs) seeks a fourth belt on Saturday’s card when he meets Philippines countryman Aston Palicte (24-2, nine KOs).

Nietes, considered the second-most popular champion boxer behind Manny Pacquiao in his country, spent some time training for this bout at Pacquiao’s former training home, Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, where he met Pacquiao’s former cornerman Freddie Roach.

“I was very comfortable there and Freddie gave us some tips,” Nietes said.

BOXING

Main Event: Juan Francisco Estrada (36-3, 25 KOs) vs. Felipe Orucuta (36-4, 30 KOs), super-flyweights

Where: Forum

When: First bout 4:15 p.m. PDT; television portion begins at 6:45 p.m.

Television: HBO

Tickets: $25-$50-$75-$100-$150 available at Ticketmaster, Forum box office

Undercard: Donnie Nietes (41-1-4, 23 KOs) vs. Aston Palicte (24-2, nine KOs) for vacant WBO super-flyweight belt; Kazuto Ioka (22-1, 13 KOs) vs. McWilliams Arroyo (17-3, 14 KOs), super-flyweights

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