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Boxing's best super flyweights

Most of the names will be familiar only to serious fans, but the super flyweight (or junior bantamweight) class has produced some terrific fighters in its 28-year history.

By opening up new championship opportunities, the 115-pound division has been a boon to the sport's little giants, who tend to hail from Asian and Hispanic countries.

This in-between weight category does not yet have the history of the traditional flyweight and bantamweight divisions on either side of it, but it is getting there nicely.

Saturday's unification title fight between Cristian Mijares and Alexander Munoz adds a significant chapter to super flyweight history. The following is a look at five outstanding 115-pound champions:

5. Masamori Tokuyama

Born in North Korea but a longtime Japanese resident, Tokuyama (born Changsoo Hong) lost only one of 36 bouts, avenged his sole setback and retired at the top in 2006.

A fast, stylish boxer, Tokuyama won the title by outpointing an unbeaten South Korean, Injoo Cho, in Osaka, Japan, and defeated him in a rematch in Seoul, South Korea.

After eight successful defenses, Tokuyama was astonishingly overwhelmed in the first round by the tough slugger Katsushige Kawashima, whom he had previously beaten. Tokuyama got caught cold, as the saying goes, and his head alarmingly bounced off the canvas in the second of two knockdowns.

In the rubber match 13 months later, Tokuyama boxed a superb tactical fight to outpoint Kawashima, who swung and missed throughout. Tokuyama closed out his career with a win by unanimous decision over the talented Jose Navarro. Well aware of political sensitivities, Tokuyama sported a neutral "One Korea" slogan on the waistband of his trunks.

4. Jiro Watanabe

Japan's Watanabe had quite a run between 1982 and 1985, with 12 successive wins in 115-pound title bouts. He defeated several world champions, including a notable rival 115-pound champion, Payao Poontarat of Thailand, whom Watanabe outpointed and stopped.

The World Boxing Association vacated the title prior to Watanabe's first bout with Poontarat because the organization had instructed the Japanese boxer to defend against mandatory challenger Khaosai Galaxy. Thus, even though Watanabe won the WBC title from Poontarat, he was never, strictly speaking, a unified champion.

Longtime Japanese matchmaker, promoter and journalist Joe Koizumi said from Tokyo that the Japanese Boxing Commission negotiated with the WBA so that Watanabe would lose his belt "just when he entered the ring," which meant that the fight could be legitimately promoted as a meeting of champions.

"I myself was a technical advisor and cutman for Jiro Watanabe," Koizumi said. "He was a clever, hard-hitting southpaw boxer-puncher. When he captured the WBA belt from Rafael Pedroza, he was then a typical footworker [a boxer who did a lot of moving], but he changed his style as his career extended. He was a very sharp counter puncher, as well as a good boxer with a tight guard and fast footwork. In short, he was an all-around boxer."

Video footage shows Watanabe just as Koizumi described him: a stand-up boxer in the southpaw stance and a sharp hitter with either hand. His title defense in Korea against the less-experienced but dangerous Sukhwan Yun in 1985 was probably one of the most violently exciting fights in 115-pound history. The Korean, down twice in the first three rounds, came back slugging and actually seemed to be turning the fight in his favor when Watanabe caught him again and dropped him three more times for a spectacular finish in Round 5.

Watanabe retired after losing his title to the excellent Mexican boxer, Gilberto Roman, in 1986.

3. Gilberto Roman

There is a myth that Mexican fighters invariably come forward and go to the body in give-and-take fights. Many do so, but the nation has a history of producing fine, technical boxers as well, and one of them was Roman, who twice held the 115-pound title and lost only three of 16 championship fights.

Two of those losses came in his last three fights, when Roman was slowing down and becoming much more hittable after a decade-long career.

At his best, though, Roman was a wonderful boxer. He first captured the title by outpointing Watanabe in Japan in 1986, and in his two reigns as champion he made successful defenses in Japan, France, Thailand and Argentina, as well as in Mexico and the U.S.

I had the good fortune to see Roman from ringside when he outpointed the former champ Sugar Baby Rojas, a skilled and dangerous Colombian, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in November 1988. Roman had defeated Rojas on a unanimous decision at Miami Beach six months earlier, and he beat him by wider margins in the rematch. I reported in the British weekly Boxing News: "Roman was a craftsman at work. … His face a stone mask of concentration, Roman outjabbed and out-thought his taller rival. Throughout the 12 rounds he was circling, feinting and darting in and out to pick off the Colombian.

"Even the handicap of a nasty cut over his left eye -- the result of a head clash right at the end of the third round -- could not disturb Roman's rhythm."

As an exhibition of pure boxing skill, Roman's performance that night was close to perfection.

2. Khaosai Galaxy

The name of Khaosai Galaxy is perhaps overlooked when great fighters are discussed, but the Thai boxer was something special, with 19 consecutive defenses of the 115-pound title before he retired as champion in 1991.

"Galaxy" was a ring name that came from a nightclub owned by Khaosai's manager, and it allowed Western headline writers to have fun with wordplay about a star in the galaxy.

Khaosai was not technically outstanding, but his strength and power were too much for his opponents. Often times, just one big left hand from Khaosai's southpaw stance could instantly take the other man out of the fight, or it could have such a sickening effect that the luckless recipient could never come back.

Watching Khaosai on video, it sometimes seemed as if he would let an opponent throw punches at him just so that he could get an opening to deliver the big left. He scored 43 knockouts in 49 wins.

Khaosai won the vacant 115-pound title by knocking out a boxer from the Dominican Republic named Eusebio Espinal in November 1984 and his last title defense was in 1991 -- an impressive seven-year reign that included championship defenses in Japan, Korea and Indonesia.

Japanese boxing authority Joe Koizumi said of Khaosai: "He was less skilful than Watanabe but more hard-punching. When he was young, he many times scored come-from-behind KOs after being behind on points. However, as he defended his WBA throne many times, he turned very technical, having improved his defense and strategy to distribute his stamina."

Koizumi said that 15 years ago he booked a "special exhibition" of three rounds between Watanabe and Khaosai and that the aging ex-champs produced "a very good, give-and-take show."

1. Johnny Tapia

It is debatable whether Galaxy or Johnny Tapia should be considered the best of the 115-pounders. I believe that with his speed, skill and durability, Tapia would have had the better of it against Galaxy -- and the fact that Tapia's unbeaten run included 14 world championship victories at 115 pounds is highly impressive.

"Mi Vida Loca" had his many troubles outside the ring, but inside it he was truly at home, as a speedy and sometimes fiery boxer with great talent. He fought as if he was enjoying it -- as he probably was.

Fans, especially in his home state of New Mexico, loved Tapia and it was easy to see why: I remember being in a restaurant at Indio, Calif., where Don King was putting on a show, and Tapia went from table to table, shaking hands with the diners.

Tapia outclassed almost everyone at 115 pounds, but it wasn't all smooth sailing: He had close, difficult fights with slick-boxing Arthur Johnson and the quick and tenacious Ricardo Vargas.

Tapia's greatest win, of course, came in probably the biggest fight ever at 115 pounds, when he outboxed Danny Romero, his red-hot rival from Albuquerque, N.M.

Romero was an 8-5 favorite at the Las Vegas sports books in this clash of champions, but in the ring that night in July 1997 at the Thomas & Mack Center, Tapia put on a superb display of boxing against hard-hitting "Kid Dynamite."

I reported from ringside for Boxing Monthly that Tapia "showed the mental toughness, character and ring savvy that separates the men from the boys. He won the early rounds and dominated the fight from the ninth to the 11th inclusive. Only in the middle rounds did Romero seem to get any kind of momentum going, and that seemed partly due to Tapia allowing his opponent to get into the fight. When Tapia picked up his pace and intensity he left Romero standing."

Tapia had been dismissive of Romero's punching power before the fight. "If he hits me on the chin, I'll laugh at him," he said. He did, too. It was a masterful performance by a master boxer.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.