The Pugil List: Top 10 Japanese Boxers
Tomoki Kameda is already unique in Japanese circles for consistently winning fights outside Asia (17-0 in Mexico and America). This Saturday evening (9 p.m. ET/PT) on Showtime, Kameda tries to do one better by defending his WBO bantamweight title in America. It would be a rare achievement for a Japanese titleholder if Tomoki (there are three acclaimed Kameda boxers in the family) to repel a Mexican challenger outside of Japanese borders. The compelling and exciting Asian boxing scene has long been overlooked in America and Europe, so it is fantastic to see an Asian titleholder other than Manny Pacquiao on American television. With any luck, this is the beginning of a trend in that direction.
The lack of coverage and overall neglect of Asian boxing got me thinking about some of the great boxers Japan has produced over the last 70 years. Hence this list, which I whittled down from the nearly 90 world champions Japan has produced, the first emerging in 1952. That first champion was Yoshio Shirai, whose reign prompted many Japanese youth to take up the sport. The spoils of this were reaped in the early ‘60s, after which Japan has regularly sported champions in every weight class up to junior middleweight. The following are the elite of that group, who are not currently active.
Missing out on the top 10 were, in no particular order, Daisuke Naito, Joichiro Tatsuyoshi, Takefumi Sakata, Yota Sato, Hiroki Ioka, Hiroyuki Ebihara and Shoji Oguma.
10. Hiroshi Kobayashi, 1962-1971, 61-10-4 (10): A high output, light-hitting, punching machine who was peskier then a fly on speed. Like Guts Ishimatsu (the man rated one spot above him) was a streaky fighter, who lost four fights successively in his second year as a pro. Lost two in a row to end his career as well but another streak of two losses and two draws in 1966 could be blamed on a combination of location and tough opponents. One of the first Japanese boxers willing to travel abroad, fighting in America, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and the Philippines. Won the title by knocking out countryman Yoshiaki Numata (one of the few times he did so and the only time in a title fight) in what was viewed as a big upset. I love road warriors and Kobayashi suffers in my ratings for refusing to give Rene Barrientos a rematch for the title after a hard-fought draw with the Filipino. For this, he was rightly stripped by the WBA. Regained recognition as junior lightweight champion by defeating Panamanian Antonio Amaya mere months later and made three successful defenses (six in all). Best win was a 15-round decision over Mexican power-puncher Ricardo Arredondo, one fight before he surprisingly lost his title to Alfredo Marcano. Lost his final bout, forgivable, three months later to Roberto Duran in Panama. A vexing but not great fighter.
9. Guts Ishimatsu, 1966-1978, 31-14-6 (17): How could I leave out a fighter whose ring name was “Guts”?! Even if that were not the case, Guts Ishimatsu could make this list because of one win over a Hall-of-Famer and two others over one of the most ferocious punching champs of his era. Guts was a streaky fighter who lost three of his first eight pro fights and ended his career with three straight defeats. A straight-ahead pressure fighter who used stamina instead of angles to defeat opponents. Had the misfortune of fighting in one of the toughest eras ever for lightweights, with four losses coming at the hands of Roberto Duran, Esteban DeJesus, Ismael Laguna and Lionel Rose. Most would look at his record and say his best win was a 15-round decision over Ken Buchanan in a close but deserved win on Suzuki’s home turf. I would say the best win was an eighth-round kayo over Rodolfo “Gato” Gonzalez to win the WBC lightweight title, which he defended five times. Two defenses against Arturo “Tury” Pineda were exciting affairs and a rematch with Gato Gonzalez ended in a 12th-round kayo for Guts. Became a fan favorite for a nonstop smile that matched his nonstop fighting style and in retirement became a beloved TV actor and boxing commentator.
8. Toshiaki Nishioka, 1994-2012, 39-5-3 (24): For a two-year stretch, seemed on the verge of making some pound-for-pound lists, a slick speedster whose unpredictable movement sublimely supplemented stinging power and well-timed counters. Nishioka overcame two losses and two draws in early career title challenges as well as an Achilles’ heel injury before finally winning a world title in his fifth attempt. Went undefeated for eight years on tail end of his career and used nimble feet that sent him darting in every direction at the blink of an eye to disguise slowing punching patterns. Earned the nickname of “Speed King” and his attacking patterns were never repeated from the same angle in a given round. American fans might only remember Nishioka overcoming a first-round knockdown to brutally kayo (with one straight left hand) Jhonny Gonzalez in Mexico or his final fight in which Nishioka lost his title in America to a prime Nonito Donaire. Sported one-punch stopping power in his left hand but generally stunned foes with a punch before overwhelming them with follow-up flurries. Had a great sense of space, staying at the edges of his opponents’ reach, waiting for the right moment to attack, which American fans got to witness up close as Nishioka easily outpointed power-punching Rafael Marquez. Held the WBC junior featherweight title for three years, making seven successful defenses, proving himself a late bloomer. Nishioka should go down as one of the more distinguished champions of his era, able to switch from leading to counterpunching at will.
7. Yoshio Shirai, 1943-1955, 46-8-4 (18): Sometimes people overrate the very first person to achieve something, which might be the case with Shirai on his home island. Eerily began his career in 1943, during the midst of the madness that was World War II. Held the Japanese flyweight and bantamweight titles simultaneously but chose to fight at his natural flyweight division when challenging at the world level. An elongated stylist, Shirai fought intelligently behind his long jab and whip right hand. Was definitely ready for his title shot, not getting one until his 10th year as pro after 43 bouts. It was a double-edged sword since he was handicapped by his age (at 29, most elite flyweights of the era were retired or way past their primes) but defeated American Dado Marino pretty easily to win the title.A year earlier, Shirai had lost a split decision to Marino but repeated the victory in his first defense by an even larger margin. Made four title defenses in all but best result was probably a 10-round, non-title draw against legendary Pascual Perez in Argentina. Lost his title to Perez when the title was on the line, however, and retired after a fifth-round kayo to Perez six months later. Shirai enhanced Japanese-American relations by employing Alvin Chan, an American professor teaching in Japan, as his manager after the war, as well as restoring some lost pride for the Japanese people by winning the title. Until the 1960s, was Japan’s most beloved boxer, dying at age 80 after a bout with pneumonia.
6. Koichi Wajima, 1968-1977, 31-6-1 (25): The Japanese fighter who rose highest in weight to conquer a division and an argument could be made that Wajima should still be rated among the 10 best junior middleweights ever. Unlike the vast majority of world champions, Wajima did not pick up his first boxing glove until age 25, teaching himself the basics and creating a menacing style which bewildered many. Won a world title belt three times and, more importantly, unified the division for a short period while making seven successful title defenses (a total of 13 title fights) in all. Like late-starting Rocky Marciano, employed a crouching, straight-ahead attacking style but was a bit nimbler on his feet, creating odd angles of attack that caused havoc and confusion. Did not have an overly high work rate but was particularly accurate with his right hand. Lost a classic fight with Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado but showed grit and determination defeating Albarado seven months later. Shocked the boxing industry when he defeated Italian Carmelo Bossi for the title but six defenses proved it was no fluke. Because of his lack of experience, Wajima was never in an easy fight and the scores were always close when it went the distance. That said, his aggressive nature ensured the judges were watching him instead of his opponents. Would perhaps rate higher if Wajima had fought outside of Japan. Like Shirai, went into TV commentating and remains a fan favorite.
5. Kuniaki Shibata, 1965-1977, 47-6-3 (25): Perhaps as good a boxer as fourth-ranked Masao Ohba but rates below him because of a flawed defense and questionable chin. This even though Shibata was more exciting stylistically and just as popular with the home crowd. Only one of Shibata’s five losses was via decision and he was the type of fighter who negated his southpaw advantage because of a risk-taking style. Was considered a safe opponent for Mexican world champion Vincente Saldivar because of two previous kayo losses but shocked the establishment when he traveled to Mexico and scored a 12th-round TKO after Saldivar’s corner refused to let him come out for the 13th. Proved he was for real by repelling the challenge of smooth-boxing Ernesto Marcel via draw but was then kayoed by free-swinging Clemente Sanchez. The real problem for Shibata had been making weight, which he proved by narrowly outpointing Filipino legend Ben Villaflor in Hawaii. Continued his inconsistency by losing the WBA junior lightweight title back to Villaflor via first-round kayo but in his very next performance, looked like a world-beater, comprehensively outpointing Ricardo Arredondo for the WBC title. Made three title defenses before Puerto Rican Alfredo Escalera knocked Shibata out. Simply put, Shibata was an all-or-nothing fighter. However, wins over legends like Saldivar and Villaflor, as well as his performances against Marcel and Arredondo merit a high ranking.
4. Masao Ohba, 1966-1973, 35-2-1 (16): Meet Japan’s Salvador Sanchez. A brilliant boxer (and reigning champion) whose fists were prematurely silenced by a car accident at the unspeakably young age of 23. Like Sanchez, speedy combination punches set up by a long snappy jab drove him to success. At 5’6”, he was a tall flyweight, who used it to full advantage, fueling a left jab and getting on the balls of his feet to protect a lead. Was a smart boxer who figured out opponents and styles to great effect, beating Venezuelan slugger Betulio Gonzalez, Thai bruiser Chartchai Chionoi and Japanese stylist Susumu Hanagata (who had defeated him in an earlier non-title bout) in title defenses as well as European stand-up boxer Fritz Chervet in a non-title outing. Ohba was 6-0 in title fights and seemingly entering his prime, having scored kayos in his final three fights. Was an ambitious kid, who, in the midst of his title reign, scheduled a non-title bout in America to gain more exposure. Otherwise, strictly fought in Japan because of his immense popularity there. I wish there was more I could do to throw light on Ohba, the man, but like many other great Asian champs, there is very little info to be gleaned from English boxing resources as they often ignore the Asian boxing scene. The quality of Ohba is shown by the fact that three of the six men he defeated in title defenses went on to become world champions. One of boxing’s great “could have beens.”
3. Jiro Watanabe, 1979-1986, 26-2 (17): A multifaceted southpaw who preferred to counterpunch but had no problem getting in the trenches to use his natural strength against anyone who managed to get inside his jab. Still rates as one of the 10 best junior bantamweights to ever lace up the gloves despite not starting to box until age 22. Suffered a setback in his first world title shot, his 11th pro bout, when Watanabe lost a razor-close decision to Chul-Ho Kim in Korea, but did not lose focus, rebounding to win four straight and earn a second shot. This time, Watanabe was dominant in outpointing Panamanian Rafael Pedroza and went on to make 11 total defenses of the WBA and WBC junior bantamweight belts (seven via kayo) over a three-and-a-half-year span. If not for politics, would have unified two thirds of the titles by knocking out the one man (Payao Poontarat) who dared to hold him to a split decision one fight earlier. Best win is a toss-up between his ninth-round TKO of Gustavo Ballas or 12th-round TKO of Shoji Oguma, both of which displayed Watanabe’s tendency to come on strong in the late rounds. Promptly retired after Mexican boxer/puncher Gilberto Roman outpointed Watanabe in Japan. In general, had a tougher list of contenders to deal with than other contemporaries in the lower weight classes. Even if that were not the case, watching Watanabe’s smooth style would elevate him in the estimation of most critics. Would have been seriously considered for number two spot if Watanabe could have fought and beaten Khaosai Galaxy, who retired before the two could fight.
2. Yoko Gushiken, 1974-1981, 23-1 (15): When a great fighter retires near the pinnacle of his career, he can be rightfully praised. However, it also leaves a big question: What if he had fought on? Could Rocky Marciano, Carlos Monzon or even Marvelous Marvin Hagler have continued to beat the best? Yoko “Fierce Eagle” Gushiken was 26 years old when he retired. Surely he could have continued at the highest level after some rest? Unfortunately, we will never know. Even by Asian standards, Gushiken was a small adolescent and often got into fights to prove himself because of his size. Gushiken’s workouts were punishing doing nearly 10 miles of roadwork in the mornings before a full day of work. After a 10-hour work day, his evenings were spent shadowboxing and hitting a sandbag, tirelessly testing new combinations for hours. He trained under Masaki Kanehira, known as the maker of Japanese champions, who called Gushiken, “a genius who appears once every 100 years.” As a pro, Gushiken used those incredible reserves of energy to pressure opponents into mistakes, which he took full advantage of from his southpaw stance. Despite considerable boxing skills and instinctive counter-punching ability, Gushiken preferred to move forward and swarm confused foes. He relentlessly threw combination punches with his straight left particularly penetrating and punishing. The rate at which Gushiken matured in the ring was incredible, winning the WBA junior flyweight crown in only his ninth professional fight. Thirteen title defenses later, nine via kayo, and you have a record that should put him in most people’s top five all time at junior flyweight.
1. Masahiko Harada, 1960-1970, 55-7 (22): Better known as “Fighting Harada” and rightfully so! Growing up in the difficult postwar years, Harada understood the appeal of a pro boxing career, turning pro at age 16. Most Japanese writers compare Harada’s style to that of Mike Tyson. Despite his short stature, Harada sported a lightning bolt jab that he used to work his way inside and punish any body part left unprotected. Possessed the same kind of effective head movement a prime Mike Tyson exploited to render foes reaching for him off-balance. Finally, this type of comparison is not complete without a reference to power. Although Harada was not the two-fisted banger Mike Tyson proved to be in his prime, Harada’s main strength came from his right hand. He still possessed the power to stun opponents and the skill of a first-rate finisher. Harada sported a mark of 26-1 when he was given a chance to challenge bantamweight champion Pone Kingpetch, a legendary Thai champion. Still only 19, Harada later said he went into the fight determined that pressure and conditioning would make up for youth and inexperience. Harada was overanxious at first but settled down to score with overhand rights over his opponent’s left jab, following up with trademark flurries against the ropes. By the 11th, Harada’s relentless pressure had worn the champion down. A perfectly timed right, followed by a vicious series of hooks in the corner dropped Kingpetch to his knees where he was counted out. The arena erupted and Harada became an instant star. In his next fight, a rematch, Harada dropped a hard-fought majority decision to Kingpetch in Thailand. The pressure of making weight caught up with him and after taking his second loss, Harada moved up to bantamweight. This put him on a collision course with Brazilian bantam king Eder Jofre. Beating Jofre (one of the most underrated boxers ever) once could put Harada at number one on this list but doing it twice cements Harada’s position. Reigned as bantamweight champion for almost three years before weight constraints derailed Harada again. Even when Harada lost to Johnny Famechon at featherweight and Lionel Rose at bantamweight, Harada did so in an exciting fashion that heaped credit upon him.
Sadly and bafflingly to be honest, Harada is the only boxer on this list currently inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.