Osaka's Gloved Hornet

By Ted Spoon: It's not without its history but an unfamiliar feeling resonates when you utter 'Japanese Boxing'. It doesn't roll off the tongue; certainly not like Mexican or British boxing. We're aware of it. Well-rehearsed fans will be able to construct a good list of the Far East's most distinguished sluggers, and our Oriental ancestors would happily recall their combative deeds, but they are instances which have struggled to stay afloat upon an ocean colonised by Westerly warriors.

For a country with so much unique flavour (not to mention Sumo Wrestling as its national sport) boxing offers itself as a novelty. It's not improbable that things could have been different, but seen as they have failed to produce a single world champion in the heavyweight, light-heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight classes, Japan's entire fighting pedigree is squashed into those lower filing cabinets; troublesome to open, so people rarely do.

With his great 1965 win over Brazil's Eder Jofre, Masihiko 'Fighting' Harada makes his popular claim as Japan's greatest boxer. In the coming decades a few more gems followed, one from Osaka.

The City of Osaka is a surreal Metropolis, famous for its Castle, Shinkansen 'Bullet Trains' and Umeda Sky Building which utilizes mirrors that reflect the sky, giving visitors the impression they're amongst the clouds. The idea of a grimy boxing is as far away as can be.

Jiro Watanabe is not likely to get the alarm bells going, maybe a slow “yeah”, but twenty years ago, while Osaka joined the likes of New York and Paris as a leading economic power, this 115lbs champion was busy etching his legacy onto that diminutive plaque history had provided.

The vital statistics instantly jump out at you. Having fought only 28 times exactly half of his fights were of the world title variety. It was a particularly concentrated run, even by the standards of the rings little 'uns whose careers resemble fuses. There was next to no travelling, but rather than leave a sour taste like Sven Ottke who was jealously sheltered, Watanabe is received like a piece of the finest sushi.

Anything below bantamweight has a slight prejudice to combat which believes most fights involve two weaklings who scrappily mill their way to a decision. The big punch is nowhere, and the action is such that there's little in the way of tactical adjustment. Some of this is so, but then we have our exceptions.

After spending a few minutes with Watanabe you realise a few key things; here was a guy who could punch, box and moved about with grace. This was no replica of a hundred other Asian hustlers and beginning these differences was a southpaw stance.

Many boxers are converted lefties and have problems leading with their heads; not so for Jiro who maintained sound posture when jabbing. Both arms were fairly tight, giving the impression of a cagey fighter, but he put plenty of grease on his combinations, often applying the full stops with a right hook.

A good right is essential in order to create a balanced southpaw. Marvin Hagler almost solely relied on his and Manny Pacquiao greatly improved once he developed a right to go with that left. Watanabe's was a solid shot and great contributor towards those 17 knockouts in 26 wins.

The left was a stunning, rangy punch. As a cheeky lead or mischievous counter it often appeared. When coupled with his right Jiro was an offensive force. Proving his worth as a corrosive puncher, stoppages were scored in the 7th, 15th and various rounds in between.

Getting him into the correct positions was two of the slickest feet you'll ever see. When he felt like it Watanabe could glide over the canvas. In following his man, making him over-reach, cutting off the ring and slipping to the side, Osaka's little boxer was all about variety. Power was more a nice addition to a fighter who had all the moves to produce landslide scores.

1979 was the year in which got underway, 90 miles away from home at Okayama - one of the many places to be annihilated during WWII. The City was swiftly mended allowing 24 year old Watanabe to begin dropping his own bombs. Keizo Miyazaki was the first target and collapsed in three.

Ten fights were comfortably recorded inside of two years. Bout #8 had taken place at Aichi's Prefectural Gym where Harada memorably put some graffiti on Jofre's record. When it was time for Jiro's stab at destiny a trip to South Korea was necessary. Chul-Ho Kim was making the second defence of his WBC super-flyweight title and a roaring crowd was there to make sure it stayed that way.

The action was very hard to call but the champion's punches were endlessly cheered. Support is not something that should influence opinion but it does, similar to when several agree with someone about something they're passionate about; it doesn't make the opinion anymore true, but such is our gregarious nature that we're inclined to fall in suit when opinions are impressed upon us.

Narrow scores of 143-142, 147-146 and 148-146 denied Watanabe that decision his parents were praying for during the introductions. Marked up and exhausted, Jiro left the Changchung Gymnasium with a heavy heart, but (as Stallone recently put it) plenty left in the basement.

The new WBA title was being predictably juggled when Jiro got his second chance against Rafael Pedroza. The experienced Panamanian had previously lost at the hands of another Japanese great in Yoko Gushiken. He wasn't able to make amends when Watanabe opposed him and lost convincingly.

In his first three defences Watanabe was fairly dominant, stopping his rivals whilst in the judge's good books. Mexico's Roberto Ramirez had fallen trying to seize his national title. The chance of him taking world honours was pretty unlikely and Watanabe may have been guilty of agreeing.

Not once, twice, three, but four times Ramirez was floored. In the ninth round Jiro's crisp flurries looked to be moments away from securing an accessible victory but the awkward Ramirez insisted on staying. From then on Jiro could scarcely get his range, was cut in the tenth and getting beaten up in the last two rounds.

He could look like a million bucks, skating along and banging in counters, but Watanabe sometimes got complacent and here it almost cost him. The champion was sent a life raft in the form of a majority decision.

Two more defences followed when the champion liked the idea of stitching the WBC title to his name. The WBA saw things differently and stripped him, therein engendering one of boxing great 'what ifs'.

Khaosai Galaxy was 19 defences shy of shaping that formidable legacy, but we would all become aware of the Thai's fighting prowess. By 1984 he was number one contender for the WBA strap and already owner to an eye-popping knockout streak. How a fight between him and Watanabe would have gone is a good question.

As it was Watanabe fought Thailand's champion Payao Poontarat and swapped governing bodies after a split decision victory.

Osaka's Castle Hall had housed Watanabe's last two bouts. With most arenas doubling as hubs for the annual sumo, big time boxing was accustomed to dealing with attendances less than 2,000. The newly constructed Castle Hall however could seat up to 16,000 if necessary and Watanabe generated atmospheres that weren't far off a lively Garden in Manhattan.

Not being happy with his first effort, Jiro gave Poontarat the chance to win back his title. This time unanimous scores paved their way to the eleventh where Watanabe's punches forced the referee's hand.

Three more defences were neatly registered, taking Watanabe into his 30th year; a dangerous age for any man less than 9 stone. Mexico's Gilberto Roman was next in line to try and interrupt a long list of failure. Not to downplay the age factor, Jiro had turned 31 when they touched gloves.

As was customary the opponent, referee and even judges received some limelight followed by punctual applause.

Twelve intriguing rounds were completed and a new champion was crowned. Gilberto would go onto prove himself one of the best 115lbs fighters in history, but out of his nine unanimous decision victories, none were closer than the one against Jiro.

Scores of 116-112, 116-112 and 116-114 shipped the title to Mexico but they're numbers which could easily have been for Japan's general who boxed wonderfully; the counter hook, the spearing left - there were moments when Jiro looked garnished in silk. Gilberto got by on his wilful afterburners but as the last 3 ticked away it was Watanabe slamming home the meaningful shots.

Let us side with the consensus, for it is ugly to revolt, but then we must concede it to be not only a remarkable losing performance, but a lasting testament to a fighter who could (secretly) 'do it all'.

And with that perfectly composed air that had styled his legend, Watanabe showed his back to the ring.

Demonstrating one last skill, he kept walking.

Article posted on 17.05.2012

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