Frontline diary: Typhoon leaves elite unshaken

Chris Williamson
26/10/2017 12:59pm

Chris Williamson was ringside in Tokyo last weekend as three Japanese world champions triumphed, the country went to the polls and all the while a typhoon approached...

To describe Sunday 22 October as an eventful day here in Tokyo would be putting it mildly... Election polls opened for a general election at which Prime Minister Shinzō Abe sought a two-thirds majority with a campaign promising to change Japan's pacifist constitution. Typhoon Lan made its way towards the country, dumping torrential rain over the country as flights were aborted and residents cancelled plans. Meanwhile, 10,000 fans made their way towards the Sumida ward, through wind and rain and seeking competitive aggression of the sporting kind.

Mid-afternoon at the famous old Sumo arena Ryōgoku Kokugikan and a handsome ticket kiosk is battered with rain, its shutters down. The Lonely Planet phrasebook isn't much help at times like this but I'm sure the sign says: 'sold out'. Promoters Teiken helpfully find space for Boxing Monthly following a shamefully late application.

At the weigh-in the previous day at the Hotel Grand Palace, 85-year-old co-promoter Bob Arum held court as naturally as at Top Rank's headquarters in Las Vegas. Asked to the stage as Ryota Murata and Hassan N'Dam finished on the scales, Arum smiled, held his stomach in his hands and quipped, "you're not going to weigh me!"

After the weigh-in and as a taster for Sunday - after plans I had to visit a fireworks event south of the city were cancelled due to the storms - I attend a bill at the Korakuen Hall. Steeped in history, the Korakuen is housed on the fifth floor of a building adjacent to the vast Tokyo Dome, where arguably the sport's most famous upset occurred in February 1990 when 42-1 underdog James 'Buster' Douglas knocked out 'Iron' Mike Tyson.

Shuichiro Yoshino beats Spicy Matsushita in an untelevised match for the vacant Japanese lightweight title in the Korakuen main event. As in Britain, the national championship is well regarded here with examples of the seven incarnations of the belt - apart from the very first one - on display in a wall-mounted case just opposite a small closed off room where smokers congregate between bouts. Kirin beer is served in plastic cups displaying the words, 'Tokyo Dome since 1988'.

Many more women and children attend than they do boxing events in Europe and although very passionate, crowd interaction feels closer to sporting entertainment than tribal gathering. Flowers are presented to fighters before each match. Even during preliminaries, the noise formed verges on uncomfortable.

The upgrade in gloss and glamour on Sunday at the Kokugikan is striking. The feeling of history remains, but now there are television cameras, presenters and girls indicating round numbers.

First of the three 'world' title bouts - a little after 5.30pm - is a terrific match as Ken Shiro defends his WBC light flyweight title for the first time against Mexican former champ and mandatory challenger Pedro 'Jibran' Guevara. It's a battle of attrition from the opening bell, with the champion peppering an excellent jab mixed with short uppercuts, cutting Guevara early in the fight. The Mexican fires back with a powerful straight right, a punch which draws nervous gasps from the partisan crowd on several occasions.

The rounds utterly fly past during a rare battle you actually look forward to rewatching before it's finished unfolding. Teiken have seated me in an area reserved for Guevara's team and occasional shouts of "Viva Mexico" are quickly eclipsed by sharper, throatier chants from the Japanese. The men are so well-matched; a high quality technical punch-up with two warriors attacking the body in particular with breathtaking ferocity.

No quarter is asked for or given as one attacks his opponent, pauses briefly and then returns the favour, often as I noted in the seventh, with a similar selection of punches, as though seeking to reciprocate pain inflicted. A low-blow from Shiro in the ninth allows us all to regain breath momentarily, before each plant their feet once more during a sensational finale.

The majority decision for Shiro (now 11-0) is cheered loudly, as is the performance of Guevara (30-3-1) who acknowledges the crowd's respect. Shiro is awarded a customary tall trophy and a certificate by the Japan Boxing Commission - accepted with gloves still worn - before dropping from the ring into further acclaim.

japan1If Shiro is liked and respected, then WBC flyweight champ Daigo Higa is verging on true superstardom: a confident, charismatic, 112lbs wrecking machine and sponsors' dream. Even the baseball cap he wears is crafted with his personality in mind; the initials 'DH' combined to form a smart logo on the front, Japan's 'Nisshōki' flag on the sides and the word 'perfect' etched on the back. No pressure then!

Perhaps appropriately, French opponent and European champion Thomas Masson walks in to 'The Final Countdown', looking understandably nervous awaiting the champion.

Higa is from the southern island of Okinawa, a holiday destination for many Japanese, and emits the relaxed warmth the island is known for. The crowd erupts as Jimmy Lennon Jr speaks some Japanese and refers simply to Higa's 13-0 (13 KO) record as "sensational".

Higa has such an aesthetically pleasing style: awesome variety, super footwork and subtle feints which trick Masson and thrill his fans. When Masson does fight back, for example with a sharp right hand towards the end of the first, to borrow a line from Ian Darke, the Frenchman appears armed with a pea-shooter against Higa's sub-machine gun.

Higa takes much of the second round off as if aiming to fully tease out what Masson offers; then triples his left uppercut in the third as though emphasising the extent of the imbalance in armoury. I scribble a note about how much vitality Higa emits as he smiles at his outgunned foe, enjoying his gifts of balance and athleticism.

If and when he fights the rival champions - two of whom, Kazuto Ioka and Sho Kimura, also hail from Japan - he'll want to show more head movement but it simply wasn't required here. Welshman Andrew Selby won a WBC eliminator at the weight earlier this month, but with a champion on this form, a mandatory position may feel like discovering fool's gold.

Through the fifth and sixth the wilting Masson (17-4-1) is brave - even mouthing "non!" after one vicious left hook - but is overwhelmed as the relentless Higa attacks the Frenchman like a harbour shark. Finally in the seventh, an almost innocuous looking jab sees the challenger take a knee, the doctor is called and the fight declared a TKO. The charismatic champ hoists himself on to the ring ropes, mock-combing his hair for the cameras.

Higa is trained by a hero from his youth, the great former long-running WBA light-flyweight champ Yoko Gushiken, who he hugs and thanks warmly in the ring. The two have a clear affection for one another.

japan3At the risk of sounding trite, there is a very real feeling of history and tradition inside the wonderfully old-school Kokugikan. Two analogue clocks sit alongside the likeness of old sumo warriors in adorning the sides of the arena, as though looking down at their heirs, in this case from another sport.

There is no alcohol served anywhere and certain lower tiers feature areas where families and friends lie or sit on mats rather than on seats.

Prior to arriving in Japan, I was ignorant of how big a star Ryota Murata is and half-assumed the rematch with Frenchman Hassan N'Dam was main event in name only, perhaps to satisfy the schedule of US broadcaster ESPN who would show the match live.

In fact, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist is a huge draw, attracting too many sponsors to list. Another superstar - WBO super-flyweight champ Naoya Inoue, working with local broadcaster Fuji TV, receives rapturous applause before Murata strides smiling to the ring.

After the controversial first fight where Murata was widely viewed to have been robbed, there was little doubt here about who would leave as (secondary) WBA middleweight champion.

Murata (now 13-1) lands the straight right hand hard and often and establishes his jab early. N'Dam (36-3) - who of course endured a humiliating first-round exit after entering the 2016 Olympics as a professional - is hurt to the body and also bundled to the floor twice in the fourth. Neither is ruled a knockdown, but the champion looks dejected and as though he is steadily wilting. Murata's right hand simply can't miss, like a special move in a video game, until his corner pull him out at the end of the seventh.

Murata cries with joy and - like Higa and Gushiken before him - connects wonderfully with the crowd during his post-fight interview.

Leaving the arena after a breathless evening, the rain remains torrential and the wind strong while the typhoon moves ever closer.

As the political votes are counted it gradually emerges that Abe has indeed won a landslide victory - with all three 'world' title bouts won by Japanese, the boxing elite in the Land of the Rising Sun have also strengthened their power.