Away fighters in Japan

At a time where boxing scoring is under increasing scrutiny, especially in the UK, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston believes Japan is the fairest place in the world for away fighters, ahead of Gennadiy Golovkin’s clash with Tokyo’s popular Ryota Murata this weekend.

One thing Gennadiy Golovkin won’t have to worry about when he meets Ryota Murata in Japan on Saturday is a hometown decision. Japan has, over the years, become a nation where the visiting boxer can be sure of a level playing field. Saturday’s middleweight title bout will be no exception. If the fight goes 12 rounds and Golovkin has done enough to win, he will get the verdict. You can take it to the bank.

We even saw a robbery in reverse when Murata lost a split decision to France’s Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in May 2017. It was one of the strangest decisions in recent years. Murata knocked N’Dam down in the fourth round. There were a couple of instances, maybe as many as three, from memory, when Murata sent N’Dam into the ropes with right hands, and Puerto Rican referee Luis Pabon could have given an eight count on the basis of the ropes preventing N’Dam from going down.

Los Angeles judge Raul Caiz Sr had Murata winning, 117-110, but judges Hubert Earle from Canada and Gustavo Padilla of Panama had it 116-111 and 115-112 in favour of N’Dam.

In all fairness to the judges, there were rounds where N’Dam was throwing a lot of punches while Murata waited for perfect openings. But I actually watched this twice, and the closest I could make it was Murata winning by 115-112. N’Dam got all the breaks in this fight — and this against an undefeated Japanese Olympic gold medallist. (In the rematch, Murata made no mistakes, overpowering N’Dam in seven rounds.)

Visitors have won decisions many times in championship bouts in Japan, and I don’t want to bore you with long lists. But we’ve seen visitors spring upsets against Japanese boxing stars, such as — going way back — Pascual Perez’ win over Japan’s first world champion, Yoshiro Shirai, in a flyweight title bout in November 1954.

Argentina’s diminutive Perez (only 4ft 11ins) had boxed a draw with Shirai in a non-title bout in Buenos Aires four months earlier. On home ground, defending champion Shirai was expected to put things right. It didn’t work out that way. Perez, by all accounts, was too fast, too relentless, for the much taller champion. It was a unanimous decision, with the Japanese judge making Perez the winner by three points.

Another upset came in February 1968 when Australia’s Lionel Rose won a unanimous 15-round decision over the great Fighting Harada to win the bantamweight title. The scoring referee and the two judges were all Japanese.

Rose was just 19 years old but had been a pro for four years. He outboxed the aggressive Harada and dropped him in the ninth round. Boxing Illustrated reported that for most of the fight Harada was unable to get past Rose’s left jab and snappy right hand.

A former flyweight champion, Harada had won the bantam title by defeating Eder Jofre, Brazil’s greatest fighter, and he beat Jofre in a rematch. But Harada had weighed in at 126 pounds for his last two bouts before meeting Rose and it was clearly going to be difficult for him to get down to the bantam limit of 118 pounds. (And this was in the days when champions always made the weight for title defences, no matter how draining the process.)

“Making weight appeared to have sapped some of Harada’s strength,” Boxing Illustrated reported. “Rose finished much the fresher.”

But even allowing for Harada being diminished by weight-making, this was an epic victory by Rose, with contemporary reports suggesting that the crowd watched in stunned silence.

Ireland’s Wayne McCullough was another to win a title bout in Japan, capturing the bantamweight title with a split decision over Yasuei Yakushiji in July 1995. The Korean judge had Yakushiji winning by one point but the two US judges made McCullough the winner by three and eight points respectively.

The fight was covered by Sky Sports in Britain, with Ian Darke and Glenn McCrory commentating (I believe from the London studio). Darke described it as a “mountainous task” and a “very, very tall task” for McCullough as the bout got under way.

It was a competitive contest, with Glenn McCrory noting in the ninth round that the action was swinging one way and then the other: “McCullough has a good combination land, and then Yakushiji fights back and he gets on top again.”

Coming out for the last round, McCrory and Darke each had McCullough three points ahead. But McCrory added the caveat that “lots of the rounds have been very close”.

The bout was fast-paced and action-packed. McCullough was, as always, busy, letting his hands go, and he jabbed beautifully at times. But Yakushiji was right in it, and he had a big 11th round when he rocked a tiring McCullough with right hands.

McCullough suffered a cut over the right eye in the last round but he boxed and moved, clearly believing he was ahead. Yakushiji landed one of his best right hands of the fight in the last round. 

At the final bell, each man threw his arms aloft, but McCullough’s body language was more convincing. The judges had Yakushiji sweeping the last two rounds, but McCullough had done enough.

Has there been what you could call a “bad” decision in a title bout involving a visitor in Japan? Honestly, I can’t think of any except, perhaps, for Koki Kameda coming off the canvas to eke out a split decision win over Venezuela’s Juan Jose Landaeta in an all-southpaw bout for the vacant WBA light-flyweight title in August 2006. Judges from Korea and France had Kameda winning, while Panama’s Gustavo Padilla saw it 115-112 in favour of Landaeta. (I had that 114-113 in Landaeta’s favour.)

The two most decisive rounds of the fight were the first and 11th. Landaeta dropped Kameda with a right hook as the first round drew to a close. Kameda picked himself up and the bell sounded after referee Stanley Christodoulou completed the mandatory eight count. In the 11th, Landaeta wobbled Kameda with left-hand shots.

However, many of the rounds were closely contested. Each man scored sharply to body and head. In by far the toughest test of his career, the 19-year-old Kameda showed he could fight back from adversity, even making the “Bring it on!” gesture to Landaeta in a torrid ninth round. 

In a return bout six months later, Kameda left no doubts, winning a unanimous 12-round decision although he had a point deducted in the last round for boring in with his head. It seemed to me that Kameda clearly outboxed and outfought Landaeta in the rematch. Judges Stanley Christodoulou (South Africa) and Raul Caiz Jr (US) had Kameda way ahead, 119-108 and 116-111 respectively; UK judge Terry O’Connor had it the closest, 115-113 in Kameda’s favour.

Main image: Lionel Rose (left) defeats Fighting Harada (right) in February 1968. Photo: World Boxing Council.