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The Top 10 Asian Fighters of the past

As the legendary Filipino Manny Pacquiao faces Yordenis Ugas in Las Vegas this weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston counts down the greatest Asian boxers of times past.

There’s not much doubt that Manny Pacquiao will go down in ring history as the greatest-ever fighter from South-East Asia regardless of what happens in Saturday’s welterweight title fight against Yordenis Ugas. The ageless Filipino has won world titles in six weight divisions from 112 to 147lbs and is truly an astonishing fighter. Japan’s Naoya Inoue and Kosei Tanaka and Nonito Donaire of the Philippines are multi-weight world champions who are also Hall of Fame-bound.

But what of those who came before them? Asia has produced a long list of ring greats. Here’s a top 10, in reverse order.

10: Myung-Woo Yuh (Korea)

Yuh made 17 defences of the WBA light-flyweight title from 1985 to 1991. He lost the championship to Hiroki Ioka on a split decision in 1992, regained the title from Ioka via majority decision 11 months later — both bouts in Ioka’s hometown of Osaka — and had one more fight (a title defence in Korea) before retiring. Yuh had a record of 38-1 (14 KOs). He was a pressure fighter, tenacious and difficult to keep at bay. Yuh won his title when there were still 15-round championship fights.

9: Jung-koo Chang (Korea)

Chang was WBC champion in the light-flyweight division, winning the title with a third-round stoppage over the slick Panamanian southpaw Hilario Zapata, in September 1982. Zapata had won the first meeting by split decision but Chang overwhelmed him in the rematch, battering him with hooks and right hands to body and head. Referee Rudy Ortega gave Zapata an eight count and waved the finish when the Panamanian fighter turned away in surrender.

Chang made 15 successful defences in a seven-year reign before losing the title to Mexico’s Chiquita Gonzalez in 1989. He  closed out his career with two unsuccessful flyweight title attempts against Thai champions. Sot Chitalada beat him on a split decision in 1990, while the following year Muangchai Kittikasem stopped Chang in the 12th and final round. 

The fight with Muangchai was a gruelling affair. Chang dropped Muangchai twice in the fifth round and floored him again in the 11th. But, with the fight on the table, Chang got caught and dropped in the 12th. Referee Tony Perez allowed Chang to continue after the eight count but the seemingly exhausted Korean fighter went down again and the bout was stopped. Chang’s record: 38-4 (17 KOs).

8: Veeraphol Sahaprom (Thailand)

Veeraphol was ambitiously matched for the WBA bantamweight title in only his fifth bout (after the traditional Muay Thai background) when Nana Yaw Konadu, of Ghana, stopped him in the third round in 1996. But Veeraphol compiled a long unbeaten run, and three years later he won the WBC bantamweight title by knocking out the tough but hittable Joichiro Tatsuyoshi in the sixth round in Tokyo. 

Veeraphol went on to make 14 successful defences, including a sometimes bloody four-bout series with skilled Japanese southpaw Toshiaki Nishioka (two wins for Veeraphol and two draws). But age caught up with Veeraphol, now 36, when the speedy and stylish southpaw Hozumi Hasegawa outscored him in April 2005. Hasegawa stopped him in a rematch and although Veeraphol boxed on his best days were behind him. Record: 66-4-2 (46 KOs). 

7: Pongsaklek Wonjonkam (Thailand)

Pongsaklek was a two-time flyweight champion. A left-hander with solid boxing skills, Pongsaklek captured the WBC flyweight title with a startling first-round win over fellow-southpaw Malcolm Tunacao, of the Philippines, in March 2001. He made 17 successful defences before losing to old rival Daisuke Naito in Tokyo six years later. (He had previously knocked out Naito in 17 seconds and then defeated him on a technical decision.) Pongsaklek failed to regain the title when a fourth meeting with Naito ended in a 12-round draw. However, Pongsaklek became champion for a second time when he won a majority 12-round decision over the 22-0 Koki Kameda in an all-southpaw contest in Tokyo in March 2010. It was a classic example of a seasoned veteran simply knowing too much for a flashier younger boxer. But, now 34 and past his best, Pongsaklek lost the title when Filipino slugger Sonny Boy Jaro overpowered him in six rounds two years later. Record: 91-5-2 (47 KOs)

6: Shinsuke Yamanaka

A tall, rangy left-hander, Yamanaka won the vacant WBC bantamweight title with an 11th-round stoppage win over Mexico’s hard-hitting Christian Esquivel (who had stopped nine of his last 10 opponents) in November 2011, a fight in which the Japanese boxer had to come off the canvas to win. Yamanaka’s 12 successful defences included wins over world champs (at various times) Malcolm Tunacao, Tomas Rojas, Vic Darchinyan, Suriyan Sor Rungvisai, Anselmo Moreno and Liborio Solis. Mexico’s ever-dangerous Luis Nery knocked out Yamanaka to end his six-year reign as champion in an upset in August 2017. In a rematch, Nery came in four pounds over the bantamweight limit and — clearly much the bigger, stronger man — simply rolled over Yamanaka in two rounds. Yamanaka never boxed again. Record: 27-2-2 (19 KOs).

5: Yoko Gushiken (Japan)

“Fierce Eagle” Gushiken was arguably the world’s dominant fighter in the light-flyweight division from 1976 through to 1981, winning the WBA title by knocking out Juan Guzman of the Dominican Republic and making 12 successful defences of the championship. A hard-hitting southpaw with an aggressive style, Gushiken boxed at a time when title bouts were still 15 rounds. He won by split decision over former champion Jaime Rios, of Panama, who knocked him down, and the Venezuelan Rigoberto Marcano, when the Japanese judge scored in favour of the visiting boxer. But Gushiken knocked out Rios and Marcano in rematches. At one point, Gushiken stopped seven challengers in a row. He retired after losing the title to Pedro Flores, of Mexico, on a 12th-round KO in March 1981. 

Gushiken had beaten Flores on a 15-round decision five months earlier. In the rematch, it was as if the Gushiken flame had burned out. He had some good moments and was even in front on one judge’s card after 11 rounds but Flores was too strong and too insistent. Gushiken looked simply worn out in the 12th and Flores knocked him down with a barrage of punches. Although Gushiken got up he had nothing left and Flores was hitting him at will when the Japanese corner threw in the towel. Gushiken retired after the bout and never came back. Record: 23-1 (15 KOs). 

4: Ceferino Garcia (Philippines)

Garcia had a lot of losses on his record but that wasn’t surprising because he fought in an era — the 1920s and 1930s — in which boxers were matched tough. The Filipino with a big right hand fought all-time greats Barney Ross and Henry Armstrong in his 165-bout career and won a version of the middleweight title. It was Garcia who introduced the so-called bolo punch — a right hand thrown with a sweeping, upwards motion — to the boxing world. A 1930s reporter described Garcia as “one of the most feared men in the welterweight division.” Garcia twice gave the immortal Henry Armstrong all he could handle. He lost a unanimous 15-round decision to Armstrong at Madison Square Garden in November 1938 with the welterweight title at stake but fought Homicide Hank to a draw two years later in Los Angeles in a bout billed for the middleweight championship.

In the Garden contest the bigger Garcia came on strongly towards the end but Armstrong was relentless. “Henry poured in all the time even with his right eye closed and Garcia’s feared bolo punch doing damage in the late sessions,” Associated Press reported. “By all odds it was the toughest fight of Armstrong’s career — a career that has been studded with battles against bigger men.” 

Garcia and Armstrong fought a 10-round draw in Los Angeles two years later. “Many ring-siders thought Garcia earned it with his clean, shocking uppercuts to the head,” AP reported, although adding that just as many thought Armstrong won with his “ever-punching aggressiveness”. Garcia’s record: 121-30-14 (77 KOs).

3: Pancho Villa (Philippines)

The tragic Pancho Villa (born Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) turned pro as a 17-year-old, moved to the US to further his career and won the flyweight title by overpowering Wales’ once great, now faded, Jimmy Wilde in seven rounds at the Polo Grounds, New York, in June 1923 to become the Philippines’ first world champion. 

“Working like an animated battering ram, Villa pounded, jabbed, hooked and cut the veteran until his pipestem legs dropped from beneath him and he sank to the canvas,” United Press reported. Villa never lost the title, moving up to the bantamweight division after two successful defences. He unwisely went ahead with a bout against future welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin (then boxing as a featherweight) in San Francisco on July 4, 1925 despite having had a tooth extracted either that same day or the night before (reports vary) and died 10 days later during an operation for an abscess and infection of the jaw. Villa was only 23 when he died. Record: 77-4-4 (22 KOs).

2: Flash Elorde (Philippines)

Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, a fast, skilful and sharp-punching southpaw, won the inaugural world championship bout at 130lbs (then known as the junior lightweight division) when he knocked out Harold Gomes of the US in the seventh round in Manila in March 1960. Gomes suffered multiple knockdowns (accounts vary as to how many). The American boxer blamed his loss on the the sweltering 110-degree heat but Elorde knocked him out in 80 seconds in a rematch in San Francisco. 

Elorde made 10 successful defences of the 130lbs title. Perhaps his finest performance was a 10-round decision over the great featherweight champion Sandy Saddler in a non-title bout in Manila. In a return fight with the title at stake in San Francisco, Elorde was stopped in the 13th round due to a severe cut over the left eye. Saddler was much criticised for rough tactics in that fight, especially the way he bored in with his head.  Elorde had his successes, bloodying the champion’s nose and knocking out his gum shield, but it was an uphill battle. 

“Saddler kept rolling along like Ol’ Man River while shoving his head into Elorde’s face,” United Press reported. Elorde defeated former lightweight champion Ismael Laguna of Panama but lost twice in the 14th round against Carlos Ortiz, another great champion, when challenging for the 135lbs title. Record: 89-27-2 (33 KOs).

1: Fighting Harada (Japan)

Masahiko “Fighting” Harada was a two-weight world champion (flyweight and bantamweight) in the 1960s. He won the flyweight title by battering Thailand’s Pone Kingpetch into defeat in the 11th round in October 1962, but lost the rematch by majority decision in Bangkok. But Harada scored his greatest victory when winning a split decision over Brazil’s Eder Jofre, possibly the greatest bantamweight of all time and unbeaten in 50 bouts, in May 1965 to win the 118lbs title. In a rematch, Harada won a unanimous decision. His four bantamweight title defences included unanimous decisions over Britain’s Alan Rudkin and Mexico’s formidable Jose Medel (avenging a knockout suffered against Medel four years earlier).

After losing the 118lbs title to Australia’s Lionel Rose, Harada moved up to the featherweight division and lost a very close and controversial decision to Johnny Famechon for the WBC title in Sydney in 1969. Referee and sole arbiter Willie Pep raised the arms of both men at the final bell to signify a draw but, with the crowd booing lustily, the old featherweight legend consulted his scorecard — Famechon’s British promoter Mickey Duff looking over his shoulder — and after some delay it was announced that actually Famechon had won, 70-69. 

A case could certainly be made for Harada winning that fight. As the grainy black-and-white video shows, Harada was the non-stop aggressor and knocked down Famechon three times. But Famechon produced some beautiful jabbing and moving and got credit for a knockdown in the sixth round when he steadied Harada with a left hook, then followed with what looked like another left hook and a push. Famechon was quite possibly saved by the bell after Harada dropped him heavily with an overhand right in the closing  moments of the 14th round.

The controversy surrounding the contest meant a rematch was inevitable. It took place in Tokyo and Famechon won on a knockout in the 14th round. It was Harada’s last fight. Record: 55-7 (22 KOs).

Main image: Shinsuke Yamanaka. Photo: Naoki Fukuda/WBC.