If Masao Oba is the most unfortunate case of Japanese fighter having his career cut short due to an untimely death then Kiyoshi Tanabe (21-0-1, 5) is the most unfortunate case of an injury cutting short a career of Japanese fighter. Like Oba, Tanabe had so much potential to be a star and so much skill that he really could have claimed world titles across multiple weight classes had it not been for his forced retirement when he was only 26 years old.
Instead of being known as a multiple weight world champion Tanabe is best known for his amateur exploits and as one of the biggest "What ifs...?" in Japanese boxing history. It's this "What if...?" question that has seen Tanabe nicknamed "the boxer of tragedy".
Born in Tokyo in 1940 Tanabe burst on to the boxing scene in his late teens as an amateur standout. His success wasn't just domestic but international, in fact Tanabe's bronze medal at the 1960 Rome games was the first ever Japanese Olympic medal in boxing.
In total Tanabe fought 120 times in the unpaid ranks and ran up a very impressive record of 115-5 (30). As well as the Olympic medal Tanabe had also claimed a Gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta as he proved to be an exceptionally gifted amateur boxer.
A year after Tanabe had claimed his Asian games gold medal he turned professional.
On debut Tanabe defeated Nobuo Narutomi via a 6 round decision. After scoring 2 more victories he took a huge step up and faced the very experienced Katsuo Yachinuma (who was fighting in his 37th professional bout) over 10 rounds. Tanabe's talent shone through against Yachinuma as he stopped the more experienced man and secured his first early stoppage.
Tanabe's career then continued to grow as he stopped Eishiro Iwaya, who, like Yachinuma was much more experienced than Tanabe in the professional ranks. Over the following few fights he would defeat Leo Zulueta (who was highly ranked at the time), Jet Parker (who was unbeaten going in to the fight), Akashi Namekawa (the then Japanese national champion) and Iwaya for a second time.
Having run his record to a perfect 13-0 (3) Tanabe would face face former rival Akashi Namekawa. Namekawa was the Japanese Flyweight champion and had run up 4 wins since Tanabe had first beaten him. Despite the rebuilt confidence of Namekawa he still failed to defeat Tanabe who claimed a 10 round decision and took the Japanese national title with him.
As the Japanese champion Tanabe would defend his newly acquired belt twice. The first defense saw him stopping Namekawa in 2 rounds before drawing with Yuzo Narumi in the other title defense.
Having advanced his record to 20-0-1 (4) Tanabe had climbed up the rankings but still wasn't see as being ready for a world title fight. In just his next fight Tanabe proved he was capable of competing at the world level as he surprisingly upset the then WBA Flyweight champion Horacio Accavallo of Argentina and forced a 6th round TKO of the champion. Going into the bout Accavallo had been unbeaten in 5 bouts over the space of almost 7 years and was highly favoured over the Japanese fighter.
The victory over Accavallo seemed likely to lead to another bout with the Argentinian, this time with the world title on the line. Sadly however Tanabe would suffer from a detached retina which forced his retirement in 1967 when he was just 26 years old.
Sadly the injury that had forced Tanabe's retirement got worse eventually lead to his blindness in the eye just 2 years later.
Footage of Tanabe is rare to find despite his place in history as Japan's first Olympic medal winner. Thankfully we did find an excellent clip that shortly featured a short portion of his Olympic semi final bout. The video, courtesy of piroringa712, is a genuine treat and a real rarity. Tanabe is featured from around 2:18 into the video.