| || |
Recently we've been having a binge on former Japanese fighter Naoto Takahashi (19-4, 14) [高橋ナオト] who fought during the 1980's and early 1990's. His name is unlikely to appear in any book on the “greatest” boxers of all time but the Bantamweight/Super Bantamweight was one of one of the most exciting fighters of recent times. In fact his nickname, "Gyakuten no kikōshi", which literally translates as "Prince of the Reversal", was due to his ability to come back from the edge of defeat.
Having debuted as a 17 year old in 1985 Takahashi would race through the domestic ranks. Within two years of his debut he had built up a 10-0 (6) record and despite still being a teenager he was viewed as one of the most promising young fighters in Japan. In fact during that 10 fight run he had won the Rookie of the Year, being voted the Rookie MVP in the process, and the A-Class tournament winner, again claiming the MVP.
The A class tournament, in 1986, win had seen Takahashi become the mandatory challenger at the beginning of 1987 for Mitsuo Imazato, then then Japanese Bantamweight champion.
Although unknown in the West Imazato was a multi-time Japanese Bantamweight champion and a former OPBF title challenger. Coming in to the bout with Takahashi he was 22-9 (12) having just re-captured the Japanese crown 3 months earlier. Despite the advantage in experience Iamazato was no match for the quick rising youngster who secured himself a 5th round TKO win to claim the Japanese throne in what was a fairly exciting battle between two men willing to throw some heavy leather. The bout may not have been a legendary contest, but it was compelling viewing with round 5 in particular being a highlight with Takahashi hurting his man and the two trading shots until the referee saved Imazato, who had been dropped twice prior to the stoppage.
Imazato and Takahashi would do it again a few months later, with Takahashi retaining his title courtesy of a 3d round stoppage against Imazato. Despite not lasting as long as their first meeting this one was more exciting, with Imazato showing a real desire against the cocky champion, who exuded confidence. The confidence saw him neglecting his defense at times but that just lead to the excitement and round 2 saw both men trading blows in a remarkable period of action that saw Imazato being dropped twice. Despite being dropped twice Imazato came out for round 3 with bad intentions and it lead to another fierce round of action before Takahashi knocked out his rival with an amazing left hook on the jaw.
| || |
Having won and defended the Japanese Bantamweight title in style the youngster was starting to earn a following however he would come up short in his second defense, being out pointed by Chiaki Kobayashi.
Takahashi would try to become a 2-time champion months later as he battled Tadashi Shimabukuro. The two men had met earlier in their career's, with Takahashi winning an 8 round decision in the aforementioned A Class tournament. This time around there was gold on the line and Takahashi had been struggling to make weight, despite scaling well under the limit suggesting he had over-drained. This time Takahashi's resilience let him down, but not before he'd engaged in a tactical war with his rival. That war really erupted in round 3, sending he crowd wild with “Na-Oh-To” chants and it kicked off again in round 5 before being finished in brutal fashion from Shimabukuro who hurt Takahashi and never let him off the hook.
The loss to Shimabukuro signalled the end of Takahashi's career at 118lbs, but not the end of his career as a top Japanese contender. In fact less than a year later he back in title action as he faced Japanese Super Bantamweight champion Mark Horikoshi.
If any bout sums up Takahashi's career, and goes down as a “must watch”, it's the Horikoshi bout, which took place in early 1989 and saw the two men trading blows for the Japanese Super Bantamweight title. A title that Horikoshi had won 2 years previous, and had defended 6 times. In fact Horikoshi was 7-0 (7) in title fights and 17-1 (13) overall. The bout was a back and forth war from the end of round 3, when Takahashi looked out on his feet, to the 9th round, when Horikoshi was finally saved by the referee. In between both men were dropped, with Horikoshi being downed twice in round 4 and twice in round 9, whilst Takahashi was himself downed in round 8. The bout, which was later awarded the equivalent of Japan's Fight of the Year, is still regarded as one of the best to ever take place on Japanese soil and went on to define Takahashi's career, with round 4 being one of the best rounds to ever take place in the squared circle.
The bout helped to solidify Takahashi as a must watch fighter and the way he battled through adversity in rounds 4 and 8 were incredible as he showed his resiliency and will to win, despite clearly being hurt numerous times by the heavy handed Japanese based American fighter. It was the legacy defining fight that every fighter wants, but was also one that took a serious toll on him long term.
| || |
Takahashi's first bout after the gruelling Horikoshi bout saw him battle Thailand's Noree Jockygym, in the first of two meeting's between the men. Noree, who later fought for the WBA Super Bantamweight title, managed to drag Takahashi into yet another war. The men both landed bombs through out the fight with Takahashi feeling the effects of those shots part way through round 2. A round that saw him seriously shaken very heavily dropped and left with what appeared to be a broken nose. Had the bell not come when it did it seemed almost certain that Noree would have scored a 2nd round TKO win. Noree started round 3 in a similar way to how he ended round 2, but Takahashi gutted it out and, amazingly, turned the bout around with a monster flurry that sent Noree down. Noree got to his feet but the bell didn't come to his rescue as Takahashi steamed in, dropping him again and left him unable to continue.
After making a single defense of the Japanese Super Bantamweight title, beating Hideki Uchikoshi, Takahashi vacated the title and had a rematch with Noree, on the under-card of Mike Tyson's bout with Buster Douglas. Interestingly others on the under-card included a then 1-0 Joichiro Tatsuyoshi.
The rematch with Noree failed to have the drama of he first bout, and although it still had it's moments it seemed like Takahashi was missing something, despite being part of a massive show. That "missing something" showed through out and Noree claimed a very wide decision win over a thoroughly lacklustre Takahashi, who was looking like his wars had caught up with him. The exciting Japanese warrior was down in round 2 and never really looked like turning the fight around. He was given a standing count in round 10 and even the most ardent of Takahashi fans likely knew that their man was coming to the end of his career. They also knew he probably should have been stopped for his own health.
Takahashi would return to the ring 7 months later as a Featherweight, putting the poor performance down, at least in part, to struggles at the weight. The move up saw him stop Filipino Edwin Montanez in 2 rounds, but Takahashi wasn't the fighter he had once been. In fact the win over Montanez said more about the Filipino than it did about the Japanese fighter, and following the bout the Filipino went 4-13-1 suffering 8 more stoppage losses before retiring in 1996 with a 16-19-1 (5) record proving himself to be little more than a journeyman overall.
| || |
He would look only a shadow of himself when he returned to the ring and faced Korean Jong Pil Park in 1991. Park was the Korean Featherweight champion but lacked much in terms of fire-power, with just 6 stoppages from 17 wins. Despite that lack of power the Korean dropped Takahashi hard in round 2 of their bout and despite a spirited effort from Takahashi, he was looking like a man who had simply taken too much. That was seen, sadly, in round 9 when the then 23 year old was given a standing count before being knocked out cold from a sickening right hand that left him flat on his back.
After the bout Takahashi was revealed to have suffered a brain haemorrhage, that forced his retirement from the sport.
Technically Takahashi was a very good boxer. He had a beautiful jab, sharp punches and intelligent movement. Although a good boxer he never turned away from a war and was dragged into hard battles very easily, answering fire with fire. This gave fans some great times, but has left the very likeable Takahashi suffering with the effects of a hard, albeit short, boxing career. In total he fought just 23 times, in a career that lasted less than 6 years, but the excitement and action he gave fans will live on for years to come.