Back in the 1990's there was a number of very popular Japanese fighters all around at the same time. The most popular and well known of those was Joichiro Tatsuyoshi, who even today is still a star in Japan and his name carries so much weight that his son is feeling the rub of sharing the same surname. Today we look at a classic featuring another of the big Japanese names from the 1990's and like Tatsuyoshi the man in question reached the top of the sport, and in fact got so popular Sega released a video game with his name on. Here we see that Japanese fighter taking on a hard hitting and determined Korean challenger in what is one of the most over-looked bouts of the 1990's.
Katsuya Onizuka (24-0, 17) Vs Hyung Chul Lee (17-4, 13)
The Japanese fighter we were alluding to was Katsuya Onizuka, who went by the nickname "Spanky K". Onizuka's popularity in Japan in the early to mid 1990's was perhaps only over-shadowed by that of Tatsuyoshi, though his success in the ring did make up for that in many ways. Onizuka had turned professional in 1988, won the Japanese Super Flyweight title in 1990 and then claimed the WBA Super Flyweight title in 1992, defeating Thanomsak Sithbaobay, in the first of 2 meetings. As the champion he would defend the title 5 times before facing Lee in September 1994. Unfortunately for Onizuka his reign was a poor one, with 4 of defenses coming by decision and several of those being questionable, with home town judges certainly helping him keep the title. He was a good fighter, but his popularity exceeded his skill, and by the time he fought Lee he was regarded as a lucky champion.
Hyung Chul Lee on the other hand was a relatively unknown fighter outside of Korea. He has lost 3 of his first 4 bouts, then lost in Japan to David Griman in 1990. The loss to Griman ended a 6 fight winning run for the Korean who fell to 7-1 (5). Following the Griman defeat Lee then began to find his form winning 10 in a row, albeit against limited opposition. Those wins saw him win, and defend, the South Korean Super Flyweight title and score 8 stoppages. He was looking like a destructive force, but was very much fighting at a level well under world class. Like many Korean fighters of the time however his will to win, high work rate and incredible toughness was always going to make him a nightmare for someone like Onizuka, who lacked world class power.
The fight started with both men looking to get their jabs into play, with Onizuka using his size advantage well and keeping Lee at range in the early going with his jab at footwork. It was however going to take more than a few jabs to get Lee's respect and whenever he managed to slip the jab the Korean made sure to crack Onizuka with a shot or two, often to the body. The game plans were clear, for Onizuka it was to chip away, win the rounds and take the fight, for Lee it was to slow the legs of Onizuka, land the body shots and take the fight to Onizuka later on. By round 2 Lee's tactic seemed to be the one winning out, and he was successfully dragging Onizuka into a war. By the end of round 2 it was clear we were going to get something exciting, though the worry was likely that Lee would have to do more than just trying to win the rounds. After all, Onizuka had his reputation as a fighter who was getting lucky with the judges.
As the rounds went on the fight became more and more engaging, with Lee closing the distance easier round by round, and Onizuka taking more punishment. Onizuka was landing the prettier stuff, the clean stuff, but Lee was landing the harder shots, he was the one making the fight and the one who was looking more comfortable with the pace. And from there we leave you to enjoy the bout, especially the brutally fantastic 9th round.
Today we celebrate a new period in Japanese history, the Reiwa period. This ends the Heisei era, which began back in January 8th 1989, and although the change is not likely to be noticed in the west it is a major event in Japan.
We thought, with the end of the era, it was worth looking at the 10 most influential fighters of the Heisei era.
Just a caveat, before we begin, by influential we're not looking at the fighters who were the most successful during the era, but those who had a long last effect on the sport, specifically in Japan. Those who forced changes, influenced fighters or inspired fighters who followed them. To be considered they had to have fought between January 8th 1989 and April 30th 2019.
10-Takashi Uchiyama (24-2-1, 20) - The Watanabe Wonder
Several fighters on this list have gotten here due to their influence with fighters who have followed in their footsteps, or fighters who have turned their hand to promoting. Takashi Uchiyama on the other hand helped put the gym he was fighting for on the map. The Watanabe Gym had been opened for a few years but didn't really have a star to focus on, they lacked a fighter who could help attract top prospects and a man who carry the gym. In Uchiyama they had that star. Uchiyama's long reign as the WBA Super Featherweight champion, from 2010 to 2016, made his one of the major faces of Japanese boxing and he would inspire the Watanabe Gym, which is now regarded as one of the best in Japan. His effect on the Watanabe gym today has lead to fighters like Hiroto Kyoguchi and Ryoichi Taguchi becoming major forces. He's now running a gym of his own, and it's clear that Uchiyama's influence is going to continue well into the future.
9-Katsuya Onizuka (24-1, 17) - Superstar Spanky K
Popular fighters are influential due to their ability to draw a crown, get people talking and get eye balls on the sport. That was certainly the case with Katsuya Onizuka, who's popularity was huge in the 1990's. He turned professional in 1988 and would fight through to 1994, running up 5 defenses of the WBA Super Flyweight title, and even having a video game released with his likeness in Japan. Onizuka was certainly controversial, with numerous suspect wins, but his popularity kept people interested and kept watching. Following his retirement he would train fighters in Fukuoka, work for TBS in a commentary position and continue to have a pretty notable impact in the sport, much more so than fans in the West would realise.
8-Kazuto Ioka (23-2, 13) - Bar setting prodigy
The Osakan boxing scene is the second biggest in Japan, behind that in Tokyo, and for the better part of a decade the face of Osakan boxing was Kazuto Ioka. He drew huge TV rating, he was crowned as super prospect from his debut and he would, famously, win the WBC Minimumweight title in just his 7th bout. His career has been remarkable, winning world titles in 3 divisions, and chasing a 4th divisional world title. He's notable won an all-Japanese unification bout, a real rarity, challenged for a 4th divisional world title and set the mark for fewest fights to a world title, a mark that has since been beaten by Naoya Inoue and Kosei Tanaka. Ioka put a marker down for the newest wave of Japanese fighters, and really helped kick start the era of the Japanese super prospect.
7-Hozumi Hasegawa (36-5, 16) - Hyogo Hero
We're going to mention a man who inspired a generation of fighters a little bit further down this list, but Hozumi Hasegawa also fills that role excellently. In fact Hasegawa ois the man many current fighters cite as an inspiration, especially those in the Hyogo region. He was, for a long time, the one fighter from Hyogo who kept the region on the map, he was "The Ace" of Japan for years, a multi-time JBC MVP, a 3 weight world champion, a sensational fighter in the ring and someone who's appeal did actually cross over from Japan to the West. Hasegawa began his career in 1999 and despite some early defeats he would go on to win world titles at Bantamweight, Featherweight and Super Bantamweight, he was a TV star in the ring, with a great style to watch and with a list of notable names on his record. He wasn't the megastar that some had anticipated, but he was a big name, and the face of Japanese boxing during a little bit of a transition period in the 00's
6-Sugar Miyuki (11-1, 4) - Female punching pioneer
Women's boxing today is thriving in Japan, and Kasumi Saeki recently showed how good the top youngsters are. We've recent world champions like Naoko Fujioka, Ayaka Miyao, Etsuko Tada and Shindo Go all make their mark but the real OG is Sugar Miyoshi. A fighter you won't easily find on boxrec, where she's listed under her birth name of Nojima Miyuki and has an offiial record of 1-1. Miyuki was oriinally a Shoot Boxing fighter, a style more similar to kick boxing than regular boxing, but would turn to boxing in 1995, years before the JBC would recognise female boxing. In 1997 she would go on to win the IWBF Minimumweight title, becoming Japan's first female world champion. Her work in boxing saw him raise the profile of the sport in the country, fighting exhibitions and working as a trainer. She would clearly kick start the female boxing movement in Japan, long before any of the others, and was a key factor in careers for the likes of Miki Kikukawa and Yumi Takano. She pre-dates the like of Feujin Raika by years and also played a role in showing that fighters could convert from one of Japan's other combat sports leagues. Although Miyuki is only "officially" listed at 1-1 we know that's wrong, due to footage of her and reliable sources, we her impact it still being felt, directly and indirectly to this very day!
5-Naoya Inoue (17-0, 15) - International man of focus
It's hard to really figure out where Naoya Inoue sits in this list. He hasn't inspired a generation of fighters, he hasn't forced rules to change, he hasn't set up a gym, or played a part in the running of the sport. However what he has done, internationally, has drawn eyes to Japanese boxing, he has managed to capture an international audience like no other Japanese fighter, getting American and European fans talking, and featuring as a cover star for magazines that often put Japanese boxing down their list of priorities. He has, arguably, become the first Japanese fighter, in a long time, to become a global star. His real influence is likely to be more notable in the Reiwa era, but it's impossible to state how much he has done since his debut in 2012. He, more than any other fighter, has made Japanese boxing global and we expect that will be something felt for a very, very long time.
4-Hiroki Ioka (33-8-1, 17) - First generation Ioka!
Today Kazuto Ioka is one of the biggest names in Japanese boxing. His unclue, Hiroki Ioka, is however a man who deserves on any list of influential fighters. The talented former 2-weight world champion saw his career begin before the Heisei era but his influence grew through out the era. He won his first world title in 1987, 3 months before the Heisei era began, but would make his first defense just weeks after the new emperor took the throne. He went 22-8-1 (11) during the Heisei era, defending the WBC Minimumweight title and winning the WBA Light Flyweight title. He would also chase a third divisional world title, coming up short at both Flyweight and Super Flyweight. After retiring in 1998 he would turn his hand to promoting, inspire his nephew to fight and guide numerous careers, as well as working as part of the West Japan Boxing Association. His influence may often be over-looked but he has been incredibly influential and will continue to be so in the Kansai region.
3-Katsunari Takayama (31-9-0-1, 12) - Rule changing road warrior
It's hard to ignore just how influential Katsunari Takayama was to Japanese boxing during his 40 fight career. The Minimumweight warrior was a trend setter who pushed his dreams and forced the JBC, and the JABF, to change how they did things. His pursuit of the IBF and WBO world titles eventually helped their legitimacy in Japan, and played a part in getting the JBC to recognise both the titles. He also brought real attention to the Minumumweight division, in part thanks to his incredible fight with Francisco Rodriguez Jr. He also, very notable, pushed the JABF into allowing former professional fighters to return to the amateur ranks. Whilst Takayama will never go down as one of the all time greats, it's impossible to ignore the effect that his career had on Japanese boxing.
2-Hideyuki Ohashi (19-5, 12) - The Phoenix
In the west Hideyuki Ohashi is relatively unknown, though plays a massive role in Japanese boxing, and has done for over 30 years. At the start of the Heisei era Ohashi was 9-3 (5) though went 10-2 (7) during the rule of Emperor Akihito, becoming a 2-time Minimumweight world champion during that 12 bout run. What he's he's done since hanging up the gloves in 1993 has been amazing, and he has not only played a role in the governing of Japanese boxing, due to roles with the JBC and JPBA, but also ran the Ohashi Gym. That gym has given us the likes of Katsushige Kawashima, Akira Yaegashi and Naoya Inoue. The "Ohashi Gym" is one of the most significant in Japan right now and looks to go from strength to strength.
Koki Kameda - Insanely popular, controversial, and a real star. His effect as a fighter was divisive but few can argue that he's not, even in retirement, a major draw.
Kiyoshi Hatanaka - A massive figure in boxing in Chubu, formerly a fighter and now the region's leading promoter with the likes of Kosei Tanaka and Kento Hatanaka making their name under him
Akinobu Hiranaka - Huge punching fighter who's work in Okyama as a promoter has started to build a notable, and exciting, local scene
Toshiaki Nishioka - Japan's fighters have tended to stay at home, fighting in the confines of of Japan. Nishioka would be one of the few fighters to go out of Japan for fighters on a semi-regular basis. He would fight in the US, Mexico and France during his career and prove that Japanese fighters could win away from home.
Yoshihiro Kamegai - Who spoke about Naoya Inoue dragging eyes to the Japanese scene. The same can also be said of Yoshihiro Kamegai, who actually became a bigger name in the west than in Japan, thanks to his fun to watch brawls. We wouldn't suggest many fighters follow his style, but his mind set of making it big in the US has helped lead the way for others.
Ryota Murata - It's unclear how much influence Murata has, or hasn't had. His TV figures are huge, his popularity, even now, is massive, but the real influence is the intangible, and that's the amateur success. We've yet to see Japanese amateurs really flourish on the international stage since Murata's 2012 Olympic gold medal, but it's expected that the 2020 Olympics will be a very successful one for Japan. It's assumed that Murata's amateur triumph may potentially have a similar effect to Amir Khan, who won an Olympic medal in 2004 and saw the UK team have a massive games in 2012.
1-Joichiro Tatsuyoshi (20-7-1, 14) - A generational influence
Few fighters can match the influence that Joichiro Tatsuyoshi had to the current Japanese scene. "Joe" made his debut 8 months after the start of the Heisei era and fought through to 2009, albeit with some breaks in there. During his career he would be a 2-time WBC Bantamweight champion, and whilst he was fast tracked to a title his influence was less due to his title reigns and more his style, his personality and his charisma. His effect on Japanese boxing was inspiring a generation of fighters, helping to kick start the current era of Japanese boxing. Even now he is still insanely popular, and when he appears at ring, as a member of the crowd, the cameras regularly zoom in on him. Enigmatic, exciting and incredibly charismatic the Osakan is still a star, though had had to pay for his boxing with various issues now effecting him.
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features