This past week saw something happen that has worried me about boxing in Japan, where they have a very rigid gym system in place to manage and train fighters.
Boxing gyms around the world might generally look the same but they are different in certain regions. In most countries the training facility and the promoter are very different things. In Japan however they are very much interlinked. A fighter is generally promoted by their gym, and will train there along with other fighters from the same stable. In, say, the US or UK, different promoters will work with different fighters from various gym. Some fighters within a UK or US gym might fight for promoter A, some for promoter B and some for promoter C. That's not the case, at all, in Japan.
Just to give some examples, when we talk about the Ohashi Gym, the Watanabe Gym and the Teiken Gym, the fighters train there and are promoted by Mr Ohashi, Mr Watanabe and Mr Honda respectively.
In Japan promoters typically work together to put on shows, and fighters from different promotions will be on shows put on by different promotions. The promoter of the event will typically make up a large portion of a show, with up to 50% of the fighters involved coming from one gym. A gym can't be responsible for all the fighters on a card as they aren't allowed to match two of it's fighters against each other, hence the need to work together.
With that said when an issue affects a gym, it can have notable knock on consequences. For example when Kyoei shut it's doors last year it left two fighters stranded and needed a new licensed gym to accept them just weeks before the Rookie of the Year final. Thankfully they were both able to sign temporary deals at the Hanagata gym, but there was a chance that they would have missed out on the Rookie of the Year due to the issue with Kyoei.
I'm saying all this as I think it really needs to be made very clear before I talk about the subject I'm about to touch on, just how big of an issue the current "on going situation" is to the Japanese gym system. I've simplified it a lot here, but overall the concept is pretty much as described. A gym is essentially a promoter, a gym needs to work with other gyms to make bouts, and the gym that is promoting and event will typically make up the vast majority of bouts on a card with their fighters.
On Friday news broke that Jorge Linares (47-5, 29) had had a PCR tests that resulted in a positive result. This was huge news to the international boxing community as Linares was scheduled to fight at the end of August against Javier Fortuna (35-2-1-2, 24) in the main event of a DAZN show.
Much of the international focus was on Linares, the big name fighter and the one who is known to international audiences. What wasn't really mentioned was the bigger implications of the positive test. Almost all of the attention was on the Fortuna bout, and whether Linares was going to be able to fight at the end of the month.
The more interesting thing for me however is the implication this has on boxing in Japan, more specifically the Teiken Gym, which is currently closed and will remain closed until it's given the green light to re-open from a local body It's not clear when that will be.
It should be noted that Linares himself is asymptomatic. He had no issues at all, none of the tell tale signs, like fever, headache or loss of taste and smell. It was a test that he had to take due to Californian regulations, with California being where the bout against Fortuna was set to take place. It wasn't a test he requested to check his health. We need to make that clear. He had no obvious symptoms.
Just hours after the news that Teiken, the most prestigious boxing gym in Japan, had been forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future, we saw the first bout featuring one of their fighters being cancelled. Whilst that was a low key bout, between their fighter Munetaka Kihara (3-2-1, 1) and the debuting Reiji Kodama (0-0), from the Misako Gym, it's unlikely to be the only bout cancelled due to the Teiken gym issues.
Notably, at the time of writing, Teiken have a show set for September 5th at Korakuen Hall, which will be televised as part of the Dynamic Glove series on G+. The show was set to be the first live televised show in Japan since boxing resumed and it was set to feature Teiken fighters in 5 of the 6 bouts. If the gym is closed for the next week or so those bouts will almost certainly be cancelled and the show will be off as the 5 Teiken fighters involved would have missed a week of training, this close to the event.
I've not been given a full list of bouts scheduled for Teiken fighters, though we are aware that Daiki Funayama (11-3-1, 4) is pencilled in to fight Kimihiro Nakagawa (7-4-2, 3) in Shizuoka on September 27th. If the gym is closed for the next week or so we could end up with not just the September 5th show being cancelled but this late September bout as well.
Whilst there is no blame to give to anyone, and this is just "one of those things" it's not the first time we've seen "one of these things" since boxing returned to Japan. We also saw the Osakan boxing gym cluster as well, which affected Mutoh gym fighters and forced a number of bouts to be cancelled. It's an issue that is likely to get worse before it gets better and with boxing returning to Japan we would assume more and more gyms will have issues like this. It's inevitable, especially given the fact so many people people are asymptomatic, that this won't be the last gym needing to be closed in Japan.
Precautions can be taken, and have been taken, but there will continue to be a risk of a fighting taking the virus into a gym and essentially forcing it to shut down. How do we stop this from being a problem? I really don't know.
We can't exactly expect fighters to stop sparring, that would be ridiculous and in Linares' he had been sparring with a number of Teiken fighters, including Kenji Fujita (0-0), Mikito Nakano (4-0, 4) and Gonte Lee (2-0-1, 1), all of whom would have developed immensely from ring time with him.
We also can't expect fighters to stop training indefinitely, or to spar with masks or train at home all the time, that just won't work, and is impossible for most fighters as very few will have private gyms.
The two extremes are that we shut boxing down completely in Japan, something that would stop the spread within the boxing community, and essentially kill the sport. Or alternatively we let it rip through the gyms, on the idea that the fighters are healthy and will fight it off.
They are the two extremes, and they are both stupid ideas. Almost as stupid as forcing gyms to essentially act like bubbles, keeping trainees, staff and the like in their own bubbles for weeks before an event.
What has been implemented in Japan is that fighters will be tested 3 weeks before a fight and a day before a fight. In theory that has worked pretty well, but hasn't been flawless and didn't prevent the situation in Osaka. The issue is, as mentioned, the asymptomatic carriers. Someone may not have any idea they are taking it to the gym,and may have no idea who they are passing it to, or even who they picked it up from.
The truth is it's taken minds far, far better than mine to get to where they are now, which, for the most part, has worked. It can still be improved, things can still be done to limit the spread, and make boxing gyms safer.
We're not going to see a big change to the whole Japanese gym system because of the current situation, and we would hate for that to even be considered. Saying that however improvements need to be taken in the planning of events before we begin to see big shows cancelled on a regular basis. That's not because one fighter is ill, but because half of the card belong to a gym that has had to be closed.
The only solution I can think of, for the short term at least, is that each show needs a bigger mix of gyms involved, meaning if a gym is closed we still end up with more than half of the planned bouts.
This is completely possible, but a frustrating and somewhat arduous task for a match maker putting a card together. It would also likely be more expensive and further limit just how much cross gym training fighters can do. For the short term however it might be something that will be needed to keep the system ticking over.
We need to make it clear. Single cases are not going to be a major problem in Japanese boxing. A fighter being ill isn't the issue. It's the gyms needing to be closed that will be a problem, and the possibility for a closed gym to cancel full shows. In some countries a fighter being ill will mean their bout is off, in Japan a fighter being ill can close a gym and result in bouts on various shows being cancelled, and shows themselves being cancelled.
One of the biggest strengths of Japanese boxing is the gym system, but right now, it's close to becoming one of it's biggest, and most troubling, weaknesses, and that is a massive concern for me.
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.