When we talk about the most important trainers in Japanese boxing history one name that standouts out is Eddie Townsend, arguably the most notable and successful trainer to ever make a mark in Japan. Townsend was born in Hawaii to an Irish-American father and a Japanese mother, making him a Japanese American, and he would go on to train 6 future world champions. He wasn't the only American trainer to make a major impact on Japanese boxing however and today we look at another trainer from America who made an impact before Townsend went on to train 6 world champions.
Dr Alvin Robert Cahn is not someone we expect people to be familiar with, but his impact is massive, and that was despite the fact that originally, he wasn't a boxing trainer. In fact he was scientist.
Cahn was born in 1892 as part of a Jewish family in Chicago. He would go to the University of Illinois and would become a very impressive nutritional scientist. His scientific mind and ability lead to him working for the government and later working in Japan at the GHQ following the second world war.
Whilst living and working in Japan Cahn spotted a young 24 year old boxer who was training in Tokyo. That was Yoshio Shirai. At the time Shirai's career wasn't going anywhere, he was injured, he was considering jacking it in and walking away from the sport.
Shirai had shown some early promise but injuries and poor health had curtailed his career, and a loss to Japanese Flyweight champion Yoichiro Hanada seemed to show that he was lacking some of the tools needed to be a star. Despite Shirai questioning his future Cahn, who was just a scientist, had seen something in Shirai.
At the time Japanese boxing was based very much on aggression, stamina and determination. The biggest star of the era was Piston Horiguchi, known for his relentless energy. That however was a style that had limitations and Cahn was a fan of more technical boxing, a style that was more American than the come forward sluggers that had been on the Japanese scene. In Shirai, Cahn saw a long, rangy young man, a man with the physical traits to fight in a way he liked. He didn't have the experience of a boxing trainer, but recognised that Shirai had the tools to go far.
With a translator alongside him Cahn went to visit Shirai, a number of times. Finally convincing the fighter, who had gotten into sport as a youngster when watching Kangaroos boxing at a circus, to let Cahn work with him. In fact not only was Cahna talking Shirai into working with him, but into not retiring form boxing all together. Cahn repaid that faith quickly, and began to work on helping Shirai heal from his injuries, which had been suffered in the war. Cahn help to feed Shirai, getting him the nutrition he needed to physically mend his body. He also helped Shirai financially, and got Shirai to sign an exclusive contract.
With Shriai's body better than it was, and health better than it had been in years the focus was on the skills that Shirai needed. The first focus was on the jab, something that Cahn made a focus of Shirai's training, sending hours working on it, to get Shirai to perfect the shot. It was, in Cahn's eye, the most vital tool in a boxer's arsenal, and with Shirai having a long frame the jab was even more potent. That was only part of what Cahn worked on with Shirai, using data and analysing opponents, explaining that the mental part of the sport was just as important as the physical aspects.
Shirai would excel under Cahn, and would avenge his 1947 loss to Yoichiro Hanada in 1949, defeating Hanada for the Japanese Flyweight title. Hanada has essentially had a 14 year reign by this point. Shirai not only beat Hanada, but sent him down for the count. Just 11 months later Shirai would take the Japanese Bantamweight title from Hiroshi Horiguchi, the brother of the legendary Piston Horiguchi.
Holding, and defending, the Japanese Flyweight and Bantamweight, Shirai would become the new face of Japanese boxing, and with Cahn working on scientific training methods with Shirai things were continually improving. Cahn also had his eye on bigger things. It was great training the best fighter in Japan, but the world was a bigger vision and the man they were targeting was Dado Marino, a Filipino who was recognised as the best Flyweight on the planet in 1950.
In 1951 Cahn would get what he wanted, and his man would get a bout with Dado Marino in May 1951, thanks to Marino's manager being a Japanese-American and being willing to set up a non-title bout. This was a chance to prove what Shirai could do. Sadly Shirai would fail in his bout with Marino, losing a split decision. The loss was a set back, but showed that Shirai belong at that level. It should be noted that Marino was way over the Flyweight limit, and that the bout was very close and competitive. It was also fought in front of around 35,000 fans at the Korakuen Baseball Stadium.
A rematch with Marino occurred later in 1951, this time in Hawaii, and this time Shirai would avenge the loss, stopping the Filipino in 7 rounds to earn his place in the Flyweight world rankings. The training of Cahn had seen Shirai become the first world ranked Japanese fighter, it had spurred a now found hero and had essentially forced the formation of the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC).
On May 19th 1952 Shirai would get a third bout with Marino, this time for the Flyweight world title. Before the fight Cahn spoke to Shirai with intensity, and tried to make the situation clear to his. This wasn't a bout for Shirai, but for Japan, telling him “Don’t fight for yourself. You’re fighting for a Japan that has lost all confidence and hope after the war. Right now, the only way Japan can compete in the world is through sports. Win, and you will give your country courage.” The advice worked and helped spur on Shirai, who would defeat Marino with a 15 round decision to become the Flyweight world champion, a huge national hero.
Shirai fought the bout with a high intensity early on. That saw him being rocked, and shaken but Shirai recovered, and continued to be spurred on and encouraged by his trainer. Cahn seemed to realise his man had made a mistake and began to hammer back into him the basis of Shirai's training. That worked, and Cahn's advice kicked in, with Shirai calming down, cleaning his head, and boxing smartly against a tiring Marino. The win saw more than 40,000 people watching the bout live, at the venue.
Shirai had become the bright light of Japan. He wasn't just their new boxing or sport hero, but was the new national hero in a country that had been left ruined by the second world war. With Cahn by his side the pairing also proved that Japan and American could work side by side.
With the title win not only had Japan developed a new star, but Cahn had been right all the time. His scientific approach to training, nutrition and technique had proven vital.
Cahn would continue to work with Shirai and would continue to teach his charge things. There's a story from Japan of Shirai suffering a cut in sparring before a title defense. Rather than worrying about his champion's cut Cahn got some hemostatic cream, and used that on his man, convincing Shirai it would work by using it on a cut he caused on his own arm.
Shirai's reign as a world champion saw him defending the belt 4 times, with Cahn training him right through to the end of his career, which came in 1955. Although Shirai had lost the world title in 1954 to Pascual Perez, and lost a rematch to Perez in 1955, the relationship between the two men remained close. The mutual respect and adoration remained. Shirai thanked Cahn for his guidance and helping him with his career, with Cahn responding that he should be the one who was thankful as Shirai had given his life a purpose. Cahn had stayed in Japan long after the GHQ, that he was working at, had closed
After Shirai retired he and Cahn remained close friends, in fact some they were as close as family. The American continued to live in Japan until his death on January 24th 1971. By then he was 78 and had been in ill health, suffering from dementia and had a blood clot in the brain. He had been in a coma prior to his death, though reportedly woke when Shirai visited him a day before died, grabbing Shirai's hand before falling back into a coma.
Although Alvin Robert Cahn may have only trained a single world champion in his life, his impact on Japanese boxing was massive. He showed a scientific approach to the sport could be a success. He proved fighters needed to be healthy, and work on hitting without being hit. He developed a true star for Japan, a hero to get behind, and helped force the development of the Japan Boxing Commission.
Even after Cahn's death Shirai continued to follow his advice and stayed out of the boxing business, which Cahn had described as being a monkey business. It wasn't until 1995, when Shirai was brought into Yoko Gushiken's "Shirai Gushiken Sports Gym" as an honorary chairman, that Shirai would be involved in the sport. His involvement at the gym, was minimal.
It was reported that after Cahn's death it was reported that he gave all his property over to Shirai, as he had no family of his own and had been essentially part of Shirai's family.
Few will argue against Eddie Townsend being the most important trainer in Japanese boxing history, but Cahn's impact in the sport is huge and his relationship with Shirai was massive. "Dr Cahn" was the first trainer to bring science in Japanese boxing and paved the way for the rise in Japanese boxing.
As for Shirai he would live until he was 80 years old, dying in 2003 from pneumonia, having secured his place as a true legend of Japanese sport.
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).