Boxing has had a lot of hard luck tales, and today we look at one that is a real and genuine inspiration from a fighter who came from a harsh background, but went on to inspire not only fight fans but also children from a similar background. In fact he continues to inspire people even now, well after his retirement from the sport.
Boxing has had a lot of fighters who have come from a harsh background and have had to carve out their careers. Hiroyuki Sakamoto is one such fighter.
Sakamoto was born at the end of 1970 and sadly his parents divorced when he was young and essentially abandoned him and his brother. Hiroyuki was left in an infants home, then an orphanage, then moved into a relatives home along with his brother. The family members he was left with didn't do a great job, in fact Sakamoto and his brother were both horribly mistreat when they were young and after his brother collapsed due to malnutrition the two would end up in a children's home in Fukuoka.
Despite being mistreat Sakamoto found boxing, watching it on TV as a youngster. It was due to that that he went from Fukuoka to Tokyo, where he would make his debut at the age of 20.
As a professional fighter Sakamoto, who was later dubbed the "Japanese Duran", found success quickly. He would win his first 6 bouts by KO. His initial part of his winning run saw him not only going to 6-0 (6) but continue beyond the run of stoppages to Sakamoto winning the East Japan Rookie of the Year, in December 1992, and then the All Japan Rookie of the Year the following February.
The winning run continued right through 1993, which saw Sakamoto stopping Rick Yoshimura for the Japanese Lightweight title, and into May 1995. By then he was 24 years old, 19-0 (14) and building a reputation as a burgeoning star in Japan. Sadly though he failed to make it to 20-0, being dumped on the canvas twice by Juan Martin Coggi and falling to 19-1 with a decision loss to the Argentinian veteran. The loss was a temporary set back, and Sakamoto would get back on the horse, picking up two more wins before the year was over, including a big win in the US over Jeff Mayweater and a win over Roger Borreros for the OPBF Lightweight title.
Sakamoto's win over Mayweather helped him rebuild following the loss to Coggi and in 1997, when he was then 27-1 (19) he got his first world title, facing off with WBC Lightweight champion Stevie Johnston. Sakamoto put up a great effort but was clearly second best against "Lil' but Bad", who was unbeaten at the time. Despite a scorecard of Ray Solis, in Sakamoto's favour, it seemed clear that the Japanese fighter hadn't done enough.
Sakamoto bounced back from the loss to Johnston with a trio of wins to earn his second world title fight, and again he lost a decision to a more skilled fighter, this time Cesar Bezan in another bout for the WBC Lightweight title.
Sakamoto's hope of becoming a world champion had been dented, but the the flame for world triumph was still there.
Following the loss to Bazan we saw Sakamoto bounce back with an easy win over Bert Bado as he began another winning run over some limited opponents. After 5 straight wins he got his third world title shot, a bout with hard hitting Venezuelan Gilberto Serrano. Serrano, the then WBA Lightweight champion, had won the title a few months earlier by stopping Stefano Zoff and was travelling to Japan for his first defense.
After about 40 seconds of feeling each other out Sakamoto's power was felt by Serrano who was dropped from what was, pretty much, the first meanignful shot either man landed. Soon afterwards Serrano was down again, and at the end of the round he was in trouble. Sadly however Sakamoto didn't come out of the round unscated, suffering a nasty gash under his eyes. As the bout went on both of Sakamoto's eyes ended up a total mess, forcing the bout to be stopped in round 5, leaving Sakamoto heart broken at world level for the third time.
The injuries to Sakamoto needed time to recover, and it would be almost 7 months before he fought again. In the meantime Serrano had returned to Japan and lost the WBA title to another Japanese fighter, the hugely popular Takanori Hatakeyama, who had returned to the ring after almost a year away. After stopping Serrano we saw Hatakeyama state that he wanted to fight Sakamoto, giving Sakamoto the first shot at the title.
Sadly for Sakamoto he would end up being stopped in the 10th round of a sensationally brutal fight with Hatakeyama. The fight saw both men going to war, with Sakamoto looking like the bigger puncher, but lacking the movement and defense needed to cope with the more capable Hatakeyama, and then running out of steam and being dropped early in round 10.
The fight between Sakamoto and Hatakeyama seemed to pretty much end the best years for both men. Neither man would score a win of note afterwards, with Hatakeyama losing the title soon afterwards and Sakamoto being stopped twice in his following 4 bouts, before retiring in 2007 after a technical draw with a debuting Thai. That draw, the only one of Sakamoto's career, saw him ending his career with a 39-7-1 (29) record.
Whilst that could easily have been the end for Sakamoto as a public figure, it turned out to be the exact opposite. It turned out to be the launchpad for much, much more from the former fighter.
In 2010 Sakamoto turned his hand from fighting to managing as he set up the SRS Boxing Gym. What could easily have been the "Sakamoto Gym", instead became the Skyhigh RingS" gym, set up with the aim of letting people reach their potential. Those who just see SRS wouldn't know it was even Sakamoto in charge unless they looked into things, with founder and chairman putting people, and students, ahead of himself.
In July 2000, prior to facing Hatakeyama, Sakamoto had also set up the Aozora SRS, essentially the Blue Sky Fund, setting this up when he was still fighting. The aim of the blue sky fund was to support children in children's homes, offering things like boxing sessions and talks to the children who had been in the position Sakamoto had been in himself. He was wanting to offer guidance to youngster who found themselves feeling like he had.
The Blue Sky Fund could easily have closed when Sakamoto retired but instead it's kept going and kept growing, and in 2017 was awarded the HERO's award "HEROs SPORTSMANSHIP for THE FUTURE", recognising the great work of Sakamoto and the help he and the fund had given. With Sakamoto stating they would be visiting 40 to 50 orphanages a year, with the hope of breaking the chain of negativity related to children in orphanages.
The basic philosophy for the fund is simple, "every child is equal" and Sakamoto is looking to prove that.
Whilst Sakamoto's dream of becoming a world champion may never have come true, his legacy of helping children will live long after any world title reign would have.
This past Monday we had the chance to see an excellent All Japanese world title fight, with Kosei Tanaka narrowly defeating Sho Kimura to claim the WBO Flyweight world title. It was the latest in a long line of amazing All Japanese world title fighters dating back over 50 years. Here we take a look at 5 memorable all Japanese world title bouts.
Yoshiaki Numata (33-4, 9) Vs Hiroshi Kobayashi (50-6-2, 7)
December 14th 1967 - Kokugikan, Tokyo, Japan
The first ever all Japanese world title fight saw Yoshiaki Numata battle against Hiroshi Kobayashi. Coming in the the bout Numata was the WBC and WBA Super Featherweight champion, having taken the titles from the legendary Flash Elorde. When he won the titles he was the 5th ever Japanese world champion. In his first defense Numata faced off with the much more experienced Kobayashi. Kobayashi had made his name on the Japanese domestic scene mainly, where he had been the Featherweight champion, making 7 defenses before moving up in weight to challenge Numata.
The bout was an action packed one and would be award the Japanese fight of the year. Notably both men went on to have success after this bout and when the WBC and WBA titles split there was an 18 months time window when the two men were both world champions. The bout also got 41.9% of the audience tuning in from the Kanto region, one of the highest ever for a boxing contest!
Masao Oba (31-2-1, 13) vs Susumu Hanagata (34-10-8, 4) II
March 4th 1972-Nihon University Auditorium, Tokyo, Japan
Amazingly it would be more than 4 between the first and the second all-Japanese world title fight, though the wait was worth it with WBA Flyweight champion Masao Oba, one of the greatest Japanese fighters of all time, battling against Susumu Hanagata. This was a rematch of a bout the two men had had in 1968, when an 18 year old Oba was beaten by Hanagata, suffering his second career loss. Following their first bout Oba had become one the best fighters in the division, reeling off 15 straight wins and making two world title defenses. Hanagata had gone 10-2 following their first bout, with both losses coming on the road in world title bouts. This was high work rate and very exciting from both men.
Interestingly Oba's bout with Orlando Amores was voted the Japanese fight of the year for 1972 and unfortunately Oba would pass away less than a year after this bout, following a motor vehicle accident. Hanagata would go on to fight for a few more years and would actually score a huge win over Chartchai Chionoi in 1974 to put his name in the history books.
Yasuei Yakushiji (22-2-1, 16) Vs Joichiro Tatsuyoshi (10-1-1, 8)
December 4th 1994-Rainbow Hall, Nagoya, Aichi, Japan
Almost 30 years after the first ever all Japanese world title fight we had the first “unification” bout between two Japanese fighters as WBC Bantamweight champion Yasuei Yakushiji and Interim champion Joichiro Tatsuyoshi faced off at the Rainbow Hall. This bout was massive for Japanese boxing with Tatsuyoshi being the face of boxing in Osaka, due to his charismatic and exciting style. Yakushiji on the other hand was the more technically correct boxer, but was over-looked by some due to the popularity of Tatsuyoshi. That was despite the fact Yakushiji was the “real” champion and was looking to make his third defense.
This bout would achieve an audience number of 39.4% in the Kanto region, another of the highest ever in Japan, and like the Tanaka Vs Kimura bout it would live up to all the expectations with high tempo action, heavy shots landed by both and very little to split the men, both of whom were looking worse for wear at the end of the bout. This would be another winner of the Japanese Fight of the Year award.
Takanori Hatakeyama (23-1-2, 18) vs Hiroyuki Sakamoto (35-4, 25)
October 11th 2000-Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan
In 2000 Japanese fight fans had another all-Japanese Fight of the Year as WBA Lightweight champion Takanori Hatakeyama and Hiroyuki Sakamoto beat the ever living snot out of each other in a bloody, violent, thrilling clash. Hatakeyama was the champion going into the bout, he enjoying his second reign as a world champion having previously held the WBA Super Featherweight title, and had won the Lightweight belt in brilliant fashion stopping Gilberto Serrano, with this being his first defense. Sakamnoto had lost two other world title fights, including one to Serrano, but had won the OPBF and Japanese titles. This was mostly an inside war fought between two men who did not want to hear the final bell.
As mentioned this was a Japanese Fight of the Year and seemingly took a lot out of both men. Neither man would go on to score a win of note, and in fact between them the only real good result was a draw in 2001 between Hatakeyama and Rick Yoshimura. This fight essentially ruined both men.
Kazuto Ioka (9-0, 6) Vs Akira Yaegashi (15-2, 8)
June 20th 2012-Bodymaker Colosseum, Osaka, Osaka, Japan
Almost 20 years after the brilliant Yakushiji/Tatsuyoshi bout we had the first true unification bout, as WBC Minimumweight champion Kazuto Ioka faced off with WBA champion Akira Yaegashi. The bout was a brilliant contest with a combination of skills and heart, with Yaegashi fighting through badly swollen eyes for much of the fight and managing to drag Ioka into his fight. Ioka always looked like the guy with more rounded skills, and speed, but Yaegashi's heart, determination and sheer will to win made this into a fantastic bout. It managed to give us some of the best rounds of the year and was another of the All-Japanese world title bouts to be awarded the Japanese Fight of the Year.
In the years since this bout both men have moved through the weights, with both claiming world titles at Light Flyweight and Flyweight, and now, remarkably, both are competing at Super Flyweight as they look to become 4-weight champions.
It's worth noting that there has been a lot All Japanese title bouts than we've covered. These range from the controversial, such as Daisuke Naito's bout with Daiki Kameda, to the frankly massive contest between Daisuke Naito and Koki Kameda which got a ridiculous 43.1% audience share. They also include other Japanese fights of the year, such as Takashi Uchiyama's bout with Daiki Kaneko.
Amazingly there has only ever been one all-Japanese world title fight to end in the first round, and that was the second bout between Masamori Tokuyama and Katsushige Kawashima. Interestingly the trilogy between Tokuyama and Kawashima saw Tokuyama win 2-1 taking decisions in both of his wins. Amazingly there has only ever been 1 draw in an all Japanese world title fight, that came in 2001, in the aforementioned bout between Takenori Hatakeyama and Rick Yoshimura.
For those who care about TV numbers all 3 of the high rating bouts were screened on TBS.
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).