When we talk about the best fighters to never win a world title one name that deserves a significant amount of attention is the tragic Kiyoshi Tanabe (21-0-1, 5) who looked on the verge of being a major success in the mid 1960's before his career ended due to an issue with his eyes. The talented fighter had began to adapt his style, moving from a purely outside fighter to that of a boxer puncher, he had battered a world champion in a non title fight and, at just 26 he was really coming in to his pomp.
Just as he was heading to a WBA Flyweight title bout Tanabe's career came to an end due to a detached retina in his right eye. This cost him a shot at Horacio Accavallo.
Sadly the premature ending of his career has lead Tanabe to being both a curious case of "what if" as well as, sadly, a forgotten fighter, who sadly missed out on what should have been big career defining bouts.
1-Tanabe reportedly picked up the sport in 1958, while at High School in Aomori, and quickly became a dominant figure in Japanese boxing as an amateur.
2-Despite only beginning the sport in 1958 Tanabe managed to win an Olympic medal in 1960, taking a bronze medal. That was the first time a Japanese boxer had ever won an Olmypic medal. On route to that medal Tanabe beat Romanian fighter Mircea Dobrescu, who had picked up silver in 1956, as well as Nigerian fight Karimu Young and Irishman Adam McLean.
3-Staying with Tanabe's amateur career he twice beat 1964 Olympic gold medal winner Takao Sakurai, doing so when both men were amateur fighters in the early 1960's. When he ended his amateur career he had amassed an exceptional amateur record of 115-5 (30).
4-After graduating from University Tanabe would work for the Nikkan Sport newspaper. He left there about 6 months later to turn professional. Despite leaving the paper after only a short time there he has continued to have a good relationship with the paper, who had also covered his career before the Olympics.
5-During the mid 1960's Tanabe worked with famed American trainer Bobby Richard. Interestingly Richard left Tanabe's corner to train Ki Soo Kim, helping Kim to become the first world champion from Korea.
6-After Richard left Tananbe's side the Japanese fighter linked up with another well known American trainer, Eddie Townsend. Sadly Townsend didn't get to spend long with Tanabe, with Tanabe suffering his career ending eye injury within weeks of working with Townsend. In fact the two men only worked together for 20 days!
7-Interestingly Tanabe's injury opened up the door for a different Townsend fighter to get a title shot. Prior to his medical issue Tanabe had been training for a shot at world champion Horacio Accavallo. It was during the trianing camp for this bout that he suffered his career ending injury. Due to the injury Tanabe's shot was given to Hiroyuki Ebihara, who Townsend had also trained.
8-The respect between Tanabe and Townsend was incredible. Before he passed Townsend described Tanabe as the unluckiest fighter he ever trained, whilst Tanabe described his time with Townsend as the best, and that he couldn't express his gratitude to Townsend's teachings.
9-In 2020 Ikuo Beppu released a book focused on the relationship between Tanabe and Townsend, with a title that translates as "Boxing Bonds Spun by Kiyoshi Tanabe and Eddie". The softcover version of the book is 168 pages and retails for ¥1,760 (About £12-£13 at the time of writing).
10-Tanabe shared his name with a former Tennis player! The tennis playing Kiyoshi Tanabe, also known as "Kiyo", was 7 years younger than than the boxer and played as a professional through much of the 1970's. Sadly for the Tennis playing Tanabe his career wasn't a hugely successful one, despite playing in 4 David Cup's. His highest world ranking as a single was #174 in July 1974. His stand out result was a big upset win over Australia John Cooper in the 1974 Australian Open.
One conversation we see a fair bit of online, though maybe not as much as we should, are the "What if..." fighters. Those are the fighters who appear to reach their potential for one reason or another. Those can be things like a top youngster dying at a tragically young age, a fighter falling out of love with the sport, suffering an injury, or a multitude of other things.
Some of the great global examples are Salvador Sanchez, who died tragically young, Muahmmad Ali and his several years of exile and Mike Tyson had Cus D'Amato not passed away when he did. We thought it was worth looking at the great examples from Asian boxing. Some of these are obvious, and potentially fighters who could have changed the sport at the top, whilst others are less well known, and likely wouldn't have had such a big impact globally but made a difference on a lower level
Masao Oba (35-2-1, 16)
It makes sense to start with the obvious one and get it out of the way. Japan's Masao Oba is one of the best fighters the country has ever developed. He was a master boxer who fought 38 times in his career, which lasted a little over 6 years. During his short time in the professional ranks he beat a genuine who's who of who from the Flyweight division in the 1970's. These included Bernabe Villacampo, Berkrerk Chartvanchai, Fritz Chervet, Betulio Gonzalez, Susumu Hanagata and Chartchai Chionoi. He not only beat a number of top fighters from his era but also won the WBA Flyweight title, which he defended 5 times.
Despite having distinguished himself as an exceptional fighter Oba is Japan's most notable "What if..." as he passed away in January 1973, at the age of 23, in an auto mobile accident.
What if he hadn't been involved in his fatal vehicular accident? The reality is that he struggling to make weight and was set to move up to Bantamweight. Given a move up would have seen Oba join a division that had the likes of Arnold Taylor, Romeo Anaya, Rafael Herrera, Venice Bokhorosor, Rodolfo Martinez, Soo Hwan Hong, Alfonso Zamora and Carlos Zarate in it. The potential for great bouts over the year that followed are amazing. For both him, the sport at large and the history of the Bantamweight division it is such a shame that Oba passed away when he did.
Kiyoshi Tanabe (21-0-1, 5)
Another relatively obvious choice here is another Japanese fighter, Kiyoshi Tanabe. The talented Japanese Flyweight had been an Olympic bronze medal winner in 1960, having run up a sensation 115-5 (30) amateur record and then turned pro in 1963. Less than 2 years after his debut he claimed the Japanese Flyweight title, which he defended twice. In early 1967 he battered WBA Flyweight champion Horacio Accavallo in 6 rounds, forcing the referee to stop the bout and save Accavallo.
Sadly Tanabe's win over Accavallo came in a non-title bout, but they had planned a rematch on the back of Tanabe's victory, for the title. That plan got scrapped when Tanabe was forced to retire with a detached retina. Tanabe was 26 when he fought for the final time, he had linked up with the legendary Eddie Townsend, who was changing his style to be more aggressive, and that seemed to be on show against Accavallo, who had never previously been stopped.
What if...Tanabe hadn't suffered a career ending injury just as he seemed on the verge of something big? Would he have beaten Accavallo the second time? Would the Argentinian veteran have adapted to him and got revenge for their first bout? Interestingly had Tanabe won the mooted rematch with Accavallo there's a chance Masao Oba would have faced him at some point around 1970.
Poot Lorlek (8-0, 3)
Whilst the two men we mentioned already had to end their careers due to issues that were totally out of their control that wasn't the case for Thailand's Poot Lorlek, who simply didn't stay in the sport very long. He's widely regarded as one of the greatest Muay Thai fighters in history, had a notable rivalry with Saensak Murangsurin, and transitioned to Western Style boxing for a very short career. It was short but it showed he could have had a real impact.
In just 8 professional bouts Lorlek beat future Commonwealth champion Lawrence Austin and the then OPBF Lightweight champion Young Ho Oh, who later had 2 world title fights.
What if...Poot Lorlek had stuck with Western boxing for a few years longer? How would he have coped with the likes of Wilfred Benitez, Antonio Cervantes and even old Muay Thai rival Saensak Muangsurin? Would he even have made it that far in boxing? He had shown in 8 bouts for us to get very excited, but that was all we got, and we really don't know how he would have coped had he continued in the sport. He's a great "what if..." that not many, other than the hardcore who follow Muay Thai, will know about, but really could have been something special in the sport. Especially given the success Muangsurin had.
Chung Soo Suh (1-0)
From what we understand boxrec have actually got a mistake in their records in regards to Chung Soo Suh, potentially merging two records together by mistake. The reason we say that us numerous Korean sources report that Chung Soo Suh made his debut on December 9th 1988 against Roger Vicera, but boxrec have got that bout added to some other fighter, potentially.
With that said you may wonder why a 1-0 fighter is being mentioned on here, and that's because of what Suh did in the amateurs. He was a stellar amateur in a time where South Korea was developing standout amateurs almost on a conveyor belt of talent. Not only that but he was mixing very competitively with the best of the best, including Sung Kil Moon and Byung Il Jung. In fact he very nearly went to the 1988 Olympics but missed out to Jung, who was famously the protesting Korean boxer who sat in the ring after a loss.
According to Korean sites Suh signed a professional contract in September 1988 with big hopes. His team had promised to secure him a world title fight within 5 bouts and had paid a hefty contract to turn profession. He seemed set for something bit, but only actually fought once, a decision over Filipino Roger Vicera. He then joined the military in 1990 before being discharged and struggling with finances, and then with alcohol.
What if Suh had continued with his career? Would Kim Hyun-chi have managed to secure Suh a world title bout as he had promise? If he had remained an active fighter he'd have been looking at bouts against the likes of Raul Perez, Greg Richardson, Khaokor Galaxy and former amateur rival Sung Kil Moon. It's a real shame we never got to see what Suh could have done.
Marvin Sonsona (21-1-1, 15)
We end this with someone who had the potential to do something massive, and still technically does, but clearly won't. As we write this Marvin Sonsona is only 29, he's a former WBO Super Flyweight champion and one of the most naturally gifted fighters that we've seen. He was blessed with skills that should have lead him to a massive career, multi world championships, lengthy reigns at the top and a career as one of the faces of the lower weights.
Instead of any of that Sonsona's career highlights are a 2 month reign as a world champion, avenging his sole defeat and a 2014 KO of the Year candidate.
So, you may ask, why is Marvin Sonsona a "What if...", he wasn't injured, he didn't die young, and didn't have his career cut short. In fact he had an 11 year professional career and is still young enough to fight on. The "What if..." for Marvin Sonosona, is "What if he actually showed dedication to the sport?" He managed to win a world title at 19 years old, then lost if on the scales. So just for a start, had he been dedicated his reign would have been longer, he wouldn't have moved up 2 weight classes in the 5 months following his title win, and wouldn't have been knocked out by Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.
Whether Sonsona would ever have reached the heady heights predicted for him or not is unclear, but he certainly would have done a lot more with his career.
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).