“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision . . . . They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Those are the words of Muhammad Ali, but they could have just as easily been the words of Yoshinori Nishizawa, Japan’s oldest active boxer, who at the age of 45 continues in pursuit of his dream — “to be world champion.”

He has gotten close, tauntingly, painfully close, to capturing a world title. On his first try, in 2004 in Australia at the age of 37, he went five rounds to lose on a technical knockout. That same year he took on the WBC super middleweight champion in Germany only to lose after a full 12 rounds. On his last try, again in Australia, Nishizawa came on strong and continued strong, but the side of his head was cut, and he was stopped on a technical decision in the third round.

What drives the native of Nagano to continue after 26 years, 57 fights, 30 wins with 18 knockouts, is exactly what “The Greatest” spoke of — desire, dream, vision. Some would call it an obsession, but Nishizawa prefers Ali’s version. “To me, the word ‘dream’ is the most important.” That and what he calls his “life theme” — continuous challenge. His motto, sewn on the back of his trunks in English, is “Never Say Can’t.”

“Every man and woman has to have dreams and aim for them, taking on challenge after challenge along the way,” he says. His expression is friendly, his eyes bright, keen. One senses the ability to react, in an instant. There is an alertness, an energy around him, a captivating energy similar perhaps to what a small animal senses before the strike of a snake, or what a deer feels as it looks into the headlights.

It was undoubtedly the kind of energy that Nishizawa felt at the age of 6 when he saw Muhammad Ali on television for the first time. That encounter changed his life. “I was absolutely stunned. Voooom! His words slammed into me. ‘The greatest in the world.’ I was in shock,” Nishizawa says with awe as if he’d heard the words yesterday.

“When I was between 3 and 5 I was in love with cartoon heroes. But, then I saw Ali. He wasn’t a cartoon character. He was real. He was the strongest in the world and he was right there in America. Thirty-nine years later, nothing has changed. The feeling I had for him, the adoration, haven’t changed.”

In high school, Nishizawa decided to begin training for the rigors of boxing, and did so by taking up baseball. When he left high school at 18, however, he thought it was too late for a career in boxing and joined a company as a salaried worker. “I did go to a boxing gym but I thought about all the training I’d have to do, all the fights, all the pain, and I thought maybe being a sarariman was better,” Nishizawa admits.

Something troubled him, however. “I thought, this isn’t my life, this isn’t my dream. Then, the memory of Ali flashed up in my head.” Nishizawa went back to Nagano temporarily and while there received a phone call from the owner of Yonekura Boxing Gym in Tokyo. “He asked me what I was going to do. Right then and there I decided to start training.”

Nishizawa quit his company job and began boxing while working part time. Setting his sights on becoming world champion, he set goals. “First thing was to become a professional, so I had to debut, then win my first match, then become Japan champion, then become Asian champion.” And he ticked them off, too. Nishizawa now has six champion titles, one national and five Asian Pacific. It’s the world title that eludes him. But he’s not giving up. “I have not reached my limit,” he says.

“I’ll go anywhere, Africa, Europe, America,” he says. “This year is important, this year I am going to have to really concentrate.” He has to work as well in order to pay travel expenses and title match fees, which can run about ¥2 million each. While training daily at Yonekura, he also teaches on a professional level, holds the occasional motivational talk and teaches a boxing course at Gold’s Gym in Nakano, Tokyo.

The boxing course, attended by all ages but predominantly by middle-aged men, has been a learning experience for Nishizawa as much as it has for his students. “People will come in and say, ‘Oh, I used to want to be a boxer but that was years ago. Do you think I can still learn?’ And they do learn. They make amazing progress,” Nishizawa says. “And they take that newfound confidence back with them to the office.”

“STD,” he explains, “is the basis of boxing and it can be carried over into everything, especially into the business world.” Speed, timing and distance. “Things like knowing when to make a move and how quickly, and having a close relationship with the customer. These are important factors in successful business dealings.”

The other crucial factors, Nishizwa says, are “concentration, awareness and cool-headedness.” Relaxation, he emphasizes, not only physical but mental, is vital. “You have to concentrate but be relaxed. When you’re relaxed, more information comes in.”

In his later years, Nishizawa has found himself being an inspiration to many. He thrives on it. “Japanese over 40 just aren’t very alive these days. I want them to be able to look at me and say, ‘Wow, he’s 45 and he became world champion. Maybe I can do something too.’ I want to help empower them, help give them hope,” Nishizawa, married and the father of one, says.

“You have to have dreams, not necessarily big ones, they can be small ones, but when you have a dream and work toward attaining it, your life changes,” he insists.

“Children in Japan today, too, don’t have dreams like they used to. But if the adults don’t have dreams, how can the children? Having dreams for your children is fine, but you play the leading role in your life and it’s important to have dreams for yourself.”

Many of his friends tell him his dream of being world champion is impossible, but Nishizawa keeps on, unwaveringly. “Early on, I had three years where I couldn’t win because I was injured. People would yell out from the crowd, ‘Heh, give it up!’ but I kept on.”

Nishizawa has always kept on, finding great motivation and inspiration in his marriage and as a role model to his daughter. He also knows what other than dreams keeps him going. “Hard work, good eating and proper sleep. They support you. If you refresh your body, your mental outlook can be more aggressive.”

Though set on attaining his dream, Nishizawa is aware it may not happen. If so, he’s ready. “I’ll make other goals. There are goals for your 50s and goals for your 60s.”

“Keep thinking,” he advises. “Don’t look back in 10 years and say, ‘Oh, I wish I had done that then.’ e_SDRq

Or, as Muhammad Ali put it, “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”

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