Current and former Japanese boxing champions, including undefeated king Naoya Inoue, assembled this week for an unprecedentedly lavish event at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
Dubbed “Legend,” the night of three-round exhibitions was staged Thursday as a charity event in support of medical workers and patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than lukewarm sparring, participants showcased intense fights before an in-person crowd of 2,548 and spectators watching online.
The arena warmed up quickly as former WBO flyweight champion Sho Kimura and former K-1 kickboxing champ Yoshiki Takei exchanged ferocious punches from the opening bell in the first fight of the evening, setting the tone for what was to come.
Some fighters, including WBA flyweight champion Hiroto Kyoguchi, seemed unconcerned with the risk of injury ahead of their own upcoming sanctioned bouts. Although the 27-year-old is set to defend his belt against Mexico’s Axel Aragon Vega on March 11 in Dallas, he went toe-to-toe against former triple-division champ Akira Yaegashi.
“I received a ton of inspiration today, ahead of my title-defense fight in America,” said Kyoguchi, whose title matches were called off twice last year due to novel coronavirus. “It was such an important day for me to be part of the event.”
“There might never be another occasion for me to participate in something like this again,” he added. “And I stepped into the ring for the first time in a long time. It felt different from sparring in the gym.”
In middleweight Yuito Moriwaki and welterweight Sewon Okazawa, Legend also featured a pair of amateur boxers bound for the Tokyo Olympics. Another Olympian-to-be, Daisuke Narimatsu, was originally slated in the undercard but withdrew due to illness.
While participants were allowed the option of wearing headgear, both Moriwaki and Okazawa went without against their professional opponents — despite the Summer Games being less than six months away.
Okazawa and 19-year-old Japanese youth champ Jin Sasaki exhibited perhaps the best bout of the day. Having tangled via social media leading up to the event, the two put up a thrilling yet entertaining showdown, attacking each other and moving around the ring throughout.
“I’m proud to be an amateur boxer and I’m confident I won’t lose to any world champions under these rules,” said Okazawa, who captured a silver medal at the 2019 Asian Championships.
Yuito Moriwaki, who will compete in the middleweight class at the Olympics and showed a gutsy fight against WBO Asia-Pacific super welterweight title-holder Takeshi Inoue, revealed that the amateur boxers had mutually agreed to step into the ring without headgear.
“We knew there would be risks of getting hurt, but we thought it wouldn’t be fair (to face headgear-less pros) and be the only ones fighting with headgear on,” Moriwaki said. “And I wanted people to recognize my face as well.”
Moriwaki added that he values success as an amateur and a potential Olympic medal above succeeding in the pro ranks, suggesting that Tokyo 2020 would not be his final games.
“In my own values, making a podium finish or winning gold at the Olympics is even more intriguing than winning a world title belt as a pro,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ll be 28 in Paris and 32 at Los Angeles,” he added, referring to Olympic events in the respective cities. “I want to continue to do this as long as I can.”
In one of the event’s biggest attractions, Takashi Uchiyama, who retired at the end of 2016 and is considered one of Japan’s all-time greats, made a one-night return to the ring against Kosuke Saka.
A former owner of the WBA super featherweight title, the 41-year-old — who was nicknamed “Knockout Dynamite” for his vicious blows — said afterward he had simply tried to remain standing against the current Japanese super featherweight champion. But Uchiyama seemed physically sharp, and occasionally landed his signature left body shots and rights.
“I’ve had (alcohol) like 360 days a year, but it was a great opportunity for me to stop drinking,” joked Uchiyama, who now runs his own boxing and fitness gym in Tokyo. “My training was tough when I started it toward this event but as I kept doing it, I remembered what’s fun about boxing.”
But the biggest draw for many of the National Foundation Day audience was Naoya Inoue, who is considered one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters.
“The Monster” confessed after the event that he had planned to dominate his opponent, former WBC flyweight champion Daigo Higa, who has recently come up to join Inoue in the bantamweight class.
Inoue indeed outclassed Higa — who once posted a record of 15 straight knockout wins — with his supreme offensive and defensive skills. He admitted to attempting strategies he would not usually rely on in a sanctioned bout, including fighting southpaw and defending against the ropes.
“I tried to let Higa fight with the distance where he felt comfortable, not just the distance I felt comfortable,” said Inoue, who holds the WBA and IBF belts and captured the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight title in 2019. “And I wanted to experiment with different ways of fighting, so I can give credit to myself for doing that overall.”
The 27-year-old said he was happy to prove that he was on another level from Higa through the fight.
“Had I fought evenly against him I couldn’t have maintained my reputation,” the Ohashi gym boxer said. “So I had a certain pressure on my shoulders and was able to fight comfortably because of that.”
Onsite Screen Co. Ltd., a medical equipment import and export company, was the main sponsor of the event. Fans, media and officials were required to test negative for COVID-19 via the company’s own on-site polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test system before being allowed in the ring.
Organizers said the testing system could allow high-attendance events to be held more often moving forward. They also announced that they would donate the equipment used for Thursday’s event to hospitals across Japan.
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