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Remembering Olympic medalists out of Japan

By Joe Koizumi

Japanese middleweight Ryota Murata, as highly expected, gained the Olympic gold medal by eking out a 14-13 narrow decision over Brazilian Esquiva Florentino over three hard-fought rounds on Saturday in London. Although Japan has produced many professional world champs, we thought the amateur boxing should be a different sport where it is tremendously difficult to win a medal. It is really remarkable that Japan has had a couple of medalists—Murata and a bronze winner Satoshi Shimizu—after more than forty years since our pioneers.

Now it’s time to recollect our memory on our previous medalists. It was Kiyoshi Tanabe that became the first Olympic medalist from Japan in boxing when he acquired the bronze in Rome in 1960. He was such an excellent amateur that he compiled a brilliant mark of 115-5, having conquered the national flyweight championship for three years straight since 1959. Tanabe, after graduating Chuoh University, became a sports writer covering professional boxing, and then thought, “Should I fight on his behalf, I’d accomplish better.” He then turned pro in 1963 and gained the Japanese flyweight belt in two years. His career reached the peak when he chalked up a fine TKO victory over then world 112-pound champ Horacio Accavallo in a non-title bout in Tokyo in 1967. He floored the durable Argentine twice before the upset stoppage. Unfortunately enough, Tanabe, a short but skillful fighting machine, had to retire from ring competition because of detached retina, although he already decided to face Accavallo again with his belt on the line. All fight fans sympathized with his hard luck. His overall mark was 21-0-1, 5 KOs without suffering any defeat in the paid ranks. Tanabe, a remarkable speedster, was such an excellent uncrowned champ as his American trainer Eddie Townsend pitifully cried, “Why doesn’t God give an opportunity for Tanabe to acquire the world belt?” He won the medal, but missed the belt.

The next medalist was Takao Sakurai, who impressively won the gold medal in the bantam category in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964. Sakurai, 138-13 as an amateur, was a scientific southpaw that smartly hit without getting hit—utilizing his dazzling hand speed and shifty footwork. Having made a successful pro debut in 1965, the unbeaten southpaw had an ambitious crack at the world bantam champ Lionel Rose in 1968. Dropping Rose with a smashing left early, Sakurai tried to keep his lead on points with his best use of footwork. His outboxing didn’t impress the judges only to lose a majority 15-round verdict that cost his acquisition of the professional belt. Sakurai aimed at the world championship again. The ex-gold medalist participated in an eliminator to decide the mandatory challenger to Rose in 1969. Who was his counterpart? It’s “Mr. Knockout” Ruben Olivares. Sakurai, however, floored the unbeaten Mexican with his trademark southpaw left, but Olivares persistently cut off the ring and finally caught the elusive Japanese to halt him in six hard-fought rounds at the Forum, Inglewood, California. Dejected and discouraged, Sakurai fought five more times, winning all to wrest the OPBF bantam belt. Now that he realized his possibility of winning the world throne would be slim, he couldn’t maintain his motivation to fight on. After his second successful defense of the OPBF belt, Sakurai quickly hang up gloves for good. His record was 30-2, 4 KOs. He was also an excellent speedster, but passed away at the age of seventy this January.

The third and last previous Olympic medalist was Eiji Morioka, who won the bronze medal in Mexico City in 1968. A typical give-and-take fighter, Morioka compiled a fine mark of 128-10, 72 stoppages. The left hooker swept the national amateur tournament in four years straight while he was a student of Kinki University. Morioka, a hard-hitting crowd-pleaser, failed to accomplish a success in the paid ranks as he had to retire early because of his eye ailment. His professional ledger was only 6-4, 3 KOs. After his retirement Morioka established his gym in Osaka to cultivate young boys. The ex-bronze medalist, however, said a farewell to his friends and pupils in 2004. He was only 58.

From the Olympic games in Rome in 1960, we merely acquired a single gold and a couple of bronze medals. But in a single Olympic games in London we surprisingly saw a gold and a bronze medalists. Probably London is located in a good direction to our Japanese amateur boxing team.




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