REQUIEM FOR JAPANESE FEATHERWEIGHT SHIGEJI KANEKO


January 16, 2016

TOKYO, JAPAN

More than five hundred people attended a funeral service of former Orient featherweight champion Shigeji Kaneko last Saturday (January 9) at the Himonya Church in Tokyo, Japan. Kaneko, 84, passed away on January 2 and was missed by his sons Kentaro and Kenji who succeeded his Keneko Boxing Gym that recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary since Shigejifs establishment after hanging up gloves for good in 1958.

Keneko, whose overall record was 54-10-1 with 33 knockouts, professionally fought from 1950 to 1958 to be only a Japanese ringman then world-rated No. 6 by the NBA (original of the present WBA) and No.9 by The Ring Magazine at his prime. Well remembered was Kaneko through his four hard-fought competitions with future world titlist Gabriel gFlashh Elorde, all of which the Japanese warrior won on points to his credit.

It was sixty years ago that world featherweight champ Sandy Saddler made an Asian tour to campaign in Japan and the Philippines as his forerunner Sugar Ray Robinson did in Europe in 1951. Filipino promoter Papa Lope Sarreal made a deal with Sandyfs manager Charley Johnston to have the champ engage in a couple of non-title bouts in just two weeks.

On July 8, 1955, in Tokyo, Japan, Saddler faced Orient titlist Kaneko before some 15,000 spectators at the Korakuen Baseball Stadium in the center of Tokyo. Keneko, a shorter left hooker, fought well at the outset to frustrate the much taller champ, leading on points until the end of the fifth: 48-47 twice for Kaneko and 49-44 for Saddler. The lanky champ, however, accelerated his retaliation and the tide dramatically turned in the fifth. The fatal sixth round witnessed the bloodied Kaneko battered to the punch and badly dropped with vicious left hooks, when his manager Takeshi Sasazaki promptly had the towel fluttering for surrender. Saddler was simply too strong and powerful for the strongest 126-pounder in Japan at that time.

Just thirteen days later, on July 21, in Manila, Philippines, Saddler dropped an upset decision (8-1-1, 8-2, 7-3) to Flash Elorde, the promoter Papa Sarrealfs son-in-law since Gabriel had married with his lovely and smart daughter Laura. Thanks to this valuable victory Elorde, newly ranked No.7 by The Ring Magazine, was given an opportunity to fight a rematch with Sandy with his world throne at stake at the Cow Palace, Daly City, CA in January of the next year. Saddler, though outpunched in earlier rounds, finally avenged his Manila loss with a come-from-behind TKO due to Elordefs wide and deep laceration midway in the thirteenth.

After his hidden victory and actual defeat Elorde stayed in the US and busily fought with name opponents to horn his fists so that he later captured the world junior lightweight belt via spectacular seventh round knockout of defending champ Harold Gomez in Quezon City (the same venue of the Thriller in Manila) in 1960.

It was Kaneko that defeated Elorde on four occasions in 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1957. But the Filipino southpaw was destined to be crowned in the world, while Kaneko failed to reach the international summit.

Shigeji wrested the Orient (then OBF, Orient Boxing Federation, since it didnft yet expand to the OPBF, Oriental & Pacific Boxing Federation, by including Australia, New Zealand and other countries) belt by demolishing Filipino defending titleholder Larry Bataan in four furious rounds in Osaka, Japan, in December 1953. Since then, Kaneko successfully retained the regional belt six times by beating Bataan (KO5 in a return bout), Elorde (W12; 117-113 twice and 116-113), Benny Escobar (TKO5), Emil Bill Tinde (W12 in Manila), Hiroshi Okawa (W12) and Kiyoaki Nakanishi (TKO4) so impressively that he became the most popular fighter in Japan. Shigeji was such a household name that he frequently appeared on the cover of sports magazines.

After a bitter defeat at the hand of Saddler, Kaneko scored four victories including one over former Orient lightweight champ Jiro Sawada (who, at only 17, had dethroned veteran defending champ Masashi Akiyama via upset fourth round stoppage to be a national hero overnight) and went to test his fists abroad to Hawaii. Keneko, however, tasted a bitter setback on points by Abel Donnell at the Civic Auditorium in Honolulu in March 1956.

After his Donnell loss Kaneko regained his strength and registered seven wins in a row, including the fourth and last victory over Elorde and an important triumph over national champ Hiroshi Okawa with his Orient belt at stake.

Itfs time for Kaneko, still 26, to try his fists abroad again. Before invading the US mainland Kaneko visited Hawaii to engage in a tune-up bout with an unheralded trial horse named Rufino Ridella, who astoundingly floored Kaneko twice to win an upset ten-round decision in February 1958. Kaneko stayed in Honolulu to expect a grudge fight with Ridella, but it didnft materialize only to score a decision over his substitute Lionel Rivera in July that year.

His heart broken, Kaneko returned to Tokyo as he was unable to have his dream come true with his failure to reach the mainland and display his power-punching and durability before US spectators.

After his homecoming Kaneko fought former national champ Saburo Otaki to deck a fine fifth round TKO in Tokyo in November 1958. It resulted in his last fight as Keneko was found to have suffered a detached retina again and his doctor advised him to hang up gloves for good since it would be his third retinal surgery, saying, gShould you suffer a retinal injury again you will lose your eyesight.h

Itfs time that Kaneko, a do-or-die puncher, would leave the squared circle. In 1965 the ex-champ established Kaneko Boxing Gym in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, where he coached a great many youngsters with his strong belief that he would cultivate them into a sound life through boxing.

Kaneko, unlike many boxers at that time, was a devout Christian since he, at the age of twenty in 1952, was baptized at the Himonya Church, where his funeral service was held before some hundreds of friends, fans and admirers.

Time is like a river that keeps on flowing indefinitely. Kanekofs manager/promoter/trainer Takeshi Sasazaki, a great boxer who shared wins and losses with the legendary national hero and our fistic symbol Tsuneo gPistonh Horiguchi (142-26-15, 87 KOs), cultivated Masahiko gFightingh Harada, our second world champ after Yoshio Shirai and the first Hall of Famer, with his renowned training for strictness at Sasazaki Gym.

Sasazaki, ex-national lightweight champion (72-28-11-3EX, 26 KOs), also successfully handled such unforgettable national or Orient champs as Fumio Kaizu (who yielded his Orient middleweight belt to future world titlist Ki-Soo Kim), Musashi Nakano (Orient welter champ who registered then national record of twelve consecutive KO wins though terminated with his stoppage by Ernie gIndian Redh Lopez in 1967), Lion Furuyama (Orient junior welter champ who failed to win the world belt from Antonio Cervantes, Perico Fernandez and Saensak Muangsurin), Ushiwakamaru Harada (Fighting Haradafs younger brother and former Japanese bantam champ who lost to Ruben Olivares, Danny Lopez, etc.), Seisaku Saito (national flyweight champ who later became a popular comedian but was drowned to death) etc.

Sasazaki passed away at the age of eighty-one in 1996, Kaizu in 1990, Nakano in 1996, and Saito in 1985.

Back to Kaneko, he eventually produced his own world champ in Tomonobu Shimizu who seized the WBA super-flyweight belt by upsetting Mexican switch-hitter Hugo Cazares via split duke in August 2011 although he yielded his throne to Tepparith Kokietgym it in his first defense with the following year. Shimizu, after his pitiful forfeiture of the belt, said a farewell to the ring and was lately elected to be a member of Fukui prefectural assembly. Shimizu served as one of speakers to mourn his mentorfs passing at the funeral service.

The history of boxing doesnft consist of only world champions or successful star boxers but of uncrowned champs, dejected losers or mediocre boxers. Shigeji Kaneko couldnft become world champion since our level at that time was much inferior to that of the world, but it was true that he was such an energetic crowd-pleaser that he always entertained the huge audience. May he rest in peace.

Remarks for record-keepers:

(1) The fight date of the first encounter between Saddler and Elorde was described in Western record books as July 20, 1955. But it seems to have taken place on July 21 as written in Japanese magazines gBoxing Gazetteh and gThe Boxingh. There are not a few examples in record books that the fight dates in Asia were different from ones in The Ring Record Book or BoxRec by one day. It might be due to the time difference since time in Asia is advancing by some fifteen hours than that in the US.
(2) The discrepancy between old Japanese boxersf records registered by the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) and those in The Ring Record Book and/or BoxRec etc. was sometimes caused by our record-keeperfs (the JBCfs) treatment/counting of exhibition bouts at that time. The JBC registered Kanekofs mark, for example, as 54-10-1 plus 6 exhibitions with 33 knockouts by including three KO wins in as many exhibition bouts (a fourth-round knockout of Watanaru Inagaki on June 4 and a second-round KO of Sadamitsu Arai on September 19, both in 1955, plus a second-round KO of Junji Yasuda on August 3, 1956). The JBC currently doesnft register a KO win in a sparring session inserted in a show?even in public.
(3) Exactly speaking, the Philippine legendary promoter/matchmaker Papa Lope Sarreal made a package deal with Charley Johnston for Sandy Saddlerfs three bouts in Asia in 1955. The contracted purses were $20,000 in total--$12,000 against Shigeji Kaneko and $8,000 for a couple of bouts against Flash Elorde in the Philippines and Spachai Sarakam in Thailand. Johnston, however, abruptly cancelled the third in Bangkok because of unexpected turmoil in Saddlerfs bout with Elorde.

The Ring Magazinefs Filipino correspondent Felipe J.C. Galang wrote at page 51 in the October issue of 1955, gSandy Saddler, 129.5, world featherweight champion, was badly beaten by Flash Elorde, 129.25, former Oriental bantamweight champion and Philippine lightweight kingpin, in a 10 round main event at the Coliseum. Saddler used his elbow, head, kidney punches, gouging, pivot punch and clinch delaying tactics for which he was penalized by the referee and booed by the crowd.

Saddler was the aggressor but most of his punches landed in the wind. Whenever he cornered his rival, then his head was always found under the chin of Elorde, moving up and down, so that he cut Elordefs left eyebrow and lower lip.

Saddler was warned by referee Jack Sullivan in the third round for using his head. The crowd was angered by the tactics used by the champion, who even used the pivot punch. But once Saddler cornered Elorde then he his head, elbow and the lace did the worst damage ever witnessed at the Coliseum. Rolls of leaflets were thrown inside the ring as a protest. It was in this commotion that Italo Scortichini (an Italian middleweight then staying in Manila who served as a cornerman of Saddler?by this reporter) received a big cut on his head caused by an empty bottle of coke.h

(4) Saddlerfs manager Charlie Johnston is quoted as saying, gI have never seen such a dirty fight. The crowd terribly disturbed the processing of the fight, but they didnft accept our protest. I repeatedly appealed to referee Jack Sullivan to cease the turmoil, but in vain. Sandy lost his mouth piece during the sixth round, but it disappeared so that he had to go on fighting without it. We wish to avenge this defeat in the near future.h

Should Elorde have won the belt from Saddler in their 1956 rematch in California, Kaneko might have been given an opportunity to meet Elorde with his world featherweight belt on the line. But it was merely a story of imagination.

END

(1-16-2016)


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