Boxing in Japan, of sumo wrestlers, boxers, and sailors!?!?

417px-EastWestWoodblockSo, what does a sumo wrestler, boxer, and sailor have in common? No, not the stinky, sweaty smell, the history of boxing in Japan!! That’s right! When people ask about how a sport started you often get this…some inspiring guy some where decided  to do something amazing or stupid and ended up having it caught on…or some long tradition that modern life no longer needs gets toned down and put into the arena. No matter what the origin of a sport is, it either came from being a necessary tool for survival, or a fantastic form of entertainment. So which one was it that jump started boxing in Japan? Lets take a look at how it all started…

Long Long ago, on a island nation far far away…the Japanese Shogunate (the Feudalistic government of the time) held the country in isolation. But with the advent of western naval technology, there begins to be more western ships traveling in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. This was a problem since resources (not oil, but whale) came under competition. At the time, Japan appeared hostile to the rest of the world mainly due to concerns over British conquest in China and other parts of the world. When Commodore Perry came along and knocked open the isolationist doors of Japan (a proverbial knock…more like boom), the Shogunate gave in and an New Age soon arrived in Japan. It was during this time the seed of boxing was sown in the land of the Samurais.

Historical documents from the time told stories of western sailors ”boxing” each other on their ships and near the docks, one of which was portrayed and recorded by Souun Tazaki, a famous painter and writer at the time. My thoughts are that the Shogunate was frustrated at the fact that a foreign ship has forcefully opened one of their ports and all the Gaijin (foreigners) are now making a ruckus on their docks. So as a show of pride and strength, the Shogunate did something unimaginable at the time!

A look into Commodore Perry’s Narrative of the expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, recorded a massive sumo-wrestler of the Ozeki-level, the top level at the time, named Tsunekichi Koyanagi. Koyanagi was commanded by the Shogunate to fight an American boxer and two wrestlers in probably the first mixed martial arts match in its true sense! Unfortunately, not many records remain about the details of that fight…just imagine what a sumo-wrestler would respond to the boxers hits and how the boxer and wrestlers would respond to the sumo’s hard slaps =) Regardless, to say that this is a match that “defies reality” is an understatement. At the end, Koyanagi won.


The event surely put boxing on the map in Japan despite the outcome of the fight. Since then, gyms that branded themselves as teaching “western martial arts” begun to appear and soon came a quasi-official body that resembles a boxing association at the turn of the century. So boxing’s debut in Japan was very much politically motivated and was aimed at restoring national pride and unity in the face of western imperialism, kind of like what the famous Kung Fu master Huo Yuanjia did in China. As time passed, we can all agree on what the effects of that historical period is. Now, we are seeing more Asian MMA fighters and boxers joining the ranks of the world’s best in a sport that was previously a western only. With news of potential boxers and fighters rising up in China, the MMA and boxing area will surely become more diverse. And what could possibly better than diversity! =)

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