Masaki Kanehira, Japan’s most renowned trainer and known as the maker of Japanese champions, called him "A genius who appears once every 100 years…"
Fall seven times, stand up eight —Japanese proverb
Whenever I think of Japanese boxers, three names quickly come to the fore. One, Masahiko "Fighting" Harada, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996. The great Jiro Watanabe, 26-2 with 18 KOs, was a long-reigning king of the super flyweight division and another Japanese titleholder. Watanabe’s successor for the WBA title would be the legendary Thai Khaosai Galaxy who would win the vacant title and also go on to become a junior bantamweight and reel off 19 straight title defenses. Watanabe, who has been in and out of trouble with the law after his boxing career, was never inducted into the Hall. The third fighter is Yoko Gushiken.
Known as the "Fierce Eagle," Gushiken finished with a 23-1 record and held the WBA junior flyweight crown from 1976-1981. He was sometimes called the "Okinawan Eagle" and was a fearsome presence in the ring.
After a great amateur career 62-3 (52 KOs), he fought for the WBA flyweight crown after just nine professional fights and defeated Juan Guzman by resounding knockout in the seventh round. Guzman had been pounded to the canvas four times. He also won the Tokyo Writers Club award for Fighter of the Year in 1976 by unanimous vote. Masaki Kanehira, Japan’s most renowned trainer and known as the maker of Japanese champions, called him "A genius who appears once every 100 years."
The rate at which he matured ring-wise was astounding. With 13 title defenses against rock-solid challengers, his resume was stellar. He also drew sell-out crowds wherever he fought, defending his title in more Japanese cities than any other Japanese champion. The curly haired champion with incredible stamina, energy, and a mean streak to boot won fan support throughout Japan. He held the championship for over four years. In 13 defenses, he won eight by knockout.
Gushiken was a pressure fighter always in-coming and using his great stamina and southpaw stance to wear down and punish his opponents. By employing constant pressure, he forced opponents into mistakes. He also threw punches in bunches and was an instinctive counterpuncher. Like Bobby Chacon and Roberto Duran, he threw his punches with a ferocity that overwhelmed opponents, and sent them into a retreat from the get-go. British boxing historian Bob Mee said, of Gushiken, "An exciting southpaw pressure fighter who could box behind an accurate right jab, but loved nothing better than wading forward and letting his punches go in bursts."
In 1980, Gushiken was again named Japan’s boxer of the year, and took part in Japan’s Fight of the Year against Pedro Flores in his 13th defense. The fight was described by The Ring as, "A gory war" with Gushiken "Fighting back strongly with body punches and pounding out a split but popular 15-round decision." But his skills had diminished somewhat. He had previously defeated the top contender Martin Vargas, 60-5-3 with 38 kayos.
Gushiken dropped Vargas three times and won every round. After the fight, Joe Koizumi, Japan’s leading boxing reporter and historian, wrote that Gushiken "Has clearly established his supremacy as the greatest Japanese fighter in history."
Yoko granted the tough Mexican challenger a rematch in 1981 and the well-prepared Mexican counterpunched Gushiken to a 12th round knockout loss in what was a stunning upset. One of Gushiken’s weaknesses had been that he threw wide and looping punches. Flores was able to take advantage by stepping inside with sharp and well-placed counterpunches that floored The Eagle in rounds eight and 12. In the tradition of the Samurai Warrior, Gushiken would not surrender and his corner had no alternative but to call a halt to the fight.
Gushiken announced his retirement five months after losing to Flores. Like Fighting Harada, Yoko Gushiken remains a popular figure in Japan, training boxers and running one of Japan’s most impressive gyms. He may have achieved even greater acclaim had he moved up in weight and fought Miguel Canto or Betulio Gonzalez but it was not to be.
Hagler, Marciano, Watanabe, Harrada, Calzaghe, and Lennox Lewis were able to walk away. So did Yoko "Fierce Eagle" Gushiken. They all did it on their own terms, not an easy thing to do in boxing. As a 26-year-old, Yoko retired after losing only once in 24 fights. Surely, he could have continued at the highest level, but he would never put the gloves on again except as a trainer.
Inexplicably, he has not been inducted into the International Hall of Fame. I say let’s rectify that this year.