A Diary On The Pleasures Of Watching Japanese Boxing On New Year’s Eve

When Daigo Higa emptied the contents of Yuki Strong Kobayashi’s face onto the ring canvas of Tokyo’s Ota-City General Gymnasium around suppertime, Japan Standard Time, on New Year’s Eve, I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes amid the glow of a flatscreen in Midwest suburbia. Nothing about the moment, neither the act itself nor the viewing of it half a world away, rang a conventionally festive tone. No turkey carving, no lighting of the Menorah, no slipping a hand up your step-cousin’s bra in grandma’s root cellar. Yet instantly, and at my core, I understood why the whole bloody scene embodied a glorious holiday tradition.

Because for boxing fans, New Year’s Eve in Japan is exactly that. While the rest of the Western world rests up in anticipation of its impending RumChata hangover, the die-hardest of fight fans are mainlining caffeine into the wee hours and using whatever resources at their disposal to watch showdowns between pint-sized Pan-Asian monsters. For decades, Japan has set aside the New Year’s holiday for some of its biggest battles in combat sports, from boxing to MMA to — yes, bah gawd — pro wrestling.

The tradition has waxed and waned over the years, but it mounted a comeback on the tiny coattails of 130-pound Japanese legend Takashi Uchiyama, who fought for a title (all but one of them defenses) on six consecutive NYE cards from 2011-2016. He was part of the 2015 extravaganza that, if you include the Dec. 29 card that helped launch Naoya Inoue to stardom, saw six title fights featured across three venues. Two years ago, Japan hosted six title fights over two days leading up to Dec. 31 — and those didn’t even include a jump-the-shark exhibition between Floyd Mayweather and kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa.

For all the gifts to boxing delivered from Tokyo and Osaka and Yokohama on New Year’s Eves past, I had never previously indulged in their joys myself — not in real time. It was long past time to remedy that situation, and with a pandemic squashing any end-of-year shindigs and wreaking havoc on my sleep schedule, the decision was easy: I’d embrace graveyard hours, plug into Japan’s TBS through something called iSakura and see how the other half (the Eastern Hemisphere) lived, while bringing you along for the ride. Here’s how it went down:

12:27 a.m.: I rise from a long winter’s nap. Sleeping hours have been a free-for-all since returning from a pandemic-friendly vacation, so after a few hours of fitful sleep, I have a crushing headache that makes my eyeballs throb and my stomach churn with nausea. Good start.

1:23 a.m.: Pregame. For once, I don’t use this term in the colloquial sense: The only substance I’ll be celebrating with tonight is Advil. But in the meantime, I need to try to get something in my stomach, set up the computer and TV to accommodate the live feed from Japan and then pry my insomniac daughter away from the single spot in the living room where she’s able to hoard every particle of thermal energy set off by the fireplace. It’s cold, and I need external comfort if I won’t be warming myself from the outside in with drink.

1:26 a.m.: I begin drinking.

1:47 a.m.: I log into iSakura, a service I’d signed up for earlier in the day that allows me access to a feed of a bunch of Japanese broadcast channels. This isn’t your typical boxing screw job: I pay $2.50 for a three-day trial with no strings attached — no automatic renewal at a hiked-up rate, no need to opt out. In that moment, I imagine Bob Arum in physical pain lamenting all the money being left on the table.

1:49 a.m.: I scroll through the channels on my computer and find TBS, which is airing a news clip of a bombed-out, smoking ruins of a city overrun by soldiers. This does not appear to be a Japanese city, and these do not appear to be Japanese soldiers. Because I don’t speak Japanese, I’m utterly lost. I feel like Tom Hanks in that flick where he’s stuck in the airport, speaks no English and doesn’t know how to get home. I’m worried. I can’t figure out where, or even when, this is happening. Is it live? Is it in Karaj? Cleveland? Where’s Stanley Tucci?

1:50 a.m.: Screen mirroring. I’m in my late 40s, so you can imagine how well this went. Christ, I can’t believe I didn’t miss the first fight.

2:06 a.m.: I discover the Japanese Mauro Ranallo. Weirdly, I’m intrigued. Although I’m monolingual, I’d know “punches in bunches” when I hear it in any language. The novelty wears off quickly.

2:10 a.m.: We return from a 15-second spot hocking boner pills — or maybe earbuds; it’s hard to tell — and bang, we’re off! No ring walks, no national anthems, no introductions. It takes me a few minutes to confirm it’s Higa-Kobayashi. My daughter: “The Japanese are classy.” It’s unclear whether she’s talking about the minimalist fight lead-in or the Viagra knock-off, but she’s not wrong.

2:13 a.m.: It says here in my notes that Higa is the fighter with the “Spaghetti Western mustache,” but a cursory Google search reveals that I’m wrong: Higa appears to have a goatee in photos from the fight. This is, quite simply, a failure of reportage and a breach in professional journalistic practices. And I haven’t even poured my second drink yet.

2:17 a.m.: The feed is a touch clunky — or maybe it’s a lag in my screen mirroring — but it’s otherwise solid. It’s an entertaining fight, and although Higa and Kobayashi are trading, the younger fighter (Higa) is also gradually proving to be the superior one.

2:19 a.m.: These little dudes love their uppercuts.

2:22 a.m.: In round 3, Higa lands a series of unanswered blows so fast and prolific that I lose track of the sequence: a smashing left hook to the body, an uppercut and a screaming right hand are all in the mix.

2:25 a.m.: I have a protracted conversation with my daughter, a big Ancestry.com fan, about the parentage of Higa’s trainer. He’s clearly of Asian descent, but, we decide, he could be mixed. The answer isn’t particularly important, but the man’s abiding love for a well-coifed afro cannot pass without comment (and wholehearted approval).

2:26 a.m.: Down the rabbit hole. Turns out the mixed trainer in question is neither mixed nor a trainer. Yoko Gushiken is Higa’s manager, an International Boxing Hall of Fame fighter and current tarento — a Japanese TV personality. You’re free to stop fact-checking me at any point. Save yourself the time and assume I’m a charlatan.

2:29 a.m.: With 45 seconds remaining in round 5, Higa lands a vicious right uppercut that rattles Kobayashi’s head, opens a spigot of blood from his nose and sends him to the mat. It’s a picture-perfect knockout.

2:37 a.m.: After the commotion settles, the broadcast moves on to grainy highlights of dudes I don’t recognize and, as I think I’ve proven, could never hope to identify. But goddammit, I thank the moon and stars for TBS and the efforts of these little warriors. There are entire social media accounts devoted to Asian boxing, and you don’t need to watch long to learn why.

2:43 a.m.: My headache, thank the Maker, begins to subside. Maybe it’s the Svedka.

2:50 a.m.: We need to talk about these commercials. As shaken as I was by the war-zone footage, watching Japanese television advertising feels like the best bad trip in the recorded medical history of psychedelics. I am, at turns, awash in anime, manga, J-Pop, a Candy Crush ripoff, some sort of lips fastener to prevent your throat from drying out during sleep and what appears to be a delivery company called Umazon — which may or may not be a real thing. I’m terrified, and I want more.

2:53 a.m.: The main event is on deck, and it’s an absolute banger: Kazuto Ioka, 31, is Japan’s first-ever four-division title winner, and he’ll defend his current 115-pound belt against 25-year-old rising star Kosei Tanaka, who is attempting to duplicate Ioka’s feat across four weight classes. Despite the stakes, the buildup is sublimely minimal. Basically, it’s a bizzaro Canelo Alvarez-Sergey Kovalev.

2:55 a.m.: Ring walks. Tanaka throws his first feint of the night, walking out to Queen’s “I Was Born to Love You.” It’s an odd choice for a ring walk — especially for a kid born years after Freddie Mercury, er, bit the dust. The contrast grows more stark when Ioka, a geezer by boxing standards, walks out wearing braids and accompanied by Japanese rapper AK-69 firing off his track “If I Die.”

3:00 a.m.: National anthem. Just one: Japan’s. A recorded instrumental. Cool.

3:05 a.m.: Ring intros. Again, no performative bullshit. Short. Sweet. I could get used to this.

3:07 a.m.: We’re fighting! Tanaka throws a big lead right hand to start things off, and Ioka returns with his own moments later. That’s the tone setter. Ioka closes the round with a left hook to the liver. The pace is initially a tad slow for this division, but it’s still more action than you’ll see in a year of Guillermo Rigondeaux fights.

3:11 a.m.: Ioka lands a nice-looking flurry to start round 2. Tanaka seems to be searching for an opening and finally finds it midway through, but Ioka rarely lets him in without exacting a toll. The skill exhibited here is off the charts. It’s a smorgasbord of punches: jabs, right hands, left hooks, body work. And at 115 pounds, everything — hands, feet, feints, counters — is quicker. It’s gorgeous.

3:15 a.m.: I want to celebrate, and now I’m hungry again. But it’s doubtful Little Caesar’s is delivering at this hour, so I settle for bow tie pasta straight from the Tupperware. As a grown man does.

3:16 a.m.: In Round 3, my feed freezes as an Ioka right hand lands. An omen? I don’t know how much action I miss, but both men remain on their feet by the time the feed comes back. Tanaka finishes strong in the round, and he’s walking down his opponent in a way that suggests Ioka doesn’t have the power to discourage him. Ioka’s right eye is starting to darken.

3:20 a.m.: Tanaka is landing power shots, but he’s also screwing around too often with his hands down. Ioka comes back with a tentative 1-2 and a right cross. Tanaka is landing the bigger punches, but Ioka never let’s him get away without offering something back: jab-right hand, a left hook before the bell. Tanaka’s nose is bloodied.

3:23 a.m.: In the 5th, Tanaka is still pressing, but Ioka holds him off with a jab, a left to the body and a hook upstairs. It’s a fascinating fight, seemingly level — right up to the point when Tanaka, still too cavalier with his defense, gets smacked by a glancing counter right hand and then goes down on a massive left hook from Ioka. He bounces back up, but Tanaka appears uneasy.

3:29 a.m.: It’s late in round 6, and Ioka drops Tanaka with another hook! Back on his feet, Tanaka steels himself and starts blowing fire, perhaps sensing that he’ll run out of rounds if he doesn’t begin making up ground immediately. Tanaka is getting the better of the exchanges, moving Ioka back and putting him on the ropes. He isn’t accurate, but Tanaka is landing with enough frequency and power to stagger Ioka, if only slightly. He’s fighting angry.

3:32 a.m.: Tanaka has his wits fully about him again, and he’s applying all the pressure in the ring. But Ioka is still landing off the back foot, and Tanaka’s targeted body work hasn’t discouraged him yet.

3:35 a.m.: This is the third time TBS has shown the same commercial back-to-back. Or maybe it’s just the tracer effect of my trip. Anything’s possible at this point.

3:36 a.m.: In the 8th, Tanaka is selling out in an effort to cut down Ioka — we’re talking Jesse the Body-in-Predator levels of arsenal-emptying. For his part, Ioka shows balance, patience and timing in landing his counter combinations. He also shows a badass streak: Late in the round, he waves a glove at Tanaka, beckoning, and Tanaka obliges with a jab-right hand combination. But Ioka answers back with a jab and then explodes a left hook on Tanaka’s chin. That’s it. Tanaka isn’t quite out on his feet, but he’s a sitting duck. Referee Michiaki Someye slips in immediately, and wisely, to grab Tanaka before any more damage can be done. KO for Ioka.

3:37 a.m.: Lucid again, Tanaka seeks out Ioka in his corner for an embrace, prompting uproarious crowd applause. (Remember when that was a thing?) Tanaka, humbled, visits each corner of the ring to bow to the house. More applause. Ioka is feted by the crowd and welcomed by the announce crew for a postfight interview. All smiles, including Ioka. I have no idea what he’s saying. Honestly, who gives a shit? When boxing is this good, in any language, there’s nothing better.

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