The All-Time Great Bantamweights: No 4: Fighting Harada
4. Fighting Harada 55-7 (22 KOs)
"When I began boxing, in the late 1950s, Japan was poor. The gyms were full, full of young men like me who saw opportunity in boxing. Today, our gyms are not very busy. No one owned much of anything. Now, look around. It's a rich, wealthy country. People can buy anything. Why be a boxer? It's a tough, hard sport. We all began to notice the difference after the (1964) Olympics, when we began to become more prosperous. But as we became richer, we lost a certain spirit, I think - the spirit that I had, and the men who boxed when I did." - Fighting Harada, 1988 (L.A Times)
These are the words of an older Fighting Harada but his reputation was built during his fearsome prime in the 1960s, when the vitality of youth saw him a tsunami personified.
Masahiko Harada was born two years before the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. One of seven siblings - another of whom would eventually become a notable pro in his own right - there was little else for Masahiko to do in the near apocalyptic post-war years in Japan but fight.
That spirit he spoke of? Bushido values were part of Japanese culture for centuries. The chivalrous and respectful way of the samurai was reflected in Harada’s own approach to the sport of boxing: said by his opponents to be a gentleman before and after fights, Masahiko would be dubbed Fighting Harada for that very spirit and style. The name fitted him perfectly; armed with one of the best jabs of all time, he was unruly inside the ropes, a face-first swarmer, a throwback, who threw more power punches in three minutes that some fighters do in whole fights.
He won his first world title while still in his teens, and was arguably the best in three weight classes, retiring before his 30th birthday in a career spanning less than a decade.
He was at his best at bantamweight, but no bantam worthy of a ranking this high had it easy.
Up And Down And Up Again
Harada’s style befitted his age: fast feet, high energy and no fear. He turned pro at 16 and fought 13 times in his first year, culminating in victory over no less a figure than future world champ Hiroyuki Ebihara in the final of the All-Japan rookie tournament.
Harada would launch his first attack on the bantamweights before he’d reached the pinnacle of his own division. Still growing into the weight, Harada was 19 years old, unbeaten in 25 pro bouts and around 115lbs when he lost to experienced Mexican bantam Edmundo Esparza.
Esparza was a fully-fledged bantam at 118lbs. He was just one of a tremendous crop of Mexican monsters who would mix in great company over the next few years without winning world honours.
The next day report is scant on detail. There were no knockdowns, and Esparza won a split decision.
First attack: repelled
Against flyweights, Harada was much more potent. He was a relative unknown when he drubbed Thai great Pone Kingpetch to win the world title, a one-sided routing that stands up on film as one of the great title-winning performances. The ‘Pacific Stars & Stripes’ credited Harada for his "machine-gun speed" and said it looked like he was outlanding Kingpetch 15 to 1.
The footage shows that this was not hyperbole; Harada’s jab was a dominant tool in it itself, and he would throw it five or six times in a row to close the distance and move his opponent into position.
But when he settled into his wide-legged stance and bombed away with both hands he was impossible to resist. No less a figure than Kingpetch - an all-time great fighter - drowned under a never-ending wave of punches and was pulled up in 11, spluttering.
A few months later Kingpetch wore the crown again, a uncharacteristically tepid performance from the Japanese apparently caused by the trip over to Thailand. Even then, it was a close fight and a debatable decision, but as would be the case throughout his career Harada’s potential to wreak havoc was apparently shackled to the scales.
Bantamweight beckoned. No surprise, Harada already having had many fights above the 112lbs limit including that loss to Esparza.
Harada didn’t look to rebuild slowly after dropping his world title. He first tried desperately to arrange a fight with number one ranked bantamweight contender Jesus Pimentel, then regarded as the hardest puncher in boxing. The Japanese kid knew no fear. The fight didn’t come off, with Harada expected to build his name Stateside first against another opponent.
So they shipped over another Mexican puncher to Tokyo instead.
Jose Medel must have seemed like a calculated risk at the time. A veteran who had fallen short at world title level, mixed results in his last few, but still a top ten fighter. He was ranked fourth at bantam by ‘The Ring’ magazine, and his reputation as a puncher preceded him. He should have frightened young Harada, for he had more knockouts than the precocious Japanese had fights. He predicted a stoppage in five rounds, and his manager Lupe Sanchez said, “My boy is ready to go”, something that didn’t need to be said to anyone that knew Medel.
Harada’s manager Takeshi Sasazaki said it would undoubtedly be his man’s toughest fight to date. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain," he said.
Harada was humble about the showdown, a seeming lack of surety which seems out-of-place when you see him in the ring.
“I will fight my best," an Associated Press report quoted him as saying. “I am in better condition than I was in the flyweight class.”
The Japanese press seemed to have a good read on the upcoming bout, a United Press International report quoted them as saying it would be "most interesting - a clash between Harada’s all out rushing attack and Medel’s sharp counter punching off the ropes".
They nailed it. And Medel nailed Harada.
For much of the early going the Japanese battler looked like a man recently freed of a horrendous weight cut. He sprang out of his corner at the beginning of rounds and attacked Medel in the same gung-ho fashion he had used to obliterate Kingpetch. Gone was the Harada who had needed to take breaks and got outworked in close when he lost the flyweight title. Medel was trapped against the ropes - his preferred hang out - and had no answer to Harada’s seemingly unending output.
But while Medel appeared to be drowning, he knew where the air pockets were. He lashed out in the sixth, perhaps reading Harada’s patterns after rounds of seeing every possible combination of punches. In trying to finish Medel with a straight punching onslaught, his head not on-centre, his feet firmly planted, his arms moving so fast they didn’t return back in time to protect himself… If you have read the preceding entries in this countdown that feature Medel you should be able to put two-and-two together and come up with 'disaster for Harada'.
If it is obvious to you, it should have been obvious to Harada. But he was still a boy. Boys are naive, even former world champions. The exuberance of youth was as much Harada’s downfall as the punches he shipped.
You can hear it in the tone of the Japanese commentators. You needn’t speak the language. There was panic first, as Harada became disorganised, then woe as he hit the deck.
In one of those moments that perfectly encapsulates a fighter’s make-up in just a few seconds, Harada leapt back up and ran at Medel just as he did at the opening bell, trying to save the fight the only way he knew how; by throwing lots of power punches. He wasn’t called ‘Fighting’ Harada for his defensive boxing.
But Medel had his man, and zapped Harada again with accurate counter blows. The referee saved him, wisely.
“First fighter to knock me down was Medel. It was not so much the power in his punches, but the ability to time the counterpunches. He was a defensive fighter, and if you did not throw punches, you had no fear of being knocked down – but there would not be a fight, either”, Harada told The Ring in 2019.
Harada was an offensive prodigy who had won and lost a world title before his 21st birthday. But at this point he must have looked like a young man trapped between two worlds; the one where he’s a world-class flyweight who cannot comfortably make the weight, and the one where he’s a world-class bantamweight who can’t take the heat.
He wasn’t quite there.
Going for Gold
Harada worked his way back, with a few comeback victories that moved him up the totem pole of World Boxing Association challengers. When a fight with Jesus Pimentel to determine champion Eder Jofre’s next challenger again fell through (this time because the Mexican caught a stomach bug) Harada’s management were unhappy with the cancellation and took Pimentel to court, citing loss of earnings. The Mexican was waiting out a proposed title fight with Jofre later on in the year.
Top-ten ranked Ray Asis of the Philippines took Pimentel’s place. He was a good fighter, one who had engaged Pimentel and Medel in the preceding year, trading knockdowns with Pimentel before suffering the first knockout loss of his career, and outpointing Medel over ten. He was as good a substitute as could be found at short notice.
He showed it too, cutting Harada badly early on in the fight, a competitive one throughout in which Harada clobbered Asis and won the decision over ten. The cut was the only thing that added suspense to the fight, as "Harada was clearly the master" according to one ringside report, despite the Filipino’s gameness. Asis went down late, but although he sprung up quickly the referee kept a close eye on him. Harada was Harada, letting fly with both fists to the very end.
Eder Jofre watched from ringside. He told the Associated Press reporter he did not care who he defended his title against, and that was fortunate as his next challenger was still not determined.
Pimentel and his team counter-sued Harada and his management when Harada refused to return back to the States in September. It would be the third time they had tried to make the bout. The California commission suspended Harada from fighting there. The whole situation was a mess, although Harada’s team were correct in their rebuttal to these accusations; they had actually fought in L.A. when Pimentel didn’t show.
Pimentel’s manager Harry Kabakoff felt his man was far and away the better challenger;
“He just doesn’t have the talent to merit the rating," he said, of Harada’s ascension up the 118lb ranks. “He’s had only one fight against a ranked bantamweight and he didn’t beat him nearly as bad as Jesus did.”
While it’s true that Pimentel had stopped Ray Asis, he had also hit the deck against him. And even with Harada’s potent offence, he did not have the Mexican’s clout.
Harada answered one criticism of Pimentel’s team, picking up another win against a ranked opponent, rendering the cries of his lack of legitimacy null and void.
Katsutoshi Aoki might not have been the most durable of fighters but he was a legit, ranked contender with a swarming southpaw style and a serious dig. The Orient champ, he had made things uncomfortable for Jofre in his sole world title effort before having the wind taken out of him in three.
Aoki was part of a triumvate of talented Japanese lower weight fighters. Harada had already beaten the excellent Hiroyuki Ebihara when they were both rookies. Aoki still stood in his way.
“I do not believe I was born with a fighter’s talent and skill,” he said modestly. “When I first started boxing as a professional, there were three of us in the flyweight class that were rivals: Katsutoshi Aoki, Hiroyuki Ebihara and myself. They called us the three crows of the flyweights. Among the three of us, I believe I was the least talented. Ebihara had his ‘razor punch’ and Aoki had his ‘megaton punch’ named after their powerful punches. I think I was able to beat them from training harder than anyone and not losing the will to win.”
Harada’s will was on full display in the fight: Harada charged out of the gates like a greyhound and tore Aoki apart with a never-ending barrage. Aoki went down three times before the solace of sleep saved him from any further punishment. Harada looks monstrous in the footage of this bout, his jab unavoidable, his right hand thrown like he was pitching for the Yomiuri Giants.
Even now Harada shows respect for his domestic rival:
“My rival Aoki could punch. We fought in 1964 and I won in the third round by KO. But in the first round, Aoki hit me with a left that almost would have erased that win. He was a genius puncher. He used to brag that he did not have to train to win. Facing such an opponent, and training harder than anyone, there was no way I would lose. Even though it was a non-title fight, it was selected as the fight of the year in Japan.”
Fighting Harada had truly arrived at bantamweight, and was the number one ranked contender by both the WBA and The Ring magazine. The great Eder Jofre was in his sights.
"Harada wants Jofre bout" read the headline in the 15 January edition of The Pacific Stars & Stripes. Jofre soon accepted the challenge, and the outcome of the bout would be debated over the next few months. Jofre had not fought since November 1964, but he had been impressive, stopping Colombian slickster Bernardo Caraballo in seven. He had twice beaten Jose Medel, who had beaten Harada, and he was seen as unbeatable by many, a legendary champion in his own time.
"The uppermost question in Japan’s boxing circles today is: will Masahiko (Fighting) Harada be able to beat undefeated world bantamweight champion Eder Jofre of Brazil in their 15-round title match on 7 April?" read a Pacific Stars & Stripes article.
The Japanese press felt it was a close fight in reality. Perhaps swept away by nationalistic pride, they deemed Harada a tough fight for Jofre due to his swarming style, and harked back to his upsetting the odds once before, against Pone Kingpetch.
Not that Jofre didn’t have a clear path to win the fight.
"If Jofre doesn’t succeed in landing a knockout counter punch as Harada bores in with a one-two attack early on in the fight, then we will see a new world champion," said a United Press International report.
Harada’s manager Takeshi Sasazaki was seen to be encouraging his young charge, telling him “Jofre is not supernatural and can be beaten”.
Harada’s chances of dethroning Jofre were not only called into question, but his fluctuating weight was seen as a red flag.
The Pacific Stars & Stripes again: "Harada has been growing and has gained considerable weight. There are those who are worried he might have a difficult time scaling down to 118 pounds and that he will enter the ring a weakened fighter."
Harada’s manager Takeshi Sasazaki said there were no problems with making weight, that they now had more experience in the matter. Harada had already started to come down from his walk-round weight, which was over 130lbs.
Jofre would have to do the same. Title challenges at featherweight had been mooted for some time, but he was happy to keep defending his bantamweight title. Happy with a postponement anyway, to give himself more time to get into fighting shape. By the middle of March he was around 10lbs over the championship limit. The fight was moved back to May to accommodate him.
Jofre, a classy champion, felt Harada was a tough opponent with "fabulous technique".
Harada was typically humble in his assessment of the challenge ahead of him. He made it a 50-50 fight. He also showed some of the daring nature of his in-ring style;
“Jofre is a great fighter," he said, “But I’m not afraid of him."
With the bout delayed, Harada didn’t celebrate his 22nd birthday. He took part in a four-round exhibition on a pro card, and moved away from Tokyo to whip himself into the best shape possible.
Jofre had arrived in Tokyo, but the press were not getting anywhere near him. There were suspicions he was having trouble making weight, for journalists were barred from his training sessions. Others pondered whether he was just struggling with jet lag.
Jofre’s manager Abraham Katzenelson, however, was cocksure, already making preparations for his next title defence. He said his man was in much better condition than his last title defence in Japan (when he stopped Aoki) and scoffed at reports he was struggling to make weight. So confident was he, that he predicted that Jofre would knock Harada out in four or five rounds. The champion laughed it off and remained respectful of Harada’s class.
The fight was worth the wait. Warmly received at the time and holding up tremendously on film as one of the greatest title bouts of all time, Harada and Jofre put on a superb exhibition of both technical boxing and wild aggression.
Harada, of course, came sprinting out of his corner to start each round. The champion was measured and patient, as Jofre looked to counter Harada. The Brazilian had the arsenal to do so; equipped with a booming left hook, uppercuts with either hand and a right cross that had felled many excellent bantamweights.
Harada swarmed all over Jofre, with a greater focus on strategy not apparent in surviving footage of his earlier bouts, perhaps not wanting to over-commit as he did against Medel.
This approach paid off for Harada. When Jofre started to push him back in the fourth, Harada sensed an opportunity and seized it, cracking Jofre with a counter right uppercut.
It seemed innocuous at first. Sure, it had landed clean, but Jofre was an iron man, he had eaten an uppercut from Jose Medel and lived to tell the tale. Jofre’s poker face might have convinced even the Japanese buzzsaw to hold his cards close to his chest.
Then Jofre’s legs betrayed him. He staggered, only slightly.
Slightly was all Fighting Harada needed to flip the table over and launch the whole deck at Jofre.
Jofre was battered around the ring, perhaps as close to a knockout as he had ever been. His experience got him through the round, but Harada had gotten through to him.
Jofre was not called 'The Golden Bantam’ for nothing. In the very next stanza he showed his championship class, bossing it like the fourth had never happened.
Jofre would continue in the same vein throughout the fight. When he created space and got his timing down he whipped in hard counter punches that gave Harada pause for thought, but they were few and far between.
Could it be that Jofre was weight-drained, that he had come to the end of his bantamweight tenure?
He certainly didn’t appear to be a fighter who had left it all on the scales. The champ didn’t even take a seat between rounds until nearly all of them had been played out.
My theory, based on the film, is that the battle was fought and won based on the jab. With Harada’s consistent jabbing and feinting with the front hand, Jofre was unable to get a foothold in the fight long enough to get much going. He had to bide his time, wait for an opportunity rather than create one. He looked like a plodder at times in comparison to Harada’s in-and-out style, and rarely looked like the ring general despite having a reputation for wading through the battlefield on terms of his own choosing.
It is with this jab that Harada won the late rounds when Jofre decided enough was enough and tried desperately to make something happen. If the prediction of an early knockout was way off, the proud champion tried his best to turn the tide late. And like everyone Harada fought found out at some stage or another, trying to move inside the jab only lined you up for Harada’s baseball pitcher right.
A close split decision followed after 15, but the footage shows a clear winner. The now deposed champion of Brazil, all class, raised Harada’s hand.
Harada’s kamikaze style had won many fights for him, and it had won portions of this bout too, but in a post-Medel world Harada had learned where and when to attack. He was a different animal now, just as savage, but more cerebral.
Hal Drake, sportswriter for the Pacific Stars & Stripes was confounded by the ebb-and-flow of the bout. He felt that as Jofre had convincingly shown himself the best puncher in the division after twice besting Jose Medel that he should have done the same to Harada. Harada had not managed to circumnavigate Medel, how could he have outsmarted Jofre?
"This was the Medel who faced Jofre twice and was both times beaten into groggy, staggering wreckage. Whatever could this wild, leaping Japanese kid do against the champion? Where was Harada Tuesday night? Whatever happened to the wide-open, heads-up slugger? Harada fought a smart and perfect fight, wearing down the bullish Brazilian with ripping long-range combinations. When he had to fight inside, where Jofre is deadly, Harada carefully kept that lethal left hand welded to the champion’s side. He took no stupid chances, anytime, and won going away."
It had taken a devastating knockout defeat, but Fighting Harada had come of age.
Not that he had the same perception of his now-famous victory as the pressmen.
“I was lucky to win and I’m just too happy to say anything else," said the new champion.
Jofre gave Harada credit, and although he made no excuses he said he was butted in close and that it affected him; a hazard of the job when fighting a swarmer. The Brazilian also said he wasn’t yet sure what his next move would be. Retirement maybe? A fight for the world featherweight title? A rematch with Harada?
Give it a year. Harada would have another bantamweight battler from the other side of the world to contend with first, tough scouser Alan Rudkin.
The Boxing Beatle
Too much stock nowadays is put in an undefeated record, but Alan Rudkin was pretty much unbeaten. A cut loss in his second pro fight (in a contest he was winning) which was avenged soon after, Rudkin was the best bantam in Britain and Europe, world ranked (fifth by The Ring magazine) and coming off the back of a string of impressive victories. Among them, European bantam champ Mimoun Ben Ali in a non-title bout and former Harada foe Ray Asis by decisions, and once-world title claimant Johnny Caldwell, cut and stopped in ten in a grueling encounter.
Rudkin was tough as nails with quick hands and feet and, perhaps most importantly going into a fight with Harada, he was strong as a bull. He could box, he could fight, and he could handle himself in close.
Both were in their early 20s, with Rudkin the slightly older man at 24 despite looking like a schoolboy.
But appearances can be deceptive.
“When I first saw him I felt I had nothing to worry about," Harada said, “then I shook hands with him. There was too much strength there for comfort.”
Yet Rudkin was eating three meals a day and already under the bantam limit eight days before fight night. It will be no surprise to read that the champ was said to be struggling to make weight. He looked fatigued at a press conference and odds were slashed to evens. When Rudkin had first came out East the champ had been a firm favourite.
But Rudkin sparred nearly 100 rounds to prepare, and had impressed in his public workouts. One of his sparring partners was future lineal featherweight champ Kuniaki Shibata, and Rudkin showed off his speed to the Japanese press, who said he looked good while conceding he was holding back, lest he give away his strategy.
Harada had blown up after his win against Jofre. One report said to 135lbs, another said 140lbs, and Harada himself put himself nearer the junior middleweight limit! Either way, he had a lot of weight to shed and was around 123lbs a few days out from his first defence. Japan’s first ever world boxing champ Yoshio Shirai was unimpressed, and said Harada looked flabby.
Harada worked himself into the bantam limit, and both men needed to be in great shape; it was a tough 15-round fight. At range, Harada’s sharper blows seemed to have more effect. In close it was tit-for-tat. Both dug into the body, and both traded jabs. Rudkin took a few rounds to get into it, and was given a count in the first for what looked like a slip. But as the rounds went on he got closer, and found Harada happy to slug it out with him.
It was a fight so competitive it could only have a close decision at the end, with Harada prevailing by 2, 6 and 9 points on the scorecards. I feel the first of those most closely represents the ebb and flow of the fight, and legendary scribe and pundit Reg Gutteridge agreed. He called the retaining champ a "savage throwback", and described the battle thus:
"Rudkin stood like a little ancient gladiator accepting punishment to the limit of his endurance without flinching. He was unquestionably the classier performer, but for Harada it was a straightforward scrap graced with the formality of six-ounce gloves. They tore at each other like spirited bantam cocks. Rudkin fought desperately and defiantly. But he cannot truthfully complain that he was robbed."
The Pacific Stars & Stripes report compared Harada to Henry Armstrong, and said although the fight was closely contested throughout, Harada called on his "astonishing reserve of stamina" to win the 15th round and leave no doubt as to who the champion was.
Harada was full of praise for his challenger, saying he was the fastest man he had met, and crediting Rudkin’s movement for his first defence having gone the distance.
Harada would not defend his title again for six months. When he did, it would be against a familiar foe.
1966: Jofre Returns to Japan
“If it goes on like this, I think the time has come to hang up my gloves."
So said Eder Jofre after a ten-round draw with tough American bantam Manny Elias.
One of those Brazilian draws whereupon Jofre would have to win by four clear rounds to take the decision, it was still a competitive match-up. Both men were about 5lbs over the bantam limit, and although Jofre got his licks in, he seemed dejected after the fight.
‘O Estado’, a large Sao Paulo newspaper, said that Jofre’s performance meant he was no longer a viable contender to the bantamweight crown.
Meanwhile, Fighting Harada was not only finding it hard to make bantamweight, he was also having his own issues in over the weight bouts. He apologised for what he felt was a poor performance against unranked Korean Soo Kang Suh; It went the full 12, and although the Japanese press blamed the Korean’s negative tactics for the result, Harada sounded similarly depressed to Jofre. This was a preemptive strike on the featherweight division, where Harada was aiming to win his third world title, which again brought comparisons to the great Henry Armstrong. Yet he was "mediocre", in his own words.
A rematch between the two should not have been too exciting then, despite the brilliance of their first go. The world title got them both energised.
Jofre’s team still had faith in him. His weight was said to be more controlled than before, down about five pounds from his walking around weight at the time of the first Harada bout, and his father and trainer Aristides Jofre made a bold claim regarding the rematch: “I’ll cut my throat if Harada lasts more than five.”
“I don’t know why Jofre Senior made that statement," replied Harada’s manager Takeshi Sasazaki. “But if he is really serious, then I must try and select another opponent because I don’t to be responsible [for cutting his own throat]."
The fight had been mandated by the WBA, and was set for late May, a little over a year after their classic 15-rounder.
“I’m dieting as never before," said Jofre, as quoted by the Pacific Stars & Stripes. “I used to set my own diet, but now the doctor is guiding and supervising me”.
Jofre had recently had his tonsils out, and his father told the same paper that he was in far better condition than last time. His condition was what Jofre blamed for the first loss of his career.
“I didn’t eat for many hours before the weigh-in," he said. “I was weak. But this time my weight is right well before the fight. I will not need to diet drastically."
Jofre came in well under the bantam limit at 116lbs, the lightest he had weighed for six years.
Harada looked fit and in good spirits. Any talk of weight issues was again dismissed by his team. He would win or lose based on his performance only.
Japanese sports writers were hesitant to pick a winner, although Harada’s youth was seen as some as a potential difference maker. Both camps predicted a knockout victory.
15,000 spectators at the Budokan were treated to another excellent contest. Jofre certainly looked lighter on his feet in the early going. He was able to hold centre ring, was more proactive with his jab and landed solid counter punches to head and body.
It was the fifth round this time and not the fourth that Harada went all-out. He backed the challenger up and unleashed with both hands, but Jofre was better prepared. He clubbed Harada round the side of the head with his right hand, and dug in on the inside.
Harada counteracted this as the rounds went on. Dipping outside of Jofre’s jab, he sent in right hand smashes to the body, then bore in and clinched, preventing Jofre from firing back.
The fight was competitive throughout and Jofre managed to sustain his quality punching, but Harada showed he was the stronger man down the stretch. A nasty cut on Jofre’s left eyebrow left Harada’s trunks "streaked like a surgeon’s smock" according to one report. Jofre complained about butting after the fight again (Harada was deducted a point after being warned twice) but he looked tired out during Harada’s 15th round rally, hanging onto Harada "like a drowning man clinging to flotsam" as the fight ended.
Harada took a unanimous decision, proving without question that the first fight was no fluke. It was a close one just as their first bout had been, with the referee, both judges, the Associated Press and Pacific Stars & Stripes scoring for the champion. The United Press International correspondent had it a draw, so had Harada not had a point docked it would have made for a clean sweep.
Joe Koizumi, writing for ‘The Ring’ magazine, saw it as an even contest for the first six rounds, with Harada pulling away from the eighth with "heavier hits, speed and effective combinations". Koizumi noted that Jofre "still exhibited much of the skill that made him famous", but that it wasn’t enough to win.
Jofre spoke openly about retirement after the fight. He would take a three-year sabbatical, return to win a second world championship, and never lose again.
If the great Jofre could not catch Harada with a counter punch to take the title, who could?
"A Mexican mystery was solved today" wrote sports scribe Dave Taylor in the Bakersfield Californian, 7 December 1965.
That mystery concerned who the most dangerous bantam south of the border was.
When Jose Medel ripped into Jesus Pimentel late in their fight, there was no longer any debate, a "clear cut decision' after ten favouring Medel, who put an end to his countryman’s 38-fight winning streak.
Medel had been on a tear since he’d shocked Japan and blasted Harada in six. Future world flyweight champ Walter McGowan was caught by his sharp counter punches and destroyed in the same amount of rounds; for the rest of his career he’d only ever be stopped on cuts. Tough Ray Asis beat Medel over ten, but was annihilated in three a few months later.
His record since Harada was an impressive 9-1-1, with five men not not able to survive the sniper.
After they had traded punches for a second time, Harada would say it was the toughest title fight he had ever had.
Harada limited his rushes, well aware of the danger Medel presented. The Japanese commentary team laughed when Harada backed off with the challenger cornered, as nervous as the champion.
The champion jabbed, moved, and popped off shots designed to score points rather than damage.
But Medel was no slouch; in the sixth he stopped waiting for his chance, and created one himself, the mark of a great puncher. With his back to the ropes, he advanced out behind his jab, forcing Harada to concede ground, using it to distract from the pistol he had cocked by his side.
Then he fired it, whipping a slashing right hand around Harada’s guard. Harada was in disarray just as he was in their first meeting, and Medel moved in to finish him off.
Harada displayed the markedly smarter work of a champion, tying Medel up to regain his senses. When Medel tried the same baiting tactics a minute later, Harada read it well, closing the distance and sitting on Medel’s chest to prevent another attack.
Medel had his moments again, hurting Harada again in the tenth and in the dying seconds of the bout. But Harada clung on and had punched out a unanimous decision victory, showing off how much he had improved since their disastrous first meeting.
“I was well aware of Medel’s feinting tactics," said Harada after the bout, “and think I succeeded in coping with it by ducking, head-slipping and in-fighting."
Medel’s manager Lupe Sanchez credited Harada for his tactics and had no complaints about the result.
“Medel was good tonight but Harada was a better fighter," he said. “I admit that Medel was defeated. Harada showed himself to be a much better fighter than three years ago when Medel defeated him in Tokyo."
Harada had avenged the only knockout loss of his career, showing he was a great champion in his absolute prime, a far cry from the boy who was tricked by Medel.
British press were in attendance, with a rematch against Alan Rudkin in the works.
Desmond Hackett of The Daily Express advised any Brits hopeful of taking Harada’s crown to “stay clear of this fighting tornado”.
It would be a South American, though, who was next to challenge Harada. Long, tricky Colombian Bernardo Caraballo had given Jofre a few issues with his slick boxing before being beaten down in seven. Since that loss - the only one of his career - he had gone an impressive 11-0-1, his most notable showing a decision win over top ten talent Waldemiro Pinto of Brazil, who sported an astonishing 52-0 record. He had been training for his title chance for five months, studying footage of Harada.
On film of his own fights, Caraballo looks very much the kind of stylist who might have racked up double-digit defences of some alphabet title had he been born decades later.
But Fighting Harada was the main man, and Caraballo was just another worthy challenger. A United Press International report said many Japanese writers favoured the challenger to come out victorious, citing yet another battle against the scales for Harada.
Caraballo proved his worth right away: Not long after the gong rang to start round one, Harada was airborne, a leaping left hook-cum-uppercut catching the champ cold. By the end of the first, the champ had fired back, a one-two combo sending the Colombian slickster to the canvas.
After the first round it looked like it might be a thriller. But the fight ended up a torrid one, marred by clinching and roughhouse work from both men. Harada’s activity got him the win.
It would be the fifth successful world bantamweight title fight for Harada. It would also be his last.
Lionel Rose would become champion the following year with a superb display of boxing that not even Harada could overcome. You can read all about that in Rose’s entry, for it took the tenth greatest bantam of all time (for my money) to take Harada’s crown from him. Watching the film, it’s hard to think of another stylist of Rose’s ilk that could have turned the trick.
After losing his crown, the pride of Tokyo would finally make his assault on the best the featherweight class had to offer. Another Aussie would be in the opposite corner for his featherweight title challenge, and like Rose he was a highly-skilled boxer.
WBC featherweight champ Johnny Famechon was a gritty Aussie who could box as well as he could fight. Harada fought excellently, dropping the champ multiple times, but was denied his chance to equal Henry Armstrong by featherweight great Willie Pep, who first scored the fight a draw, then changed it to a win for Famechon, influenced by a howling partisan crowd.
They were actually hollering about the draw, thinking Harada the winner, and the press dubbed it an outrage that Harada left Australia without the belt. Harada fared less well back home, being brutally stopped in the 14th round of a necessary rematch with Famechon, the last stand of a great fighter.
It is Harada’s incredible run at bantamweight that sees him achieve all-time great status and a deserved place in the Hall Of Fame. But what of his placing here at number four?
Certainly if you seek out countdowns of the all-time great bantams elsewhere - your interest piqued by this list perhaps - you will often find Eder Jofre in the top spot. As discussed in the essay that ranked him fifth overall, a case can be made for him being there.
It is also worth mentioning that when you’re discussing fighters this great you’re splitting hairs trying to separate them.
But splitting hairs is what we have to do here. True, it took Harada two attempts to beat Medel. Sure, he didn’t beat Bernardo Caraballo as emphatically as Jofre did. But this is not a list of the greatest bantamweight punchers, or Jofre would be near the front of the pack with Harada not visible in the Brazilian’s rear view mirror.
I am of the opinion that Alan Rudkin was a better fighter than Johnny Caldwell, so Harada ‘trumps’ Jofre there, although, of course, this is all subjective. Of the unified bantamweight title, Jofre made five defences, Harada four. Jofre was compared to ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson in his prime; Harada, to Henry Armstrong. That they were both compared to pound-for-pound legends of the highest order speaks volumes.
Their placing next to each other is not contrived, although the two men were inextricably linked forever, one great reign ended and one great reign begun at each other’s fists, two classic battles. They are just that close in terms of their quality.
It may seem unfair that Jofre misses out on the bantamweight Mount Rushmore but I’ll say it again; you’re splitting hairs this far up the mountain. The only hairs I can split are those of that golden Brazilian scalp that sits proudly on the ring record of Fighting Harada.
The final word goes to ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, feared as a fistic terror at the other end of the scale but also renowned as a historian and scholar of old fight films. He spoke to the Japanese press before he crushed Tony Tubbs in Tokyo, and could not help but show some respect to one of his favourites:
"I would like to acknowledge a great champion of your country, Fighting Harada. I'm a great admirer of his. I have studied film of his fight with Eder Jofre. I admire Fighting Harada's nonstop style.”
Next up we will meet the bantam ranked third overall; the stylistic opposite of Harada, and the antithesis of legendary champions Ortiz and Jofre. With a spotty record, erratic title reigns, and losses against some of the best bantams he faced, you may be wondering why he places third.
But oh, what bantams they were!
Kyle McLachlan would like to thank Alan Rudkin Jr. for kindly supplying research material for the writing of this essay, and Matt McGrain for his counsel.
This article was originally published on boxingmonthly.com and was edited by Luke G.Williams. You can purchase Luke’s excellent book Richmond Unchained here