TOKYO (TR) – Visitors at the entrance of Koichi Wajima’s gym in Nishi Ogikubo, Tokyo, are welcomed by a grainy, black-and-white photo of the owner as a young boxer, his gloved fists raised and a distant look in his eyes. Cracking the door to the gym, the smell of stale sweat is overpowering. A few fighters lift weights, pound leather bags and skip rope, while others spar in the ring in the middle of the room.
It may be 30 years since Wajima lifted a belt, but there’s little doubt that he retains his old-school principles. “I was the first in and the last out,” says the 65-year-old of his former workout regimen. “I thought that if I were doing the same thing as everyone else I wouldn’t get any better. I wanted to make an effort that was four, five, or even 10 times greater than everyone else.”
Sitting in his office, Wajima, whose bulging forearms look like they could go a few rounds even today, acknowledges the importance of physical strength and conditioning in boxing, but rates inner toughness as even more crucial. As if to reinforce this belief, he repeats it over and over with the same relentlessness that he thrust upon his opponents on his way to becoming a three-time world light-middleweight champion.
It all starts with the greeting, he asserts. On any evening, two dozen boxers — mainly young hopefuls, students and a few salarymen looking to blow off steam — filter into the gym. Before getting changed, each one opens Wajima’s office door and bellows a drawl of a greeting. With a wave of his right hand, Wajima barks back a reply. “The reason I teach the importance of the greeting is because I want the students to realize that motivation starts from within oneself,” he says.
When not in his office, Wajima can be seen hanging over the ring’s ropes shouting instructions or scrutinizing a trainee as he batters a punching bag. The former champ believes that properly balancing praise and criticism is vital in training his young charges. “Sometimes I need to yell to tell them how bad they are, and I do show my anger, but the opposite, too,” admits Wajima. “When the kids are good, I praise them.”
The gym, whose 15,000-yen entry fee is actually lower than it was 20 years ago, boasts around 150 members, some of whom, including Wajima’s 31-year-old son, Hirokazu, fight in professional bouts at Korakuen Hall. (Hirokazu won his first pro fight at Korakuen earlier this year.)
Born in Karafuto, in present-day Sakhalin, Russia, in 1943, Wajima first worked as a truck driver in Tokyo and started training in 1968. Just six months later, at the age of 25, he fought his first professional bout. “It’s very common for boxers to retire at 25,” he says. “People thought it was strange. But that gave me a lot of motivation — I wanted to change their minds.”
Unusual, too, was his style in the ring. Known as the “man of persistence,” Wajima primarily boxed low, his chin down near his chest. A furious attacker, who relied on strong uppercuts, lightning-fast hands and the stamina of a bull, his trademark uppercut from a crouched position came to be referred to as the “frog punch.”
In 1969, Wajima beat Noriyasu Yoshimura for the Japanese light-middleweight title. Two years later, he took on Carmelo Bossi for the world title. “Against Bossi, I didn’t have complete confidence,” Wajima recalls, “and everybody thought I would lose.”
But from the outset, Wajima realized that his Italian opponent wasn’t landing many punches. With the 15-round bout a draw at the halfway point, Wajima’s confidence began to grow and he unleashed punch after punch to win a split decision. “I was very proud at the time,” says Wajima, who became the first Japanese world champion in that weight class. “If you make the effort, everything comes back to you.”
Successfully defending his title six times, he finally lost to American Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado in 1974. Wajima, however, regained the belt twice more before retiring in 1977 with an impressive record of 31 wins, including 25 KOs, six losses and one draw.
After his final fight, Wajima realized that he had to do something to secure his future. He opened a store selling dango, Japanese sweet dumplings, in Tokyo’s Kokubunji district. “I have seen other boxers lose it all,” explains Wajima, who has appeared on numerous TV programs as well as in the 1995 boxing flick Tokyo Fist. “I thought that if I sold a good product cheaply, I could make a little money.”
That determination to succeed, which served Wajima well in the ring, is what he now passes onto those who walk through the doors of his gym everyday. “I educate my students to be more than simply good boxers,” he says. “If they stop boxing, I want them to continue living with a strong mental outlook. I teach them to be ambitious about everything.”
Note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.