from the Mike Casey Archives...
Masahiko Harada: Last Hurrah Of The Little Emperor

By Mike Casey

One of the wonderfully enduring qualities of boxing is its effortless ability to blast a hole straight through everything you think you know. You accumulate half a lifetime of ring knowledge, factor in every conceivable component and then reel back stunned as all logic and sense flies out of the window.

My father, as worldly a man as I have ever met, sounded like an innocent who had missed the starting gun when he told me some years ago of his reaction to Willie Pep's fourth round knockout defeat to Sandy Saddler. "Nobody knocked out Pep," dad said, still shaking his head forty years after the event. "It just wasn't done."

Like father, like son. I was no less shattered when Muhammad Ali humbled George Foreman or when Lloyd Honeyghan dismantled the imperious and seemingly untouchable Donald Curry. But my first real jolt came as a ten-year old boy when a Japanese ball of fury named Masahiko (Fighting) Harada relieved the great Eder Jofre of the bantamweight championship in Nagoya, Japan. How I idolised Jofre! Nobody had beaten the Brazilian genius and surely nobody ever would. My childish scenario of the supreme Eder had him rounding off his professional log at 100-0 before returning to the temple of the gods from whence he came.

Then I'll be damned if Harada didn't do it again. He won a thrilling return match in Tokyo to send Jofre spluttering into the first and only period of uncertainty in his incredible career. Eder would retire for more than three years before his spectacular rise from the ashes to claim featherweight honours.

Fighting Harada was far from being an unknown quantity, yet the shocking vibes of his double whammy over Jofre were heard around the world. But just how good and permanent was the little Japanese ace? As a precocious 19-year old, he had won and lost the flyweight championship in the short space of three months. Would Harada flash through the bantamweight division in similarly quick time? He would answer that question emphatically by bossing the 118-pounders for nearly three years. His eventual dethronement in 1968, at the hands of Australian aborigine, Lionel Rose, was almost as surprising as the fall of Jofre. The multi-talented Rose, a natural who never truly fulfilled his wonderful potential, employed some clever kidology to fool the Harada camp, including passing himself off as a pipe-smoking man of leisure. Rose outpointed Harada and it seemed that the Japanese buzzsaw was on he wane as a world class competitor.

Not so! Harada moved up in weight again and began to attack the featherweights with equal zest and determination. He outpointed the tough and rugged Dwight Hawkins, knocked out Nobuo Chiba in seven rounds and posted two other wins against a sole, upset points loss to the capable Alton Colter. Harada's target was the debonair Australian world champion, Johnny Famechon, and their first battle would prove to be one of the most controversial of the decade.

For Harada, a golden legacy beckoned. He stood on the verge of everlasting glory as he attempted to join Bob Fitzsimmons, Henry Armstrong, Tony Canzoneri and Barney Ross as one of the select group of men who had won three undisputed world championships. Even if Masahiko failed in his quest, his place among history's outstanding world champions was assured. He had beaten the best men in two divisions, and the victories over Jofre were the unblemished jewels in Harada's crown.

Jofre, after all, had seemed to be on a different plane to his peers. He had reigned as champion for five years and seen off the challenges of Piero Rollo, Ramon Arias, Johnny Caldwell, Herman Marques, Jose (Joe) Medel, Katsutoshi Aoki, Johnny Jamito and Bernardo Caraballo. Jofre at least had the consolation of passing his crown to a near equal. Harada was the epitome of the top class Japanese fighter: intensely proud, fiercely dedicated, totally committed to his cause. He was never a big puncher, but rather a pressure fighter who combined aggression with ring cleverness. His punishing, whirlwind attacks simply wore Jofre out in their second meeting.

Masahiko had turned professional in 1960 at the age of sixteen and punched his way to 13 successive wins before the end of that year, including a six-rounds decision over his compatriot and future champion, Hiroyuki Ebihara. Harada extended his unbeaten run to 25 fights before losing a decision to the tough Mexican, Edmundo Esparza, but the defeat was a mere blip in the youngster's progress. Just four months later, Harada hit his top form to rip the flyweight championship from the formidable Pone Kingpetch on an eleventh round knockout in Tokyo. Kingpetch, a great and determined warrior in his own right who had ended the era of the fabulous Pascual Perez, quickly regained the crown from Masahiko on a majority decision in Bangkok. It was a frustrating reverse for the young Japanese tiger, but his mind was set on frying bigger fish and it was among the bantamweights that he found his natural home. 

Once his feet were under the table, Harada quickly shut the door in the face of those contenders who might have believed that Jofre's departure would result in the world championship being less monopolised. During his tenure as champion of the 118-pounders, Harada outpointed Liverpool's skillful 'moptop' Alan Rudkin in a superbly competitive contest and also turned back the challenges of previous conqueror Joe Medel and Bernardo Caraballo. How one sympathises with Medel and Caraballo, two class acts in their own right. After being savaged by Jofre, they got Harada for an encore!

My good pal and fellow writer and historian, Ted (The Bull) Sares, has always held Harada in very high esteem. Of the 100 best fighters he has seen down through the years, Ted ranks the little warrior from Tokyo 34th. Here are The Bull’s thoughts: “Along with Yoko Gushiken and Jiro Watanabe, Fighting Harada is one of the three greatest Japanese fighters of all time, but what sets him apart from the others is that he fought 62 times (55-7), an unusually high number for a retiring Japanese champion, who generally retire before their 30th fight.

“Like Gushiken, Harada was a pressure fighter who could alternate between body work and going to the head. Combined with great stamina, this usually proved effective against his opponents. Of course, his record could well be 56-6-1 had unqualified Willie Pep not been appointed the referee and only judge when Harada ‘lost’ to Johnny Famechon in Australia in 1969.

“I met Harada and his lovely sister at the Hall of Fame this past June and he is articulate and every bit the professional, reflecting the high respect with which he is held in Japan.”

Johnny Famechon

When Harada pitted his fire and brimstone against the deft skills of Johnny Famechon in Australia on July 28, 1969, boxing fans saw a fight that encompassed all those qualities that make the Noble Art the ultimate test of a man's mettle. There wasn't just a big dollop of controversy. There was action, skill, courage and honest endeavour.

It seemed that controversy followed Johnny Famechon around, most often because his skills were of the subtlest nature and not always seen or appreciated. There was nothing flashy or extrovert about Johnny, no gaudy party tricks or exaggerated double takes to remind the audience of his cleverness. Thankfully (in this writer's opinion at least), there was less pressure on boxing's true artisans to prove themselves in the not so distant days of the nineteen sixties. The boxing masters of the game didn't have to beef up their portfolios with tacky gesturing, meaningless shuffles or ring apparel that even a Parisien tart wouldn't keep in her wardrobe.

Famechon had won the world title on a controversial decision earlier in 1969, when he outpointed the flashy and skillful Cuban, Jose Legra, in London. I was one of the minority who believed that decision to be just, having been greatly impressed by the Australian's clever work. A beautiful boxer, blessed with a superb left jab, Famechon was a delight to watch, the kind of fistic artist who could make boxing look as graceful as ballet. I liked the man's style and I liked his attitude.

Like Gene Tunney before him, Famechon had his life planned out. In 1967, at the age of 22, he was quoted as saying, "I have given myself until I'm 25. Another three years and I hope everything I want will be achieved." He didn't mention a world championship, but one sensed exactly what he meant. How nice it is to have such grand dreams, but how much nicer to have the talent to be able to fulfill them! Famechon achieved his goal, but not without years of great dedication and hard work.

Johnny was a professional at 16, having had no amateur experience, but he did have two aces up his sleeve: classic boxing heritage in the form of his father, Andre, and uncles Ray and Emile, and a crack trainer-manager in Ambrose Palmer.

As a boy, Johnny Famechon's interest in the sport blossomed as he watched his father going through his paces in the gymnasium. At the age of 15, Johnny wandered into Ambrose Palmer's Melbourne gym, where man and boy struck up the magical relationship that would help Famechon climb to the pinnacle of his profession. Palmer didn't rush Johnny. He brought his young charge along slowly and carefully, patiently correcting his faults and meticulously polishing and refining his style. Johnny was a raw young boy when he made his professional debut against Sammy Lang in 1961, but was moving up fast by 1964 when he outpointed Les Dunn for the Victorian featherweight title. Famechon had added maturity to his natural talent and was improving with every fight.

Four months later, he annexed his second professional title when he outscored Ollie Taylor for the Australian championship. Johnny continued to hone his skills with a succession of victories over international fighters, enabling him to rise steadily up the rankings. When he stopped Scotland’s John O’Brien for the Empire title in 1967, Famechon could think realistically of winning the world championship.

Had fate not intervened in the form of the Spain-based Cuban ace, Jose Legra, Johnny would have almost certainly challenged Welsh wizard Howard Winstone, who had won the WBC version of the title by stopping Mitsunori Seki in early 1968. Like so many appealing matches that never materialised, we can only fantasise about the gorgeous feast of pure boxing that a Famechon-Winstone encounter would have surely produced.

However, it was Legra who got the first chance against Howard, and Jose capitalized in grand style by punching his way to the title in five rounds. Famechon kept busy by stopping Billy McGrandle in a successful defence of the Empire title, and then came the big fight against Legra at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A video of that contest would provide the perfect test for an aspiring boxing judge, for it was a duel between two men of contrasting skills which revived the age-old question of how a fight should be scored. Legra was unquestionably a highly competent ring mechanic, as his lengthy and impressive record proved, but too often his colourful, showboating style made him flatter to deceive.

Famechon was a plainer and purer artist, whose style was uncomplicated and devoid of unorthodox moves. Against Legra, Johnny’s work was frequently made to look unattractive, but he doggedly stuck to the prime task of scoring points and referee George Smith was astute enough to see the wood for the trees.

However, Famechon was soon to prove that he possessed the heart and grit to go with his subtle finesse, as well as the capacity to thrill the crowd. It took the ferocious Harada to unlock those harder qualities in the young Australian. When the two men locked horns on Johnny’s turf at the Sydney Stadium, Harada was eager to silence the partisan crowd by showing that there was still fire in his soul and power in his punches. He would come agonizingly close to victory and be denied only by a bizarre set of circumstances The heavier man by one and a quarter pounds at 125 3/4lbs, Masahiko took the fight to Johnny in characteristically aggressive style, and referee Willie Pep, the legendary featherweight boxing master, simply let the fighters fight. In fact Willie was later criticised for being too relaxed in his approach to the roughhouse fighting that was to develop. Pep’s leniency would prove to be the least of his indiscretions. Let us say, for diplomacy’s sake, that as a referee Willie Pep was one heck of a fighter.

Famechon, boxing smartly behind his left jab, narrowly won the first round, but in the second his grip on the title slipped alarmingly as Harada sprung the first sensation. Johnny was faring well when the fiery challenger suddenly found the range with a heavy right to the jaw. The blow shook Famechon and for a split second he seemed to freeze like a mime artist. Harada saw his chance and winged in two more rights to the head to send Johnny to the canvas.

The champion was clearly dazed, and after taking the mandatory eight count he attempted to clear his head as he held on to Harada. Famechon fought back towards the end of the round, but the knockdown had fuelled Harada’s confidence. The veteran campaigner maintained his advantage in the following rounds as he continued to pressure Johnny. The champion kept pumping out his jab as if the punch were a remote machine strapped to his shoulder, but it seemed his natural skill wasn’t enough to contain the fiery man from the Orient.

Then a shaft of light suddenly appeared for Johnny in the fifth round when he uncorked a long left hook that caught Masahiko as he was moving away. The challenger went down and it appeared that the pattern of the fight might be changing. But two-time world champions are fashioned from special material and Harada stubbornly refused to surrender the initiative. Famechon tried hard to capitalize on his great chance, but Masahiko scored with a hard right to the head and it was apparent that he was still highly alert and dangerous.

As the fight swung into the middle rounds, the advantage shifted subtly from one man to the other, as Famechon jabbed and counter punched impressively and Harada attacked with all his old beef and zest. Johnny proved his mettle as he repeatedly took hard punches and replied with some graceful and classy boxing, but as the battle reached its later stages, so it was clear that he was being overtaken by his determined challenger. Harada was an absolute dynamo when he got up a head of steam. Much like Henry Armstrong, Harry Greb and the young and lithe Roberto Duran, the Japanese terror kept hunting and hustling and throwing. Someone once said of Duran that he seemed to be trying to punch his way right through Jose (Pipino) Cuevas. Natural born warriors always give such an impression. The sophisticated world shrinks right down into their one square little acre where the only important consideration is the winner of the oldest test of supremacy there is.

Now Famechon knew what it like to share an oven with a man of such intensity. In the eleventh round, Johnny was forced to employ all his evasive skills as Harada swarmed forward with great purpose. The fighting was rough and tough, and while the battle couldn’t be termed a thrilling affair, it was certainly an engrossing struggle that fizzed with incident and suspense. As hard as he tried, Johnny couldn’t solve the problem of Harada’s fast right hand, which whipped across with force to spill the champion for the second time in the fight. It was here that Famechon got his first big break. Referee Pep ruled the knockdown a slip, yet curiously sent Harada to a neutral corner to cause an unnecessary delay in the action. Why, oh why, had the great Willie been given the job? Nothing infuriates a fighter more than an unjust pause in the action when he is in full flow.

Famechon held on desperately as the two fighters grappled on the ropes. The champion now looked in imminent danger of being overwhelmed. Again he clawed his way out of trouble, but his instinct and his guile were no match for Harada’s burning desire to win. Masahiko had his third championship firmly in his sights and was fighting with that magical drive of a man who knows he can’t be beaten.

In the thirteenth round, Johnny tried manfully to turn the tide, but enjoyed only a few successful moments and was grateful to clinch whenever he could. Even his most ardent supporters must have feared that the crown was slipping from his head, yet the game champion kept throwing punches even though his blows now lacked authority.

The last two rounds of the fight must have seemed like an interminable nightmare for Famechon, as Harada laid all his cards on the table and steamed forward with the intensity of a man possessed. Johnny’s resistance was draining rapidly, and in the fourteenth round his senses were scattered again as Harada cut him down with a ferocious right cross. But the gods were most certainly with Famechon on this crazy and frenetic night, for he arose just before the welcome sound of the bell and was able to plod back to the sanctuary of his corner. Had Masahiko timed his onslaught with greater precision, he would have surely won the championship in that round.

Sensing his chance of a stunning victory, Harada mounted another furious attack that had Famechon in complete disarray in a wildly exciting fifteenth and final round. Johnny sought shelter from the storm, but could find no place to hide as the punches rained in. He was driven around the ring to cries of “Stop it!” from the crowd of ten thousand. Instinct made him clutch at Harada whenever possible, but it looked for all the world as though the brave champion was on his way out. However, referee Pep allowed the action to continue to the final bell and then came the controversy.

Prising the fighters out of a clinch, Willie signalled a draw by raising both their arms amidst a storm of booing. Famechon’s face broke into a huge smile of relief, while Harada bore the astonished look of a man who had just cracked a safe after much ado and been met with a greeting card that read, ‘Ever been had?’

The booing and jeering increased when Pep re-checked his card and discovered that Johnny had won the fight by a point. It was a confusing and unfortunate ending to a splendid battle, leaving Famechon as a tainted champion and Harada an unlucky victim of cruel fate. There was a touch of irony to Johnny’s success, for in 1950 his uncle Ray had failed to win the same title when challenging, of all people, Willie Pep!

A return fight between Famechon and Harada was in order to settle the question of supremacy and in January, 1970, the two fighters came together again on Harada’s home turf in Tokyo. For Masahiko, however, it was too late. In an incredible battle that surpassed their first meeting for excitement, Famechon proved himself a thoroughbred champion by surviving a knockdown to knock out Harada in the fourteenth round.

It was the end of the road for the grand little emperor from the Land of the Rising Sun, and he was sensible enough not to try his luck again. After all, when you’ve beaten Eder Jofre twice, you have no need to worry about your place in the history books.

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