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Boxing Lessons

A/P/A Heritage Series

A month-long series of Asian-Pacific American stories to celebrate A/P/A Heritage Month

When I was a little kid, my grandfather told me to punch him in the stomach as hard as I could.

I must have been about elementary school age, meaning he was in the neighborhood of 70. I tried to beg off out of fear for his safety, but Grandpa would not relent. After much cajoling, I finally socked him in the midsection, my small fist colliding squarely with his torso. I’ll admit that I pulled my punch a tad, but I’m not sure it would have mattered even if I had really given it my all. Even as a senior citizen, Grandpa had the washboard abs.

His purpose in staging this exercise in elder abuse was to teach me boxing technique — namely, you need to clench up your muscles to protect yourself from body blows. My grandfather knew how to take a punch, having absorbed many in his days as an amateur boxer. You could tell he’d spent significant time in the ring by his ears, which opponents had hammered into pancakes, flat slabs of cartilage with almost no definition.

Grandpa’s foray into boxing never amounted to much, but his brother Sam made enough of a go at it to end up in both of the sport’s halls of fame. Sam Ichinose fought in only one amateur match — which he lost by disqualification for hitting below the belt — but he achieved tremendous success as a promoter and manager. As my grandfather moved on to less painful pursuits, his brother was building a career that would last more than fifty years and touch every top level fighter to come out of Hawai’i during that span.

The most heralded boxer he managed was Dado Marino, a Honolulu guy who debuted as a pro in 1941 at age 25. In Marino’s first fifteen months, he steamrolled to a 15-0 record, including ten knockouts. He continued to rack up wins, earned a few title shots, and then finally took the world flyweight crown in 1950. He remained the champ for nearly two years until dropping a 15-round unanimous decision to Yoshio Shirai, who as a result became the first-ever Japanese fighter to win a world boxing title.

In total, Marino and Shirai went toe-to-toe four times, all within an 18-month period. In their first bout, a non-title affair held in Shirai’s hometown of Tokyo, the champ emerged victorious with a split decision. He stumbled badly in their rematch back in his own hometown, although this fight also had no title implications. Footage posted on YouTube shows Shirai dumping Marino on the canvas three times in the sixth, then three more in the seventh, forcing the conclusion. Instead of actually throwing in the towel, Sam strolls resignedly into the ring with it.

Their third meeting was the one in which Shirai claimed the title, and their fourth yielded another 15-rounder unanimously in his favor. This last bout would spell the end of Marino’s career, despite high pre-fight expectations in his corner. Speaking to the press beforehand, Sam’s brother Reggie said their man was looking great, due to a change in… well, here’s how the Montreal Gazette put it:

There is optimism in Marino’s camp because the Filipino-American bomber looks far sharper than he did before the fight that cost him his crown. Ichinose says you have to credit this greater sharpness to the fact that Dado does not sell beer in Honolulu anymore. He sells automobiles. Ichinose explains that Dado sold beer by night, and now he sells automobiles by day, sleeps better.

Now allow me to point something out here. While the exact details may be lost to history, it would appear that this particular world champion was a bartender. It’s hard to imagine a better line of work for compromising athletic performance, between the lack of sleep, smoke-filled air, and steady stream of free drinks from overly enthusiastic patrons. But regardless of the specifics, the main issue is that this man, the best flyweight boxer on the planet, felt the need to pick up extra income.

Keep that in mind if you shelled out a hundred bucks to watch The Fight of the Century earlier this month. I’m aware that Manny Pacquiao has a side gig of his own, serving as a congressman in the Philippine House of Representatives, but I think we can all agree he’s not doing it out of financial necessity. His losing effort on May 2 earned him more than $100 million.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the current state of boxing — how it’s diminished in popularity, how MMA has rendered it obsolete. I’m sure people everywhere are dissecting Mayweather-Pacquiao in arguments about whether or not the sport is in decline. I’d be much more curious about what my grandfather, his brothers, and Dado Marino might say about the one-ring circus that just exploded at the MGM Grand. They’ve all passed away, so I can never know, but I’m pretty sure they’d lend a fascinating perspective.

Come to think of it, I’d rather just hear them talk about their own boxing experiences. That would be worth way more than a hundred bucks.

1 comment on “Boxing Lessons

  1. Thanks, Al, for an engaging and respectful tribute to your Uncles, their main guy Dado and fans of a happily passant American sport! Forgot to recall to you that I was actually ringside at a fight at the age of 8 or 9 with Grandpa in the now vanished Honolulu Civic Auditorium due to “acting out” by my younger brother Craig, Grandpa’s intended companion for that evening. Sorry I can’t remember who was on the “card” and I must add that the rest of our family’s pleasure with Uncle Sam’s involvement in boxing was mostly limited to being able to see him interviewed on TV occasionally as a local celebrity. We very rarely saw him in person!


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