Yuji Kanemitsu, 25, still exercises and sweats at the Muto Boxing Gym in Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, even after hanging up his gloves. "I have to train, because physical strength also matters in motorboat racing," he said.
More than six months have passed since the fateful last bout that ended his professional boxing career.
Born in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Kanemitsu made his debut as a pro boxer at the age of 18. He won his first six bouts, earning him the nickname "the Sakai Dynamite Kid." He persevered, training hard and winning more bouts to become the third-ranked minimumweight fighter in Japan.
On March 21, he fought top-ranked Masatate Tsuji for the Japan minimumweight title at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward. Entering the 10th round after a fierce exchange of punches, Kanemitsu made a rush to knock out Tsuji to win the title. Tsuji collapsed in the ring as the bell sounded to end the match.
After the fight, Kanemitsu was told that Tsuji, 30, had undergone an emergency operation. Kanemitsu himself suffered headache and nausea and was taken by ambulance to hospital. Tsuji died of acute subdural hematoma, a form of traumatic brain injury, three days after the bout.
Kanemitsu's condition stabilized, but a blood clot was found in his brain, making it mandatory for him to retire as a pro boxer. Kanemitsu retired from the ring without defending his title.
Tsuji had pursued his career while living with his elder brother, Tateyuki, 33, in an apartment house and doing part-time jobs to make his living. "I like aggressive boxing," he was quoted as saying.
"Boxing was everything to my brother," Tateyuki said.
Kanemitsu, who attended the wake for Tsuji on March 25, where Tsuji's father said to him: "Both of you did your best...so keep it up from now on, too."
Hearing such reassuring words, Kanemitsu could not help but shed tears. He could not raise his head and the only thing he could do was say, "Thank you very much."
In late June, one of the gym's trainers suggested a new career, saying, "Why don't you try becoming a motorboat racer?" A special test was introduced from last year for top athletes in various sports fields aspiring to acquire a license for pro motorboat racers. He decided to take the test, but lacked strong motivation to study to pass the exam. He spent most of his time idly, hanging out at a friend's home without going to the gym.
It was during this period that he again watched a video of his last bout. He was impressed by the fighting spirit shown by Tsuji, who would not stop throwing punches even when he was about to fall down and ended up taking a standing count.
Tsuji's performance made Kanemitsu feel he must live a life that he would not be ashamed of for Tsuji's sake. He resumed going to the gym in June with the determination to continue training there until the test.
Only four of 14 examinees passed last year's special test. Even after passing the test, successful examinees must go through rigorous training for one year at the motorboat racing school in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture. Of those trainees, only a handful become top racers.
"I know it's a highly competitive and stringent world but I want to do my best while looking ahead to the future," Kanemitsu said. "Tsuji-san, I believe, is also watching me from somewhere."
The opening bell for his new challenge will ring in December when the test is held.
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN / ASIA NEWS NETWORK