Amateur | Oct 10 2019

On this day 55 years ago the Olympic Games began in Tokyo

Chris Kempson recalls the boxing tournament at the 1964 Olympic Games, including Joe Frazier being unleashed on the world
Olympic Games
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THE Japanese capital, Tokyo was the first Asian city to host the summer Olympics in 1964. The Games took place from 10-14 October, so some calendar purists, might have even termed them “the autumn games.” Given that next year (2020), Japan will host the summer Olympics from July 24- August 9, let us reflect now on the achievements in the boxing ring, all those years ago. Indeed, had it not been for World War 11, Japan had been scheduled to host the summer Games of 1940 which did not take place and they had to wait until 1964 to make their Olympic bow. First, we will look at some of the facts surrounding the Games and then we will look at those who won some of the medals and their individual achievements. So come and join me please.

The 1960s, were a continuing part of the “Cold War” syndrome, often played out in Europe and beyond between countries in the East and West and their respective political and social ideologies – a battle if you like between the respective values of communism and democracy to give political credence and ultimately dominance, across the globe.

The Tokyo Games saw 287 male boxers from 59 countries weigh in and boxing took place in the newly built Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. The youngest boxer was Brazilian light-middleweight, Luiz Fabre at a mere 16 years and 233 days; the oldest being the late Johnny “Kingston” Elliott, also a light-middleweight, from Jamaica boxing at the grand old age of 33 years and 128 days. Both men lost in their opening bouts, but they were Olympians and no one can ever take this away from them.

As ever, there were a number of inevitable disputed points decisions in 1964, we would have expected nothing less. Three intriguing disqualifications are worthy of recall, two involving contests in which the victor went on to land a medal, gold and bronze indeed. In those days, it was often thought that officials from “the Communist bloc countries” favoured decisions, on occasions,  for boxers from their own nations; merely adding to the intrigue as to how some verdicts were arrived at.

 Spanish featherweight, Valentin Loren received a life ban from the sport for punching Hungarian   referee, Gyorgy Sermer, after he had been disqualified for persistent fouling in his contest with Taiwan’s Hsu Hung-Cheng. The next day, Jose Roberto Chirino from Argentina was disqualified in the second round of his light-middleweight quarter-final against the eventual gold medallist from the Soviet Union, the great Boris Lagutin, who successfully defended his Olympic crown four years later in Mexico City. Chirino became increasingly frustrated with the referee, K. Maghraby from the then United Arab Republic for admonishing him for a serious of minor infringements and subsequently struck the official leading to his disqualification. It is understood that he subsequently received a three year ban from the sport for his actions.

Adopting a more passive response to his own disqualification, South Korean flyweight, Choh Dong Kih who was disqualified by Australian referee, Archie Tanner, after a mere 66 seconds of his quarter-final encounter for keeping his head too low against the Soviet Union’s, Stanislav Sorokin an eventual bronze medallist. He refused to leave the ring for 51 minutes. I have been unable with any degree of accuracy to learn what subsequent punishment he might have received, although one would have expected it to be a substantial ban. Passions certainly ran high on the Olympic stage then and nothing has changed since and is unlikely to do so if controversial decisions continue to occur as they have done so regularly in the past.

In the roped square at the 1964 Games, the then Soviet Union and Poland, often referred to then as one of the old Soviet Union’s “satellite neighbours”, reigned supreme. They cast a long victorious shadow over many of their opponents and only added to the stock of their political dogma at that time. There were, of course, many boxers and many other competitors in different sports still clinging to the pure ethos of “true blue amateurism.” Some, in the ring, happily were to be successful as were others in their own specific fields of competition.

The then Soviet Union with its well-oiled state run sporting organisation, the very epitome of top level “professionalism,” along with Poland cast in very much the same political and sporting mould, were virtually untouchable. The rest, mainly from the West, were often second best to a very large extent. As I have said in previous columns in Boxing News, I do not think unkindly of those boxers, it was their system that was in question if indeed, that is the right term; not the individuals concerned, they were but part of that system at that time. They were mere sporting pawns in a huge authoritarian machine. Just cogs in a system determined to acquire success and in so doing extol the virtues of their political ideology. They simply happened to be good at plying their trade however their preparations were conceived, albeit in the armed forces or cosy administrative desk jobs within the state machine at large.

Ten weight divisions were contested and the then Soviet Union won three golds, four silver and two bronze medals in Tokyo to head the medal table. Poland collected three gold medals, one silver and three bronze; while Italy won two golds and three bronze. The host nation won one gold medal (its first in the Olympic boxing ring) and the mighty United States of America won one gold and three bronze medals.

Italian flyweight, Fernando Atzori took the gold medal, starting with a bye in the round of 32, he then went on to win his next four contests comfortably on points and his pedigree continued when he swapped the vest for the paid side of game, eventually becoming EBU flyweight champion. Bronze medallist, Stanislav Sorokin from the Soviet Union stopped GB’s John McCluskey in their round 16 bout and there was no medal return from GB’s eight man team in what proved to be a very disappointing Games for them. GB did not field a contestant in either the light-heavyweight or heavyweight division; there being no qualifying tournaments in those days. In his paid career, McCluskey from Scotland twice unsuccessfully challenged former Olympic champion, Atzori for his EBU flyweight crown, being knocked out in their first encounter and then losing unanimously on points in his second attempt. 

It was only fitting, that the host nation landed a gold medal and to bantamweight, Takao Sakurai took that honour. He thus became Japan’s first boxing gold medallist; although a bronze medal had gone to flyweight, Kiyoshi Tanabe in Rome in 1960 who was the very first Japanese Olympic boxing medallist.

Sakurai boxed successfully five times for his Olympic triumph. First up was Dartford’s Brian Packer (GB) who lost out 1-4 to the eventual gold medallist, he then followed up with three 5-0 “shut out” wins to meet South Korean, Chung Shin-Cho in the final. The Japanese proved far too strong for his opponent, flooring him three times for a second-round stoppage and a gold medal into the bargain.

Now it became the turn of the Soviet Union and Poland to get among the gold standard. Soviet featherweight, Stanislav Stepashkin halted his first four opponents to set up a final encounter with Anthony Villanueva of the Philippines which proved a much more difficult task for the explosive Soviet big hitter. Stepashkin got the final nod 3-2 in a very controversial verdict.

Poland were next up and they collected no fewer than three gold medals.  The three Poles each triumphed over a boxer from the Soviet Union in their final showdown and this provided each of them with a huge sense of satisfaction as my great friend, Jerzy Kulej impressed upon me on numerous occasions; but more of Kulej shortly.

Lightweight, Josef Grudzien reached his final with the Soviet Union’s highly regarded Velikton Barannikov with four straight 4-1 triumphs only to beat the Soviet boxer with a 5-0 shut out from the judges.

Now came Poland’s ace light-welterweight, Jerzy Kulej, a dear friend of mine for many years until his untimely death in 2012. Kulej started off with a bye, then proceeded to rack up five points successes to land his gold medal. In round 16 he defeated the legendary Dick McTaggart (the 1956 Olympic lightweight champion and 1960 Olympic bronze medallist) with a 4-1 verdict. By this time McTaggart’s stock was waning, while Kulej’s impact was rising with every competition he entered. Indeed Kulej retained his Olympic crown in Mexico City four years later. Jerzy always had a great admiration for and always had immense respect for the Scot. What a great contest it would have been had the two men met in their prime in some kind of catchweight. We can only wonder what the result might have been.

In the final Kulej outclassed a strangely subdued and ineffective Yevgeny Frolov with a 5-0 scoreline for his first Olympic gold medal. This always gave him immense satisfaction as somewhat earlier he had lost a ‘hometown’ points decision which went in favour of Frolov in an international encounter in Moscow. It was almost if Frolov thought here I am on neutral territory, I can expect no favours and to that end he hardly threw a punch in anger, choosing survival rather than a shot at Olympic glory; one wonders as the years went by if he would have opted to have done something different or not. A chance for Olympic glory thrown away, a sterile performance, just really for not trying, how bad was that! It really was one of the most inept performances in an Olympic final I have ever witnessed.

Poland’s third gold medallist in Tokyo was welterweight and one time “bad boy,” Marian Kasprzyk who was lucky in many respects to be even on the team in Japan. From 1961- 1964 he was unable to box having been convicted for being involved in a fight away from the ring; however his suspension was lifted (conveniently) shortly before the Tokyo Games and the rest is certainly boxing history as they say. He too had to box five times for his gold medal with a pair of tight 3-2 verdicts and two 5-0, leaving him up against the skilful Ricardas Tamulis in the opposite corner on finals night. Kasprzyk triumphed 4-1 to justify his Olympic selection, if indeed it needed justification, Marian having lifted a bronze medal in the Rome Olympics on 1960 one weight down at light-welterweight.

Soviet light-middleweight Boris Lagutin took the Tokyo gold medal and repeated his success four years later in Mexico City. He was a phenomenal champion, having already gained bronze in Rome in 1960. In Tokyo he had a rather curious route to his Olympic final with Jo Gonzales of France. There was the Chirino disqualification, a walk over against Ghana’s Eddie Davies, interspersed with three points victories including a 4-1 decision over Gonzales in the final.

Soviet middleweight Valeri Popenchenko was the only boxer under that old regime to collect the Val Barker trophy and he did so following his gold medal journey in Tokyo culminating with a fine first round stoppage win over Emil Schulz from the United Team of Germany, where competitors from both the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany were competing together for the last time. Earlier Schulz had already demolished GB’s Willie Stack in a mere 46 seconds. Valeri started with a bye, followed by two stoppage successes interspersed with a 5-0 points victory; before he saw off Schulz in exemplary style. He was a big hitting ring technician, stylish and always dangerous in any ring company and fully deserving of the Val Barker trophy.

Now it is Italy’s chance to gain their second gold medal of the Tokyo Games. Light-heavyweight Cosimo Pinto was perhaps a surprise winner in this weight division, but that is both the beauty and the unpredictability of sport. Pinto started with a bye, he then won two comfortable points successes, a stoppage followed in his semi-final contest to set up his final clash with the very tough Soviet boxer Aleksei Kiselyov. It was a very close bout which went to the Italian with a 3-2 points nod. A surprise victory maybe, but a deserved one after all. Kiselyov was again the Olympic ‘silver bridesmaid’ in Mexico City four years later, this time his Olympic gold tormentor was none other than GB’s  triumphant middleweight, the late Chris Finnegan.

At heavyweight the United States of America unleashed Joe Frazier upon the world amateur boxing scene and certainly that was history for everyone connected to the sport and many more besides.

Frazier wasn’t even supposed to be in Tokyo! Undefeated Buster Mathis had won the US Trials defeating Frazier in controversial fashion on points but in fact sustained a hand injury (variously reported as damage to thumb on right hand) in booking his ticket to Japan. The injury failed to heal in time and Frazier replaced him and was soon on his way to Tokyo and ultimately Olympic gold and untold fame and fortune. So, once again, some one’s misfortune; became someone else’s gain and Frazier went on and punched his way to Olympic glory.       

Stoppage victories came thick and fast – first Ugandan George Oywello was halted in the opening session, Australian Athol McQueen lasted into the third round and next came highly fancied Soviet man Vadim Yemelyanov who was battered into submission in the second round. The final awaited Frazier. However in eclipsing Yemelyanov, Joe had damaged the thumb on his left hand and it hampered him to some extent in the final against Hans Huber of the Unified German team, although Frazier triumphed by grinding out a 3-2 verdict at the end of three rounds. Huber played his part in the contest and had the consolation of making the Olympics having failed to make the wrestling team for Tokyo! We will never know had Mathis recovered in time and boxed in Tokyo, would he  have won gold for his country; even more to the point, would Joe Frazier have become the fighting icon he became had he not won Olympic gold? A question to ponder as the cold winter nights soon draw in. My own thoughts, for what they may be worth, quite likely to the first question and without a shadow of a doubt to the latter. Boxing is of course always unpredictable, although there is nothing to suggest to me that Mathis could have been thwarted by any of the opponents in the 1964 Tokyo Games.

Buster and Joe were to meet again, this time in the paid ranks for the vacant New York State Athletic Commission heavyweight crown on March 1968. Frazier triumphed with a brutal 11th round stoppage (the fight was scheduled for 15 rounds in those days) and was ahead on two of the judges’ cards at that point, with ace referee, Arthur Mercante having both fighters level. So, Frazier had avenged his two amateur losses to Mathis but overall this fight was by far the most significant of their ring trilogy.

Frazier became the first Olympic heavyweight champion to win the world heavyweight crown as a professional. George Foreman was next up in Mexico City in 1968 and only Ray Mercer in 1988 in Seoul who briefly held the WBO heavyweight crown, has repeated that feat since. The emergence of the super-heavyweight weight division has curtailed somewhat this rather special dual boxing phenomena.

So our Tokyo Olympic  journey and memories are now at  an end. I do hope you have enjoyed reliving some of those great Tokyo memories, I know that I certainly have. I am just so grateful to be around to recount some of those memories as, sadly, so many of the Tokyo ring brigade of 1964 are no longer with us to have their say and tell their tale. They certainly deserve their rest for all the pleasure they gave us all those years ago. Finally, I cannot leave without saying that Olympic boxing must go on. I had cause recently to read about boxing in the 1948 London Olympics and way back then there had been a call to scratch boxing from future Games; many being unhappy with the judging (have we heard that before somewhere); but we still hang in there in 2020 and hopefully way beyond too. Let’s always be on our guard against those who wish to deny us our sport at the international highest levels