By: Billy Hull
Remember the notion that the rise of mixed martial arts would kill the sport of boxing?
One glance into the Kalakaua Boxing Gym on most weekday evenings shows nothing could be further from the truth.
With life-size images of boxing greats George Foreman, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler as a backdrop, men and women of all ages can be seen doing any number of activities.
Inside one of the two rings in the gym, professional boxer Michael Balasi goes through an up-tempo sparring session in preparation for a possible fight at the Blaisdell Arena.
In the other ring, amateur Koichi Tanji shadowboxes by himself, enjoying a sport that he was told he couldn’t compete in 10 years earlier.
The one thing that doesn’t change is the repeated thuds of glove on bag as amateurs and professionals alike beat on one of the many punching bags that line the far wall of the gym.
Boxing is alive and well on this day.
“MIXED MARTIAL ARTS has actually kind of helped boxing,” says Bruce Kawano, the regional coordinator for USA Boxing in Hawaii. “Boxing used to be huge here in the early 80’s and then it went on a little hiatus.
“But it’s starting to come back.”
Proof of that was at the amateur state championships this year when 54 fights were held in two days at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel ballroom.
Tomorrow’s amateur show at the Palolo District Park Gym is filled with many new faces.
But the single biggest event to revitalize the sport could come next month as Waipahu native Brian Viloria may get his wish to defend his newly-won IBF light flyweight title at home at the Blaisdell Arena.
Balasi, who’s 7-1 with 5 KO’s as a professional, received a phone call this week asking if he’d be available to fight on the undercard of a Viloria fight next month. Viloria’s manager, Gary Gittelsohn, confirmed in an e-mail Wednesday that they are in the process of finding a venue and “Brian has long expressed interest in making a world title defense in Hawaii and I would like to find a way to make it happen.”
“Everybody wants to be on that card,” Balasi said. “It would be a big thing for boxing if that happens.”
WHILE BALASI ponders a future on the big stage, the 23-year-old Tanji is just happy being in a ring. Born in Japan with a deformed right hand, Tanji ignored others’ advice and took up boxing as a teen. Originally cleared to fight as an amateur, he won two consecutive fights and needed one more win to make nationals when Japanese doctors suddenly wouldn’t allow him to fight.
“It was tough to take,” Tanji said as he wrapped his hand — missing multiple fingers — in boxing tape. “I didn’t want to quit. I first go Thailand but didn’t know anyone so I came here.”
With no knowledge of the English language, he found a place to box, and began learning the language through the sport he loved.
“I know what they were talking about even though I don’t know the word then,” he said. “That’s how I learn.”
Five years later, his English is easy to understand and he’s a student at Kapiolani Community College. He leaves next week for the 2009 Ringside World Championships in Kansas City, Mo., where he hopes to win his weight class a year after taking silver.
TWO-TIME Ringside world champion Alyssa-Lende Kane is preparing to go for three in a row, but something even bigger awaits next month. A vote will be held in August to determine whether women’s boxing will be a sport at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
By then, Kane, a silver medalist at the U.S. Junior Olympics in June, will be 18, old enough to compete.
“I hope they allow it, because that’s my ultimate goal,” she said. “I run two miles every morning, six days a week and I lift light weights every day. I want this to be a full-time thing.”
Kawano, who oversees her training every week, thinks it’s a real possibility.
“She’s ranked No. 2 at 132 pounds right now,” he said. “She has the skills.”
While Balasi, Kane and Tanji prepare for upcoming bouts, some of Hawaii’s brightest amateurs will be on display tomorrow night in a 17-bout card at Palolo District Park Gym at 6 p.m.