Japan is a country with proud boxing traditions, with many champions and world class boxers past and present. The vast majority of them have been successful in the lower weight-classes, but former cruiserweight contender Yosuke Nishijima is one of the rare exceptions.
He was born in Tokyo-suburb Saitama on May 15 in 1973, and had not yet turned nineteen years old when he, fighting out of the Takada Dojo, made his professional debut with a knockout of fellow first-timer Ron Smith in March of 1992.
With a shortage of local or nearby big men holding professional boxing licenses, it was always a struggle to match Nishijima. So he had only two more outings in Japan, also stoppage victories, before he ventured to America in search of better opponents and exposure.
His first fight in “The land of the free”, took place on August 3, 1993 at the Rivera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. With Bernard Hopkins in one of the main fights, Nishijima stopped Jamaica-born Derrick Edwards (2-4) in the third of a scheduled four-rounder.
Two months on he lost a majority decision to Ken Milligan (3-1) at the same venue, but he managed to record another victory, TKO 4 over David Mendez (4-4), before returning to Japan in early 1994 to stop American Jeon Griffin (0-2) in five.
But Nishijima was not done with America at all. In fact, the following three years he would go back and forth between Japan and California, fighting almost as much in his second home country as he did in Japan. By the end of 1994 he was 9-1, and ready to start pushing for bigger things.
On February 19, 1995 in Burbank, California, Nishijima took on battle-tested Denver-journeyman Kenny “The Killer” Kaiser (7-6-2). In a genuine litmus test, he passed the hurdle and won his first championship belt by split decision.
After two routine non-title fight victories in Japan, Nishijima was matched tough again. But, in another impressive performance to round out 1995, he scored a wide unanimous decision over undefeated Mexican Leonardo Aguilar (11-0) at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, CA.
Seven months later he was back in Japan, headlining a show in Tokyo. With no title on the line, Nishijima continued his progress towards the top of his division with a decision over colorful American Jerry “Wimpy” Halstead (83-14-1).
Next was Todd McPhee (9-1-1) in Loughlin, Nevada on July 15, 1996, whom Nishijima stopped in three rounds to line up a shot at the vacant OPBF title in Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan, the following October.
In the opposite corner stood Australian national champion and PABA titlist Peter Kinsella (8-1-2), a real hard-nosed campaigner considered a very dangerous adversary for the home-man. But Nishijima appeared undaunted, as he completely outclassed the Queensland-native and got rid of him inside three stanzas.
Two months later Nishijama had to go nine rounds before Hussain Shah (6-3-1), a Pakistani formerly based in the UK but since relocated to Japan, had taken enough punishment and was halted. Now 17-1, and with thirteen victories in a row, it was time to sink or swim.
On July 11, 1997, at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nishijima was pitted against contender Brian LaSpada (28-5-2) for the vacant WBF cruiserweight title. With Juan Lazcano and James Crayton squaring off in the co-feature, and future WBO heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster on the undercard, this was without a doubt the biggest fight, and platform, of the now 24-year-old´s career. LaSpada had challenged Nate Miller for the WBA World title in 1996, and stopped Canada´s Olympic silver medalist Egerton Marcus only four months earlier, so this too was a step up in class.
And once again Nishijima rose to the occasion. While it was a competitive scrap, the Japanese fought a very disciplined fight, knocking LaSpada down in the sixth before deservedly winning a unanimous decision with scores of 117-110, 115-111 and 115-112.
Ironically, the biggest triumph of Nishijima´s career, becoming a world champion, also caused the biggest controversy. The Japan Boxing Commission (JBC), who at the time only affiliated with the WBC and WBA, demanded that he renounce his WBF title.
It is unclear if Nishijima's manager, Osamu Watanabe, was willing to adhere to the demands of the JBC, but Nishijima refused to be bullied and decided to split from the manager, reportedly also due to differences over money.
Instead he went back to the USA, was suspended indefinitely by the JBC, and would never again fight in his birth country. Basing himself in Los Angeles, he had every intention of capitalizing on the big victory over LaSpada regardless. He returned to the ring, now holding a license granted by the California State Athletic Commission, on March 19, 1998 in Carson. In a lackluster performance, he decisioned Mexican trialhorse Eduardo Ayala (11-10-1) over ten, but the victory was not much to write home about.
In fact, Nishijima would never reach the same heights again, and he would never defend his WBF title. After the Ayala bout, he fought just seven times in the next five years, his best victory being over Ulysses Boulware (24-4), before retiring after a shock second-round loss to Cecil McKenzie (12-6-1) in July of 2003.
Yosuke Nishijima finished professional boxing with a 24-2-1 (15) record, and the WBF world cruiserweight title on his resume.
He was not finished with combat sports, though, as he went on to compete in MMA and K1 Kickboxing, with mixed success. The highlight of his fighting endeavors after boxing was a victory in his retirement match over cult-figure Bob Sapp in November 2013.