Toshio Fujiwara was not only the first foreigner to win the Rajadamnern Championship in Muay Thai, but he was present for the very creation of kickboxing as a sport itself. Today we are going to take a brief look into Toshio Fujiwara, his sensei and the fascinating history surrounding him, and kickboxing.
Our story starts with a man named Osamu Noguchi. A boxing promoter from Tokyo, Noguchi had a great interest in Muay Thai as a sport. In particular, he was interested in its marketability in Japan, and sought for Japanese fighters to have success in the art of eight limbs.
Noguchi wanted to send Japanese fighters to Thailand, to face off against the Thais in their own sport, preferably winning. There was an issue however, which was that he didn’t believe that boxers would be able to adapt to Muay Thai rules without years of training and practise. Defending and throwing kicks, knees, elbows and the clinch would be a monumental undertaking for any boxer, and would require long periods of training in Thailand.
Noguchi’s idea was to instead send fighters from karate backgrounds. It makes sense, karate has kicks, knees and throws which would mean the fighters wouldn’t be completely lost in the clinch. He approached Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate. A style known for its hard training, full contact sparring and tough physical conditioning. Oyama agreed to send some of his best to Thailand to fight the Thai’s.
He sent Kenji Kurosaki, Akio Fujihara, Yasuhiko Oyama and Tadashi Nakamura to prepare for Thailand. They trained with kickboxing methods, including punches to the face, usually absent from Kyokushin, and imported sparring partners from Thailand courtesy of Noguchi. With visa issues preventing Yasuhiko Oyama from competing, we instead ended up with three fights.
The event was scheduled for 1963, but didn’t actually take place until February 12th 1964, something that has been the source of a lot of confusion over the years. Various outlets and websites incorrectly list the event as happening in 1963. The bouts had modified rules allowing for judo throws and headbutts, in order to give the Kyokushin fighters a way to fight off the clinch. When the event did happen, we saw the three karate fighters face off against the Muay Thai fighters, with two winning and one losing.
Interestingly, the loser Kenji Kurosaki, took the most away from the fight and was motivated to change his training. Kurosaki began adapting his own Kyokushin karate with elements from Muay Thai, including face punches and clinch game and founded his own gym, Mejiro, named after the district in Tokyo it sat in.
This was one of, if not the first kickboxing gym in the world, and has an equally influential sister gym in Holland, of which many famed Dutch kickboxers were developed. The original Mejiro Gym however, would become famous for the subject of this article, Toshio Fujiwara, Kenji Kurosaki’s greatest student.
Fujiwara wasn’t a stranger to sports prior to training with Kurosaki, but his background was very different from kickboxing. Playing tennis, Fujiwara was certainly fit, but his martial arts experience had come from practicing Taikiken, a Japanese style influenced heavily by Yiquan, Fujiawara had amusingly stumbled across a martial art that Mas Oyama himself and practised. The world of kickboxing though, would prove to be very different.
Being such an early practitioner there still wasn’t a clear concept of what kickboxing was going to be. The first kickboxing event ever held, was only three years prior to the beginning of his career. Fujiwara’s style practically became a martial art onto itself. As Fujiwara developed as a fighter, he began to focus more and more on boxing and low kicks, the ‘mejiro’ style as it were. This style was later adopted by kickboxing pioneer Jan Plas and passed on to all of his students and spread throughout Holland, becoming broadly known as the ‘Dutch style’. This focus on high percentage, low risk techniques, with less chance of being swept became the backbone of Japanese and Dutch Kickboxing in general.
Fujiwara’s claim to fame was when he faced Monsawan Ruk Changmai, on March 18th 1978 in Tokyo for the vacant Rajadamnern Championship. For those not in the know, there are two titles that really matter in Muay Thai, Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. Winning the championship in either of those stadiums is like winning Wimbledon in Tennis.
Fujiwara kept his distance, popping in with lead uppercuts and the occasional slapping low kick. Toshio would continue to work his hands and feint with his jerky, off beat movements, making it hard for his Monsawan to pick up his rhythm.
As the fight progressed, eventually the two entered into a wilder exchange. Toshio tied up in the clinch before barrelling Monsawan over, Monsawan landed on his head, Toshio flipped over his head and Monsawan was out cold.
It was a strange win. Perhaps the fight would have been rules a no contest in Thailand, after all it certainly looked like the win had come via an accidental diving headbutt. This fight was contested in Japan, however. Toshio Fujiawara had become the first ever non-Thai to win the Rajadamnern title.
Fujiwara would never successfully defend the title, losing it his very next fight in Thailand but he continued to fight for another decade. Unfortunately, many of those fights are now lost media, perhaps only existing as VHS tapes forgotten about in someone’s private collection. As a result, we don’t know very much about Fujiwara. We only know what has been written about him in other people’s biographies and what little media of him has crossed over from Japan.
What we do know about him is his legacy would have a lasting impact on kickboxing. He was a hugely influential fighter; perhaps more influential than even he realises.