Perry Harada grew up in Hilo and drew inspiration for his life’s pursuits here, but no keiki on the Big Island today can find that same motivation.
It was a different world back then, not just a different time.
You can’t even imagine some youngster following in those footsteps today because that opportunity no longer exists. There’s too much media, too many television channels, the internet, everything else.
Imagine, for example, some young kid planning his day around the timing of a boxing match on the radio. There was no live television when Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, began his career, and there are no live boxing matches on radio today.
An Olympic champion, Ali’s bouts weren’t broadcast live on one of the three television networks until much later in his career, so there was a theater of the mind that took place when he would step into the ring against former champion Archie Moore, Henry Cooper or Sonny Liston.
“There’s nothing like it anymore,” Harada said last week. “You knew radio was as close as you could get and you heard every word, you saw in your mind what was happening. He was an inspiration. For me, he was a life-changer.”
Harada, 66, learned karate as a youngster, but his parents wouldn’t let him box. That didn’t stop him from being awed by the man who was still Cassius Clay in early 1965. Harada remembers the exact moment he became entranced.
“It was the (Sonny) Liston rematch,” he said. “I was in the sixth or seventh grade and I remember (Ali) yelling that he was greatest. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of my love for the sport. I was amazed by his hand speed when I saw it on TV.”
Back then, you would get to see the fight a week or so later on Wide World of Sports, but that moment in Lewiston, Maine, is one of the most iconic moments in all of sport.
In the first round, Liston threw a left jab that Ali went over with a lightning quick right, knocking the former champion down. Liston rolled over, got to his right knee and then fell on his back again. Ali stood over him and dared Liston to get back to his feet and fight, a moment captured by Sports Illustrated’s Neil Leifer, one of the most famous sports photographs of all time.
Harada was captivated by Ali, even as he learned karate, but he never gave up the goal of making a serious run at boxing.
“I trained in karate at the Hilo Armory, and there were a couple times I got into a boxing gym and those guys could absolutely tear me to pieces,” he said. “My parents found out about it and wouldn’t let me go back, but I realized those boxers knew something I wanted to know.”
His interest deepened when he entered the army and was stationed in West Germany, a long way from his parents and the Big Island. It was there that his passion for boxing became real.
“I was friends with a guy named Jeff Morgan,” Harada said, “who was a boxer and trained some of us. He said he once sparred with Ali leading up to a bout somewhere in the Midwest and that was all I needed to hear, I wanted to know everything.”
He was 21, he didn’t need permission any longer and he began learning how to box.
For the last couple of decades, Harada has been passing on insights to the “Sweet Science” to young boxers in the Hilo area, but it has always been an uphill struggle keeping them involved in the hometown of BJ Penn, the multi-champion MMA.
“I don’t want to get in trouble,” Harada said, “I respect BJ as much as anyone, but there’s a kind of blood thirst (in MMA), that is just not my thing, it’s nothing against him or his sport.”
Boxing has almost disappeared from view these days while MMA continues to grow. Harada isn’t sure boxing will ever come back.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” he said, “just from what I see here. Of the new kids we get to come in and train, about 90 percent of them dropout after a few months.”
One of the “10 percenters” is Hiki Santos, a 14 year-old who attends Ke Kula ‘O Nawahiokalani‘opu‘u, or “Nawahi,” a Hawaiian language immersion school in Keaau.
Santos is just getting started but has already made something of a name for himself in Hawaii boxing by winning the state’s Silver Gloves (ages 13 and 14 and under), championship last month in Waianae, Oahu. Times have changed from the rise of Muhammad Ali. Santos didn’t get involved because of any famous boxer, he was introduced by Rayden Kukahiwa, 13 year-old girl who had taken up the sport.
“I wasn’t into it, but I wasn’t really in to team sports, either,” Santos said. “She told me it was fun but it was a lot of hard work. I wanted to see what it was all about.”
It didn’t take long for the young man to get hooked.
“You know, there’s a science to it, a lot of technical stuff goes into it, learning about leverage and other things, your footwork, there’s a lot to learn and the more you learn, the more respect you develop for your opponents and yourself.”
Santos is learning from someone who knows what he’s teaching. Harada is one of the top boxing officials in the country, ranked 28th among the Top 50 of USA Boxing Officials as of the last rankings in October.
“I listen to him,” Santos said, “he has a lot to teach.”
It starts with a simple process instituted by Harada.
“I screen these kids before I take them in,” Harada said. “I’m not interested in just anyone, I’m interested in the ones who want to learn and have some belief in themselves. I have three rules we live by — be humble, be respectful, train with love. That’s what we do, that’s what this is all about.”
He teaches a certain basic footwork Ali often used, step left, step left, two steps right, two more steps right. Repeat. It might be a little like learning the foxtrot or waltz, but this a fistic dance buoyed by the overarching instruction, “hands up, chin down.”
It’s about stick and move, stay light on your feet, use your footwork to gain leverage, then go.
“It’s my passion now, just like it was (Harada’s),” Santos said, nodding at his coach. “People probably don’t understand the respect, but it’s all there.
“Before the bout you are nervous, you can feel it, and you don’t even want to look at your opponent, but after? It’s all respect, it’s a great feeling.”
Early on this path, Santos likely won’t be involved in the expense of traveling to the regionals Jan. 3-6 in Compton, Calif. Boxers pay their own way, pay for their rooms and meals, everything. If he went and advanced, it would be another trip to the mainland Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Missouri.
“I’m going to keep at it,” Santos said. “I’m committed. My goal is to be a professional boxer and this is my start. I won’t quit.”
It’s an attitude that can take him a long way.
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