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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007

MEDIA MIX

TV in cahoots with the shamed Kameda boxing clan


In the fuss over the Oct. 11 WBC flyweight title match between 33-year-old world champion Daisuke Naito and 18-year-old contender Daiki Kameda, the media has been the object of criticism as much as Kameda, who has since been punished with a one-year suspension by the Japan Boxing Commission for rules violations. Tokyo Broadcasting Service, in particular, has taken a huge hit for enabling the bad behavior of both the teen boxer and his father-trainer Shiro.

As the Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial, the "simple, stoical" sport of boxing has increasingly been tainted by "elements of entertainment" that aren't much different from those that distinguish professional wrestling. This idea was exemplified for many by Kameda's late attempt to overcome Naito by lifting him up and slamming him down on the mat, but what Asahi was probably referring to was the Kameda family's particular emphasis on showmanship, an idea that has been central to boxing's appeal ever since a young African-American fighter named Cassius Clay learned how to rhyme.

What seemed to disappoint Kameda's fans on Oct. 11 wasn't so much that he lost — most experts expected he would — but that he didn't follow his pugilistic performance with a musical one. He always sings a song after a fight, but then, this is the first one he's ever lost.

Fanatics think of boxing as the purest athletic test, but professional boxing is so caught up in money, much of it dirty, that it's sometimes difficult to determine what "winning" really means. Though Kameda lost the bout, he earned what different reports have estimated is between three and 10 times as much as Naito did.

For years, boxing in Japan has been losing popularity to wrestling and its offshoots such as Pride and K1. Sponsors and broadcasters are vital to the sport's survival, and TBS long ago picked the Kameda family as network mascots.

Shiro is himself a failed boxer, and he invested all his pugilistic ambitions in his three sons, Koki, Daiki and Tomoki. With their coarse Osaka dialect and studied chinpira (punk) behavior, the four Kamedas were TV-ready from the get-go, and, even better, they were a family. It's perhaps not surprising that the matriarch of this clan opted out of the circus, though while in most celebrity families divorce can have a chilling effect on fame, the whole appeal of the Kamedas was their contrariness.

Sports fathers comprise a separate celebrity genre. The father of successful teen golfer Sakura Yokomine famously sold everything he owned and built a course where he trained his children to be golf prodigies. He was awarded for his efforts with Father of the Year prizes and parlayed his parenting success into elected office, despite media reports of hubris and a mistress on the side.

Unlike Sakura or her male counterpart, Ryo Ishikawa, who are poised, polite and well-spoken, the Kameda boys are rough, rude and incoherent. They push the hackneyed protocol of pre-match bluster to new heights of bad form. Naito has said he was the victim of bullying as a child and turned to boxing to build self-esteem, so Daiki made it known that he is exactly the kind of bully that kicked Naito's ass back in the day.

This attitude results in both public enmity and high TV ratings. In addition to broadcasting all Kameda-related matches, TBS has produced special programs about the family and features them regularly on the network's morning wide shows. Shiro knows what this is worth, and he left the Osaka gym he was affiliated with because of money disagreements and moved his brood to Tokyo's Kyoei gym, which has flouted rules by allowing him to train his sons elsewhere and act as their cornerman during world title matches.

Because of the money involved, the JBC previously ignored their antics. Kameda matches consistently rack up high ratings while other bouts on TV, including world championship fights, attract only a fraction of their viewer numbers. But they couldn't ignore what veteran sports journalist Masayuki Tamaki called "a brawl" on Oct. 11, and the reason they couldn't is that TBS's coverage is always up close and personal. In the corner with Daiki, the network's microphones picked up Koki and Shiro's advice to Daiki to stick his thumb in Naito's eye and give him an elbow where it counts.

Slapped with its own three-month suspension, Kyoei gym has said the brawl was occasioned by Daiki's immaturity as a boxer. But like a good little robot he was just doing what he was told, and some boxing fans smelled conspiracy. The thumb-in-the-eye gambit was seen as an attempt to force a technical knockout decision, and savvy viewers had already heard the TBS commentator wonder gleefully on the air if a TKO wasn't inevitable because of some blood coming from Naito's eye. They flooded the TBS switchboard with complaints about biased announcing.

Sportswriters have said that the only hope for the Kameda boys is for Shiro to relinquish his responsibility as his sons' trainer to someone else. Though there are technical reasons for this, it's difficult not to think of the old cartoon "Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants)," in which the star pitcher's father-trainer abandons him in order to make him a better ballplayer through hardship.

Being good boxers isn't really what the Kamedas are all about, though, and once the yearlong suspension is over Daiki can probably make even more money with a comeback fight. He may have lost on Oct. 11 as an athlete, but he won as a celebrity, which is why fans and nonfans alike had a reason to be disappointed. Before the fight Daiki announced that if he lost he would commit harakiri. As with his usual singing display he didn't follow through on his pledge and fulfill the public's expectations. And he calls himself an entertainer.



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