Japan’s Naoko Shibata Bids Farewell
By Yuriko Miyata
Female boxing in Japan has been led by positive, energetic, and superb women since its approval by the Japanese Boxing Commission(JBC) in 2008.
Former IBF light flyweight champion Naoko Shibata was one of those great talents. Last month she decided to hang the gloves up after the loss to Etsuko Tada following an eight round unanimous decision that ended her record 17-5-1 with 6KOs.
Just a couple of weeks later she found a peaceful mind in herself when she watched Naoko Fujioka’s triumph in obtaining a world title in a fifth weight division and Momo Koseki’s overwhelming victory against Yuko Kuroki.
“I was just happy with their victories. It was kind of surprising to me but I’ve never got any emotion like ‘Oh, I want to fight like them again’, while watching my boxing friends’ fights for the world titles. Though people around me seem to think that there still is chance of my comeback, the answer is ‘No’.”
Her voice sounds truly sunny.
“But if I quit boxing when I was uncrowned by Alondra Garcia in Guadalajara Mexico this March, I could not have reached this happiness. I knew that I could not fight the way I should have done. It was far worse from my best performance in an unfamiliar high altitude location. Also my team promised me immediately to work hard to get a chance to get back on top. I am grateful to them for encouraging me to challenge a little bit more. The ‘extra time’ was really meaningful for me to taste how it is great to challenge for something and how it is great to do this sport. I enjoyed it.”
Six months after she came back from Mexico, she returned to the ring to KO a Thai boxer to move on to fight against southpaw Tada for the vacant WBO Asian Pacific 105lbs title, which was to be the ticket to attack WBO world champion Kayoko Ebata. There was also another motivation for Shibata to fight against Tada: as she lost to the smart lefty by a close split decision in the first world title challenge in 2012. Shibata did her best to show the rival her improvement of five years in which she won a world title and defended it five times. But Tada had also improved a lot in the same time period. This time Shibata lost by a clearer unanimous decision.
“Actually I am not good at dealing with southpaws, but still, I imagined only to challenge to Ebata after beating Tada. I’ve never thought that Tada was going to be my final opponent. It did not come upon to me to put a period on my boxing life until the decision was announced. I would not say I was satisfied with the loss, but it was a good quality fight, enough to close out my career. It was a good time to say good bye. Once I decided, my mind was sound and peaceful.”
With long bows to all four corners of the boxing ring, she left the arena. There were no regrets in her boxing career. Now 36, she has done really great.
Naoko Shibata was a slender but dauntless boxer with bottomless stamina, and was a sincere person no matter inside or outside of the ring. While working full time in a company office, she never skipped daily running and training in the gym to be a better boxer. From nowhere she became a world champion with an earnest effort that did not guarantee rewards but is indispensable toward making ones dream come true.
Shibata started boxing just to shape-up her hypokinetic 140lbs 5’3 body. She was only 19 years old then in 2000. There was a nearby boxing exercise program in a fitness club. Basically, she was athletic and had played basketball in junior high school but devoted her high school time to soroban, Japanese abacus, and took second place in a national competition. Throwing fists in the fitness studio woke up her athleticism and it did not take long for her to enroll in a real boxing gym. Her first sparring was with then-OPBF super flyweight champion Rie Fujimoto.
“I was beaten up by Rie and was discouraged from turning competitor actually, but on the other hand, I was lucky to have such a stable mate who showed me the path to improve.”
Another lucky moment was the Japanese Amateur Boxing Association started a female boxing division contest around that time. She won the national championship in flyweights and represented the country in the Asian Games in 2005. With the record of 13-6, she decided to turn professional following many comrades who had known there was no chance for female boxers to participate in the Olympic Game in Beijing in 2008.
“But still I never imagined to be a champion or so. I was happy just to fight in the ring and win one by one. ”
Early in her career she marked a six-fight winning streak starting from the debut including wins against Yuko Kuroki and Ayaka Miyao, both would later win world titles eventually. Then the seventh fight was against Naoko Fujioka for the OPBF 105lbs title in December 2010. Although the powerful OPBF champion dominated and won a unanimous decision with a big margin, the 10-round battle was remarkable for showcasing the challenger Shibata’s unbelievable toughness.
“It was my best bout for life, even though I lost it. What a strong fighter! I was shocked. How I could stick there for 10 full rounds against Fujioka. I had heard of her reputation since amateurs but she was beyond my imagination. It was the turning point of my career. The shocking loss made me more serious for boxing. I became a harder worker in every way to be stronger.”
Five months later she defeated another then-world champion Kayoko Ebata via unanimous technical decision after the doctor’s suggestion of a stoppage in the ninth round for an eye injury Shibata endured to win the vacant OPBF light flyweight title. Earning up credits with two defenses of that traditional regional title, Shibata went ahead to the final stage toward the top of the world that she found not easy to get to. She lost to WBA 105lbs titlist Tada in September 2012 in Osaka, and suffered another loss by split decision to Ibeth “La Roca” Zamora, one of the Mexican big names, for the vacant WBC light flyweight championship in March 2013. The disappointment led her to stay away from boxing for about a month.
“I felt so bad for my team and supporters who did their best for me to get the chance that I could not live up to it. But everybody told me that they would be happy to help me as long as I dreamed to be the world champion. Their warm consideration motivated me a lot.”
The people’s warm support reflected her great personality. Eight months after her fight with Zamora, Shibata finally grabbed the vacant IBF light flyweight title as she controlled young Mexican Alondra Garcia’s bouncy attack with sophisticated tactics and perseverance to get a win by unanimous decision. The IBF awarded her MVP in the female category in 2014 for her two time solid defenses. It was the first time for a Japanese female boxer to be recognized as the best of the year by one of the four major world title sanctioning bodies.
After surviving three more tough defending fights, she got an offer from Garcia for a rematch in Guadalajara Mexico earlier this year.
“It was quite a good time to do something I’ve not done. I believe that any champion of the world has to fight anyone, anywhere to prove their own value. I was willing to fight in Mexico. I should have been ready for the high altitude, low oxygen circumstance, but I did not have time for specific training. I found my breath uneasy when I worked out in a gym there just five days away from the fight. I decided to fight hard from the beginning, since I would be exhausted anyways. After the decision I thought I should have fought smart with counter punches. But still, I can say it was a great experience to fight in Mexico, where people support female boxing so much. I felt I was respected as a world champion.”
Naoko Shibata is a nice and happy person. She laughs a lot, but always wears a poker face in the ring or in the gym. Any pain or exhaustion are hidden behind her steady face. She surprised audiences with that poker-face in the furious 10 rounds with Fujioka. But in the rematch with Tada, a little bit of disturbance was seen on her face.
“Oh, did you see it? I blinked over again as I felt something wrong with my left eye. My vision was doubled, so. I thought I might have an orbital bone fracture. But I think it was the first time for me not to be able to hide my uneasiness in the ring.”
That became her final fight.
The farewell ceremony is planned for the coming Spring. Shibata is going to ask Fujioka to an exhibition sparring match in that ring because the 42 year old great champion is a special person for her.
“That is why I am going to the gym once or twice a week to keep my shape somehow. I am just enjoying workouts as a trainee. I am not thinking that I am going to be a trainer for professional boxers but I want to do something to cultivate the popularity of women’s boxing. Other champions and I invited people to the ringside of Fujioka’s latest fight and interpreted the rounds to make them understandable in common words. I hope they enjoyed it.”
With the love for the sport and dignity of a world champion, her contribution for female boxing will never end.