The Man Who Trained Japan’s First World Boxing Champion: Alvin Robert Cahn

Sports Society

In the early 1950s, Shirai Yoshio became Japan’s first world champion boxer, providing a “light of hope” to the devastated postwar country. Interestingly enough, it was an American scientist who discovered and fostered Shirai’s remarkable talent.

A Fateful Meeting of Two Men

The end of the great war in 1945 left the Japanese people despondent. Despite their defeat, however, they worked to recover, one slow step at a time. In the summer of 1948, young men sweated in workouts at a gym in Tokyo’s Ginza, hoping to someday become boxing champions. There was one, however, who was not so hopeful and was even thinking of retiring from the sport. Shirai Yoshio was only 24, but he had been wounded as a soldier in the war and suffered from painful sciatica. Shirai’s career as a boxer had seemed promising at first, but now he kept to himself, training quietly on his own. There was a foreigner, however, who watched him with a keen eye. He told Shirai he showed a natural talent for timing and could become a world champion. “Let me train you,” he said. The man was Alvin Robert Cahn, an American scientist working for GHQ, the commonly used term referring to the general headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). The fateful meeting of the two men was to change boxing history.

A New Style of Boxing

Cahn was born in Chicago on August 29, 1892. After studying biology in college, he pursued a career as a teacher of nutrition science. Very soon after the end of the war he went to Japan, where he was assigned to work in SCAP’s Natural Resources Section. While Cahn had no experience in boxing, he had been studying the importance of timing in sports and was intrigued by Shirai’s apparent skill.

Aggressive techniques predominated in the boxing of the day, and in Japan, “Piston” Horiguchi (Horiguchi Tsuneo) was popular as a relentless slugger. But Cahn preferred a more refined defensive style that prevented an opponent from even getting a punch in. Shirai, he thought, could master this style, and he was determined to test his ideas even if it meant going against the conventions of the time.

Cahn made numerous visits to the gym with an interpreter in tow until finally Shirai agreed to work with him. The first order of business was to cure Shirai of his chronic pain. Food was still scarce in Japan, but Cahn would bring Shirai hotdogs, hamburgers, and sometimes even steak from the US military canteen. It did not take Shirai long to regain his strength and rid himself of his pain.

Training was rigorous. Cahn told Shirai that the jab was the most basic of boxing techniques and he made him practice nothing else for two hours every day. Shirai flourished under Cahn’s unique tutelage and in 1949 won the Japanese flyweight title from Hanada Yōichirō, known as the modern Ushiwakamaru, the childhood name of the great warrior of Japanese history, Minamoto Yoshitsune. From there Shirai went on to win the bantamweight title from Horiguchi Hiroshi, the younger brother of the formidable “Piston” Horiguchi. With these two titles under his belt, Shirai appeared to feel like he had done all he needed to in the ring.

Cahn gives pointers to Shirai at a private gym in Takinogawa, Kita, Tokyo. He was a dedicated coach who sought perfection.
Cahn gives pointers to Shirai at a private gym in Takinogawa, Kita, Tokyo. He was a dedicated coach who sought perfection.

Securing a Place on the World Stage

Cahn, though, looking much farther ahead, wanted Shirai to take on the world flyweight champion, Salvador “Dado” Marino. This was a seemingly impossible dream in Japan, which had never sponsored a world championship fight. Cahn refused to give up, though, especially when he learned that Marino’s manager was a Japanese American named Sam Ichinose. Finally, in May 1951, he succeeded in setting up a nontitle match between Marino and Shirai in Japan. Shirai lost the match in a close decision, but in a rematch in December of the same year held in Honolulu, Marino’s home ground, Shirai managed to win with a seven-round TKO. This fight pushed Shirai onto the world stage.

Eager to get international recognition, Japan established its own Japan Boxing Commission, and on May 19, 1952, the country’s first world boxing championship match was held at Kōrakuen Stadium. Cahn is said to have told Shirai, “Don’t fight for yourself. You’re fighting for a Japan that has lost all confidence and hope after the war. Right now, the only way Japan can compete in the world is through sports. Win, and you will give your country courage.”  Shirai was bemused by the advice. Why was an American encouraging a Japanese in this way? Moved by Cahn’s intensity, Shirai vowed he would win the title.

Cahn talks with Shirai during a break in training at the Takinogawa gym. Their smiles reflect the deep trust between the two men.
Cahn talks with Shirai during a break in training at the Takinogawa gym. Their smiles reflect the deep trust between the two men.

All bets were on Shirai as Marino’s loss in Honolulu suggested he had passed his peak. The Kōrakuen match attracted more than 40,000 spectators who watched as Shirai set a fast pace right from the start. In the seventh round, however, Marino caught Shirai by surprise with a powerful left hook that left him concussed. Shirai was saved by the bell but remained standing in a daze. Cahn pounded his protégé on the back, yelling at him to wake up. Shirai came back to himself and regained his good form from the eighth round on, finally winning the match as Marino quickly lost stamina. Cahn’s words had saved the day.

The stadium erupted into joyous excitement at the judges’ decision. Cahn watched with pride, thinking of how the young man he had met by chance had turned into a shining diamond. Shirai won the title through speed and finesse rather than brute power. Cahn’s conviction that scientific boxing was the way to go had been vindicated.

Cahn was legendary in the strength of his convictions. In a preliminary fight before the third match to defend his title, Shirai suffered a cut above his left eye and worried that the cut would bleed during the title match. Cahn had a friend in the United States send a hemostatic cream that would stop the bleeding. When Shirai expressed doubt that it would work, Cahn cut his own arm with a razor and applied the cream to the wound. “See what it does? Don’t worry.” Shirai was able to defend his title without spilling a drop of blood from his wound. Winning, as Cahn demonstrated, was all about making the right choices.

The American Who Brought Hope to Japan

Shirai went on to defend his world title four times before he lost on points in a November 1954 match with Pascual Nicolás Pérez, a flyweight boxer from Argentina. After a May 1955 return match in which he was knocked out in the fifth round, Shirai decided it was time to retire. He thanked Cahn, who responded with tears in his eyes that it was he who should thank Shirai. Shirai, he said, had helped him to find purpose and lead a wonderful life.

Even after Shirai retired, Cahn stayed on in Japan, living with him. The trainer had never married and had no relatives in the United States, and it seemed only natural that he should remain in the country. The two remained close friends and treated each other as family. Cahn was brilliant but also stubborn. He never tried to learn the Japanese language. The only Japanese word he knew and used frequently was, Dame! (the equivalent of “No!”), a reflection of his perseverance and fierce determination to get things right.

Cahn dangles a cigarette in his mouth as he plays with a chicken at the Shirai home. Takinogawa, Kita, Tokyo.
Cahn dangles a cigarette in his mouth as he plays with a chicken at the Shirai home. Takinogawa, Kita, Tokyo.

As he aged, Cahn developed dementia and was in and out of hospitals. On January 23, 1971, Shirai visited Cahn, who had been hospitalized for cerebral thrombosis. Cahn had been in a coma for several days. Suddenly he waved his hands in the air and grabbed Shirai’s hand calling out his name, “Yoshio, Yoshio.” The next second the strength went out of his grip and he lost consciousness once again. Cahn died early in the morning on January 24. He was 78. In better times, he had often told Shirai, “Right now, I am your friend. But when I die there will be nothing left. Forget about me.”

What prompted Cahn to leave his victorious country and come to Japan? Why did he work to save Shirai? We will never know, but what we do know is that one American’s life philosophy helped to spark new vigor in a defeated nation.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Cahn and Shirai are welcomed back to Japan with a victory parade following Shirai’s defeat of the champion Salvador "Dado" Marino, in a nontitle match in Honolulu. This victory was to launch Shirai on the road to becoming a world champion. Photo courtesy of Boxing Magazine.)

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