At ninety-six years of age Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi was showing few signs of retreating from the world, on the contrary, he matched a professional boxer in his thirties and won.
“Did the match between Uehara Seikichi of Motobu ryu and the boxer actually take place?” From a conversation with Higa Kiyohiko at his home during the Spring 2018.
The story is one that circulates the internet every few years. It’s been referenced in documentaries on Okinawan Longevity and discussed in martial art forums online. Yet whenever it does the details always seem a little too vague and, dare I say, a little too convenient to be true. As martial artists we ‘want’ it to be true because the idea of a ninety something year old karate master bettering a thirty year old boxer holds a certain kudos. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is true.
It’s a story I’ve followed for several years, first appearing in a New York edition of TIME Magazine but later referenced in other forms of media from books to blogs. I’ve even read a transcribed interview in which the boxer in question, Okinawan born, World Feather Weight title holder Katsuo Tokashiki recalls his disbelief at not being able to land a single blow on his aged opponent. In the said interview it claims Uehara responded with the sagely advice that:
”my opponent had not yet matured enough to hit me.”
Most versions of this incredible story describe the event as being televised but I’ve never seen a recording, nor can I understand quite why it would have been. Also, the thought of it being televised sort of spoils the magic of the story for me too. I picture it being like the episode where a Japanese Ant & Dec duo visit Kiyonori Shiroma and outrageously keep trying to slap him for a laugh. For me the story dubiously echoes of the famous match with the karate master Motobu Chokki and the foreign boxer that appeared in Kingu Magazine and confusingly portrayed the winning Motobu in the image of Funakoshi.
Did the match between Uehara Seikichi of Motobu ryu and the boxer Tokashiki Katsuo actually take place?
I asked about this following a recent training session and was pleasantly surprised to hear that both Higa sensei and another trainee had indeed seen the fight. They assure me it is a true story and happened. It wasn’t televised; at first they said yes, but were confusing ‘tv’ for meaning the same as recorded. Meaning that one day, we might see it too.
In the popular versions of the story it is said that Uehara successfully avoided all of Katsuo’s punches for a whole round, using kawashi methods to slip and turn. In the second round, frustrated at not being able to land a single blow, Katsuo momentarily dropped his guard at which point Uehara stole in and struck him down.
This seems a little embellished. Higa describes the match as having Uehara constantly arresting Katsuo’s advances with the use of meotodi, pressing in on the elbow and cutting the delivery of each punch. After a clear demonstration of this, lasting approximately a round, Uehara fully entered and seized upon Katsuo’s belly with a painful grip into his abs. Thus displaying a friendly but undoubted victory of his ability to close down an attacker and take the centre.
It seems there were other matches involving Uehara and exponents of different ryu-ha and disciplines throughout his life. A patriot and leading exponent of Ryukyuan bujutsu he once voiced the opinion to grumbling members of the Okinawan karate world that if they really want to prove their point they should stop talking and simply invite karate masters from the mainland to a match and show them Okinawan karate first hand. A directness often lacking in todays climate of keyboard warriors and their less confident victims who shelter behind the pretence of martial righteousness.
What I like about all the stories I’ve heard of Uehara is that he was no nonsense, but neither was he a belligerent bully. With a true Ryukyuan spirit he found simple ways of bettering his opponents but also educating them in another way.
Another time, I think on the mainland, Uehara saw a foreign boxer challenge a judoka. From the outset he could see the boxer would win and so took the judoka aside and explained what he should do. He coached the judoka how to enter so that he could apply his nage-waza. When the match started the boxer succeeded in landing several opening shots and the judoka was stunned and ready to accept defeat. However, he realised that Uehara was correct and so when the match re-started he resolved to use the entering approach and was able to win.
Next week: Part II: Uehara and the white sword