In around 1922, Motobu Choki aged 52 at the time, soundly defeated a young Western boxer and became famous in mainland Japan

This post includes different accounts told by different people about what might have happened and the impact it made on karate history.

Table of Contents

Motobu Choki around the time of the fight

Motobu Choki moved to Osaka in 1921 at the age of 51 looking for ways to earn a living after his horse-drawn carriage taxi business went under.

While the Japanese magazine Kingu (a major general interest magazine with a circulation of over a million) said the fight happened in November 1922, Motobu Choki himself said in an interview that it happened in 1923.

As Motobu gave the interview more than 10 years after the event and the Kingu magazine published the article in 1925, it is more likely that Kingu was correct and that Motobu fought the boxer in 1922.

Regardless of the exact time of the fight, Motobu Choki had only moved to Japan for a year or two when he fought the boxer, at the age of 52 or 53, well past the prime time of his physical fitness.

Motobu Choki was only around 5′ 5″ (165 cm) tall and the boxer was reported to be about 6 feet tall.

Martial art writer, Graham Noble, did some digging and concluded that Motobu Choki’s opponent wasn’t likely to be any heavy boxing champion of the time.

Nevertheless, this didn’t affect Motobu’s reputation as a great karate fighter. Later on, when he sparred with the Oriental Boxing Champion “Piston” Horiguchi (Japan featherweight champion in 1933, 1934, 1942 and 1948), Horiguchi was unable to land a single punch on Motobu and gave up.

According to an account by Nakama Chozo, a long term and close student of Motobu Choki, at the time he fought the foreign boxer, Motobu Choki was working as a security guard at a cotton factory and living in a dormitory.

At best, Motobu Choki probably had only a few students and didn’t have any money or connections there.

While he was well-known in Okinawa as the best karate fighter there, he was literally nobody in mainland Japan at the time.

And after a single fight with this 6 feet tall foreign boxer, Motobu Choki became a household name overnight in Japan for his very effective style of karate.

If Funakoshi Gichin greatly contributed to the spreading and acceptance of karate in mainland Japan as an art form for physical and mental development, Motobu Choki proved that it was a very effective tool for self-defense as well.

What actually happened

According to Motobu Choki’s own account (see below), he went to watch a match between a boxer and a judo man and didn’t think the boxer was any good, so he applied to challenge the boxer and bet on the match. He couldn’t fight that day so he came back the next day.

The boxer didn’t think much of Motobu Choki either and treated him like a child. “He held my nose and twisted my cheek”, Motobu recalled.

This is very much like a boxing tactic used to intimidate an opponent pre-match in today’s environment but it is interesting that it happened back then.

Boxing historians pointed out that at the time boxing matches were not official bouts but more like sideshow attractions.

Nevertheless, there was no record of a karate or judo man defeating a professional boxer in Japan before Motobu and that made his victory even more special.

Motobu thought he didn’t fight seriously in the first round. But in the second round, he told himself that if he lost, he’d bring shame to karate and Okinawa.

So, when the boxer came forward to attack with full power, Motobu said he finished him off with just one powerful punch to the temple.

One source says that Motobu first struck the boxer in the heart with his favorite one knuckle punch (keikoken) and then followed with another hooking keikoken to the temple. This is so typical of Motobu given his training and fighting principles.

Motobu said that the report of him hitting the boxer with an open hand was incorrect, he actually hit him with his iron fist.

While Motobu said the fight was over after two rounds, his student, Shoshin Nagamine, said the knockout came in the third round.

Given the differences in size (5’5″ vs 6′) and age (52 years old vs someone in his 20s or 30s), Motobu’s knockout victory was nothing short of spectacular and definitely helped bring karate to the limelight in Japan and Motobu some much-needed fame that he well deserved.

Motobu Choki’s fame following the fight

Motobu Choki’s victory over a foreign boxer who was much younger and taller was reported in local magazines as well as in Okinawa and he began to attract students including judoka and wrestlers.

Two of Funakoshi Gichin’s top students, Ohtsuka Hironori and Konishi Yasuhiro, also left to train with Motobu Choki.

He was asked to teach at several places including Mikage Teacher’s College, Mikage Police Force in Hyogo Prefecture, the Ministry of Railways and Tokyo University.

He also opened the Daidokan Dojo in Tokyo later on and taught through an interpreter.

He went on to publish two books, “Okinawa Kenpo Karate Jutsu Kumite Hen” in 1926 and “My Art of Karate Jutsu” in 1932.

The fact that he was present at important meetings determining the future of karate in the 1930s indicates that, although he never had the kind of following that Funakoshi, Mabuni, or Ohtsuka had, Motobu Choki was very well-regarded in the karate circle of the time.

For example, on 25 October 1936, a meeting was hosted by the Ryukyu Shinpo, the official newspaper of the Ryukyu kingdom to discuss the adoption of the name “Empty Hand” instead of “toudi” or “Chinese Hand” for karate.

Motobu Choki was present amongst other karate masters including Chomo Hanashiro, Kyan Chotoku, Chojun Miyagi, Juhatsu Kyoda, Choshin Chibana, Shimpan Gusukuma, and Chotei Oroku.

L-R Toyama Kanken, Ohtsuka Hironori, Shimoda Takeshi, Funakoshi Gichin, Motobu Choki, Mabuni Kenwa, Nakasone Genwa and Taira Shinken were at a meeting in Okinawa in the 1930s.

Motobu Choki’s version

Motobu Choki was invited to a restaurant and interviewed by a group of young karate practitioners for the Ryukyu Shimpo, November 1936 issue.

Amongst those present were Chōkei Takamine, Shōshin Nagamine, Angi Uezu of the Naha Police Department, Tarō Shimabukuro, Ryōsho Kin from Shuri, Ryōkichi Miyazato from Kakinohana, and Shichirō Yanagisawa of the Okinawa Prefecture Educational Department.

In this interview, Motobu Choki recounted the following about his fight with the foreign boxer, more than 10 years after it had happened.

I think it was around 1923. I went to watch a match with the foreign boxer John “somebody” in Kyoto. The boxer fought against a Judo stylist for the first match. This boxer fought very sluggishly. He looked like an amateur.

I applied to challenge this boxer and bet money on the match. I was already over fifty years old at that time. I didn’t have a chance to fight that day, so I went back there the next day.

When I said (to the referee) that I would fight without groves, this boxer despised me, because he was much taller than me. And he treated me like a child, as he held my nose and twisted my cheek.

I did not fight seriously during the first round and we took a break.

When I got up to fight the second round, I suddenly thought, “If I am defeated by such a foreign boxer, it will shame both karate and Okinawa. I want to beat this opponent.” I determined to win the fight.

As soon as the boxer came forward to attack with his full power, I hit his temple very hard with one punch in a rage. He collapsed right there. All the spectators got very excited, and with a thunderous round of applause, started to throw their floor cushions, cigarette holders, drawstring coin purses, and other things toward me.

It was such an exciting event, because such a big boxer (about 6 feet tall), and was knocked out by a karate technique.

Many newspaper articles stated that I hit the boxer with a flat (open) hand. However, I did not use the flat of my hand to hit him. I hit him with my fist, but the spectators thought my hand was flat since I hit him so fast; it was lightning fast.

The essence of karate is to move gently or casually, then immediately and explosively hit the enemy when the opportunity presents itself. This is karate jissen, actual fighting.

Shoshin Nagamine’s version

Shoshin Nagamine, one of Motobu Choki’s students, wrote the following about the fight in his book “The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do“.

On a trip to Kyoto, Motobu and a friend witnessed a contest in which amateur participants from any martial art were invited to pit themselves against professional boxers.

After a few matches, there appeared a foreign professional, about six feet tall, whose arrogant tone was clearly understood despite his foreign tongue.

A referee announced that any challenger would be welcome against the foreigner, with a prize for the winner.

No one came forward. The foreigner became more arrogant, so much so that Motobu’s friend urged him to challenge the boxer, adding that he would bet on Motobu…

The boxer was taken back by Motobu’s strange fighting stance and small stature, but he made the mistake of regarding him as a “kid”. For two rounds, he circled Motobu with a disdainful smile.

In the third round, Motobu realized that the boxer was making fun of him and changed to the offensive. The audience heard a sharp kiai by Motobu and the boxer fell to the floor. Besides the big body lying in the ring, little Motobu stood nonchalantly.

The fight was certainly over but nobody knew what had happened… As a matter of fact, with his lighting-like karate hand, Motobu had struck his opponent’s temple with such speed that the audience was unaware of it. Motobu was fifty-two when he fought the boxer.

Nakama Chozo’s version

Nakama Chozo (1899–1982), a student of Motobu Choki, told Shaban Seijin the following account of the fight in an interview which was published in Issue No. 70, February 1978 of the monthly magazine ‘Aoi Umi’.

Apparently, the manager of the dormitory where Motobu was lodging had read about the forthcoming bout in the local newspaper and knew Choki was just the right kind of person for a contest like that.

The newspaper advertised that a traveling tour of Russians, and a fighter named Johnston, were accepting challengers from all over the Orient.

Apprising Motobu of the event, as he could not read himself, the Okinawan bujin decided to go to the Butokuden on the said day to see if he could try his luck.

After brutally dispatching the foreigner (described as a Russian named Johnston or George, 180 cm tall), the audience cheered and threw money and jewellery out for Motobu.

Reported in local magazines as well as in Okinawa, Choki gained considerable popularity for defeating such as a huge opponent, especially because he was a professional fighter and a foreigner.

Note: The Butokuden built in 1895 in the east of Kyoto was a place where martial arts (kendo, aikido, and karate) were taught. It was also used as a gathering place or for public demonstrations.

The King magazine’s version

The King (called Kingu in Japanese)’s version of the fight was not an accurate report but a sensational account of what happened.

According to the reporter, Motobu decided to challenge on the spur of the moment which is contrary to what Motobu said himself that he registered but couldn’t fight on the day so he went back the next day.

He described George, the boxer, as “a formidable knockdown style fighter” and Motobu as “in his 50s, stood 162 cm tall and despite looking like a one-time athletic stalwart, it was obvious that he had seen better days”.

The agreed rules were “no kicking, no punching and no striking with the bare fists” so if Motobu did strike the boxer with his fist as he said, he would have violated the rules there. But perhaps it happened so fast that neither the referee nor the spectators knew what exactly had happened.

Although the magazine named Motobu Choki as the challenger and printed his picture with the article, it included illustrations that clearly showed Funakoshi confronting and defeating the foreign boxer and not Motobu.

Although Funakoshi had nothing to do with this blunder, it probably contributed to the feud between Motobu and Funakoshi which will be covered in a separate post.

Below are highlights of the match as reported by the King magazine.

Being a well trained boxer, George immediately recognised Motobu as an experienced fighter by virtue of the fact that there were no openings in his stance. Throwing a few punches to feel him out, George remained unable to make an opening or penetrate Motobu’s defence.

Noticeably annoyed, George gradually began to tire. It appeared that the threat of losing under these unusual circumstances compelled him to take chances he may never have attempted under alternative circumstances…

With deadly conviction, George lunged at the old man’s face with a swooping right hand that would have fell an ox, had it reached its intended target.

In the next moment, he was airborne… Motobu slid inside and trapped George’s big right hand and quickly countered it with a stiff left open hand stunning him. Then, in a flash, he followed it up with an awesome right palm heel strike that slammed directly into the space between George’s mouth and nose, dropping him to the canvas like a wooden sword.

Speechless in amazement, the audience finally broke out into wild cheers as George lay motionless on the ground.

The reporter said, “although I had watched many exhibitions at the Butokuden in the past, this event was, without question, the best I’d ever seen”.

Indeed, this kind of stuff usually comes out of a Hollywood movie screenplay, not something that one can watch in real life.

Even by today’s standards, witnessing a short middle age man knocking out a young giant boxer with a single punch can still be one of the best and most unforgettable bouts for any martial art fan.

Unknown Japanese author

Below is one version of the match between Motobu and the boxer in an article published on the Karate & Kobujutsu website.

The article was written in Japanese with the author unknown and given to the website owner in October 1983 by Katsuya Miyahira (1918–2010), the grand master of the Shorin-ryu Shido-kan style of Okinawan Karate.

Choki quickly stripped to the waist and entered the boxing ring and faced his opponent. Although Choki was small by foreign standards standing at 5’5″, at age 53 he was a fighter to be reckoned with and he weighed in at 240 pounds. He assumed a relaxed posture while the foreigner aggressively moved in jabbing and weaving.

Choki avoided all the blows and did not attack showing the foreigner that he had complete mastery of the ring. The foreigner, never seeing this type of fighting before, felt that Motobu was scared and began to mock him.

Motobu slowly became more aggressive when he saw that the foreigner was making fun of him. So, by the end of the second round, Motobu felt that it was time to punish the foreigner for his insolence.

At the sound of the bell for the third round Choki quickly stepped out and again faced the foreigner. The foreigner again laughing and making faces suddenly stopped and saw that Choki had changed his fighting attitude.

He immediately recognized that Choki was different from the rest of the people he had fought and quickly moved in for the knock out. As the foreigner cross-punched, Choki weaved to one side, uttered a sharp kiai and struck him in the heart with his favorite technique of keikoken (one knuckle punch) followed by another hooking keikoken to the temple. At the next moment the foreigner collapsed.

Due to the speed of Choki’s technique, no one in the audience had been able to see the terrible power of his one knuckle punch. Choki had hit the foreigner so quickly that the audience was stunned and unable to tell what had happened.

Although this western boxer is unknown (some even say it was a Russian boxer but this is highly unlikely in 1921), the Japanese press only referred to him as”George.”

In any case, the Japanese people were very surprised by Choki’s victory. Kingu (King), a famous Japanese sports magazine, featured Choki in its September of 1925 edition (Issue 9 pages 195-204). Almost overnight, the name of Motobu Saru sprung into fame. He was asked by numerous groups to teach his mystical form of karate so that it could be popularized. Due to these urging, Choki began to teach in the Hongodai section of Tokyo. He was also asked to teach a small group of scholars at the fame Tokyo University.

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My Art and Skill of Karate” by Motobu Choki (1932), translated by Andreas Quast and Motobu Naoki

“Karate – My Art” By Motobu Choki, translated by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy

The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do by Shoshin Nagamine

Interviews with Respected Elder Bushi, Choki Motobu Regarding Real Self-Defense – (Jissen) Episodes – 本部流 – Motobu-ryu

The meeting that changed Karate history forever

Choki Motobu: Through The Myth…To the Man

Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters (Tuttle Martial Arts)

Motobu Choki – Karate and Kobujutsu

“Choki Motobu, a Forerunner of Combative Karate” in the monthly magazine ‘Aoi Umi’ (Blue Sea) No.70 February 1978 issue, translated by Seijin Jahana