#1 MAKUNOUCHI IPPO vs. MASHIBA RYO (Series 1)
This was it. This is the end-all, be-all of fights in Hajime no Ippo. The fight that shows the storytelling, the character development, and of course the boxing, all at its best. It is the East Japan Rookie Championship fight between Makunouchi Ippo and Mashiba Ryo, and it is doubtless one of the best fights in anime, bar none.
I guess this is as good a place to talk about Mashiba as any. A lanky, ghoulish man, Mashiba is one of the most dark and intimidating characters in the series. At his best, he’s unpleasant, antisocial and vicious. At his worst, he approaches people with a hostility that resembles homicidal mania.
He’s also home to one of the series’ most tragic backstories. At a young age, Ryo and his younger sister Kumi lost their parents to an accident. And the people around them did precisely dick to help them in their time of need, leaving them to fend for themselves. Mashiba, desperately embittered at the world that abandoned them and believing the rest of humanity to be selfish scum, swore before his parents’ grave to work and scrape to make his own way, to make himself something and most of all, to care for his little sister, who was all he had left. (Kumi is actually a major character in her own right, acting as Ippo’s love interest. You can imagine the comedy…) To this end, he spends all his time working as a delivery man and training for his matches. All of it.
See, Mashiba’s defining trait, besides being fucking spooky, is his obsessive drive to win. He is almost impossible to keep down in a fight, unless you absolutely break him. It was this drive that won him all his matches, well, the ones where he didn’t just dominate the opponent. Mashiba boxes to take advantage of his natural physical talents, to make something of himself in the pro world so that, with the resulting money and fame, he can give his little sister a life and a proper education. So his mantra is to never lose, and never, ever give up as long as his body can still move.
It’s actually a fascinating contrast with Ippo himself. A lot is made of Ippo’s “fighting spirit”; of how he is determined to not lose a battle, and will just keep going until he wins. But whereas Ippo seems possessed of the spirit of a warrior, Mashiba seems like he is channeling some sort of hellbeast. His endurance is terrifying, and fittingly, this is the only time Ippo expresses open horror every time his opponent stands up. Especially when said opponent should by all rights be unable to even TWITCH.
The “opposites” aspect of the two is presented on a manifold level. Ippo is short and compact, Mashiba is tall and gaunt. Ippo is an infighter, relying on his speed to get in and his strength to demolish his opponent. Mashiba is an outfighter, utilizing his reach to keep his opponent away and foot work to move around them while battering them away. Ippo utilizes simple punching power, augmented by his highly defensive “Peek-a-boo” style (where he keeps his arms up neat his face at all times, guarding his whole upper body), where as Mashiba uses Flicker jabs in conjunction with the Detroit Hitman style (“Flicker” is when you strike with your arm in a sort of whipping motion, not very powerful but speedily chipping away at your opponent, while the “Hitman” style is where you keep one arm down at your side at all times, leaving that side undefended but allowing unparalleled speed and flexibility of attack)
The two could not be more different, but the build up goes EVEN FURTHER. Mashiba, see, did something that particularly makes Ippo want a fight with him; he took out Miyata, Ippo’s gym rival and part-time man crush, earlier in the tournament. Not only that, circumstances were suspicious at best, with Mashiba committing an “accidental” foul by stepping on Miyata’s foot, tripping up his balance and gaining the advantage (incidentally, this turns out to have been a genuine slip-up on Mashiba’s part, but in his own words, “Who would’ve believed me?”). Ippo is furious not so much at being denied his rematch with his rival (although it does hurt a bit…), but with the idea of a boxer of Mashiba’s caliber supposedly stooping so low.
So we’ve got personal, professional and emotional buildup, to the most pivotal point in the early series. So how does the fight hold up under such intense weight? How can one make a fight that matches the buildup and importance that it has been ascribed? By dosing the fight not just with nail-biting tension and deeply rooted meaning, but with some shatteringly visceral battling action in which both combatants are put through the ringer and back again.
The fight is filled with just the strategic intensity you’d imagine, as Ippo constantly battles to make his way past Mashiba’s iron-clad defense. I didn’t mention it directly above, but one can figure that a hardline outfighter is pretty much the WORST POSSIBLE opponent for Ippo. Ippo needs to get in to do damage, and Mashiba will have none of that, so we get to watch a veritable assault of whipping fists as Mashiba tries to mulch the shit outta Ippo.
But even that won’t prepare you for the sheer stomach clenching INTENSITY of this fight. Ippo does get in, and manages to get past Mashiba’s failsafe (a truly devastating chopping right)…only to meet Mashiba’s elbow block. Using your elbow is a move that, although not illegal, is generally frowned upon. It involves lifting the elbow up just as the opponent punches, so their punch hits right into the point of the bone. The elbow bone is the single hardest bone on the body, and it crunches the opponent’s hand.
And crunch it does. Ippo’s hand is DEMOLISHED, to the point where he mentions that the bones are sticking out under his glove. And he won’t. stop. At this point, the fight just gets more and more viscerally destructive. Ippo, with dead hand in tow, decides to KEEP HITTING MASHIBA’S elbow until he figures out how to stop it. So, after a while, the logical thing happens…he SHATTERS THE ELBOW. Shatters it. Deprived of his weapon, Mashiba is reduced to flailing until he is put down by a vicious punch barage…
…which he gets up from. Repeatedly, leading Ippo to plead in his head “Don’t get up…Don’t get up!”. But get up he does. And worse still, he manages to lift his arm, with a shattered elbow, INTO FIGHTING STANCE. And starts jabbing at Ippo. These two fucking monsters just won’t stop, each propelled by deeply personal ambition and drive. The fight drips with the kind of tension and meaning that entire lesser shows spend their entire run trying to match.
Finally, Ippo manages to strike down Mashiba with a thunderous punch that sends him bouncing off the ropes, his tall frame almost going right over them, before collapsing to the ground as the bloody creature still shouts in his head “I won’t lose! I WON’T LOSE, I CAN’T…” and after two and a half episodes of horrible intensity that leaves the viewer feeling just as exhausted as the participants, it’s over. Both contestants are unrecognizable meat with some human features, Mashiba looks like he was hit by a car.
Mashiba would return, of course. Not the least for his spectacular match with Kimura touched on earlier in the list. Speaking of things I touched on, recall how way back, I mentioned that the fight with Ozuma was where the show went from merely good to great? How the combination of great action and character showed me that I had a treasure on my hands.
Mashiba vs. Ippo is the fight that propelled the show into legend for me. All the fights on this list feature great heart, great characters and depth, and intense action, but nowhere did it hit quite the sublimely perfect balance of the three that it did here. It’s the ultimate fight of the ultimate fighting show, and it represents the finest kind AT its finest, and it don’t get much better than that.
So, that’s it. The best fights in Hajime no Ippo. Now, even if you were just there for the fights, these, although representing in my mind the best, are not all there is. There’s plenty of good action to be had in the other matches, not to mention the trademark humor and personality of the show, and I encourage you to go experience every bit of it. This was just to give credit to the best battles, the edge-of-your-seat battles. The ones that make all that development mean something, and then some.
I’ll see you at Kōrakuen Hall…