When Lindsay Thurber (LTCHS) Japanese exchange student Hiro (pronounced Hero) Tsuji arrived in Red Deer he had no idea that the squared-circle would be an important part of his immersion into Canadian culture.
“I didn’t think (when I came to Canada) that I would be boxing,” said Tsuji, 17.
“My friend (Chinese exchange student) Andy (Lau) invited me to boxing and I saw Cam O’Connell (former Canadian champion) sparring and it was amazing, I was shocked, he was crazy good, and I thought I want to be like this.”
Tsuji came to Red Deer in February of last year, and then joined the Red Deer Boxing Club in May. When he first visited the club his English was limited.
“His English skills were weak, very weak,” said Red Deer Boxing Club coach Jim Kennedy.
“Sometimes I wondered (if he understood) but when we showed him the motion and then talked to him, he would pick it up and go. He adapted to more difficulties than we could imagine. I think he is very courageous to come to a combat sport and not know much English.”
Tsuji worked extremely hard on his English skills, and credits LTCHS ESL staff members Gaylene MacKay and Sharon Schultz, his friends at high school, his host family and surprisingly the Red Deer Boxing Club and the friends he made there for his improved English.
“It (boxing) is a very good deal because there is no Japanese and there is no help, no escape, just have to speak English right,” joked Tsuji.
“It is very good when I spar with my buddies, my friends, we talk about boxing in English. It helped my English improve lots.”
Kennedy agrees with Tsuji’s assessment.
“I think being with the club helped with his English skills, because we are like a family here. We pull together, talk to each other,” said the coach.
Tsuji’s boxing skills also improved dramatically and after only five months of training he had his first bout in November, at the Alberta Sub-Novice championships in Edmonton.
The Red Deer Boxing Club fighter fought well, but unfortunately lost by decision to Pelraul Michent of Edmonton, who had been training for two years.
“I didn’t like my first fight,” said Tsuji. “I really hate losing, and I really, really, wanted to win.”
The setback, however, only motivated Tsuji to train harder, and all of that hard work paid off on Dec. 18, as Tsuji posted his first win in the ring.
For Tsuji, however, the road to the first win was not easy, as he had to move up one age category to face 20-year-old Albert Falgui in Falgui’s hometown of Edmonton.
The third and last round of the bout was the deciding factor as Tsuji became the aggressor, landing quick combinations, backing his opponent up and then rocking Falgui with a straight right to the chin that buckled the Edmonton fighter’s knees.
The final burst of energy was enough to give the Red Deer Boxing Club athlete the split-decision victory.
“I wanted to keep my hands tight, chin down, speed, and jab, jab, jab, double-jab, triple-jab,” said Tsuji.
“His jab was slow, so I thought the straight (right) to the head would work.”
At the end of the fight — with his hand raised — Tsuji got the victory he had been wanting so much.
“It was amazing, awesome, “ said Tsuji. “When the announcer said the winner is blue corner, it was the happiest feeling I ever had in sports.”
For Tsuji, who returns to Japan Saturday, the whole Canadian experience has been amazing and he is overwhelmed by the kindness he has been shown in Canada.
“The best things in Canada is the people are so nice . . . in Canada if someone is suffering they (Canadians) help them and take care of them,” explained the exchange student. “When I came here I was nervous if I could get friends or not. When I go to my first class they just talked to me, I was amazed. I think I have more Canadian friends now than I have Japanese friends. On my facebook there almost 400 people, 250 are people I have met here.”
He is also very impressed with the Alberta education system.
“There are lots of people there (at Lindsay Thurber) from all over the world. The ESL class is a very amazing idea. There are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Romanian, Russian, Brazilian, Mexican, and lots more. It is a very good school.”
When he returns to Japan, Tsuji hopes to continue his boxing career, first as an amateur and then as a professional. Kennedy believes his potential is unlimited.
“He has very fast hands, good wind and good mobility. The amount he has picked up from May to now is amazing, “ said the coach. “He could go places, this kid. We are sad to see him leave. If he continues over there he can only get better.”
Tsuji will treasure his Canadian experience forever.
“It is very good to experience different languages, cultures, food, different people, it is a very good experience for me,” he said. “The (boxing) victory is the best memory for me. Everything was a good experience, but the victory was the best. Boxing has been an amazing memory for me. I will never forget it.”