Some photos by J. Kentel
Article by Emanuel Giordano (original article 25/02/2021)
The only Westerner who faced Motobu or, at least, the only one whose encounter has been documented by articles and interviews, was the boxer who was defeated in 1923 at the Butokuden in Kyoto (Motobu, in the 1936 interview, he recalls Taisho 12, i.e. 1923. The article that appeared in King magazine, however, gives November 1922 as the date.). The identity of this man remained a mystery for a long time, and he was often referred to by the names "John", "George" or, simply, "the boxer". Someone went a bit further, daring that it was a Russian athlete, but a true identification seemed to be impossible.
Then came research by Charles C. Goodin, director of the Hawaii Karate Museum, which led to a name. Name obtained by crossing various data and information, thanks to which Goodin was able to elaborate his theory, which tells us that the boxer who faced Motobu at the Butokuden in Kyoto was John Kentel. This theory is supported not only by the research carried out by Goodin, but also by the interview with Motobu in 1936, where the well-known master clearly tells us that the boxer was called John "something", and by a flyer of the time (see below), where the series of matches between the strong Western boxer and Judo experts appears sponsored.
Boxing vs Judo Matches: John Kentel, World-Class Herculean Strongman, Kyushu Theater.
This kind of mixed martial arts matches, where western athletes were often seen challenging local fighters, were very popular at the time, and were real shows, which started what would later become the world of gory Valetudo first, and of the more "blunted" MMA (in the West) and Shooto boxing (in Japan) later. But the desire to see encounters between fighters belonging to different disciplines is much older, just think of the ludi and munera gladiatora of ancient Rome, or their predecessors carried out by the Etruscans, where the fighters had different and well-classified techniques and equipment ( eg Retiarius against Murmillo, i.e. fisherman against moray eel).
Returning to our John Kentel, I also conducted some research to better understand who this man was. Let's start with his real name, which was Jan (or Jaan) Kentel, although he was better known by the name John. Jan was an athlete from Estonia, born July 9, 1881, but an athlete of what exactly? He was a top notch strongman, boxer and wrestler. At this point some of you might start to think that he was a simple freak given the strength of him, rather than a true athlete. But no, because Jan was also an instructor in the Japanese imperial army for 10 years (also receiving a katana as a gift, now exhibited in the Estonian national museum), as well as a professional wrestler belonging to a Russian company (perhaps that was why someone said he was Russian). He began his training in the "Linda" athletic club, and between the 19th and 20th centuries went to St. Petersburg, where he joined the aforementioned company, with which he traveled to Siberia, China and Japan.
Some photos by J. Kentel
Jan, among other things, imported the use of kettlebells to Japan in the 1930s, was an instructor of the Japanese wrestler Kitahata Kanetaka, fought with the 4th dan judoka Ishii Kun (source: A. Quast), and participated in Greco-Roman wrestling (sometimes nicknamed Lurich II) in: Azerbaijan (November 1911, March 1912), Iran (1912), Georgia (February 1912), Russia (1906, 1907, 1909, June 1910 – 1st place, January 1912, August 1912, 1914, 1915 - 4th of 21), Turkey (1912), Latvia (1910) and Poland. At the end of his career he bought a farm in Australia, where he died in 1938 (in Rockwood).
From this brief biography emerges the figure of a wrestler and professional athlete, very far from being compared to that of a freak, whose only purpose was to make a scene thanks to his physique and his strength. This more truthful picture, in addition to giving the right dignity and memory to a wrestler, also gives greater prestige to Motobu sensei's victory, since it was obtained against an opponent who was not only bigger, taller and younger than him, but also prepared in combat, and in fact it took Motobu two rounds to knock him out.