Photo/Illutration Shosei Nitta, a former Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation bantamweight champion, adopts a fighting pose at a boxing gym in Kawasaki. (Photo by Kazuo Yamamoto)

Shosei Nitta is waging his own fight outside the boxing ring to help a fellow ex-professional boxer who spent decades on death row clear his name once and for all.

The 53-year-old, a former Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation champion who now serves as secretary-general of the Japan Pro Boxing Association, first met Iwao Hakamada 13 years ago.

Hakamada, now 84, was sentenced to death in 1968 by the Shizuoka District Court for murdering a family of four in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The Supreme Court finalized his death sentence in 1980.

After Nitta learned from a trainee at his boxing gym in Kawasaki that Hakamada was insisting he is innocent of the crime, he couldn’t help but visit the inmate at the Tokyo Detention House.

Hakamada’s mental condition had deteriorated during his lengthy incarceration.

The two men, however, were on the same wavelength when it came to boxing.

Peering at Nitta through an acrylic partition in the visitors’ room, Hakamada told him: “You look like Popeye. You look like you can take punches.”

Nitta became vexed by the thought that the former sixth-ranked featherweight boxer could be executed anytime.

He organized a study session for active boxers and formed a support committee at the boxing association.

After he took on the role of the boxing association’s secretary-general in 2013, Nitta contacted world champions at home and abroad for assistance.

In March the following year, the Shizuoka District Court granted Hakamada a retrial, and he was finally released after nearly 48 years of incarceration.

As a mark of respect, the World Boxing Council presented Hakamada with an honorary championship belt.

A native of Kanagawa Prefecture west of Tokyo, Nitta was fascinated by the boxing manga “Ashita no Joe” (Tomorrow’s Joe). He turned pro when he was a student at Yokohama National University.

Nitta was 29 years old when he lost a Japanese title match for the third time.

He thought about calling it quits as a professional boxer. He had a wife and two children.

While he was staring at the tatami mats in his small apartment room, he was struck by the thought, “Don’t let defeat defeat you.”

Six months later, he won the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation bantamweight title.

In June 2018, the Tokyo High Court overturned the district court’s retrial order. Hakamada’s release was not rescinded due to his age and deteriorating health.

Hakamada’s lawyers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Nitta has refused to give up, believing that the top court will support a retrial.

The boxing association began streaming a manga about Hakamada’s case in spring. An English version and a YouTube video of the manga with audio and sound effects are also available.

“What’s important is how you behave when you lost and when you are having a difficult time,” Nitta said, underscoring his determination to keep on fighting.