Befitting a manga series about boxing, Masami Kurumada's Ring ni Kakero is very much focused around combat. Almost every story arc has many, many 1-on-1 fights housed within, especially once it hits its genre-defining groove & enters its more tournament & challenge match-focused direction. With that in regard, it's obvious that not every fight is going to be a knockout (cue rimshot). This is all the more true for RnK, as many of the fights don't follow the seeming standard that people nowadays associate with fights in shonen manga. Instead of primarily stretching out battles for drama & emotion, like how it's generally done today, bouts in RnK are primarily fast & over fairly quickly, though there are a handful of exceptions. Therefore, deciding which fights are the "Best Bouts" in this series comes down to not just the action itself but also the circumstances in & around them. In the end, I decided to round it down to one fight for each story arc in the manga & one special inclusion so that it's an even ten bouts. So, without further ado, let's get started.
(WARNING! As I'll be covering exact fights, please keep in mind that I may venture into spoilers at times. I'll try to keep them as general as possible, but fair warning.)
Ryuji Takane vs. Jun Kenzaki II
First up is what is officially named the Road to Tokyo Chapter, which shows how Ryuji & Kiku Takane go from a downbeat life with their mother & their new deadbeat stepfather to eventually living with Zoroku Omura at the Tokyo boxing gym that he runs. The main focus in this arc is character development more than anything, showing how Ryuji starts off completely resistant to taking up boxing before he meets young prodigy Jun Kenzaki & finds a reason to take up the sport. In that regard, there are really only two actual "bouts" in this arc, so this wasn't a hard choice to make. The first (impromptu) fight between Ryuji & Kenzaki isn't bad by any means, but as a fight it's pretty one-sided. It's simply Kenzaki beating the ever-living crap out of Ryuji until our lead manages to find an opening & knocks his newfound rival out of the ring & into a giant mirror on the wall of the boxing club's gym. The second fight, however, is another thing entirely.
Being from the point before the manga fully embraces being over-the-top, this bout feels much more like a regular fight, with a heavy focus on strategy & pre-existing deficits, like how Ryuji's right hand is injured via a prior fight he got into after school. After essentially winging it in the first fight with Kenzaki, Ryuji gets to showoff what he's learned since then, like utilizing proper footwork, using the rope-a-dope technique in an attempt to tire out Kenzaki (which doesn't work in the end, as Kenzaki is smarter than that), & trying constant clinching in Round 2. The concept of winning via TKO is even brought up, as Ryuji's clinching plan winds up with him getting knocked down two times, & when he's about to fall for a third time (which would give him a TKO), the bell rings & his seconds immediately catch him. Though that's an illegal action, as a down overrides everything, Kenzaki allows it so that the fight can continue. Finally, there's the dramatic storytelling, from Kiku trying to throw in the towel at the very start (as she didn't want Ryuji to fight) to Kenzaki (after finding out about Ryuji's bad hand) purposefully injuring his right hand by punching the ring post so that the two can be on even ground. With a double KO ending it all, though it's indicated that Kenzaki likely won by points, the second Ryuji/Kenzaki fight is not just the climax of this first story arc but also the best fight in the beginning of the story.
Ryuji Takane vs. Noboru Tsujimoto
The second story arc, the Metropolitan Tournament Chapter, is a rather short one, focusing on an interschool team boxing tournament between schools in the Tokyo area. Though his team only makes it to the second round before elimination, Ryuji's skills are commended & he's given the opportunity to compete in the following mini-tournament which will determine which Jr. boxer will represent Tokyo in the upcoming Champion Carnival, which will crown the Japan Jr. Champion. Though there are eight competitors in this tournament, the arc only showcases two actual matches: Ryuji's first round match against "tough guy" Noboru Tsujimoto, & the final match itself, which doubles as the third fight between Ryuji & Kenzaki (which is the fight that the anime adaptation starts with). While Ryuji/Kenzaki III isn't a bad bout in & of itself, I honestly don't want to have two matches between the main character & his rival take up the first two slots; plus, there's a another bout between them that I'll be including in Part 2. Not just that, but the fight between Ryuji & Tsujimoto really is a damn good one & should be celebrated.
Tsujimoto is Ryuji's first real challenge outside of Kenzaki, and acts as a strong wall for Ryuji to pass. I mean that almost literally, too, because Tsujimoto seems to have an impregnable defense, with blows to head not meaning much, and body blows result in Tsujimoto literally laughing them off. Not just that, but he also hits like a hammer, so while Ryuji is the faster boxer & can avoid most of his foe's punches, should Tsujimoto get one off (even if only scratching the nose), Ryuji will most definitely feel it. For the first half of the fight, Tsujimoto truly comes off like a brash bully who can back up his cockiness, though Kiku does manage to guess what his weakness is. This is where the drama comes into play, as Tsujimoto's five younger siblings appear at ringside & it's revealed that, due to a botched attempt from his destitute father to con money from a stranger, Tsujimoto has a glass jaw after getting hit by a car when he was younger. From this point on, Ryuji's dilemma comes down to his conscience. Being such a nice guy, Ryuji doesn't want to punch Tsujimoto in the jaw to end the fight, since his opponent fights for the betterment of his family, much like he does. When an opening shows itself, though, Ryuji has to accept that achieving his dreams means that he sometimes has to crush the dreams of others. This is arguably the last bout in RnK to not be completely over-the-top, and is the last one that the anime skips over, though the final punch is shown quickly as a flashback half-way into Season 1.
Ishimatsu Katori vs. Takeshi Kawai
Third up is the Champion Carnival Chapter, which is what the first season of the anime from 2004 adapts. At this point, for the next four story arcs, I'll be taking into consideration how the anime also featured the bouts, and this is an example where the inclusion is partially due to how the anime adapted it. In the manga, the fights in the Champion Carnival are mostly done with rather quickly, with only the final (Ryuji vs. Kawai) being given actual time. Still, I don't want Ryuji to hog all of the glory in this list, but that's not the only reason why I chose the semifinal match between Ishimatsu & Kawai. While Kawai acts as the antagonist in this arc, due to his well-to-do upbringing giving him a "better than thou" attitude & the strong coaching from his older sister Takako, his character really clashes the most with Ishimatsu. Sure, Ryuji/Kawai makes sense as the final bout in the tournament due to their similar concepts (brother/sister pairings), though we never truly see Ryuji & Ishimatsu fight each other in the entire manga, but this is the bout where you realize that Ishimatsu is way more than a simple comic relief character.
Upon his introduction, Ishimatsu Katori is easily shown as a competent boxer with lots of heart, but is so easy going that he's easily the comic relief that had previously been taken up mostly by Rock-san over at the Omura Gym. When he fights Kawai at the Champion Carnival, though, you really feel for Ishimatsu, and it's not simply because Kawai comes off like a real jerk in this arc. Right before the fight, Ishimatsu shares a personal moment with Kiku where he bares his soul to her, admitting that he has to work two, three, or even four times as hard as others because of his short stature, and you honestly feel for him; for all of his humor & general silliness, there's a truly hard-working guy deep inside. It's then made all the worse when he finally fights Kawai, as Ishimatsu just takes a bloody beatdown, & I mean bloody. Treating his opposition as nothing but a short fool, Kawai gets more & more incensed at how Ishimatsu keeps getting back up, and once Ishi gets a solid punch across his face, Kawai assaults his opponent so viciously that blood literally starts raining on the crowd. In the manga, this fight is rather short (only a few pages long), but the anime gives it some more breathing room, showcasing Ishimatsu even more as a dedicated young man & making Kawai come off as even more ruthless. As much as Ryuji vs. Kawai is a great final match, there's no way it can beat the sheer emotion showcased in Kawai's prior bout.
Ryuji Takane vs. Black Shaft
The first time international boxing is showcased, the Pacific War Chapter (or U.S. vs. Japan Chapter, if you prefer) has U.S. Jr. Champion Black Shaft (yes, he's a blaxploitation character) challenge the newly formed Team Golden Japan Jr. to a 5-on-5 challenge, because Shaft doesn't deem the Japanese boxers to be worthy of competing in the upcoming World Tournament. While Shaft will have a proper team of five Jr. boxers for said tournament when the time comes, though, he decides to gather together four dangerous people to join him in battle for this, essentially turning a "challenge" into a "war". The end result of these fights, however, depend on which medium you experience it. In the manga, all of Shaft's dangerous picks are defeated rather soundly by Golden Japan Jr., with only Kawai arguably having trouble due to Miss Chanel's mesmerizing eyes. In the anime, these fights are almost all stretched out much more, with Ishimatsu having a true David vs. Goliath-style battle with Monster Jail (that runs for a little too long, honestly) & Shinatora getting mentally distracted at a couple of moments when his opponent Hell Mick tells him that his biker gang is holding Shinatora's family hostage; Kawai's fight is more or less the same as the manga in terms of content. That leaves Kenzaki's fight with Mr. Whitey... Which isn't even a fight, acting only as a reminder that Kenzaki has truly recovered from his injury after his last bout with Ryuji.
Therefore, the only real option for this arc is the Champion vs. Champion fight at the end, Ryuji vs. Shaft. While the rest of the makeshift Team USA were not proper boxers, & that showed in their fights, Shaft is a true boxer through & through, making his bout with Ryuji feel legit. It's also an interesting showcase of how varied boxing can be with the use of a single move: The Pivot Blow. Early on, Shaft purposefully turns his back on Ryuji, & when our lead lowers his guard in confusion Shaft turns around & sucker punches him. Ishimatsu tries to get Shaft disqualified by cheating with a Pivot Blow, but Shaft simply responds that such an attitude shows how ill-prepared Japan is compared to the rest of the world, since not every fight will be fought in a completely fair fashion. To be fair, Shaft doesn't resort to such tactics afterwards, and instead we start to see that Shaft's entire idea behind this "war" was that he recognized the challenge that Japan will bring (specifically Ryuj & Kenzaki), so he wanted to see if he could take them out early. In the end, the bout not only delivers some nice boxing action, especially the simultaneous Boomerang Hook/Black Screw superblow moment (see image above), but it also essentially shows that Black Shaft really isn't a bad guy at all, as he gains a newfound respect for his foes & wishes them well for the future. Sadly, this is the last we really see of Shaft in the entire story, outside of a few cameo appearances here & there, but at least he goes out with a bang. The anime's take is just as solid, dedicating the last two episodes to it & giving it the real sense of gravitas it needs.
Ryuji Takane vs. Nobi
The first story arc to feature major fights that take place outside of the boxing ring, the Shadow Chapter showcased a bit of world building & character development for all of the leads. The eponymous Shadow Clan is a forgotten sect created by a man who took up boxing when it was brought to Japan during the Taisho Era, but essentially got banished from the scene after he used the style to kill an American naval officer (& amateur boxer) during an exhibition match. The man found followers, though, & the clan stayed in the shadows of Japanese boxing ever since. Seeing an opportunity to finally break back into the "word of light", the clan challenges Golden Japan Jr. in an attempt to take their spot as Japan's representatives in the World Tournament. Before that, however, a group within the Shadow Clan, lead by second-in-command Nobi, kidnap Kiku as a way to force Ryuji into a fight, with the hopes of taking him out first. This arc is interesting because it has two types of battles, and while the 5-on-5 challenge in the second half is fun & showcases how each member of Golden Japan Jr. has grown (with all but Kenzaki & Ryuji showing their new superblows here), the stuff in the Shadow Tower is really the bigger highlight.
Hell, I almost wanted to include the entire Shadow Tower sequence for this entry, as each of them have their appeals. Still, I should keep it to just one bout per arc, so in the end I have to choose the final fight of the Shadow Tower, when Ryuji takes on Nobi at the Phoenix Floor at the top. While Ryuji's fight with Sousui is fine, it's really not much of an actual fight; it's all drama & character-focused. Ryuji's bout with Nobi, on the other hand, is a fight & then some. Similar to Tsujimoto, Nobi has tank-like defense & hits as hard as he is big, & the fact that he & Ryuji both fight in a bare-knuckle fashion results in both of them being pretty beat up & bruised by the end. Nobi, however, is willing to fight dirty, like faking being knocked out so that he can get a surprise gut punch with so much power that he literally picks up Ryuji with said punch before launching him away. This fight also shows Kiku where she stands when it comes to her little brother. Up to this point, she was always there for Ryuji, giving him training & other various pointers as his second. She left Ryuji on his own for the Pacific War as a test to see what he can do on his own, but it's this fight with Nobi where she truly realizes that she's done everything she can for her brother & that from here on out Ryuji has to learn & adapt as a boxer on his own, though her old lessons still help him out at times. For Ryuji, the entire trek up the Shadow Tower was to rescue the person that means the most to him, but for Kiku it wound up being the moment when she acknowledged that the person that means to most to her has started becoming the man that she hoped he would become. The anime's take on this fight is just as good, too.
That's it for Part 1 of this list. Check back later for Part 2, where I list off the best fights in the second half of Ring ni Kakero.