There’s no easy way out, there’s no shortcut home.
Joe enters his first official Megalo Boxing match against the 105th ranked fighter, Shark Samejima. But to the shock of everyone in the crowd, he’s come into the ring without any Gear. This was apparently Nanbu’s idea after seeing Joe fight just fine last episode without Gear, plus a gimmick like that is going to really draw in the challengers. And in an Air Bud style twist of fate, it turns out there isn’t any rule about someone fighting with no Gear, so it’s approved.
The fight begins smoothly enough, until Joe takes a blow straight on and crashes to the mat, severely shaking his confidence but managing to get back up in time to beat the ten count. The next round only make things worse as Joe starts feeling like his feet are sinking into the ground. Nanbu sees his fear building and morale begins to leak out fast until Sachio gives him the right talking to about them all being in this together in order to bring Joe back to reality. His confidence restored, Joe starts taking advantage of Samejima’s anger issues to quickly take control of the fight and clock him square in the jaw for a TKO in the third round.
Having finally found his footing, Joe, Nanbu, and Sachio book and win the next two matches, getting Joe to the 102nd rank. Nanbu aims for their fourth match to be 50th and above, but gets lucky with a direct challenge from the 17th. However, they seem to be an old acquaintance of Nanbu’s.
Well, I guess we know what “Gear is Dead” means now. It probably seems like an odd choice to establish this world where everyone uses special mechanical boxing gloves only to have our protagonist forsake them to make a statement (I’ve even seen people complain this ruined the show for them, oddly enough), but I have a few theories on this move. One, as Nanbu explains, this gives Joe way more of a noticeable style than just being yet another street tough who’s putting on the gloves, since he’s going to seem like an easy win that lower level boxers could use to rise in the ranks. The other is a bit more meta, as I’ve heard that this show’s more 90’s sensibilities in writing and character design seem to be pushing the old school techniques over the simpler modern ones like excessive CG and washed out settings and backgrounds. As such Joe’s Gearless gimmick seems to be emblematic of the show’s approach to revitalizing what people liked about older anime compared to the ones cranked out today.
As for the episode itself, I’m admittedly not super familiar with boxing stories outside of the Rocky/Creed series (whose songs and memorable quotes being where I’ve been pulling these review taglines, in case that wasn’t clear), but what I am familiar with is well-written fights, and that is what I think we have here with the match against Samejima. While he’s definitely not the most layered character, he fits all but perfectly as Joe’s first proper opponent because he acts as a parallel for Joe in this moment. What makes the most intense and emotional battles in not just anime, but any storytelling, is the connection and similarities between the opposing side, like Batman and the Joker, or Professor X and Magneto. Joe already has someone fitting that rival role in Yuri, but it’ll be awhile before we get back to him, so the rest will need their own significance.
This is briefly mentioned last episode, but Samejima’s main flaw is that his anger problems have kept him from going very far. Like Joe in the first half, he fights as if he’s the only one on his team and is enveloped by a single driving emotion, except his is anger while Joe’s was fear. Once Joe realized he had people supporting him, his natural talents were able to shine through again. Samejima fulfills his purpose as Joe’s gatekeeper to the big leagues because he’s what Joe could have become with a shot in Megalo Boxing, but without proper guidance and thinking he didn’t need to listen to anyone. With this hurdle jumped and two other matches under his belt to skyrocket through the rankings, it looks like Joe’s next true test will be against this 17th ranked fighter.