Breaking through the middleweight muddle
Ryota Murata is an anomaly in Japanese boxing. While the nation has a long history of great boxers, the vast majority have done their bruising business at or below the lightweight limit. Murata showed the ability to overcome this in the amateurs, winning Japan’s first boxing medal since 1968, capturing middleweight gold at the 2012 London Olympics. It made Murata a star in Japan, and he is the only Japanese boxer to win an Olympic gold medal and professional world championship belt. Those attributes compelled Teiken Promotions and Top Rank to sign and share promotional duties. Teiken is responsible for the matchmaking, while Top Rank sets up Murata’s overseas fights and training. as well as U.S. television exposure. In a rare Sunday morning (8 a.m. ET, with a same-day replay at 11 p.m ET) fight card, ESPN2 will give America a chance to see if Top Rank’s investment was a wise one.
The charismatic Murata turned pro almost five years ago at age 27 and he wasted little time speeding into a WBA “regular” title shot against battle-tested veteran Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam (more on that fight later) in only his 13th professional outing. This despite a very clear and imposing champion in Gennady Golovkin looming for anyone who rises to a world title level, as he holds three of the four major belts. Given their amateur pedigrees (Murata was 119-19, with 89 stoppages), it would be an intriguing clash but one in which Golovkin would be the clear favorite, given the wide gap in professional experience and level of opposition.
After 12 victories to open his career Murata fought for the WBA regular title against Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in May of last year. Murata lost a highly controversial split decision (116-111, 115-112, 110-117), in a match most thought Murata was winning by a clear margin. Murata even knocked N’Jikam down in the fourth round, giving the usually polite Japanese crowd even more reason to jeer the judges’ decision loudly. The two judges who scored the fight for N’Jikam were suspended for six months and WBA President Gilberto Mendoza issued a public apology before ordering a immediate rematch.
An angry Murata left nothing to chance in the rematch, easily besting and stopping N’Jikam via seventh round stoppage. It is the only time N’Jikam has been stopped and that fight was also aired on a Sunday morning by ESPN. In fact, Murata has a history of impressing when featured on American TV. He delivered a bold statement on U.S. soil two years ago, in his first appearance on the Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol pay-per-view, stopping George “Comanche Boy” Tahdooahnippah in one round. Murata admits he needs to make a positive impression to distinguish himself from other titleholders. “I will have to get better and put myself in a situation where people would say, ‘Maybe it’s interesting for this champion to have a match against Murata.’“
Murata, 13-1 (10), is forging a new path. The only Japanese boxer above middleweight to fight for a title was Yuzo Kiyota, who lost a WBO light heavyweight bout to then-beltholder Robert Stieglitz in Germany. Shinji Takehara is the best Japanese middleweight to date, upsetting Jorge Castro to win the WBA title in 1995. However, Takehara lost in his first title defense, which Takehara was winning before being stopped by William Joppy. Junior middleweight Koichi Wajima is the most successful Japanese boxer at a higher weight, holding the WBA and WBC titles for three years in the mid-1970s. Wajima made six defenses before losing to Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado in a fight for the ages. Wajima beat Alvarado in a rematch but was so damaged by the two encounters that he lost the title in his next outing.
Trying to stop Murata’s string of victories on American television is Italian and European middleweight champion Emanuele Blandamura, 27-2 (5). He is a considerable underdog and did not give WBO champion Billy Joe Saunders any trouble before falling in the eighth round. Blandamura also lost badly to the only other quality foe on his resume, as he was stopped in the eighth round by Michel Soro. However, Blandamura thinks those experiences will help him now, “I’ve competed in boxing for 20 years. It’s not even an overstatement to say this will be the best day of my life. I have the utmost respect for Murata. It will be a career-defining fight for me.” Murata only seemed weary of Blandamura’s awkwardness and stamina, “He’s kept winning with few KOs. That means he knows how to fight for 10 rounds, 12 rounds.”
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum flew to Japan for a visit with Murata and, while there, told the Japanese media he was interested in staging a rematch with Murata’s 2012 Olympic foe Esquiva Falcao, 20-0 (14), in Las Vegas this June. Their Olympic gold medal match was an intense and closely-waged brawl, in which Murata was awarded a points win by the score of 14-13. Like many Olympic bouts, it was seen as a controversial decision by the loser and his followers. It makes for an enticing storyline and Falcao is on the record as wanting another shot at Murata. “I want my revenge. It wasn’t fair and I’ll never forget that. Murata won the WBA title and now I’ll take it away from him as result. Murata will pay for the robbery in the Olympics. Then I’ll go after the other belts but, right now, I’m only seeking this fight badly!”
If Murata wins his fight with Blandamura impressively, it could open door to greater riches, with Gennady Golovkin being the ultimate goal, a fight which has been brought to Golovkin’s promoters’ attention and they seem willing to negotiate later this year. GGG Promotions head Tom Loeffler told UCNLive’s Steve Kim last year, after Murata stopped N’Jikam, “100 percent, I’ve always thought it would be great for Gennady to fight in Japan. All of his fights are shown on Japanese television on WOWOW and we have a lot of respect for Murata. Murata’s actually been in Big Bear (California) training before. He had a great knockout win; I think that could definitely make sense for ‘Triple G’.”
It has been a long journey for the 32-year-old Murata. From an ill-tempered over-competitive amateur, who was disqualified multiple times, to an adored television personality, given his natural charm outside the ring. Not surprisingly, Murata’s newfound maturity and winning ways coincided with the birth of his child in 2010, which he said focused him. A brighter future hangs on beating Blandamura, of which Murata is certain, telling THE RING Magazine’s Anson Wainwright, “My composure will increase my fighting power. I believe I am superior to Blandamura in power and stamina. I’ll attack him from my distance and deprive him of his stamina.”
If successful, given Golovkin’s canceled fight with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and lack of big name opponents, a showdown with Gennady Golovkin in Japan seems a distinct possibility. Murata acknowledged as much in his final press conference, telling the nearly 100 reporters on hand, “This has to be a fight that will take me to the next level.” It is a lot of pressure to take on but Murata has shown the boxing ability and mental strength to master these situations. A dominant victory allows Murata to focus on the bigger picture and ultimately the biggest goal in Golovkin.