For Ryota Murata, the middleweight gold medal he earned in London wields power.
Now a professional boxer, Murata has quickly transformed himself into a national icon in his Olympic-crazed homeland.
His public presence isn’t just limited to the boxing ring.
Murata has also become a commercial figure, appearing in national TV ads for companies such as NTT Docomo and Under Armour.
Murata certainly wanted fame. But not as a TV celebrity — as one of the best fighters in the world.
When he became the first Japanese to win an Olympic title in the sport in 48 years (Takao Sakurai won the bantamweight gold at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics) at the 2012 London Games, Murata thought that he had proven himself.
But the Nara native soon realized that the magic of the ornament around his neck didn’t last too long.
“I thought I could prove I was the best with the first gold medal in 48 years, but that was actually good for three, four months,” Murata said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times. “The Olympics is a one-time fever every four years. Of course, I had competed aiming to win it, but the Olympics are more of a sporting festivity, not necessarily a place the strongest people would assemble.”
So Murata took off his headgear and turned pro in the summer of 2013, a year after he obtained Olympic glory in Britain. His first pro bout, held at Japanese boxing mecca Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, was aired live on network television in prime time. That was unprecedented here.
While joining Teiken Promotions Inc., Murata also signed a contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, one of the largest boxing promotions companies in the world.
Murata wasn’t a typical rookie pro. He was forced into the spotlight with massive pressure on his back from the very beginning. And he couldn’t afford to take on lukewarm opponents even on his debut.
Starting with a bout against Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation middleweight champion Akio Shibata, Murata was assigned to face fighters who had credible track records, instead of taking on washed-up boxers or those with questionable credentials. His third opponent, Brazilian Carlos Nascimentol, had contended for a WBO super welterweight title back in 2007.
But of course, no complaints are heard out of Murata’s mouth regarding the schedule. He knows this is the path he must travel in order to achieve his ultimate goal: to stand at the pro boxing summit. It would be a feat that other boxing greats like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Oscar De La Hoya and Wladimir Klitschko, all of whom won an Olympic gold and a world championship belt, also achieved.
At age 28, he has no room to make a detour. Murata, who is 4-0 as a pro, wants to participate in as many bouts as he can to gain experience.
“I want to fight more,” stated the 182-cm Murata, who undertakes training camps at a Top Rank-owned gym in Las Vegas before every bout. “But it’s not appropriate to have meaningless fights. Being a professional boxer, you get followed by the media, and you are asked for quality in your opponents.
“And I don’t have that much time (considering I came in the pro ring as a gold medalist), while others may have 20 fights (before their world title shots). There’s no 20-time introductions for me. I’ve got to go like half of it, and I’ve got to grow twice as much as the others and absorb twice as much through real fights as well.”
Partially because the middle divisions are arguably the deepest, most competitive weight classes in boxing, it usually takes about 20 fights for anyone in that weight class to get their first world title bout (Manny Pacquiao required 25, Floyd Mayweather 18, Juan Manuel Marquez 31 and Gennady Golovkin took 19). Last month, Murata’s name appeared in the top 15 in the WBC middleweight rankings for the first time (he was ranked 13th). He moved up to No. 11 this month, and that makes him eligible for a shot at the world title.
This has made him buckle down even more seriously.
“It makes me feel like I can’t afford to be idle,” explained Murata, who’s aiming for a title shot late next year, with a serious look in his eyes. Murata, who calls himself a “boxing maniac,” said that he looked at the names ranked above him when he made the list, and realized that whoever he took on from that group, he would have to be ready for a fierce battle. He added that any of them could contend for a world championship in the weight class.
But, of course, he won’t back down, believing he’s capable of doing it.
“I have to be in a situation that I can take on anybody and beat him no matter when,” said Murata, adding that he would fight Miguel Cotto on any day. “I don’t care who I fight. But I know it’ll be tough whoever I take on.”
A popular athlete in Japan, Murata’s reputation has yet to be established outside of his homeland. He acknowledges this is the case.
“I’ve got to go up in the rankings and at least be recognized by others,” he said. “That’s where I’m at right now.”
At the same time, Murata thinks about things in professional ways that maybe some stubborn fighters in this business would not. For example, he said that he would want to fight Mayweather rather than some strong-but-not-so-popular foes who wouldn’t draw as much attention.
“I would want Mayweather (more than others),” Murata said of the American, a five-division world champ who is basically lighter by one or two weight classes than Murata. “Wouldn’t you think so? I would want the bigger bucks fighting Floyd than making less money by taking on others. If I can do that by dropping three more kilos, I’ll do that.
“I don’t mind dropping a division and I don’t mind going up either. Because you don’t have many chances (to win a world title) in this business.”
Japan has eight current world champions in the recognized major boxing organizations, yet all of them are in the lighter weight classes. Traditionally, Japanese boxers have been strangers in the middle and heavyweight divisions. Shinji Takehara won a WBA middleweight title in the mid-1990s, and it was considered an exceptional feat.
Japanese fighters can’t compete in heavier divisions; perhaps that is the common perception outside of Japan as well. When Murata was introduced by Arum when he signed with Top Rank in Las Vegas, he was asked questions about trying to become a world champ in the 160-pound (72,6-kg) class by many foreign media, primarily Americans.
Recalling that occasion, Murata turned dour. He doesn’t like the fact that Japanese boxers aren’t considered to be competitive in the heavier classes.
“I wonder why that is?” Murata asked. “I wonder since when they have thought that we couldn’t compete there.”
Citing other sports like baseball and soccer, or even other areas like science, in which his compatriots have achieved international success, Murata insisted that Japanese are able to compete globally and they should get rid of their inferiority complex.
“I think that we no longer have to have it,” he said. “And I want to prove that. Prove that we can do it, Japanese people can do it.”
That is not the biggest motivation for him, however. Murata said unpretentiously that he’s dwelled upon a desire to demonstrate his own ability and strength as a fighter and it was something that ultimately had pushed himself forward.
“I can say that for sure,” he commented. “I want people to think I’m the best in the world, I’m a great human being. That’s it.”
And Murata, who began boxing in the seventh grade, is eager to achieve his goal with his own fighting style.
That said, Murata candidly admitted that he’s not a big fan of today’s fighting style. He thinks fights are a little too technical, and that’s not so appealing to the audience.
In early May, Murata attended a show at MGM Grand Garden Arena during his training camp in Las Vegas. And at the site, he felt disheartened because the performances of most of the boxers, including the WBC world welterweight title bout between Mayweather and Marcos Maidana, were not what he expected to see.
“They don’t really show a sense of despair like Japanese boxers do,” noted Murata, who has won all four of his pro bouts by knockout. “Rather, they look at (boxing) as a sport. They aren’t really like, ‘Come get me,’ trying to scare you. They fight to gain points like a sport.
“And I was like, ‘What is this?’ It wasn’t something I had always thought it would be. It was different from all those technical scenes and KO scenes (of the past boxers) that I had watched on TV.”
Murata says it’s OK that Mayweather fights that way because it’s his original style, but many others are like copycats of champions.
But the tactics of the present day actually give Murata extra confidence that he can launch himself on the global stage in the near future.
“I believe that the boxing that I’m aiming to perform is definitely more entertaining,” said Murata, who referred to Felix Trinidad, Sugar Ray Leonard, De La Hoya and Roberto Duran as among his favorite boxers. “And I thought that I didn’t have to be afraid of their boxing.”
Reading what he says, you may think that Murata is a bit cocky. But having come into one of the world’s most competitive weight divisions and attempting to defeat the best fighters in it, you must have extreme confidence and faith in yourself. Murata possesses moderate humility and admits that he still needs to work harder to capture a world champion’s title belt.
Earlier this month, Murata headed for Big Bear, California, to hold a training camp. He trained and sparred with Golovkin, the reigning WBC middleweight champ (29-0 record).
Reportedly, Murata was impressed with the Kazakhstani’s right hook, one of which landed on his head, saying, “It was a fist like a stone.”
Murata’s next fight has yet to officially be announced, but it is expected to be in September
And if he wins it, he could potentially face a world-ranked foe before the end of this year.