Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez tempted to Japan by Ryota Murata, a 'LeBron James-type' figure and a national icon
Golden Boy president on Canelo: "It's about his brand. He wants to become a more international star, not just fighting in the US"
Last Updated: 06/06/20 12:28pm
Ryota Murata is the subject of fascination in Japan, a superstar who shines so bright that he is tempting Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez to the Land of the Rising Sun.
It would be a remarkable decision for Mexico's Canelo, one of boxing's biggest stars, to have his first fight outside of his home country or the US in a place where the local media admits he is largely unknown.
Japan has its own boxing star, Murata, a handsome and charismatic personality who frequently appears on daytime TV shows and enjoys the type of adulation from his countrymen that the Mexicans bestow upon Canelo. These two forces, heroes in their homes but anonymous in each other's, are on a lucrative collision course.
Canelo's promoter, Golden Boy president Eric Gomez, told Sky Sports: "He wants to fight abroad and we have discussed with him fighting in Japan, a homecoming in Mexico, and the UK. He has considered all of those options and, before he retires, he will fight abroad.
"It's about his brand. He wants to become a more international star, not just fighting in the US. He wants to become an even bigger star than he is now. He has fans all over the world and he wants to build on that."
Murata's name was a surprise addition to the list of possible opponents for Canelo earlier this year, adding to Britain's world champions Billy Joe Saunders and Callum Smith.
He offers something unique.
Murata is "one of the most recognised individual-sport athletes in the country", according to a Sky Sports source, above the sumo wrestlers who compete in Japan's national sport.
For Canelo, Murata offers a key to unlocking the Asian market.
Murata won Olympic gold in 2012 but, crucially, did so as a middleweight. Japan hadn't won boxing gold since a bantamweight in 1964 but Murata, as the nation's heaviest-ever Olympic champion, was also their 100th gold medallist. He became a source of wonder for his size and a celebrity was born.
A book-lover with a Bachelor degree and quick wit, a documentary about Murata's life was a hit and his fights were broadcast to a massive audience.
"He understands what his fans and public are looking for," a source in Japan said.
A second source added: "He used to be a badass when he was younger, in his teens, but he is now known as an intelligent person.
"It is hard to tell if Murata enjoys his fame or not. He does not try to make himself look bigger than who he is.
"I don't think he wants to be a rock star. He got into pro boxing, which he had once denied he would do, because he thought [it would give him] the biggest success in his life.
"His nature as a competitor drove him; he certainly knew that he was a rare heavier-weight class Japanese boxer and wanted to achieve something not many Japanese had done by winning a world title, which he has eventually achieved."
Bob Arum's Top Rank sensed an opportunity and snapped Murata up to their promotional outfit, but his American debut was underwhelming.
He outpointed Gunnar Jackson then said: "I could not respond to expectations and it was a lame performance. I'm ashamed by my weak boxing."
A controversial split decision in his first world title fight went against him in favour of Hassan N'Dam. Such was the dispute, the WBA suspended two of the judges involved and apologised to Murata.
The Japanese hero won the rematch by stoppage in Tokyo and reacted: "I thought that the fans were going to desert me, saying: 'There's no way a guy like this can become a world champ'. But they still came out and I want to express my utmost appreciation."
He picked up the WBA 'regular' middleweight title - at the time, Gennadiy Golovkin held the 'super' version plus the IBF and WBC.
The humble Murata said: "Boxing lovers will know there's a stronger middleweight champion than me out there. I'll try my best to beat him."
Bob Arum's dream was to create an Asian mega-fight between Murata and Golovkin, who has Korean heritage, but more disaster struck.
Murata was shocked in 2018 by Rob Brant in what was supposed to be a Las Vegas showcase.
"I'm really bad against boxers who are quick on their feet. I took a lot of blows," Murata said. "It's the first time I've taken such a beating."
He turned down his right to a rematch and considered retiring but eventually a second fight was arranged in Japan.
"He's like a LeBron James-type figure over there," Brant said. "When we went to the press conference, there were more people than were at some of my early pro fights."
Murata knocked Brant out to reclaim his WBA 'regular' belt last year. Canelo holds the WBA 'super' title.
"I don't believe Canelo's name is known by the general public [in Japan]," a source said.
"Everybody knew Mike Tyson back in the day, but not Canelo or any other global stars in the sport today."
Floyd Mayweather won an exhibition fight against Tenshin Nasukawa in Japan 18 months ago but both Sky Sports sources believe the locals had little idea of who he was.
"Everybody knew Michael Jordan but LeBron James is not as famous among the public, although LeBron is probably as good as Jordan," the source compared.
"But among the boxing fans here, it would be a big event if Murata fights against Canelo at the Tokyo Dome, at which no boxing matches have been hosted since Mike Tyson fought Buster Douglass in 1990."
The second source added: "It will be a big event but the market is limited to boxing fans. However, people will learn about Canelo when press conference is held. Canelo is not famous yet. I would say Golovkin is more famous.
"In general, people don't know boxers outside of Japan."
Murata and Naoya Inoue, the three-weight world champion and pound-for-pound knockout artist, are "as famous as Japanese boxers could possibly become" in their country.
How the coronavirus pandemic impacts Canelo's plans remains to be seen.
Britain's WBO super-middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders was on the verge of winning the race to face him but he is now just "one of the names considered" according to Golden Boy president Eric Gomez.
Canelo has his eye on Asia, and Murata is a prime target for a fascinating clash.