By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Bob Arum came to Madison Square Garden on Thursday to promote Terence Crawford’s debut in the big building.
Halfway around the world, a press conference took place earlier Thursday to promote a middleweight title fight in which Arum has significant interest. If the primary participant in that gathering in Tokyo, Ryota Murata, makes good on his own championship promise Saturday, the Hall-of-Fame promoter can envision a day when the Japanese star could headline a show of his own at The Garden.
“He would make more money from Japanese television and Japanese endorsements,” Arum said, “if he fought in the main event in The Garden than if he fought in the Tokyo Dome.”
That’s saying something, considering Murata (12-0, 9 KOs) is a huge star in his homeland, where boxers are mostly known for thriving in divisions much lower than middleweight. But for any of Arum’s ambitious plans for Murata to have a chance to come to fruition, the undefeated, 6-foot middleweight contender must win the most difficult fight since he turned pro nearly four years ago.
The 31-year-old Murata is scheduled to challenge Hassan N’Dam for the vacant WBA world middleweight title at Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo.
N’Dam (35-2, 21 KOs) scored a spectacular first-round knockout against Venezuela’s Alfonso Blanco (12-1, 5 KOs) in his last fight. That December 17 encounter ended when N’Dam landed a perfect punch on the previously unbeaten Blanco’s temple, a right hand that knocked Blanco unconscious just 22 seconds into their scheduled 12-rounder.
BoxingScene.com voted N’Dam’s performance its “Knockout of the Year” for 2016.
The 33-year-old N’Dam, a native of Cameroon who resides in France, also has fought a much higher level of opposition than Murata. N’Dam owns wins over interim WBO middleweight champion Avtandil Khurtsidze (33-2-2, 22 KOs) and Curtis Stevens (29-6, 21 KOs) and his two losses came against former WBO middleweight champion Peter Quillin (32-1-1, 23 KOs) and ex-IBF middleweight champ David Lemieux (38-3, 33 KOs).
“I’ve already fought the best boxers in the world,” N’Dam said during Thursday’s press conference. “I know this game. So let’s see what we are going to do Saturday. But I think I’m going to win.”
N’Dam also suggested that Murta, who won a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, isn’t quite ready for this step up in competition after 12 fights against mostly nondescript opposition.
“Be ready for the fight on Saturday,” N’Dam told Murata during the press conference. “You’ve had 12 fights, but you are going to face Hassan N’Dam and it’s going to be more difficult for you.”
Arum anticipates a breakthrough performance from Murata, whom Top Rank, Arum’s promotional company, signed after his terrific performance in London in 2012.
“Murata looks like he’s in great shape and I’m looking for him to win the title,” Arum said. “The guy he’s fighting, N’Dam, is not a bad fighter, the French guy. But I think Murata is really underrated. I think he’ll come through and maybe knock the guy out.”
N’Dam hasn’t been knocked out during his 12-year pro career. Quillin came close to stopping him, but N’Dam survived six knockdowns and lost a unanimous decision in their 12-rounder 4½ years ago at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“I have respect for N’Dam,” Murata said Thursday. “I’ve seen him fight on television many times and I’m excited to fight against him. And I would absolutely like to win.”
If Murata wins, Arum wants to match him against WBO middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders in his following fight.
England’s Saunders (24-0, 12 KOs) has a mandatory defense scheduled against Khurtsidze on July 8 in London. If Saunders wins, Arum is confident he can get Saunders to travel to Japan to fight Murata.
Arum offered Saunders $2 million earlier this year to fight Murata in Japan, but Saunders was certain that he would fight Gennady Golovkin on June 10 in Golovkin’s native Kazkhstan. Negotiations took place for that bout, but those talks ceased once negotiations intensified for the Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez mega-fight that has since been finalized for September 16.
By then, the N’Dam-Murata match had been made, which left Saunders to make his overdue mandatory defense against Khurtsidze.
“We had offered him $2 million to go to Japan,” Arum said. “And he turned it down because he was waiting for $4 million to go to Kazakhstan [to fight Golovkin].”
When asked, assuming Murata and Saunders win their upcoming bouts, if he could persuade Saunders to meet Murata in Japan later this year, Arum said, “I think so. I don’t know. I know what he turned down, but I know why he turned it down.”
Ultimately, Arum would like to move Murata into position to face the winner of the highly anticipated Golovkin-Alvarez showdown.
“I’d like him to fight Saunders and then see what happens on the Golovkin-Canelo front,” Arum said. “He and Saunders would be a good fight. And then, let’s see what happens. If Golovkin wins, then maybe Golovkin is looking to fight somebody. He’d be a good opponent for Golovkin. If Canelo wins, he might fight him. But those guys, and rightly so, are just concentrating on each other now.”
Regardless, Arum wants Murata to fight on a big stage in the United States. Thus far, two of Murata’s 12 pro fights have taken place on American soil.
He fought on the Crawford-Viktor Postol undercard last July 23 in Las Vegas. Murata previously fought on the Timothy Bradley-Brandon Rios undercard in November 2015 in Las Vegas.
Murata mostly has fought in Japan (seven out of 12 fights), but has fought in China three times as well. Wherever he fights, Arum expects this to be a breakout year for Murata.
According to The Japan Times, Murata can become just the second Japanese-born boxer to win a middleweight title, the first since Shinji Takehara won the WBA middleweight championship in 1995. No Japanese boxer has won a world title in a weight class higher than middleweight.
“The big things he has going for him is he’s very confident and he has this big advertising agency in Japan, one of the biggest in the world, behind him,” Arum said. “Those are two good things to have.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.