We Spent a Week in Tokyo's Fight Scene

A good man jobbed, tears in Korakuen Hall, and why being big in Japan can be a big problem for boxers.

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31 May 2017, 8:35am

I'm at a world title fight inside a tennis stadium on the waters of Tokyo Bay, among 10,000 mostly Japanese fans, watching Frenchman Hassan N'dam, the winner by decidedly disgusting split decision, acknowledge those still in their seats on the south side of the ring.

Some have already left the place, shocked and confused and maybe indignant. But those who remain clap – and not passive-aggressively. Sure, politesse is the name of the game here, but plaudits for the guy who sucked the air out of this bubble called Ariake Colosseum by beating the would-be hometown hero, formerly undefeated Olympic gold medalist Ryota Murata, whose face has graced every Tokyo paper all week?

Unfathomable.

Finally, one Japanese man standing behind me renews my hope that the cultural gap can be bridged.

"Ie, ie, ie!" he shouts. No, no, no!

In total Bowe-Golota mode, I think, OK, good. Now let's charge the ring and dispose of these, at best, blind and, at worst, warped officials. But the shouting man goes quiet suddenly and shuffles out, a small prelude to the self-doubt some Japanese fans and writers begin expressing online within 24 hours that Murata wasn't as active as he should have been, he didn't press his advantages, he allowed the fight to be taken from him – the first two of which may be true.

But Murata, a probing man who ponders existence in ordinary fight interviews and often refers to the words of the eminent Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, gave up nothing Saturday night.

Here, instead, is the story of the snatch.

It was supposed to be such an enjoyable, onigiri-filled voyage: Fly into Tokyo to watch 31-year-old Murata – at 160 pounds, the biggest Olympic medalist Japanese boxing has ever produced, by 46 pounds – ply his trade during a historic sports week in Tokyo.

Sure, Murata was no guaranteed winner. Some in his camp had wanted him to wait before challenging for a belt, but the powerful Japanese Boxing Commission grades every fighter who turns pro and compels the best, by virtue of the class of their issued boxing license, to compete at a high level immediately. Which may be fine for smaller dudes, whose divisions are thinner (how many 108-pound men do you know?), but isn't a great path for bigger pugs who should ideally face considerably more opposition before challenging the best. There are a hell of a lot of strong 160-pound men in the world.

But, per inflexible local combat law, Murata's career moved fast. He signed with two promoters, Teiken for his fights inside Japan and Top Rank for those abroad. He also began training in the Teiken Gym and let the firm, run by 69-year-old Akihiko Honda, manage his career. Unlike in the U.S., where it's illegal, in Japan, boxing stables host, promote, and manage fighters, in the tradition of sumo stables, which even prescribe meal times and ingredients.

Nike sponsored Murata – where his trunks once featured the words "Big Dreams," they now boasted a Swoosh. "He gave me a Nike shirt," Steve Martinez, a 27-year-old from the Bronx who was flown in to spar with Murata, told me after returning. "He's big out there."

Bigness was the issue all along.

Heading into May, Japan had produced exactly 80 men's champs. Only three had won in the 154-lb. class, and only one had taken a strap at 160: Shinji Takehara, who won it 21 years ago and then lost it in his first defense a half-year later; that you've never heard of Takehara says it all.

And size matters for reasons the Japanese rarely articulate aloud and almost never among foreigners. Several months ago, someone at Teiken, after I enthused about some of their stars, said, almost bashfully, that while their fighters have a lot of heart, they lack in technique. I heard nearly the same line – it might've been the same, verbatim – from a magazine writer inside Ariake, as we watched an undercard bout from a perch above our press area.

What they both left out or alluded to only indirectly is why Japan has had considerable boxing success at all: In the lower weight classes, you can take a hell of a beating and still win – the incoming punches aren't often one-shot tranquilizers.

From Fighting Harada to Eijiro Murata to the stars of today, they see their boxing luminaries as successful partly because of their weight limitations. Murata, by contrast, announced with his Olympic gold at middleweight that he could be the first Japanese fighter to win in the wider world, a world full of 160-pound antagonists.

For me, the Japanese focus on his size obscured some of his other intriguing traits, which I picked up in bits and pieces from older articles in Japanese. Murata resumed an amateur career he had abandoned year prior after a former boxer at Toyo University, his alma mater and employer (he was a boxing coach/general philosopher-dude), was arrested in 2009 for allegedly trying to smuggle illegal stimulants into the country. Murata has said he returned to the ring in order to restore his school's reputation. "It's a very Japanese way of thinking," one Japanese fight writer told me.

And the philosophizing itself was fascinating, though the language barrier prevents me from assessing whether Murata really knows of what he speaks or just drops names to legitimize whatever he wants to say next. Besides Frankl, he often brings up Nietzsche, the philosopher whom his father read most often, and theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Did I mention that his degree is actually in business?

Anyway, my trip wasn't focused on this character alone. Murata was scheduled to headline the second of three title-topped shows on consecutive nights in the capital. The 19th was to be all female fighters, while the 21st was to feature 115-pound champ Naoya Inoue, aka "Monster," and Satoshi Shimizu, a featherweight who won a bronze medal in London just before Murata took home gold (that he's far less heralded demonstrates just how differently Murata, his larger Olympic teammate, has been treated).

If you're an otaku (or, more accurately, a lover of ukiyo-e and Japanese film) and certainly a fight fiend, how could you not go?

Issei Nakaya, the 38-year-old proprietor of a boxing gym outside central Tokyo, meets me at Narita Airport, and we navigate a series of sweaty, sardine-can subways westward, over two hours, to his neighborhood of Hachioji. We talk of crazy places fights can take a person, and he says has visited 50 countries.

Eventually, we reach the Hachioji Nakaya Boxing Gym, which is up a flight from the sidewalk. At the doorway, we remove our sneakers and don slippers, even though the floors are concrete and unlikely to be affected by shoes. (Incidentally, most Japanese gyms feature softer flooring, but Issei calls the concrete an American touch.)

I've been awake too many hours to count, but the small gym has a soothing familiarity, with its handful of heavy bags and single ring. Issei and I plop into his father's office for a moment just to regain our senses, post-subway smushing. The sound system plays reggae. Issei offers me a Pocari Sweat – a cloudy beverage akin to Gatorade – and I down it quickly.

Boxing store

A small boxing equipment store in Suidobashi

Issei tells me more about the gym, which is a small family operation compared to Murata's Teiken, which, besides being bigger and better-financed, also has branches across the country, in Osaka, Fukuoka and Hachinohe, that feature a modernist take on traditional Eastern architecture in glass and wood.

Here, the place is wonderfully grungy and everyone pitches in: Issei creates the fight posters (graphic design is his hobby, and he creates posters for the local soccer and basketball teams, too) and handles administrative work, while his father, Hirotaka, who recently turned 63, and one of his brothers, Kosuke, serve as trainers.

His father also sculpts in his free time, Issei explains, pointing to a few of his works – a bust, a funky desk – on view in the gym office.

Hirotaka is in the ring, teaching a kid to load up on the hook. Issei says they focus on power, not speed. Was he ever trained by his pops?

Issei says no. "My father isn't interested in his own kids," he adds. "Just sculpture."

"And other people's kids," I add, and Issei laughs.

There are a handful of pros in the building, including Musashi Yoshino, a super-flyweight fighting on the undercard of the Murata event. Whenever a fighter leaves, the remaining crowd says, "Otskare," short for "otsukaresamadeshita," or "Well done working yourself to the point of tiredness today, lord."

When I chat with Hirotaka, he tells me that training and sculpting are parts of the same art – forming something from nothing. Then he shows me a signed poster of a famous Japanese singer and, on his iPhone, a classical bath tub he fashioned in his own backyard. And then a photo of himself sitting in the tub next to two goats he owns (an image so humorous Issei created an illustrated version for his fight posters).

Issei and I depart for a local tiki bar, where we consume beer, peanuts, and garlicky rice while discussing the HBO-Showtime rivalry and other melodramas. Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" plays. We toast the mutual friend who set us up, a Japanese sports reporter currently based in New York who is still very much beloved in Tokyo: To Daisuke! Kanpai!

The fights begin with the all-women's card in Korakuen Hall, a wooden box on the fifth floor of a building near the Tokyo Dome whose intimacy – it seats 1,800 – belies the venue's grand history. It is here that Joe Frazier won his heavyweight gold medal in the 1964 Games. The nearby Dome was the site of the greatest upset in heavyweight history, Buster Douglas' 1990 dethroning of Mike Tyson.

Issei isn't promoting tonight, but he gets me in and later introduces me to a manager wearing a silky shirt and aviators, with a pseudo-Jheri curl. He kinda looks like an underworld figure; Issei says he's very skilled at matching fighters.

The women deliver the goods. Fan favorite Chaozu, who has cultivated a hybrid punkish-cute persona with that handle – her actual name is Akiko, which is in line with the Japanese custom of giving girls names ending in "ko" – and short, bleached hair, emerges to the tune of a Japanese pop song alongside a furry mascot that resembles Syracuse's Otto the Orange.

She wins by second-round TKO, admittedly against a Thai fighter brought in to be the B side (aka, not have a chance of winning), and then, like many of the night's contestants, poses for pictures with attendees.

The main event gives me the sniffles. Kayoko Ebata, 41, has challenged for a world title five times unsuccessfully, including twice inside Korakuen Hall. She faces Erika Hanawa, an undefeated 26-year-old with little wallop but a nice record. Neither truly deserves a belt at 105 pounds (minimumweight), but one is at stake, and that's all that matters in the moment.

The taller Ebata uses her length to touch Hanawa constantly and set the pace. At an age when boxers not named Hopkins or Foreman are already seriously in decline or retired, Ebata shows exceptional stamina. She never seems any more tired than Hanawa over the fight's ten rounds (standard for women; for men, it's been 12 for the past 30 years). Ebata evades a few bombs thrown in desperation, and then the bell rings and scores are announced. She wins: 98-92 on two judges' cards, 97-93 on one.

Ebata falls to her knees and cries. Her audience chants her name: E-ba-ta. E-ba-ta. When the MC hands her the mic, after she has composed herself, she thanks the crowd wholeheartedly and then announces her retirement.

I dab my tearful eyes. Issei smiles. I wanted to show you Korakuen-style, he says, alluding to the inevitable emotional connection fans here make with fighters who are mere feet away. "Auld Lang Syne" plays over the PA system as we leave.

Murata enters the arena through a gauntlet of supporters waving banners featuring his likeness and the logo of Toyo University (consider yourself redeemed in full, Toyo). I sneak between these supporters and follow Murata nearly up into the ring. If only Madison Square Garden ushers were so permissive.

Just before the bell rings, after the seconds have been told to exit, Murata's trainer reminds him to keep his guard up very high. And then I'm clued in – at least at the start, Murata is gonna wear earmuffs, Winky Wright–style, and merely try to deflect punches while walking N'dam down, feeling him out physically and wearing him out mentally.

N'dam can't land a shot. Each one slides off Murata's gloves like melted ice cream at a matsuri (more on that in a moment). Five minutes into the bout, Murata opens up and begins throwing at intervals. He's slow and throws sparingly, but every punch lands hard, and sends N'dam sprawling.

It's a strategy of compensation: Time your shots so they can't be countered, no matter slow your own reflexes. Then N'dam goes down in the fourth round, and the fight seems like a sealed deal.

The morning after Murata's loss, hungover from life and beneath a blazing sun, I hightail it to Asakusa for the third and final day of the Sanja Matsuri, a Shinto festival that is held in the summer and attracts 1.5 million people each year. The event is part tradition (participants wear yukatas and other traditional garb) and part grubby tourist attraction, with an endless row of kitschy vendors leading to the Senso-ji Temple.

At the actual front of this human traffic jam, people buy keys to wooden drawers, in which omikuji (fortunes) are stored. They're read and then either tied to a tree if your luck looks to be bad, or kept.

Oh, and representatives of local neighborhoods jostle, shove, and sing in order to carry one of three mobile shrines called mikushi with which nearby businesses are blessed. I've seen the look on their faces before, those lugging these intricate wooden arks. These are the good soldiers, pushing through pain to make for themselves a better life (although it may just be artificial, residual – faces they saw their parents make and so mimic).

I head from the Shinto mosh-pit to the third and final show, also at Ariake Colosseum, which is headlined by super-flyweight champ "Monster" Inoue, who just turned 24. Until recently the Japanese fancy wanted to match Monster against fellow division-ruler Roman Gonzalez (whom the Japanese press call by the portmanteau Romagon similar to the way they call personal computers passion – "Gonzalez" doesn't exactly slide off of the Japanese tongue). But Gonzalez has lost his belts now and may no longer be Inoue's target. Tonight, Monster faces a Mexican without a chance, just to stay busy.

More exciting than the bout is Inoue's padwork before it begins, in his police-guarded dressing room, into which I slide my phone's camera at various points, before finding a monitor displaying the room's footage – then I shoot the monitor and get it all.

As for the actual contests: The difference between Japanese and American title bouts is officiousness – a condescending display that betrays the nature of the game. In a fight, after all, manners are crushed by matter.

For three decades, politicians and promoters both have advocated for the U.S. to install a national commissioner of boxing, if only for safety reasons. Right now, each state has its own commission with its own rules, some of which are so lax they permit seriously debilitated fighters who've been barred from the ring elsewhere to compete with nary a test.

Well, the Japanese have such an all-powerful body, but rather than enforce safety, it mainly exists to reinforce its own authority. I note before each title bout: When belts are stake, the Japanese commission also offers its own trophy – which basically looks like what you took home from little league, but bigger (as if the belt and status weren't reward enough). In fact, until a few years ago, the commission refused even to acknowledge the validity of two belt sanctioning bodies accepted everywhere else, the IBF and the WBO. A Japanese fighter wasn't allowed to fight for such a belt or had to do so overseas.

What rubs me the wrong way most is that before each bout an old man surrounded by other old men reads a proclamation detailing the status of the fight. Sure, that's part and parcel of the culture, to put an official stamp on nearly everything. But title fights possess such a stamp already in the belts on offer, the well-known records of the combatants, and, oh yeah, the Japanese version of Michael Buffer, who also announces who's in each corner and for what they vie.

These older commissioners, then, put their imprimatur on the bouts for themselves – not for the crowd watching, which might already know the cash at stake in what is, after all, a prizefight. On the plus side, Japanese promoters don't engage in the boorish bloviating of their American counterparts. So I suppose either way, people are going to say self-aggrandizing things. The difference is who and when.

Maybe all of the above is just another way of stating Murata's grand task: To escape the Japanese fight world's meaningless local pronouncements and ceremonies; to transcend its minor xenophobia, as exhibited by its general policy not to issue press passes to foreign reporters, unless I was white-lied to by the promoter who explained to me my own rejection before offering me a ringside ticket – basically, to leave home in order to become the hero home needs (#JosephCampbell #StarWars).

Murata would never dare tell Japan that to its face, though he has said his dream is to headline a Vegas show and the best fighter of all time was Harlem's Sugar Ray Robinson.

But a kid 11 years his junior who appeared on an undercard over the weekend already has, in a way. His name is Andy Hiraoka, and he's a 20-year-old, half-Ghanaian, half-Japanese junior-welterweight southpaw who turned pro at 17, won some matches in Japan, and then put his competitive career on hold for two years to hone his game in the Mayweather gym in Vegas.

That he knew he needed to leave to improve is a sign of his maturity, but it also touches on the aforementioned nativist attitudes. Not to cast stones from this awfully glassy American house, but Japan still treats mixed-race Japanese as others, no matter their birthplace. They term said people "hafts" – as in, half and half – and there's a heartbreaking documentary by that name on the phenomenon I recommend.

Which isn't to say I caught any glimpse of it during Hiraoka's fight. Just the opposite, in fact: he is a clear favorite among the fans, including a group of little kids with inflated Thunder sticks who repeatedly shout, "Ganbare, Andy-san!" – ganbare meaning, basically, go get 'em.

Rather, Hiraoka's hafu status is likely what allowed him to slip out of Japan in the first place without creating a stir. In January, I interviewed top-flight Japanese 130-pounder Takashi Miura in California, before his second appearance on HBO Boxing (his first was the previous calendar's fight of the year, and his next is just scheduled to be held in July in LA).

I figured Miura's global rise was being hailed back home, and said as much. His response, without hesitation: No, it doesn't help my reputation to fight abroad. I'd be more popular if I stayed home. I do it because it makes me better.

Four months later, that line of thinking is perhaps why I sense an urgency to Murata's fight never quite addressed in the press and yet perhaps its underlying point: If Murata wins, the Japanese won't feel a protectionist urge to keep him at home. A win means he can take on the world – enter it – and his fans, therefore, can open themselves up to it, too.

A win means: We are all good enough.

Is that total projection? Maybe.

A week before the title fight, Murata told a Japanese reporter the importance of the middleweight class is an American idea – because Americans are physically middleweights by nature, they pay more attention to those guys on-screen. Then he said the Japanese had absorbed the American idea that middleweights are what boxers should look like, so Japan's best talent flowed to baseball and soccer and ignored the fight game.

Of course, that second line means Murata would indeed be breaking a major social psychological barrier with a win.

After the fourth-round knockdown, Murata continues apace. In the fifth, N'dam raises his left glove high momentarily – he is wary now of Murata's right. But when he opens up to punch, he lets his guard down and gives Miura a swell path to the jaw. N'dam breathes through his mouth in the sixth, while trying to stay upright on unsteady legs.

In the seventh round, I scribble in my notes that a ref could call a knockdown each time N'dam is held up by the ropes alone and not his own power "but doesn't. It shouldn't matter."

I have Murata winning the eighth, but he appears fatigued now, waiting for that second wind.

My note on the 11th: Murata takes some shots – but makes sure to return fire each time, as one of his sparring partners told me he did in the gym.

Final note in my pad: Eventually Murata will need to add the 3 – a left hook – to his 1-2 combos. But it's impressive as hell that he won tonight and entered the sport's top 10 with his limited artillery. It speaks to his potential. Then the ring MC announces the split decision in favor of N'dam. Only the American judge, Raul Caiz Sr., scores it, widely, for the pride of Nippon.

The other two judges are lucky the match was held in Japan and not anywhere else on the planet. Tennis fans have rioted over far less.

Murata, The Big Humble, refrains afterward from complaining about the decision. "The result is the result," he says. He doesn't demand a rematch, but the WBA orders one anyway (as it should). In the final two rounds, Murata recalls, he was thinking just how lucky he was just to be in a title fight, on this stage. And now he's ready to take some time off, he adds.

It really wouldn't shock me if he never came back at all. A smart, thoughtful guy with a college degree who told the Weekly Asahi in 2014 he was only gonna box for four or five more years anyway. Not a shock at all. Then again, there is a rumor he'll come back straight away this summer or fall to face English beltholder Billy Joe Saunders. It seems like it has always been this way with Murata – all or nothing, retirement or a gold medal. Retirement or a championship bout. A great win or an epically unfair loss.

Almost as if he's too pensive to commit without question to the brutal game, and so is treated as warily by the game itself.

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