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Asian Faces Suguru Muranaka

Earlier this week Eddie Hearn announced that WBA Super Flyweight champion Kal Yafai (21-0, 14) would be making the first defence of his title on May 13th in Birmingham against Suguru Muranaka (25-2-1, 8). Unsurprisingly many fans reaction was “who?” in regards to Muranaka, with very few in the West really knowing much at all about the Japanese fighter, other than the basics which they can get from Boxrec.

Muranaka was born on June 12th 1985 in the city of Kagoshima, a gorgeous city dubbed “The Naples of the East”. It was in Kagoshima that Muranaka began his boxing life as a youngster, inspired by Takanori Hatakeyama and like many fighters Muranaka was partially motivated by money, with the amateur training being free and Muranaka’s family being relatively poor.

Unlike many Japanese fighters who reach world level Muranaka didn’t have an extensive amateur background, instead leaving Kagoshima, and education, to join up with the Flash Akabane gym in Tokyo, who have managed his professional career from the start. With little amateur pedigree Muranaka began his career in 4 rounders way back in 2004, as a 19 year old, having only achieved minor regional success in Kagoshima prefecture.

On his debut, in late 2004, Muranaka stopped Masashi Muto and within 6 months of his debut he had raced out to 3-0 (1). Sadly that winning run would come to an end in August 2005 when he was narrowly beaten by Shigeo Saito, in a split decision. Rather than being disheartened by the setback the youngster seemed to build and won his following 4 fights, moving to 7-1 (2), scoring a notable victory over the then unbeaten Toyoto Shiraishi, who would go on to be a mainstay in the Japanese rankings over the following decade or so.

Just as it seemed like Muranaka’s career was about to get going he suffered his second defeat, a majority decision loss to Tomoya Kaneshiro in November 2006.

The following year was one of the most notable in Muranaka’s career. Whilst he did “only” go 3-0 (1) during 2007 he claimed a tournament victory in a B class tournament, winning the tournament with a 6 round decision win over Nobuki Tateyama in October. Of course success breeds success and in 2008 he entered the “Strongest Korakuen” tournament.

For those unaware the Strongest Korakuen is a mini tournament to determine the mandatory challenger for the Japanese titles, with the winners across the weigh classes fighting in the following year’s Champion Carnival bouts, against the reigning champions.

In his first round bout of the Strongest Korakuen Muranaka fought to a technical draw with Katsumi Makiyama, despite only earning a draw Muranaka did progress to the final, in which he was set to face Shigetaka Ikehara. Sadly the bout never happened, with Muranaka pulling out giving Ikehara a shot at the them Japanese Flyweight champion Tomonobu Shimizu.

Having missed out on potential title fight Muranaka took a break from the ring before returning like a rejuvenated fighter in July 2010, and stopped Yuki Nasu in 6 rounds. That was then followed by a very good domestic level win over Koji Itagaki. Having come back hungry Muranaka notched a solid win in April 2011 against the then OPBF ranked Along Denoy, who was #6 with the OPBF entering the bout. That was followed up with a series of good domestic wins over Hiroki Saito, Hyobu Nakagama and Ganbare Shota as he moved back up the rankings towards a long awaited title fight.

In December 2013 Muranaka finally got his first shot at a Japanese title, taking on former world title challenger Takuya Kogawa for the Japanese Flyweight title. The bout was a genuine war between two true warriors, who traded blows throughout a thrilling 10 round epic. It was however a knockdown scored by Muranaka in round 3 that essentially decided the bout, earning him a split decision. The bout, a nail biter form the off, saw the judges turn in cards of 96-95 and 95-94 to Muranaka, and a 95-94 card to Kogawa showing just how competitive the contest was.

In Muranaka’s first defense of the title he had to take on mandatory challenger, and former world title challenger, Masayuki Kuroda. Kuroda, just 14 months removed from a WBA world title bout with Juan Carlos Reveco, started well and seemed to take round 1, and round 3, but then Muranaka took over. Kuroda’s early success couldn’t be maintained and Muranaka swept rounds 4 through 9 before making a statement in round 10 and stopping Kuroda in the final round. Prior to the stoppage a swollen Kuroda had been dropped and tagged hard by straight right hands that had forced the referee to call a halt to the action.

Muranaka’s second defense of the title saw him battle with Yusuke Sakashita. The bout was a competitive one through 7 rounds but in round 8 Muranaka landed a career defining right hand that could well have been in the running for KO of the Year. Sadly the win would be the final moment of success for Muranaka for some time, as he lost the title on the scales just 6 months later. He didn’t just fail to make weight for a mandatory defense against Tetsuma Hayashi but he only just managed to come in under the Super Flyweight limit in what became a major issue for the JBC.

Although Muranaka was stripped of the Japanese title the bout with Hayashi went ahead, with Muranaka narrowly over-coming his foe in a hard fought bout that saw a number of fans turn again the Flash Akabane fighter. Things went from bad to worse for Muranaka as he again failed to make weight for a scheduled bout against Hideyuki Watanabe. With back to back weight failures the JBC suspended Muranaka and forced him out of the Flyweight division.

The former champion would spend more than a year on the proverbial side lines before returning last year and defeating Japanese domestic veteran Shun Ishibashi, stopping Ishibashi in 6 rounds in a bout fought at a contracted 53KG’s. Muranaka’s second bout following the weight struggles saw him dip his toe at the Bantamweight division, taking on the talented Renoel Pael of the Philippines. Pael, who had lost his previous 2 bouts, gave a good account of himself against Muranaka but couldn’t over-come the Japanese fighter in a competitive but clear contest.

Last December Muranaka fought for the third time since his comeback and narrowly took a decision over former 4-time world title challenger Hiroyuki Hisataka. The bout seemed to make it obvious that Muranaka was no Bantamweight, but it was a thriller that showed why Muranaka had earned a solid fan base in Japan, where he has become a regular star at the Korakuen Hall due to his exciting bouts.

Having mentioned his exciting bouts it’s worth describing Muranaka’s style. Esteemed Japanese boxing writer Joe Koizumi described him as a “windmill puncher” but the reality is that Muranaka is a swarmer, who can box. It does seem like he’s more at home putting his foot fully on the gas and going balls to the wall, but he has shown the ability to box and move, when he wants to. Against Yafai choosing to box would be a mistake, but bringing the fight to the Brummie would be a smart move, and one one I suspect he’ll look to impose on Yafai, swarming him and forcing a fight on to the champion.

Although, as mentioned, Muranaka is unknown outside of Asia he has scored 3 wins over former world title challengers, Kogawa, Kuroda and Hisataka. Interestingly he has never fought outside of the Korakuen Hall, the holy land of Japanese boxing, and going to the UK to face Yafai will be a major issue for the challenger. It’s worth noting that no Japanese fighter has ever won a world title in Europe, and if Muranaka can do it he would create history. Whilst it’s not often that a Japanese fighter travels over to the UK we have recently seen Hidenori Otake and Ryosuke Iwasa come up short at world level on British soil, and Hisashi Amagasa also suffered a defeat to Josh Warrington recently. Muranaka is likely to have looked at the failings of those 3 men and looked to see what he can take from those losses, whilst also fighting like a man who hasn’t suffered a loss in over a decade.

Muranaka will be the under-dog against Yafai, but he’ll be travelling to win and if there’s anything Western fans do know about Japanese fighters it’s that they come to fight, which I expect is exactly what we’ll see here from Muranaka.

(Scott Graveson covers the Asian boxing scene for www.asianboxing.info)