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Kanako Murata seemed destined to represent Japan at the Tokyo Olympics as a freestyle wrestler, but that all changed when she saw MMA icon Ronda Rousey fight.

“It was then that I knew what I wanted to do and I have never regretted it for a moment since,” said Murata, now a rising star with the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

First inspired by Japan’s Olympic wrestling queen Saori Yoshida, Murata had by her early 20s emerged as a junior world freestyle wrestling champion.

Then came the night in 2015 that Murata saw the explosive American former UFC bantamweight champion Rousey in action, and her own future became clear.

“(Rousey) became my inspiration and she showed me the way in MMA,” said Murata.

“There is so much to learn in this sport, but every day you learn, as long as you work hard enough, and I am someone who likes to work very hard.”

The 27-year-old Murata made a stunning debut with the UFC last November, her strength and style drawing comparisons from cageside TV commentators to retired Russian lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov, arguably the greatest fighter MMA has seen.

Murata insisted she did not hear the praise, despite it echoing through a Covid-restricted, fan-free Las Vegas arena, and just went about smothering the vastly more experienced Canadian 35-year-old Randa Markos for a unanimous points decision.

It took Murata’s career MMA record to 12 wins and one loss.

– ‘Climbing the ladder’ –

“I was too focused on the fight to hear them but I read about those comments,” said Murata.

“I don’t know how to take that, as I know for a fact that I am nowhere near that level. So I don’t think I deserve it.

“What I want people to know is that I am a fighter that goes for the finish. I am a very active fighter and I hope people enjoy watching me.”

Murata’s family are steeped in the traditions of martial arts. She started training as a three-year-old at her grandfather’s judo school on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku.

Murata became a national junior champion in judo before she saw Yoshida win one of her three Olympic golds at the 2008 Beijing Games. Yoshida also lifted 13 world titles in a storied career.

Murata soon made the transition to wrestling and it was those skills that carried over as the foundation of her MMA fight game.

Murata returns to the cage Saturday on the UFC Vegas 29 card that throws her in against the 13th-ranked Brazilian Virna Jandiroba.

A win will ensure a rapid rise to a top-15 UFC ranking for Murata in a strawweight division that is overloaded with talent, ruled by American Rose Namajunas after her stunning first-round TKO of China’s Zhang Weili in April.

Murata faces a fellow submission specialist in the 33-year-old Jandiroba, but she says she knows what is needed if she is to rise to the top of the division.

“The UFC is the best there is,” said Murata.

“If you throw a rock into it, you will hit a tough opponent. Everyone in this division is very good.

“I know the higher you go in the rankings the more the fight is contested on the feet so I am working on my striking. I am now at the very bottom and the process ahead is to start climbing the ladder.”