- Michael Rosenthal
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In 2002, Jorge Linares left his family in his native Venezuela and moved 9,000 miles to Japan as a raw 17-year-old for practical reasons.
Japanese promoter Akihiko Honda of Teiken Boxing Promotions in Tokyo, a close ally of WBA president Gilberto Mendoza Jr. of Venezuela, offered to guide his professional career. And, perhaps more important at the time, Linares could fight at 17 in Japan but would have to wait until he was 18 in Venezuela.
It made sense. But wasn't he nervous about moving to a strange land at such a young age?
"It didn't matter," he said by phone through an interpreter. "I had to take advantage of the opportunity."
Five years later, even after many lonely nights in his Tokyo apartment, Linares has no doubt that he made the right decision. He has become a world champion -- having stopped Oscar Larios to win the vacant WBC featherweight belt in July -- and has found a new home in the Far East.
He plans to live permanently in Tokyo and bring his extended family over.
"Imagine this," said Linares, who defends his title against Gamaliel Diaz on Saturday in Cancun, Mexico. "Now, if I'm away from Japan for more than two weeks, I want to go home."
Linares struggled in the beginning.
Rudy Hernandez, a boxing trainer associated with Teiken for years and frequent visitor to Japan, remembers Linares when he first arrived in Tokyo. The young fighter bursting with confidence after following his older brother, Nelson, into the sport and building an impressive amateur record.
He thought he'd take Japan by storm.
"He was really cocky," Hernandez said with a laugh. "He thought he knew it all. You'd try talking to him but it was hard to get through. That's the way he was."
But the bravado was superficial: Linares actually was unhappy after the move.
He adjusted to the food fairly quickly. And the boxing was largely the same; for the main part, a gym is a gym and hard work builds champions if you have knowledgeable people around you and opportunities.
The language was a different story. He spoke no Japanese, so he couldn't establish a social life. He associated almost exclusively with his trainer, Sendai Tanaka, who speaks Spanish, and no one else. Once surrounded constantly by family, his life in Japan was something like this: A run in the morning, a meal, a workout at the Teiken Gym, another meal, and then back to his apartment.
In a way, he kept his family by his side: He spent all evening, every evening chatting on the Internet with his relatives back in Venezuela. Still, he admitted he was lonely.
Not depressed, he stressed, but lonely.
"Always," he said, "for almost a whole year."
Gradually, that changed.
First, he began to pick up the language by listening carefully when his comments were translated and from a translation book provided by Honda. He believes the fact that he was so young helped him absorb a lot very quickly.
And the more he boxed, the more people entered his life. At first, admirers would compliment him through a translator or through body language. But slowly, he began to understand their words and open a new world to him.
Now, Teiken publicist Nobu Ikushima said, "he's fluent, not perfect, but fluent" even though Linares has never taken a language course.
In the ring, Linares (24-0, with 15 knockouts) never needed a translator.
Observers of the sport agree that he has the potential to become a star. At 5-foot-8, he's tall for a featherweight (126 pounds). And he doesn't fight like a typically aggressive Latin American fighter. He's more measured, relying less on power and more on brains, yet still is as exciting as any young champion.
He's a complete package -- well-schooled, quick-handed, powerful enough to hurt his opponents -- and he can take a punch. At the moment, he has no obvious weakness.
Larios would attest to that. The more experienced former super bantamweight champion attempted to break Linares' spirit with constant pressure when they met for the vacant title in Las Vegas. Instead, it was the determined, resilient younger man who chopped down his elder and stopped him in the 10th round.
It was Linares' first world title fight and first fight in the United States. In the ring immediately afterward, he revealed another significant asset: A smile like a beacon and understated charm. It's no wonder television announcer Jim Lampley compared him to a young Oscar De La Hoya, who shares Linares' nickname: "Golden Boy."
"He's going to be the next big star," Hernandez said. "Just watch him."
One probably wouldn't hear those words come out of Linares' mouth, a result of one thing he's learned in Japan: Humility.
Indeed, Linares has embraced the Japanese way of thinking. He admires the respectful manner with which people treat one another. He marvels at the relative lack of crime. And he is impressed by the overwhelming drive to succeed, even among the young people.
There is nothing wrong with Venezuela, he said. It has a prominent place in his heart. But, compared to Japan, "it's like night and day."
Linares prefers his new home, where he is realizing his professional dreams in an environment he loves.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to both work and live in Japan," he said. "It's where I'm comfortable now. It's home.
"I'll live and die in Japan."
Michael Rosenthal is a staff writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.