TOKYO - France's Hassan N'Dam won a controversial split decision over Japan's Ryota Murata to capture the vacant WBA middleweight title on Saturday. Murata, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, appeared to dominate the fight in Tokyo, flooring the interim champ in the fourth round and wobbling him on several more occasions.

N'Dam, who had survived relentless punishment throughout, sank to his knees as the scores were announced to audible gasps from the Japanese crowd. A stunned Murata told reporters: "He didn't hit me with a single punch that hurt me."

Murata began aggressively in his first tilt at a world title and a vicious right hook sent N'Dam crashing to the canvas near the end of the fourth. The Japanese challenger went for the kill, unleashing a series of right-hand bombs that threatened to bring an early end to the fight.

With Murata looking poised to become only Japan's second middleweight world champion, and first in 22 years, N'Dam showed real grit to stay on his feet as his legs buckled twice more in the seventh round. More often than not the former WBO champion's punches simply glanced off the gloves of Murata, who never looked to be in any serious trouble. Local favourite Murata lost for the first time in 13 professional fights while N'Dam improved his record to 36 wins against two losses. However, Murata looked mystified at the verdict after battering the Cameroon-born Frenchman.

The 33-year-old N'Dam was awarded the fight 116-111 on the first judge's scorecard, but the second gave it to Murata 117-110.

The third judge's card had it 115-112 to N'Dam, to the obvious chagrin of the Tokyo crowd. "I sincerely apologise to the fans for failing to win the fight," Murata told reporters after his hopes of facing the middleweight division's unified champion Gennady Golovkin were dealt a hammer blow.

"I knew I'd won at the London Olympics but I had a weird feeling before the scores were announced," added the 31-year-old. "He scored with his jab, but I knocked him down. I probably should have knocked him down a couple more times."