Fighter of the Year Nominees
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez
Winner: Naoya Inoue
Welcome to the Two Fight Club! Sadly, none of our candidates for the 2019 Fighter of the Year can be viewed as a highly active participant in professional boxing. It’s as if there was a secret meeting of the best fighters in the sport and all agreed two appearances per year is the new standard activity rate and no one wants to buck the trend. Just a few days ago we were celebrating the greatness of Henry Armstrong, who once fought 27 times in a single year. And people wonder why so many boxing fans are more interested in the fight game of long ago rather than the anemic version we have today.
So on one level at least, deciding who should be our Fighter of the Year is quite simple. All we have to determine is whose two victories are the most significant and impressive. Easier said than done, of course. In fact, strong cases can be made for more than one name here, but after due consideration and a bit of heated debate, the final decision was made. Japan’s Naoya Inoue, aka “The Monster,” is our choice for Fighter of the Year. (As he was, by the way, in 2014.)
So, two wins. Two victories which impressed us more than anyone else’s two wins. First, May 18th, Glasgow, Scotland. The opponent, undefeated IBF bantamweight champion Emmanuel Rodriguez. Now say what you will, but the fact Inoue was an overwhelming favorite to win says more about the seemingly unstoppable man from Japan than it does about Rodriguez, and to not give Inoue full credit for crushing an undefeated belt-holder with impunity simply because he’s so damn good doesn’t seem entirely fair. After all, Rodriguez was coming off a tough two-way battle with undefeated Jason Moloney in which he showed plenty of grit and durability.
So count us among those who were more than a bit impressed when Inoue needed barely four minutes to render Rodriguez completely helpless. Especially after Inoue landed some vicious body blows in the opening round and his opponent not only stood up to them but answered back with his own shots. In fact, Rodriguez showed no fear of Inoue as he advanced behind a heavy left jab and looked to assert himself against the man most viewed as a lock to win the World Boxing Super Series tournament.
But round two was a different story. Twenty seconds in “Monster” timed his man and drove home a powerful left hook to the jaw that put Rodriguez down hard. He rose but it was obvious he was seriously hurt and Inoue moved in to finish. Thirty seconds later a vicious one-two to the body put the Puerto Rican down again and at the same time completely destroyed his will to win. Before beating the count, the injured Rodriguez, who had never been stopped before, looked to his corner and shook his head as if to say “This guy is unreal.” He rose but seconds later a pile-driver left hook to the liver put him down a third time and, though Rodriguez once again beat the count, the referee wisely halted the match.
Now it was on to the WBSS final, the match that would unify the bantamweight title and once again Inoue was heavily favored to win. But Nonito Donaire, aka “The Filipino Flash,” had other ideas. And if he was past his peak, the 36-year-old, four-time champion was also coming off an impressive one-shot knockout of Stephon Young that reminded everyone he was still a very cunning and dangerous warrior.
Inoue and Donaire clashed in November in Saitama, Japan and the result was a twelve round epic which was immediately hailed as a classic, destined to be remembered as one of the best fights of the decade just ending. The old saying that an aged champion can summon up a final great performance in the twilight of their career held true as Donaire surprised everyone by not only taking Inoue’s best shots but also striking with his own heavy artillery and pushing his young opponent to the absolute limit. Indeed, leave it to a wily veteran to test Inoue like never before, taking him to the brink, where “The Monster” had to dig deep to make it to the final bell and score the greatest victory of his career, in the process becoming the one-and-only, undisputed, bantamweight champion of the world.
Much was written yesterday about Inoue vs Donaire, our Fight Of The Year, so no need to go into detail here about what an absolute war it was and how it unfolded. But the point to be made now is that if the competition for Fighter Of The Year is between boxers with two wins apiece, no other win stands up to Inoue’s this past November, for the simple reason that no other victory revealed so much about the victor.
We already knew that Naoya Inoue was an extraordinary talent, that he possessed exceptional speed, power and athletic talent. What we didn’t know was how he might respond if severely tested. Did he have the durability and desire to keep fighting when hurt? Did he have the spirit to withstand punishment and battle back? We knew “The Monster” had true killer instinct; did he have courage to match? Was he in fact a true warrior, in every sense of the word?
It’s one thing for a boxer to have speed, power and skill, but to be a true great, a fighter must also possess heart and guts to match. Again and again, Donaire tested Inoue’s fortitude and it was never found lacking. In the second round the Filipino smashed home his best punch, a flush left hook, but Inoue took it and kept fighting. The shot was hard enough to not only open a nasty cut over Naoya’s right eye, but also fracture the younger man’s orbital bone. The Japanese later admitted that for the rest of the bout he had difficulty with his vision, but he fought on.
When one considers the fact that Inoue absorbed punishment to that injured eye for another ten rounds before turning back the fierce challenge of Donaire, one comes to the crux of the matter. All of our Fighter Of The Year candidates gave boxing exceptional wins and superb performances, but none gave a performance that proved so much or that overcame such adversity. No, Inoue did not dominate Nonito Donaire, he did not lay waste to him in the manner of previous opponents, in the manner many expected. But by going into the trenches with a determined, experienced and powerful warrior, he gave us something even more extraordinary, something that, over time, may become legendary, that will be viewed as irrefutable proof of the fact we have a true all-time great in our midst.
Two wins. One a demonstration of utter dominance, the other an exhibition of astonishing heart and will to win. Together, enough to make Naoya Inoue our 2019 Fighter Of The Year.
— Neil Crane