Antonio Nieves Will Let You Worry About “The Monster”

It’s almost shocking to hear super flyweight contender Antonio Nieves (17-1-2) admit that he’d never heard of Japanese superstar Naoya Inoue (13-0) prior to signing on to challenge the fighter they call “Monster” for his WBO title. Much has been made of Inoue’s immanent American invasion and, as armchair observers of a compellingly brutal sport, it’s easy to forget that the actual fighters are just too busy with the quotidian realities of their lives, training schedules, and family obligations to devote attention and energy to what amounts, essentially, to myth.

Make no mistake, Naoya Inoue’s prodigious talent and unique destructive abilities are very real. And don’t let Antonio Nieves’ seemingly flippant admission about Inoue mislead you into thinking that the affable Cleveland native isn’t taking his title challenge seriously. In fact, what’s most compelling about Nieves’ approach is his ability to turn inward when his fight on HBO’s upcoming SUPERFLY card — headlined by Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez‘s rematch against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai — is all about Inoue.

“There’s really no pressure on me,” Nieves says. “I’m going to go in there and fans can expect me to fight like I do every fight, but they can also expect me to fight even harder this time. I have everything to gain but not that much to lose. He [Inoue], on the other hand, has everything to lose.”

It’s not as if Nieves is completely untested under the bright lights; he once held the NABO title bantamweight title and fought on Showtime. The fact his bout against Inoue is being treated like a celebratory parade for the Japanese sensation magnifies an important fact: the spotlight will be exclusively focused on Inoue. A eventual match against Gonzalez, should the great Nicaraguan prevail in his rematch as most expect, is at stake, not to mention the prospect of Inoue making inroads with an American audience. Nieves, it seems, either wasn’t supposed to be here or is being treated as an afterthought.

In fact, the boxer they call “Carita” was a decorated amateur: a five-time Golden Gloves champion, a 2011 National Golden Gloves silver medalist, a third place finisher at the U.S. National Championships that same year, and a 2012 Olympic Trials participant. Undefeated through his first 19 pro bouts, Nieves was on the wrong end of a controversial verdict in his last outing, dropping a split decision to Nikolai Potapov in March.

Needless to say, Nieves wasn’t expecting a title shot after the loss to Potapov, but the opportunity to challenge for a world championship on premium television for a fighter who also works full-time at PNC Bank in Cleveland was impossible to reject. At 30, and given the winding trajectory of his career, this may very well be Nieves’ only shot at a major title. Whether circumstances were ideal or not simply couldn’t factor into his decision, a reality that a fighter like Inoue never has to consider.

When it comes to Antonio Nieves, the pressing question is always the same: How can he balance working an eight or nine hour day with the demands of being a world class prizefighter? It seems remarkable to those of us who struggle to incorporate even a modicum of exercise into our daily routines, let alone high-intensity training of the most gruelling kind. But to Nieves, this unfathomable schedule has been his reality for years.

“For me, it’s normal because I’ve been doing it for so long,” says Nieves. “Even before, when I was in school, it was school and then some type of sport after. So most of my life I’ve been getting up early, going to school, then training.”

Nieves points out that work occupies him and, importantly, “keeps my mind away from boxing.” Not knowing who Naoya Inoue was can certainly be attributed to this; Nieves, plain and simply, doesn’t have the time, or need (until now, that is), to know such things. This has lead to a palpable stoicism ahead of the most significant fight of his career: fans and pundits are the ones who can worry about Inoue; “Carita” is just too damn busy.

That said, Nieves concedes that Inoue is a great fighter with tremendous speed and power who, given his lofty standing, could have chosen any opponent. What this also likely means is that Team Inoue saw a respectable but “safe” choice in Nieves for an American debut. Nieves, however, acknowledges that reality in passing instead of taking it as an affront.

“Nothing but respect for him; nothing bad to say about him,” Nieves says of Inoue. “He’s a great fighter. That’s why he’s the champion. But come September 9, we’re going to do everything possible to keep that belt here in the United States.”

PNC Bank has given Nieves time off to focus on training, which is especially important given that the American is moving down in weight for this fight. Nieves has fought in the 118-pound range since 2015 — sometimes weighing in as high as 121 pounds, with earlier bouts having come at featherweight — but he’ll need to hit 115 ahead of Saturday night. The taxing grind of shedding that extra weight, though, is offset by the support Nieves receives from his family, friends and colleagues.

Given his standing in the sport and Inoue’s seemingly imminent ascent, it’s easy to view this bout as make-or-break for Antonio Nieves. His actual chances of victory aside, he needs to perform and be competitive, or risk having his career slide into obscurity. Or at least that’s what an outsider looking in would assume. Once again, the underdog challenger will let you determine the stakes and worry about the outcome.

“We’re coming to win,” Nieves asserts. “We’re coming to fight and that’s all we’re focused on. Whether it’s going to make us or break us, you know, I don’t put one second of thought into that, because it doesn’t matter. We’re going to be there. We’re going to fight. We’re going to be victorious.”           — Zachary Alapi 

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