The finale of the second season of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) saw two of the biggest names at bantamweight square off for division supremacy, undefeated sensation Naoya Inoue (18-0) and veteran sharpshooter Nonito Donaire (40-5). The bout took place in Inoue’s home confines of Japan at the Saitama Super Arena with multiple belts up for grabs, including Inoue’s IBF and Ring straps, as well as Donaire’s WBA belt. And while both fighters earned their spots in the tournament finale, their journeys couldn’t have been more different.
Inoue left a swath of destruction in his path by obliterating Juan Carlos Payano during the quarter-final last October, and followed that up with an equally devastating stoppage of Emmanuel Rodriguez in May. Donaire, meanwhile, beat Ryan Burnett on a back injury that forced the Belfast native to retire on his stool. The Filipino-American then starched Stephon Young with a left hook in round six, Young being a replacement for champion Zolani Tete, who had to pull out because of a shoulder injury. Regardless of Nonito’s easier path to the top, he clearly represented, despite being in the twilight of his career at 36-years-old, the most accomplished opponent and the stiffest challenge yet for “The Monster.”
If fans were hoping for another cracking WBSS finale after the scorcher that was Prograis vs Taylor, all of their hopes were fulfilled and then some. A dramatic struggle contested at the highest skill level, Inoue vs Donaire was more than worth the six am wake-up call for boxing fans in North America. Amazingly, the Super Series has given us another strong contender for 2019’s Fight of the Year.
In the end, despite the official result, the story of this great battle has to be Donaire, the aging, four division champion, who, from the opening bell, took Inoue’s best shots, the same pulverizing missiles that had laid waste to so many opponents, and just kept marching forward to land his own bombs. He had great success with his straight right hand and left hooks to the body throughout, and was effective as the aggressor, pushing Inoue back and earning his respect.
Donaire had his best moments in rounds eight and nine, hurting Inoue in the latter with a sharp right hand counter, forcing the Japanese knockout artist into recovery mode, a sight never seen before. Seeking a finish and the biggest win of his Hall-of-Fame career, Donaire threw his patented bombs with abandon but Inoue managed to avoid most of them and survive the round.
Inoue demonstrated some impressive recuperative powers by coming back strong in the tenth, which then led to a Round Of The Year candidate in the eleventh. Inoue finally made a serious dent in Donaire’s armor, landing a vicious left hook to the body that forced the older man to take a knee. Now it was the Bohol native’s turn to show his courage and he did just that by beating the count and weathering still more flush shots from Inoue, before briefly stunning the Japanese prodigy with a counter left hook. After such a brutal fight, it was amazing they both had enough left to go toe-to-toe in the final round, but they did exactly that, capping a terrific fight by showcasing again their grit, resilience and willingness to go to war.
Just as Donaire was impressive in his display of tenacity and courage, Inoue was equally remarkable in what has to be regarded as the first true test of his career, an exam he passed with flying colors. “The Monster” showed he can deal with adversity after being cut in round two and being hurt in the penultimate round. He never appeared frustrated despite Donaire taking his shots and not crumbling to pieces like most of Inoue’s opponents.
Indeed, Inoue has the intangibles of a true champion, something we could learn only because he shared the ring with a savvy and determined warrior like Donaire. And if the Filipino now rides off into the sunset after this fight, he will have stamped an incredible career with a breathtaking performance. The fact that the young Inoue will no doubt grow so much from this win and only be more savvy and confident as a result is a daunting truth for future opponents to consider. — Jamie Rebner