Recent months have seen boxing’s pound-for-pound lists blown wide open with one major upset or surprising performance after another. Whatever your opinion on the value of such rankings, the fact that strong arguments can be made for several different boxers to occupy the hallowed top spot on the lists is surely a positive reflection on the current health of the sport. And after their eagerly anticipated return match in Tokyo, Inoue vs Donaire II, one thing is certain: any discussion of who deserves to be considered the best in the sport which does not have Naoya Inoue at or near the very top cannot be taken seriously.
In a ruthless display of accuracy, power and killer instinct, the Japanese sensation dispatched veteran champion Nonito Donaire inside two clinical rounds today, cementing his position as the world’s premier bantamweight. Already a world champion in his third weight division, and sporting a record of twenty knockouts in twenty-three fights, Inoue continues to impress. In fact, one can categorically assert that in steamrolling the four-time champion who gave him the toughest battle of his career in 2019, “The Monster” has truly never looked better.
Inoue vs Donaire I was an absolute classic, not to mention 2019’s Fight of the Year, with the venerable Filipino warrior extending Inoue the twelve round distance in a grueling, dramatic, back-and-forth donnybrook. On that night, fighting for the World Boxing Super Series Muhammad Ali Trophy, Inoue was forced to show both a solid chin and plenty of heart to go with his precision punching and brutal body attack. He passed the test with flying colours, but “The Filipino Flash” had his moments and earned huge respect in defeat, not least from his bloodied opponent.
In the intervening two and a half years, Donaire – incredibly, at 38 years of age – had picked up yet another world title to add to his huge trophy cabinet, scoring two emphatic knockout wins in the process, and proving the old adage that the last thing a great fighter loses is his punch. Despite his activity level being hampered by the global pandemic, Inoue also racked up three straight KOs to set up this triple unification rematch. Entering the ring at 39, it was no surprise that Donaire came in as a significant underdog. But even so, the ice-cold manner with which Inoue ended proceedings today was a sight to behold.
Donaire, the WBC champ, signalled his own intent early on, firing a signature left hook just seconds into the opening session, as both men showed a healthy respect for the other’s power. Donaire pressed steadily forward as Inoue scored with some snappy jabs, and while a couple of quick left hook counters from “The Monster” hinted at impending danger, the violent damage was still shocking when it came.
With forty seconds left in the round, Donaire countered a jab with a hard right hand, and the action fired up as they exchanged left hooks. Never one to back down from a shootout, Nonito continued to press as both men searched for openings. A sharp one-two forced Donaire back to the ropes momentarily, and the Filipino pushed back, avoiding two big left hooks at close quarters. But just as he set himself to return fire with a right hand, he loaded up ever so slightly, and before he knew it Inoue had exploded with a lightning fast, chopping right that dropped him onto the seat of his pants.
Donaire rose almost immediately and held up his gloves, though his legs looked less-than-sturdy. “He’s hurt bad now, Bernardo,” noted commentator and former champ Andre Ward. Fortunately for Donaire, the bell rang just as the referee waved them back into action and the veteran made it back to his corner for a much-needed minute’s respite. More ominously for Donaire, as the ref had issued his mandatory count, it was clear from the way Inoue waited so eagerly to pounce that he was in no mood to let his wounded prey off the hook.
“The Filipino Flash” did well to recover during the interval, and even crashed home a heavy left hook fifteen seconds into the round, but the punch only seemed to anger Inoue and make him more determined, as he unloaded with his own hard left hooks. Donaire tried to punch with him but was immediately caught with another quick counter that rocked him backwards and drew an expectant roar from the Saitama crowd. With the Japanese phenom smelling blood, he fearlessly let both hands go, snapping Donaire’s head back with a beautiful left uppercut at the end of a rapid fire combination.
Ever the warrior, and always carrying full belief in his own power, Donaire tried to fight fire with fire, but to no avail. A clean left hook took the Filipino’s right leg from under him, and Inoue went for the kill. Mixing in left hooks to the body with hard one-twos upstairs, the younger man showed his characteristic blend of poise and precision punching. The Japanese star is a devastating finisher and simply a joy to watch when in full flow.
Another blistering right hand connected, and before a dazed Donaire had a chance to gather his senses in the corner of the ring, a blazing right hand-left hook combination landed flush and sent him sliding down over the ropes and onto his back. Gallantly, the old champion picked himself up in an effort to go on, but the referee had crossed his arms before Donaire even made it to his feet to signal he had seen enough, as Inoue clambered the opposite ring post in celebration.
If this is to be Donaire’s final outing, he can retire a proud champion and a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer. It’s incredible to think it was a full fifteen years ago that the Filipino legend burst onto the world scene with a crushing knockout of Vic Darchinyan. The fact he was able to secure world titles from flyweight to featherweight and then return to bantamweight to recapture another belt this late in his career, not to mention being a worthy rival to one of the most dynamic punchers in the sport, is a fitting end to a fantastic legacy.
Boxing seems to be raining undisputed champions at the moment, and Inoue is now only one belt away from accomplishing that feat. Post-fight, he expressed his desire to unify, but also his willingness to move up another weight division. It goes without saying that an undisputed clash versus new WBO champion, Paul Butler, would be a daunting prospect for the recently crowned Brit, but it would be an absolutely massive fight whether staged in the UK or Japan.
In some ways it’s a shame, given the elite names operating a division below at 115 pounds, that Inoue did not fully clean out that division before moving on. Already unquestionably one of the best fighters alive, it’s almost frightening to think how good his record could look had he faced such talents as Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada or Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Having now fought only four times in the past two and a half years, Inoue needs Top Rank to move sooner rather than later to make the best fights possible. It would be simply criminal to waste any more time with such a sublime talent. With undisputed status beckoning, and potential mouth-watering clashes against the likes of Stephen Fulton up at 122 pounds, and with Inoue’s skills looking sharper than ever, there’s no telling how high “The Monster’s” ceiling might be.
— Matt O’Brien