Naoya Inoue fueling boxing's modern renaissance, one KO at a time

Naoya Inoue fueling boxing’s modern renaissance, one KO at a time

There are three undisputed champions and nine unified champions across boxing’s 17 weight classes. None of those elite fighters is quite like the guy known by his fans as “The Monster.”

Naoya Inoue defeated a surefire Hall of Famer in devastating fashion on Tuesday in Saitama, Japan, knocking Nonito Donaire down twice and stopping him at 1:24 of the second round to become the unified WBA-WBC-IBF bantamweight champion.

It was reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s 91-second finish of Michael Spinks in an undisputed heavyweight title bout in 1988 in terms of the viciousness and the swift, cold efficiency of the finish.

This was not some second-rate contender Inoue blew out. Donaire is a four-division world champion who has held titles in three decades. He brought a 19-5 record in world title fights with 12 knockouts into the bout.

Inoue defeated Donaire in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series’ bantamweight tournament in 2019, breaking one of Donaire’s orbital bones in the process while en route to a unanimous decision win.

For most fighters, winning a bout against an elite opponent like Donaire would have been satisfying. But for Inoue, it was something less. And he made it a point in the rematch to do better.

Instead of using his boxing skills, Donaire closed the distance and opted to trade with Inoue. That played right into the Japanese superstar’s hands, though Inoue admitted it’s not without risk.

“In the very first round, I received a left hook from Nonito and when the punch hit me, it woke me up,” Inoue said in the ring afterward.

Japan’s Naoya Inoue reacts after winning against Philippines’ Nonito Donaire during their Bantamweight unification boxing match at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on June 7, 2022. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

Inoue is 29 years old and still very much in the prime of his career. The next logical step for him is to fight WBO champion Paul Butler for all the belts.

But once he does that, he has a chance to be very special. The super bantamweight division is very strong and two of the unified champions are at 122 pounds. There are potentially great bouts there against WBA-IBF champion Murodjon Akhmadaliev, and WBC-WBO champion Stephen Fulton, that would test his skills.

If Akhmadaliev and Fulton fight to unify at 122, it would set up a potential fight with Inoue as undisputed champion if he can get past Butler. That would mean undisputed versus undisputed and bring unprecedented attention to the weight classes below 135 that are typically ignored in the U.S.

It’s going to be hard to ignore those, though, as long as Inoue is around.

No fighter in the four-belt era has ever been undisputed champion in two weight classes. But with Inoue one win away from claiming all the bantamweight belts, Bud Crawford looking like he’ll have a shot to win all of the welterweight belts later this year against Errol Spence, and Oleksandr Usyk one belt away from taking all of the heavyweight titles, there are now three fighters who have the potential to become undisputed in two divisions.

Crawford was previously undisputed at super lightweight and Usyk was undisputed at cruiserweight. Evander Holyfield was undisputed champion at both cruiserweight and heavyweight, but that was in the three-belt era.

Inoue has already won world titles at light flyweight, super flyweight and bantamweight, and it’s going to be a stretch to push him to go past 122 given his size. It’s why it’s not always fair to judge fighters on how many divisions they’ve won belts in as opposed to what they do in their primary division.

As great as Donaire, is, for example, he’s only 3-2 at featherweight. He can win fights there, but it’s too big of a leap for him against the best in the world.

It could well be that bantamweight is the limit for Inoue given where he began his career. And if it is, well, the bantamweight division will be plenty interesting while he’s still there.

Japan's Naoya Inoue (L) fights against Philippines' Nonito Donaire during their Bantamweight unification boxing match at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on June 7, 2022. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

Japan’s Naoya Inoue (L) fights against Philippines’ Nonito Donaire during their Bantamweight unification boxing match at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on June 7, 2022. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images)

Inoue is one of the leaders of boxing’s modern renaissance. Canelo Alvarez is undisputed champ at super middleweight. Jermell Charlo is undisputed at super welterweight and Devin Haney on Saturday became undisputed at lightweight when he dominated George Kambosos.

Josh Taylor was undisputed at super lightweight, but he surrendered the WBA title when it skipped the line and ordered a meaningless mandatory for him. He still holds the WBC-IBF-WBO belts, though for how long is a question since he’s considering a move to welterweight.

Usyk is unified champion at heavyweight, and Artur Beterviev has two belts at light heavyweight and will fight Joe Smith in New York for a third on June 18. Gennadiy Golovkin holds two of the four middleweight titles, and Spence has three of the four welterweight belts.

Shakur Stevenson beat Oscar Valdez in April to become the WBC-WBO super featherweight champion.

They’re all great fighters. But few are like Inoue in that he’s not only a superb boxer, but one of the most powerful punchers in the history of his division. He has the ability to knock anyone at 118 out with either hand, a rare trait in the bantamweight division.

For my money, Carlos Zarate is the hardest-punching bantamweight ever. He finished his career 66-4 with 63 KOs and opened his career with 22 consecutive KOs. After a unanimous decision win, he scored 28 more KOs before getting knocked out himself at super bantamweight by the great Wilfredo Gomez.

Inoue is in that class with his power and fans, particularly Americans, are enamored with brutal knockouts.

The Inoue-Donaire fight began a little after 8 a.m. ET in the U.S., forcing those who wanted to see the bout to set the alarms and get up early. It was worth it, as boxing again showed that while the business side still needs a lot of fixing, what is going on in the ring these days is first-rate.

Guys like Naoya Inoue are fueling that and make it OK to be a boxing fan these days.

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