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Fear Won’t Save You From Naoya Inoue

Naoya Inoue taunts Paul Butler during their fight
Yuichi Yamazaki/AFP via Getty Images

For all intents and purposes, there was just one boxer in the ring on Tuesday during the bantamweight unification clash in Tokyo. Naoya Inoue was ferocious as usual, constantly moving forward and searching for a knockout shot, while his ostensible opponent, Paul Butler, was indistinguishable from a heavy bag mounted on a Roomba. Though an ultra-conservative, risk-avoidant strategy allowed Butler to prolong the fight more than most of Inoue's past opponents, he went down like all the rest.

For a few years now, Inoue has been the most exciting fighter of any size in the world, though after a couple of appearances in Vegas he's gone back to being one of the most difficult for sleep-appreciating North Americans to watch live. (The replays are on ESPN+, at least.) Nicknamed "The Monster," the 5-foot-5, 29-year-old from Kanagawa has amassed a record of 24-0 almost exclusively by stopping fights long before they are scheduled to end. With the exception of an injury-hampered, instant-classic decision against Nonito Donaire in 2019, which was followed up with a two-round demolition in their rematch earlier this year, Inoue's last 14 fights have avoided the judges' scorecards, with seven of them ending inside of 10 minutes. His power is unlike anyone else his size, but he's a skilled fighter as well, with delightful head movement and a jarring, disruptive ability to close the space between him and his opponent before the opposite boxer can react.

Butler, on the other hand, was very lucky to get this fight in the first place. A 34-year-old with two losses and who had never fought outside of the UK before this week, Butler more or less fell into the WBO bantamweight title back in April. He was scheduled to challenge its holder, John Riel Casimero, but because he violated weight-cutting guidelines, Casimero had to withdraw, and Butler beat his replacement Jonas Sultan for an interim belt that was then elevated to the real thing. As the holder of the only title not possessed by Inoue, his next fight became this match to create an "undisputed" bantamweight champion—as if anyone alive would dispute Inoue's superiority.

Still, despite his status as a massive underdog, Butler didn't fight like a man with nothing to lose; instead, he acted like the victory was all in getting the loser's payday. At no point in the entire bout did he put up anything resembling a challenge to Inoue, or even throw all that many punches, cocooning himself like a Metapod in a Pokémon battle while Inoue stood wherever he wanted and probed for an opening. When Inoue did get him trapped in a corner, the action got comically lopsided.

But more often than not, Butler just stayed on his feet while keeping his hands in a protective position, to the point that a completely unharmed Inoue got noticeably bored about halfway through and decided to have some fun. He tried any taunts he could to draw Butler out of his shell and into a real fight, but though they added entertainment for the fans, the Englishman didn't bite.

It just kept going like that. Inoue pulled out this old trick, too:

In the ninth round, ESPN color commentator Tim Bradley said outright, "I'll be happy if I don't ever see Butler ever again." But thankfully, Butler was not allowed to fly out of Japan with 12 rounds against Inoue to his name. In the latest knockout Inoue's ever scored, he backed Butler up against the ropes in the 11th and broke through with an incinerating 1-2. With the defense crumbling, Inoue landed the flurry of punches he'd been waiting all night to unload, and after Butler hit the canvas, neither showed any signs they wanted to drag this out any longer.

It's unfortunately not always easy to appreciate The Monster's greatness without also considering what's holding him back outside the ring. Though he's a star in his home country, Inoue doesn't have the size or the nationality that's really necessary to be a top PPV attraction in the U.S., which is a shame for, hypothetically, someone who would pay out the nose to see him at Madison Square Garden. He also doesn't have any kind of compelling rival, especially now that the Donaire loose end has been tied up. Inoue completely owns the bantamweight division, and even one step up at super bantamweight there's nobody that I'd be especially excited to see him against. The drama, really, would be Inoue against his own body—testing its limits, seeing how it stacks up against larger and larger foes. That seems to be where he's looking next. It makes sense, because there are no challenges left for him here.

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