The story of Naoya Inoue’s most recent fight sounds like a tall tale, like if Hercules or Paul Bunyan stepped into the ring while suffering from some kind of strength-sapping enchantment. The circumstances under which Inoue improved to 19-0 against Nonito Donaire on Nov. 7, 2019 were nothing short of extraordinary, as the champion battled through a combination of injuries that should have crushed him in order to continue on the path that’s brought him to Nevada this weekend.
Fighting in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series Bantamweight Tournament—a high-profile eight-man international contest known for its huge pool of prize money—Inoue very quickly found himself in an unfamiliar bit of trouble. In the second round, a left hook from the experienced Donaire opened up a cut near Inoue’s eye and caused an orbital fracture. Additionally, Inoue suffered a broken nose in the bout, and in the later stages he sported this horror-movie image of blood dripping down from his socket. The extent of the damage left him with a near-impossible task.
“I was seeing double starting in the second round of that fight,” Inoue says. “In the fifth, I was throwing my punches only by instinct.”
Facing this level of adversity, it’d be quite an accomplishment if Inoue even managed to finish the fight. But he did much more than simply survive, as he powered through his injuries, had an incredible moment in the 11th where Donaire collapsed for a nine count due to sheer pain from a body shot, and managed to outpoint the other man for a unanimous decision win in front of an enthusiastically supportive crowd. This saga set the stage, after nearly a year-long layoff, for what Inoue is going to do on Saturday.
His match-up with Jason Moloney on Halloween night will be the 27-year-old Inoue’s first headlining gig in the United States and just his third fight ever outside of Japan. (He was co-featured on a California card in 2017 and fought in Glasgow last year.) It’ll also be on ESPN+, as opposed to the relatively niche streaming service DAZN that has covered his last few bouts. And unlike his fights in Japan, this one won’t happen in the early hours of the morning on the east coast. It will be Inoue’s most accessible and anticipated fight yet for U.S. boxing fans, helped along by the Worldwide Leader’s marketing campaign promoting Inoue as “The Monster” who’s ready to dominate increasingly larger stages. If all goes well, the Moloney fight will mark the beginning of Inoue’s transformation from overseas anomaly into a big-money Vegas star.
If Inoue arrives as advertised, don’t expect this fight to go more than four rounds, tops. Though the times and locations of his fights do make him more of a mystery to Americans than most of his peers in the pound-for-pound Top 10, Inoue’s knockouts have drawn curious viewers and gained new supporters all over the globe. My own conversion happened on a Saturday afternoon in May 2019, during the aforementioned Glasgow fight and the semifinals of the Super Series. Against the unbeaten Puerto Rican Manny Rodriguez, Inoue delivered a shocking display of brutality. The gap between the two fighters was instantly apparent, and in just the second round, Inoue dropped the poor guy three times in quick succession to destroy Rodriguez’s body and will. It was just a ruthless showcase of talent from Inoue that left me stunned and wanting to know more.
In every fight where he has not encountered an orbital fracture and a broken nose, Inoue has been almost unbelievably superior to anyone across from him, attacking his fellow boxers like a shark attacks its prey. The opening round of the Super Series was another huge statement, as in just 70 seconds he opened a car door in Juan Carlos Payano’s face. A jab and then a big straight right had Payano fainting onto the canvas, and he was handed his first career knockout loss in his 22nd career fight.
That match built on Inoue’s debut in the Bantamweight division. The title of this YouTube video—”FREE FIGHT”—doesn’t seem to square with the fact that it’s not even five minutes in length. But, uh, it didn’t even take anywhere near that much time for Inoue to dispatch the then-WBA titleholder Jamie McDonnell and pick up his third belt in three separate weight divisions. After the Yorkshire lad hits the canvas the first time, you can see him have a conversation with his trainer down below, and though it’s impossible to tell what they’re actually discussing I can’t imagine the ex-champ yelling anything besides, “What the fook have you gotten me into?”
Inoue’s knockouts enjoy a kind of rhythm that makes them feel simultaneously more poetic and more disturbing. Inoue’s body punches hurt his opponents to a profoundly painful degree, especially considering his small size. And crucially, he’s able to land them from what most fighters would consider to be a safe distance. If the typical Inoue opponent hasn’t crumbled in the first three minutes, the Monster’s supernatural blend of speed, timing, movement, and accuracy has at the very least thrown them off their game plan, forcing the overwhelmed boxer to desperately play defense. From there, Inoue is in full control, and it’s just a matter of selecting the right combinations and deploying them at will until the crowd is wincing in sympathy for the loser.
That’s as close to a spoiler as I can give for the Moloney fight on Saturday, which should be a far cry from the dramatics of the Donaire bout. Against the Australian Moloney, who lost to Rodriguez in the quarterfinals of the Super Series, Inoue’s betting odds are currently as high as a laughable -1250. Given the mythic feats behind him, the bar is set very high for Inoue. Anything short of the dramatic bouts that got him to this point will feel like a disappointment. Saturday’s match, then, is not particularly important as an athletic contest, but it’s a necessary step to the bigger and better things that could lie ahead for the 27-year-old.
Where he’ll go from here, however, isn’t obvious. It can be easy to forget in the midst of the sheer terror he inflicts on other competitors, but as a 5-foot-5 fighter in a division with a 118-pound limit, the Monster doesn’t have the kind of body that guarantees big purses. The biggest fights happen far, far away from Bantamweight, and any A-List matchup would require Inoue to move up yet another division at the very least. The question facing him, then, is not whether he can continue his reign at the top of 118, but whether he’ll abandon that assumed dominance to push his physical limits against more famous fighters.
But it doesn’t feel worth it to get bogged down in the future just yet when this transcendent talent is lacing up the gloves in the here and now. In his career, Inoue has yet to disappoint, has yet to be boring, has yet to leave a ring without making an arresting and emphatic statement. Naoya Inoue is a whirlwind of physicality, an absolute freak who pounds his opponents into humiliating defeats with a level of power that seems impossible from a man his size. Whether you’re one of ten people watching or one of a million, any minute with him on the screen is a minute well spent. As long as you can stomach the beatings.