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The Fights

Naoya Inoue Is Still The Scariest Little Guy In Boxing

Naoya Inoue fights against Nonito Donaire
Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

The most electric, devastating knockout artist in boxing stands at 5-foot-5 and weighs in at 117.9 pounds. And on Tuesday in Saitama, Japan, Naoya Inoue emphatically crushed Nonito Donaire, the only opponent in 12 fights who (under extraordinary circumstances) had managed to go the distance with him.

The first Donaire-Inoue encounter, which was named Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine in 2019, saw the Filipino veteran work with all his might to keep pace with a wounded version of his younger, preternaturally gifted, and undefeated opponent. Donaire bloodied Inoue by giving him a broken nose and a fractured orbital bone that caused double vision, but Inoue stayed standing, landed a soul-destroying body punch, and was rewarded with the unanimous decision win. Despite the loss, Donaire's performance still stood out as a commendable display of survival skills against a monster who'd built up buzz with a string of blink-and-you-miss-them KOs.

Though COVID has messed with his career momentum like it has most every other boxer, the 29-year-old Inoue stayed undefeated and scored knockouts in each of his three fights since the Donaire bout (with the first two coming in an unfamiliar spot as a headliner in the U.S.). And after Donaire snagged a loose bantamweight belt last May, a rematch made sense as Inoue attempts to collect them all. This sequel, though, had absolutely none of the suspense of the original. Instead, it became yet another opportunity for the bleached-blond star to showcase his dominance with both hands.

After a couple minutes of feeling out, Inoue initiated a back-and-forth exchange of punches that opened things up and, just before the bell rang, led to disaster for Donaire. With seemingly no fear of getting anything serious in return, Inoue swatted his adversary to the ground.

Donaire initially looked all right coming out for the second round, but it only took a few punches from Inoue to stagger him once again. It was academic from there, as Donaire absorbed blow after walloping blow until finally collapsing for good. This fight lasted four and a half minutes and still felt like it went on much longer than it should have.

With the exception of that first Donaire fight, this is how it's been for years now: Inoue closes the distance between him and his opponent before the other fighter can react, crumbling their defenses with his fists until they can do nothing but try to maintain their balance. They cannot for long. There's truly nothing like Inoue in the smaller weight classes, and even the bigger names that share the pound-for-pound leaderboard, like Crawford and Fury, struggle to keep up with his highlight-reel pace or the efficiency with which his makes his statements.

What makes Inoue so special might also be what's holding him back from mainstream fame. He's tiny and fights in a division that doesn't get a lot of mainstream notice. He comes from a part of the boxing world that's never produced a major draw in the United States. And his Japanese fights are, consequently, very inconvenient to watch live in the West. Though his showings against Jason Moloney in October 2020 and Michael Dasmariñas in June 2021 produced a pair of KOs in Vegas across 10 combined rounds on ESPN, and certainly got him in front of new eyes, they clearly didn't flick a switch that transformed Inoue into an arena headliner over here. He remains a celebrity in Japan and a well-kept secret in the States, even as his knockouts make him a must-watch for those in the know.

Inoue's potential future match-ups at bantamweight don't provide reason to believe that anything will change soon—neither his overlooked status nor his unbeaten 23-0 record. He's handily defeated most of the top contenders in this division already, and what's logically left would just be Paul Butler, an obscure Brit who holds a cheaply won belt. Super bantamweight might be a step in the right direction, even if the proven commercial commodities in the U.S. and England remain still at least one class higher, at 126 pounds. Inoue, for his part, seems fine with either moving up or staying put just a little longer in order to do something unprecedented at bantamweight in the four-belt era.

“My aim is to be the undisputed champion,” he said after winning on Tuesday. “If I can do that within the year of 2022, I would love to stay in this division. But if I can’t, I am capable of [moving up to 122 pounds] and fighting for a belt.”

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