This was the version of Naoya Inoue that first dazzled me, over two years ago now, back against Manny Rodriguez in Glasgow. In under two rounds—specifically, in the first minute of round two—the undefeated bantamweight unleashed a vicious assault that led to three straight knockdowns and a quick win against a boxer who had never been on his back before. The second of those, in particular, is the one that sticks with you, as a bloodied Rodriguez shakes his head while on his knees after absorbing a nasty pair of punches to the stomach, like he’s trying to will his body through excruciating pain. To his credit, Rodriguez got up, but just 30 seconds later the fight was over.
I think this was a lot of folks’ first taste of Inoue, with it being his first-ever headlining fight outside of his native Japan, and from there, particularly after he fought through injury to follow it up with a gutsy classic against Nonito Donaire, the hype around this terrifying little dude only grew. He traveled to America, KOed Jason Moloney in seven rounds on Halloween 2020, and then on Saturday, the man they call The Monster showed everything he was capable of on his biggest U.S. stage yet on ESPN.
Inoue was a heavy, heavy favorite against Michael Dasmariñas, so the fact that he won was just meeting expectations. But how he knocked out his unknown opponent made it the best performance of a crowded fight weekend. As he tends to do—and from a distance most fighters consider to be safe—Inoue just brutalized the body with a parade of perfectly placed punches that crumbled Dasmariñas to the canvas three times in under three rounds. By the last one, it’s like his legs are just rebelling against him, refusing to stand and take this punishment any longer. My first instinct is to say that’s what I would look like if I ever got lightly jabbed in the torso by a mildly experienced fighter. But there’s something even more inhuman about it than that.
“After he went down with a body shot the first time,” Inoue said through an interpreter afterwards. “Yeah, I pretty much decided that I was going to take him out with a body shot.”
Though already considered one of the best in the world, the 21-0, 28-year-old Inoue with this fight may have put himself into the conversation for the pound-for-pound crown. Certainly, by getting more wins like this as he tries to unify the bantamweight division, Inoue will only raise his profile. But one unavoidable problem stands in his way: his size. If The Monster was maybe 30 pounds heavier, he would not only be set to make more money because of how boxing works, but he’d also have a much more eye-catching list of future fights to choose from. Currently on his radar is either a rematch with Donaire or a fight against John Riel Casimero, depending on who wins a scheduled belt-unifying match in August between the two Filipino champs. Those match-ups, while intriguing, won’t get very many people buying airplane tickets to Vegas, and promoters would likely need the 118-pound Inoue to move up to featherweight if he’s ever going to be a real PPV attraction.
Still, there are other people whose job it is to figure all that out. Inoue, for his part, is marketing himself the best way that he can simply by racking up decisive, eye-popping KOs. And whether or not his victim is a household name, that doesn’t necessarily take all that much away from the spectacle. Those shots against Dasmariñas had me almost screaming at my TV in a kind of sick delight—partially in awe of such an incredible boxer and partially in horror at the suffering that this fighter could inflict. It was a giant adrenaline rush and it was entertaining television and it made me want to see if he can do more. If Inoue keeps winning like this, I’ll keep tuning in. And I can’t be the only one.