Naoya Inoue vs. Nonito Donaire: What it Means for Boxing

There’s always been something terribly exciting about watching the emergence of the next big thing, or the discovery of some incredible talent. Be it a musical prodigy, a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, or a boxer from Japan named Naoya Inoue, to see them emerge on the biggest stage, announcing what you were lucky enough to see before the rest; it makes you feel like you just might be lucky enough to finally buy that ten dollar scratch-off ticket. Maybe.

As a spectator to such events, if you are serious about the subject, whatever it may be, you have learned that no true talent can he recognized as legitimate unless it is tested, performing to the highest standards, when the pressure is greatest. This is the sole reason why the upcoming fight between Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire is so compelling. If Inoue performs as many expect he will, there will be no more denying that he deserves a spot in the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the sport of professional boxing.

Passing of the Torch

Thus far, Inoue has been fighting in Japan for almost the entirety of his short career. But come November 7, a resounding victory over the excellent Donaire would be the kind of moment that should see the kid from Kanagawa, Japan emerge on the international stage as a pay-per-view star. Many have already named him the heir apparent to Manny Pacquiao; this fight will go a long way in decided if such lofty comparisons are apt.

One of the reasons why this may come to pass is because the fighter that will be standing in front of him on that night is his biggest test yet. In Donaire, Inoue will be faced by a true knockout puncher with a great deal of experience, poise, and skill. This is not to say the fighters that Inoue has defeated in the time he spent establishing his perfect 18-0 record were not notable. On the contrary, many of them were excellent. But Donaire is a step above them all, not only in terms of experience against dangerous opponents, but in his ability to do damage. This is a fight that will honestly see if Naoya can implement his standard, high-pressure aggressive strategy, without making any basic mistakes. The risk is high in this fight, because if Inoue is not his best self ever, Donaire is the kind of fighter that can flatten him with a single shot.

Naoya Inoue On The Proving Ground

Inoue is one of a new breed of emerging fighters; boxers that developed most of their skills in the amateur ranks. By the time he made his professional debut, he was already fighting at a level far beyond his opposition. Indeed, in only his sixth professional bout, he faced Adrian Hernandez, who came into the fight with an excellent 29-2-1. Inoue won the WBC light flyweight title that night by TKO in the sixth round, and he made it look far too easy. If you look at the opponents in his three title winning efforts (against Hernandez, Omar Andres Narvaez and Jamie McDonnell) you see a combined record of 101-5-4. That is staggering to consider, especially since he defeated all three by KO/TKO in six rounds or less.

In Donaire, he will be matched against an opponent of similar accomplishment; when you look at the six greatest opponents he had defeated, you find a combined record of 193-15-8, and two of the names on that list include Vic Darchinyan and Jorge Arce, fighters that will probably find their way into the boxing hall of fame. If you compare Inoue and Donaire in another key statistic, you see the power they bring to the contest. Inoue has won 16 of 18 fights by KO or TKO; Donaire, with a record of 40-5-0, has won 26 of his bouts by KO/TKO, and he has only been stopped a single time, via referee-imposed TKO. Naturally, the one thing you will find on Donaire’s record that is absent from Inoue’s is big names: Darchinyan, Rafael Concepcion, Fernando Montiel, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Jeffrey Mathebula, Arce, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Nicholas Walters, Carl Frampton, etc. Donair has been in fights of this magnitude, on many occasions, and most of the time, he has won.

Anytime we see a fight of this nature, where a torch may be passed, it is usually a case of youth vs. experience, and this fight is no different. While Inoue doesn’t have the big names on his resume like Donaire, he does enjoy the advantage of youth; Inoue is 26 and has never taken any real damage to speak of. Donaire is 36 and has taken a lot of damage since he started his career in February of 2001. The “smart money,” if there is indeed such a thing (how many men lost their families saving’s betting on Thomas Hearns to defeat Marvin Hagler?), is predicting that Inoue, nicknamed “The Monster,” survives some tense moments en route to a late round TKO, and from there begins to call out the bigger names in the divisions North. For fans of the sport that have been watching Inoue for more than a few years, this moment was anticipated much sooner. In 2016, a fighter named Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez was thought to be the pound-for-pound king, commonly fighting on Gennady Golovkin undercards. All eyes could see that Chocolatito needed a new challenge; given that the weight difference between Inoue and Gonzalez was far from insurmountable, imaginations began to run wild, and questions began to be asked aloud. Then, as fate would have it, Gonzalez suffered to back-to-back defeats, the first of his unblemished, 46-0 career, to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. After that, Inoue’s coming out party was put on the backburner as his trainers focused him on perfecting his craft.

Optimistic Shades of the Past

So, aside from what is at stake for Inoue (the emergence of his star), what makes this such a pivotal moment for the sport? For starters, we are starting to see a new kind of mentality emerging in this younger generation of fighters; a mentality that could make the future of the sport much brighter than the past decade has been. In fighting Donaire, Inoue is showing that he wants to fight the best opposition that he can find, and that is something the sport sorely needs. How long did we have to wait for a fight between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather? It finally happened, but truth be told, it went down five years too late. This has happened many times in the sport, and it speaks to the idea that many fighters of recent years have wanted to talk about their greatness more than display it on the only stage that counts. Oratory is fine, but it will never take the place of action, and in the theater of pain that is the combative sports, the best stories―the tales that thrill the fans―are about showing greatness instead of just talking about it.

Lastly, there is the fight itself. If Donaire has taken the needed time to heal up fully, and if he is not merely collecting a paycheck (in short, if he is taking this fight to win it), this could be a Fight of the Year candidate. Both men are fast and pack serious thunder in their punches. Inoue is a high-pressure fighter, but he also knows how to fight backing up, has excellent punch placement, and is merciless as a body puncher. Donaire is fighter that, when at his best, is deceptively good at seamlessly shifting between offense and defense, has an excellent counter left hook, and he’s never lost a fight at bantamweight, which is clearly where he’s the best. While Inoue is looking to add the biggest name yet to his hit list, Donaire is looking to add a third “Knockout of the Year” award to his resume, and a second “Upset of the Year” accolade, at the expense of his younger opponent.

Both men fight from the orthodox stance, and both know the importance of a jab, and how to counter it. Will Donaire be able to deal with the pressure Inoue will be bring, every single round? If Donaire manages to land a heavy shot and rock Inoue, with the Japanese champion be able to adjust and regroup, or will he falter in the face of the unknown? These are the questions that keep running through my mind, and I have a feeling the answers are going to be explosive and compelling. Just as often as we have seen the torch passed from the old to the young in the combative sports, we’ve also seen those times when youth just isn’t ready for the moment. In the sport of MMA, BJ Penn was heavily favored to defeat Jens Pulver at UFC 35, but Pulver rose to the occasion and retained his belt. In boxing, Felix “Tito” Trinidad was supposed to run right over Bernard Hopkins, who was an “old man” at the time; instead, Hopkins decided to give Trinidad a boxing lesson and proceeded to knock him, pillar to post, for the majority of their fight, before Trinidad’s father finally threw in the towel and saved his son from any further needless damage. As much as it seems like Inoue is going to win this fight, you just never know.

Indeed, the only thing we do know is that both men have earned the right to answer the question themselves on such a brightly lit stage, and thankfully, we get to see it.

Enjoy some highlights from Naoya Inoue!

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