TOKYO – You could passionately argue that few names in the sport trigger the same excitement as the one that is set to pack out the Tokyo Dome on Monday: Naoya Inoue.

Japanese idol Inoue, lovingly dubbed the “Monster” because of his ability to wreak fabulous havoc and dispatch opponents mercilessly (regardless of the weight category he chooses to box in), will perform in front of 55,000 adoring fans at the Dome.

When one mentions Inoue’s name in boxing circles, it’s like a dog whistle. It is like you’ve said a code word in a sect that triggers happy vibes and releases dopamine for those who can hear.

Even trainer Dave Coldwell, whose fighter Jamie McDonnell was ruined in a round in Japan back in 2018, can’t help himself when you say the name. 

“Oh, what a fighter,” Coldwell replies, when told that is what the forthcoming discussion will be about.

It was involuntary; a reflex. The “Monster’’ lurks in our subconscious, ready to pounce on command.

That is what he’s due to do on Monday (May 6) night, on Mexican Luis Nery. The 29-year-old who challenges for Inoue’s second full set of belts – now at super bantamweight – having previously won the lot at bantamweight, has been here before. In fact, Nery wasn’t supposed to be coming back to Japan. 

Last year, the Japanese Boxing Commission suspended Nery from boxing here. Initially, Nery tested positive following his 2017 fourth-round win over Shinsuke Yamanaka, but the final straw came when he returned to these shores and then didn’t make the weight for their rematch, when he beat Yamanaka in two frames. 

Nery was banned for life, and one might wonder what he is doing back here until you see who is in the opposite corner. Perhaps it is thought that the punishment of stepping into the ring with the ferocious Japanese gunslinger is a harsher punishment than being banished.

Like Nery will be on Monday, Coldwell was in the opposite corner almost six years ago with Doncaster’s decent former two-time bantamweight champion. Inoue was moving up in weight, having won belts at light-flyweight and super-flyweight, and some believed McDonell – who’d acquitted himself well to win the IBF title against Julio Ceja before winning the vacant WBA title and defending it five times, including two wins in the U.S. over Tomoki Kameda – might present Inoue with a headache or two.

The McDonnell camp hoped they could take the smaller man - Inoue was moving up in weight, remember - into the deeper waters. Inoue was 15-0, but as photos emerged of a gaunt McDonnell barely, somehow, making weight, it soon became a one-horse race. It lasted a minute and 52 seconds.

“It’s going back a long time now,” sighed Coldwell. “Don’t forget, he [Inoue]’s progressed more, so much since where he was when we fought him. You look at the people he’s been in the ring with, the fighters that he’s beaten since. He’s a completely different fighter and the body of work is completely different to where we were. If you look at before Jamie, you’d probably say that without being disrespectful – and Jamie’s a very underrated fighter – he’d not been in with anyone of Jamie’s calibre, I don’t think. 

“He'd been in with good fighters, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t want it to come across that I was dismissive of him. What I saw was him as this absolute monster, but he’d had a couple of tougher nights. I think people that had gone down to the body had some success with him, but I felt coming up to the weight, if Jamie could establish his reach advantage and his boxing smarts, then he could control that. 

“And Inoue did sometimes lunge in a little bit – back then. Now, since the fight with Jamie, you’ve got to look at the list of fighters he’s fought and everyone’s been outstanding and he’s developed into a hell of a fighter, a pound for pounder. At that stage, he wasn’t a pound for pounder. He was this monster that’s coming out of Japan…”

He is still the “Monster”, and if the deep pockets and allure of Saudi Arabia reach for him, then perhaps he will be coming out of Japan. Inoue’s last six outings have all been at home, since two pandemic fights in the U.S. 

While Top Rank president Todd duBoef wants Inoue to box in the USA for selfish reasons, financially he doesn’t need to move a muscle. Inoue is doing just fine in Japan. 

That said, it is not as if Inoue needs the comforts of home comforts. Coldwell rated Inoue highly when he had to train someone to fight him, but he sees a much-improved and more rounded boxer today.

“What I was looking at in preparation [for McDonnell] to what he [Inoue] are now are two different fighters; two different bodies of work,” acknowledged Coldwell. “He’s been in with so many different, high-grade opponents whereas back then he was in with solid opponents but nobody that jumps out and grabs you.

“He’d had a couple of fights where I felt he’d just had a little reaction off bodyshots, I can’t remember who it was but the kid just caught him with a shot or a couple of shots downstairs – it was a game fighter – it was a tough fight, and Inoue just stopped punching for about 30 seconds. From being all-out attack, he just stopped punching, he gathered his thoughts and got himself together and it was one of those when, going into a fight, you can look at that and go, ‘Hmm. Did he feel that?’ ‘Is that the reason why he stopped punching?’”

Sadly for the Englishman, any hope for McDonnell turned out to be false, but Inoue has not looked back. The “Monster” has munched on 26 opponents, ending 23 of his bouts early and often viciously.

The world-class fighter has, according to Coldwell, earned his elite stripes since, and then some. 

“Sometimes, back then, you’re looking at possible weaknesses but actually as a fighter develops, you see they [the weaknesses] aren’t there any longer. When you see the bombs he took off [Nonito] Donaire, to see that… to go with his power, and his boxing IQ, and his skills, he’s a tough motherfucker, too. 

“Whereas back then you don’t know that, so you look at him when you’re preparing and think, ‘Maybe we can grind him down, down the stretch. If you can control the early rounds, target the body and maybe grind him down, but obviously things are different in real life.” 

Inoue is not living a real life to the rest of us. As Coldwell says, things far from stopped for him after McDonnell, instead, he tipped the gradient up on the treadmill and started running faster. 

Inoue, now 31, won the World Boxing Super Series with a two-round annihilation of Emmanuel Rodriguez, then shared a Fight of the Decade contender with Donaire before blitzing the Filipino in a rematch. Inoue then unified at bantamweight, stepped up and beat the top dog (Stephen Fulton) at super bantam, became undisputed again (a weight up) by stopping Marlon Tapales, and now we’re here, with Nery staying at a hotel a stone’s throw from the venue, ready to kick the door down and spoil the party.

Not for Coldwell, who sees Inoue negating the southpaw puncher, doing well with his right hand to retain the titles.

It is Inoue’s mindset that particularly impresses Coldwell. Inoue is regularly seeking out tough and dangerous opposition.

“Unbelievable,” praises Coldwell once more. “Unbelievable mentality, ability, IQ, toughness, punching power, shot selection, you’ve only got to look at the attitude. He steps up in weight, doesn’t look for a marking time fight, or a fight where he’s just going to find his way into the division. He goes straight in against the best and that just shows you the level of confidence and ability the man’s got. Stepping up and fighting Stephen Fulton right away, things like that you look at it and think, ‘Wow. This guy’s unreal’.” 

Coldwell thinks Inoue might only come undone when he tries to claim one weight division too far, trying to add to his already legendary status as the fighter who is already being heralded as the finest fighter Japan has produced.

“It’s not about being greedy,” Coldwell explains. “It’s about truly trying to find out how good you are. That’s the difference. I don’t think that’s greed. That’s the absolute pinnacle of elite mentality where you’re not going to be satisfied with just being The Man in your division. Once you’ve conquered the best in your division, let’s see if we can do it again. 

“Sooner or later, you run into that guy that’s just that bit too big.” 

The very mention of the Japanese icon’s name has a similar effect on Joe Gallagher, who trained Liverpool’s Paul Butler to face Inoue at the close of 2022. Butler was derided for being too negative, but he lasted until the 11th before Inoue broke him down with bodyshots.

“Inoue, yeah,” the Manchester coach lamented, when asked to think back to the fight and the camp with Butler. 

“It’s one of them, like when we fought [Vasiliy] Lomachenko with [Anthony] Crolla, they’re the type of guys you come away from after the event and think, ‘They’re just on a different level’ and you know you’ve been in with someone right at the top of the game.”

Like Coldwell, Gallagher drew up a strategy although, by that stage in Inoue’s career, the coach was all too aware that Butler was going in with someone very special. 

“For Inoue, we’d had good sparring, we’d trained well, we’d worked on certain things and it paid off to an extent, and there were times that we got through, let our shots go and land, and they didn’t have an effect, and you think, ‘Okay, here we go now.’ 

“I thought we did a good job. Although Paul got a lot of criticism for the negativity, what were people expecting? Paul to go out and have a Hagler-Hearns three-round shootout with him? It wasn’t just a case of going out and trying to nullify him, stop him getting his shots off, frustrate him and counterpunch him, catch him on the way in. 

“Paul countered with the left hook, which worked well at times, we were always aware of Inoue’s right hand. I always felt you have to keep your feet moving with him, if you sat there like Donaire did – second time, anyway – you’re getting caught clean.”

Of course, there are plenty who didn’t appreciate or condone Butler’s tactics, of doing everything he could to keep his head attached to his shoulders, and Gallagher explained what he felt might be someone’s keys to victory against Inoue. One day. 

“I think feet and movement, you’ve got to frustrate him and then, when he’s frustrated, he gambles a little bit but you’ve got to 1) be able to carry the power and 2) hit more than once or twice, and sustain that a little bit. 

“Against Tapales, that kid had some success in parts, he stayed there and he hit the body well and he did good. But it’s [can you] keep that up, and whether you want to go into the eye of the storm and continue getting hit with those hard shots. You could see Tapales had good success, but he broke out [of working inside] first instead of staying there and making Inoue come out first of the exchanges.”

“Success in Parts” is damn near a victory if you’re paired with Inoue and, like Coldwell, Gallagher has seen Inoue grow through the years, becoming the man who, along with Terence Crawford and Oleksandr Usyk, has the best claim for the pound-for-pound throne. 

Gallagher and Butler were treated well in Japan. It was not your typical bout in the blue corner, where you are given the run around and have to deal with stressful situations to the point of distraction. Instead, Gallagher said things ran like clockwork, the details were meticulous, the promotion was slick and the audience was polite.

“I think the crowd is very good,” Gallagher recalled. “They were cheering and singing. They’re quite reserved, there’s polite applause, but when Inoue lands, there’s an awful roar. And they chant, and they shout and everything else. Every time Inoue lands, there’ll be a big roar, I’ll tell you that much.”

And on Monday night, the “Monster” is looking to roar once more and only the naïve would stand there and go toe-to-toe with him, but it appears the options are fight or flight, and either way he will catch up with you.  

“People say Paul ran all the time but the game plan was to frustrate him, try and rob some rounds,” Gallagher went on, “and then, if we were involved in a shootout, we’d be able to land some good shots and some telling shots. [But] Inoue took them, and then kept on coming, and eventually he caught up with Paul in the 11th with a bodyshot.” 

Coldwell is calling it a mid-to-late stoppage of Nery, who is a +600 second favorite, and those odds are far from slender unless you’re lifting a page out of the book of possibly the biggest underdog in all of sport, James “Buster” Douglas. 

Thirty-four years ago, at this very arena, Douglas faced down the imperious monster of the heavyweight division, “Iron” Mike Tyson, and handed him the first defeat of his career and arguably one he never fully recovered from. 

Lore has it that Douglas was a 42/1 underdog, which is said to be a myth, but one thing that is not is a myth is that several Las Vegas sportsbooks didn’t even create a line for Douglas, due to lack of interest.

No one expects Nery to win here. People are in Tokyo to witness a modern great, a destructive force, the hottest ticket in town. 

That part sounds familiar, at least, but there is a good chance that by Tuesday, when you say the name Inoue to anyone, they might have another highlight reel finish to look at and that warm hit of dopamine will touch the brain and warm the soul as another man is separated from his senses, lost in the eye of the “Monster’s” storm.