Naoya Inoue always sensed he was in the presence of greatness heading into his fight with Nonito Donaire.

What wasn’t realized at the time was the thought of Donaire once again landing in his sights as part of a quest to become undisputed bantamweight champion.

The ageless Donaire (38, actually) returned to the championship circle following a 4th round knockout of unbeaten Nordine Oubaali. Their WBC bantamweight title winning feat topped the May 29 edition of Showtime Championship Boxing, just three weeks prior to Inoue’s ring return as he defends his unified WBA/IBF titles versus Philippines’ Michael Dasmarinas (30-2-1, 20KOs) this Saturday, live on ESPN from The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

Donaire hadn’t previously fought since his spirited 12-round decision defeat to Japan’s Inoue (20-0, 17KOs) in their World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament final in November 2019.

“I have to give Nonito Donaire credit, his ability to avoid declining and continue to excel at this stage of his career is very impressive,” Inoue told “He had a great performance and it was great to see him fight like that against another world champion. It shows all of the hard work he continues to put in so that he can remain at this level.”

Inoue, 28, has fought just once since their title unification clash, having defended his belts in a one-sided 7th round stoppage of perennial Top 10 contender Jason Moloney last Halloween at MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. Donaire was training for what he thought would be a December showdown with Oubaali, only for both boxers to test positive for COVID-19 in further postponing their title fight.

The wait didn’t discourage Donaire—already a four-division titlist and sure-fire Hall of Famer—from offering a throwback performance in becoming a three-time bantamweight titlist. It comes at a time when Inoue is intent on becoming undisputed champion. By his own admission, the opponents he expected to face are Philippines’ John Riel Casimero (30-4, 21KOs) and Oubaali, who owns a points win over Inoue’s younger brother Takuma.

A rematch with Donaire on the road to divisional supremacy wasn’t something he imagined at the time—or in the aftermath—of their memorable fight.  

“Not at all,” Inoue admits with a laugh. “But he is back to being champion once again thanks to hard work.”

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox