By Cliff Rold
There’s no arguing the talent of Japan’s 26-year old bantamweight Naoya Inoue (17-0, 15 KO).
The talent has been evident almost since he turned professional. At just 8-0, he was named the 2014 BoxingScene Fighter of the Year for winning a title at 108 lbs. and then jumping two classes within two fights to knock off the longest reigning titlist at 115 lbs., Omar Narvaez.
Those accomplishments didn’t happen by accident. Inoue, nicknamed “Monster,” is a rare blend of speed and power. Fans who have seen him in person understand; Inoue has the sort of punches that just sound different. Longtime observers of the Japanese boxing landscape have been whispering about whether this might be the nation’s greatest fighter since Fighting Harada for a few years already.
This Saturday (DAZN, 2 PM EST), Inoue will attempt to win a title in his third weight class (the WBA sub-title at bantamweight shouldn’t count) and advance to the finals of the World Boxing Super Series when he faces 26-year old IBF beltholder Emmanuel Rodriguez (19-0, 12 KO) of Puerto Rico. The victor will move on to face resurgent WBA champion Nonito Donaire (40-5, 26 KO) in the finals.
As far as stakes go, that’s plenty.
For Inoue, there is a little bit more.
Inoue is one of those talents who is seen in growing quarters as a contender for the mythical honor of being the pound-for-pound king of all boxing. How much stock one puts into that distinction varies but it is enough to see the debates as pointing at the fighters who, in their time, have achieved or show signs of achieving lasting greatness.
Inoue isn’t there yet. He’s a great talent but there a few things remaining to determine how far that talent will take him in getting to capital “G” greatness. As he enters what is likely to be the heart of his prime, Inoue-Rodriguez could ultimately come to be seen as the most important fight in that verdict.
Rodriguez is where we start to find out what happens when Inoue is faced with other young, prime warriors at the title level who have the size, style, and hunger to push him.
That takes nothing from what Inoue has done so far. When he defeated Adrian Hernandez for the WBC belt at 108 lbs., Hernandez was 29-2-1 and rated #1 in the division by TBRB and #4 by Ring. It was a high quality win for a seven-fight veteran but Inoue was naturally larger even at the same scale weight and Hernandez had already been stopped twice.
Omar Narvaez was 43-2-1, rated #1 by TBRB and Ring, and had never lost at flyweight or Jr. bantamweight, suffering his lone defeat in lasting the distance with Donaire at bantamweight. Inoue sparked him in two rounds.
Narvaez was also, obviously, a highly impressive win.
But it was an impressive win against a 39-year old veteran. Knockout wins since of former champions Kohei Kono and consecutive first round blowouts in 2018 of Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payano were surely high quality. They were objectively impressive outings against men who didn’t get nuked easy.
They were also all objectively opponents who may have been a little past their best with some accumulated miles on their odometers. Most top talents catch the imagination of fans by ascending through their predecessors. The next test, the place where the real verdict is rendered, is finding those prime rivals who can force Inoue to draw on all the lessons those veteran interactions passed to him to solve newer, fresher riddles.
Rodriguez looks like a potential test but, to be sure, he’s the bigger question mark this weekend. He impressed in winning a vacant title against Paul Butler last year but his resume is less developed than Inoue’s to date. He may not prove able to play foil to Inoue but he’s the first time in Inoue’s career where it looked possible.
If it’s not him, Inoue will have no shortage of foes at bantamweight for the foreseeable future. Donaire will be the first of them and two more relate directly to the “Filipino Flash.” Donaire advanced to the finals in part because his first-round WBSS foe Ryan Burnett suffered a freak back injury in a fight that was running close to even through four rounds. WBO titlist Zolani Tete was forced to withdraw from the field with an injury just a week before the semi-finals.
Both Burnett and Tete will still be there, as will former lineal and WBC bantamweight titlist Luis Nery and current WBC bantamweight beltholder Nordine Oubaali. Tete and Oubaali are both in their early thirties while Burnett, who briefly unified the WBA and IBF belts in 217, is just 26 and Nery still only 24.
That’s before even considering another possible jump to Jr. featherweight.
Network and promotional affiliations could create their obstacles along the way but the depth is there for everyone, starting this weekend, to find out just how reliable the eyes impressed by Inoue have been.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]