Naoya Inoue has paved the way to usher in a new era of top bantamweights as he sets his sights on becoming a four-division champion.
The unbeaten pound-for-pound entrant confirmed that he is prepared to relinquish his undisputed bantamweight championship. News of the development came during a press conference held Friday in his hometown of Yokohama, Japan, where he formally revealed his intentions of next conquering the 122-pound division.
"I would like to inform you that I will return the belts of the four [sanctioning bodies]," Inoue revealed to the assembled media at a Yokohama hotel conference room. “Each belt is a memorable one for me.
“In 2023, I would like to move up one weight class and challenge the super bantamweight division. It's the perfect match, but there's nothing left to do in this bantamweight division, and there's no opponent I want to fight.”
The news comes exactly one month after Inoue made history as the first Japanese—and Asian—boxer to become undisputed champion in the multi-belt era. The feat was accomplished with his eleventh-round knockout of England’s Paul Butler, adding the WBO belt to his collection of lineal, WBC, WBA and IBF titles on December 13 in Tokyo.
Inoue revealed even after his repeat win over Nonito Donaire last June 9 to unify three titles that he would only stay at bantamweight long enough to collect the last belt. Making history for Japan was his only motivation in remaining at 118 pounds, with the plan always to move up in weight—a move he was prepared to make had the Butler fight failed to materialize.
Friday’s announcement formally ends a title reign extending back to his May 2019 two-round annihilation of then-unbeaten IBF champion Emmanuel Rodriguez.
From there, Inoue upgraded his WBA ‘Regular’ title with a twelve-round decision win over WBA ‘Super’ champion Nonito Donaire in their November 2019 unification bout and World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament final in Saitama, Japan. Inoue was far more emphatic in his rematch with Donaire, who brought the WBC title to their June 9 clash in Saitama only to suffer a second-round knockout to the Japanese superstar.
Following the win over Butler, it was a matter of time before Inoue would eventually relinquish all of the titles and set his sights on becoming a four-division champion.
“I have decided to compete in the super bantamweight division and challenge fighters who are bigger than me,” noted Inoue. “From here on out, it’s a real thing. I’m really excited about it—I think it could be the final chapter.”
Such a move could lead to an eventual showdown with Stephen Fulton (21-0, 8KOs), the reigning WBC/WBO 122-pound king and fellow pound-for-pound who does not have a fight scheduled and is free from mandatory obligation. The 28-year-old Philadelphia native soundly outclassed Daniel Roman, a former IBF/WBA champ who entered their June 4 clash as a double mandatory. Fulton won a landslide decision to defend his titles, his first fight after edging Brandon Figueroa to unify their belts in their terrific November 2021 clash in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, it’s the dawning of a new day for a bantamweight division with several fights previously left in limbo.
The WBC previously ordered a fight between Donaire (42-7, 18KOs) and its number-one ranked contender, two-time title challenger Jason Moloney (25-2, 19KOs). The bout was approved for at least an interim title to be at stake, with the likelihood of it coming with a vacant title by the time it would make its way to the schedule. Talks have remained at a standstill, with the two promoters—Bob Arum (Top Rank) for Moloney and Richard Schaefer (Probellum) for Donaire—long at odds with one another and with Top Rank no longer willing to do business with Probellum. Arum’s long-running feud with Schaefer dates back more than a decade during the heart of Schaefer’s stint as head of Golden Boy Promotions.
Arum upped the ante last spring, alleging that Probellum is affiliated with Daniel Kinahan, co-founder of the now-defunct MTK Global and accused Irish crimelord who was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury last April. Schaefer and other Probellum staff have vehemently denied any ties to Kinahan.
Nevertheless, it’s clearly a problem for the WBC to resolve. With its bantamweight title now up for grabs, the easiest resolution would be to send the bout to a purse bid hearing.
The greatest benefactor of Inoue’s announcement could come within his own family. Younger brother Takuma Inoue (17-1, 4KOs) is the highest ranked contender in the WBA bantamweight rankings, with Melvin Lopez (29-1, 19KOs)—a Nicaraguan knockout artist based out of Miami—ranked number-three.
Currently on hold in the IBF is the final leg of a four-man tournament, as the Philippines’ Vincent Astrolabio (18-3, 13KOs) and former champ Rodriguez (21-2, 13KOs) now hope to vie for the vacant title. Both won separate semi-final eliminators and were prepared to fight for the interim title but will now likely meet for the real thing.
Who gets to compete for the WBO title could depend on how things shake out with the WBC. Four of the top five contenders—Moloney, Rodriguez, Astrolabio and Lopez—could be removed from the mix should the pursue their aforementioned options. That would leave Butler to challenge for his old title versus number-four-ranked Reymart Gaballo, barring a massive ratings shakeup prior to the next ordered title fight.
Meanwhile, Inoue is now focused on bigger opposition—literally.
“The challenge of fighting at super bantamweight is not just a problem for me—everyone’s support really helps me,” stated Inoue. “Please continue to support us in 2023.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox