By Jake Donovan
Two years ago on this very weekend, Naoya Inoue not only became a late entry in the Fighter of the Year race, but was granted such honors on these very pages.
This time around, the 23-year old phenom delivered an 11th hour submission for Knockout of the Year, icing former 115 lb. titlist Kohei Kono in the 6th round of their super flyweight title fight Friday evening at Ariake Colisseum in Tokyo, Japan.
Concern had developed of whether or not Inoue could return to form after having sat out for nearly all of 2015 due to injuries and subsequent surgery to his right hand. The same potent weapon that saw him violently annex titles at junior flyweight and super flyweight in a span of just eight months became compromised to the point of looking like just another dominant titlist in recent affairs.
The two-division champ was given the benefit of the doubt in a rust-shaking 2nd round stoppage of Warlito Parrenas exactly one year and one day ago. Having been extended 12 rounds in a lackluster win over David Carmona this past May, however, set off alarms that perhaps there was more work to be done at 115 lbs. before his name was once again mentioned alongside pound-for-pound king Roman 'Chocolatito' Gonzalez.
A once-passionate movement for such a showdown has once again made its way back to the proverbial water coolers thanks to his latest run. Less than four months after toying with Petchbarngborn Kokietgym in a 10th round stoppage win this past September, Inoue had his way with a credible foe in Kono, whom even in nine previous defeats has shown to never be anyone's easy night's work.
That changed in a hurry, in fact even in the moments before the opening bell. The former titlist bore a look of concern as he entered the ring, his demeanor absent of the same confident swagger that brought him two title reigns and a career-best 12-round win over Koki Kameda in their Fight of the Year-level slugfest last October in the United States.
He managed one more successful defense earlier this year - three in total for his second reign - before conceding his crown to Luis Concepcion this past August. The hope was that he'd somehow bounce back against one of the absolute very best in the industry as 2016 came to a close.
Instead, he was forced to endure the first stoppage loss of his career. It was one that could have come at any moment, as Inoue seemingly toyed with his countryman in the early going as if to simply put rounds in the bank. Kono danced as hard as he could, but was miserably outgunned and outclassed in his failed bid for a third title reign.
Still, he didn't come just for the pre-New Year's Eve party. Kono continued to deliver an honest effort, at times catching the attention of the unbeaten super flyweight king but never to the point of turning the tide.
Having banked five rounds with little trouble, Inoue emphatically closed the show in round six. A highlight reel left hook shot that truly defined his "Monster" nickname sent Kono tumbling to the canvas. Referee Robert Byrd could have easily ended the night on the spot, thus allowing that moment to serve as Inoue's snapshot for the 2016 Knockout of the Year race.
Somehow, Kono peeled himself off of the canvas and steadied himself just enough to convince the veteran - and perhaps past-prime - ring official to allow the bout to continue. As Kono stared off into space while searching for corner support, the writing was on the wall that itt merely prolonged the inevitable. Inoue once again put him down - and this time out - this time with a pair of right hands to end the night and 2016 in brilliant fashion.
The official time was 1:01 of round six.
Kono falls to 32-10-1 (13KOs), suffering the first stoppage loss of his 16-year career.
As for Inoue, his 2016 campaign ends a hell of a lot stronger than it began.
He will likely re-emerge among pound-for-pounds lists given the manner in which he dominated a top-level opponent such as Kono. The feat marked the fourth defense of the 115 lb. crown he snatched in a sensational 2nd round knockout of Omar Narvaez.
That win, coupled with his one-sided 108 lb. title-winning stoppage of Adrian Hernandez earlier in the year, helped him sew up 2014 BoxingScene.com Fighter of the Year honors. As he improves to 12-0 (10KOs), he can once again enter a new year with the same vision he's carried for each of the past two - with hopes of a dream showdown versus Gonzalez.
It's a matchup that was even once fancied by American cable giant HBO, which has played host to each of the past four starts by Gonzalez, including his Fight of the Year-level 12-round win over Carlos Cuadras in September to become a four-division world champion.
As both Inoue and Gonzalez serve as undefeated titlists in the same weight class, such a pairing becomes a must-happen event in 2017. The dream matchup is one that is exceeded only by an already overdue arrangement for middleweights Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin to collide.
For now, Inoue can head into 2017 knowing that he's once again the talk of the town at the end of a calendar year.
The bout aired live on Fuji TV in Japan, paired with Akira Yaegashi's 12th round stoppage of Thailand's Samartiek Kokietgym.