By Cliff Rold
For fans of the international boxing, getting up at odd hours to watch a fight is nothing new. This Sunday, it’s something to get a little more excited about.
Subscribers to the DAZN app will be treated to three significant matches live from Japan (7 AM EST). WBC 108 lb. titlist Ken Shiro (13-0, 7 KO) will defend against former IBF titlist Milan Melindo (37-3, 13 KO). It is Melindo’s first fight since losing a unification battle with then-WBA titlist Ryoichi Taguchi last December.
In the co-main, the World Boxing Super Series at 140 lbs. kicks off. WBA titlist Kiryl Relikh (22-2, 19 KO), that tournament’s third seed, makes his first defense after a decision win for the vacant title over Rances Barthelemy. Relikh will face unseeded former IBF titlist Edouard Troyanovsky (27-1, 24 KO). Troyanovsky has won two straight since a shocking first round loss to Julius Indongo in 2016.
Those are both solid fights and would make for a good show alone. There is a little more electricity surrounding another name on the card.
Japan’s 25-year old Naoya Inoue (16-0, 14 KO) has had a cult following almost since the time he turned professional in 2012. A rare combination of speed, skill, and concussive power, his results only flamed the following.
Some guys just jump out as something different, something potentially special.
In only his fourth start, he won a ten-round decision over Taguchi, already a twenty-fight veteran. Two fights later, he knocked out Adrian Hernandez, rated #1 going into the fight by TBRB, to win the WBC 108 lb. belt. Two fights after that, he jumped two weight divisions and knocked out TBRB #1 rated Omar Narvaez in the second round for the WBO crown. Hernandez had been stopped only once prior; it was a first, and to date only, early exit for Narvaez.
It was enough for BoxingScene to name Inoue its Fighter of the Year for 2014. Since then, Inoue has won eight more times, seven times by knockout, and yet it’s felt like the momentum of his breakout year stalled. Injuries played a part but the real issue has been the failure to engage in the sort of fights that provide Inoue a chance to truly stamp his place among boxing’s upper echelon.
The big opportunities didn’t come at 115 lbs. While he made a successful US debut on the first SuperFly card, he was there in a showcase role, sandwiched between Juan Francisco Estrada-Carlos Cuadras and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai-Roman Gonzalez II. Fate didn’t take him into that mix afterwards.
Earlier this year, Inoue moved to bantamweight (118 lbs.) and handed Jamie McDonnell his first knockout loss, obliterating him in one round before being announced as an entrant in the second round of the WBSS. While seeded number two, there are plenty who see Inoue as the favorite to win the tournament.
Can Inoue run the table?
The field around him is what Inoue followers have been waiting to see since the Narvaez fight. For all his talent, we’ve yet to see Inoue conquer a division. The field represents a collection of every current titlist in the division (the WBC belt is vacant), a couple former champions, and two somewhat unknown commodities.
Inoue starts his assault on the tournament with one of the former champions. 34-year old Juan Carlos Payano (20-1, 9 KO) has won three straight since losing his WBA belt to Rau’Shee Warren in 2016. Payano won his belt in 2014 with a cut-shortened decision over the division’s then-longest reigning champion in Anselmo Moreno.
The Dominican is a physically strong, awkward fighter who has never been stopped. Inoue can’t do anything in the tournament until he gets the first one out of the way and Payano is likely to bring everything he’s got. At his age, and with so many titles wrapped up for the next year and more, this fight is as critical for him as it is for Inoue.
The field won’t get easier from there. If Inoue wins this weekend, he’ll face the winner of the October 20thbattle between 26-year old IBF titlist Emanuel Rodriguez (18-0, 12 KO) of Puerto Rico and 27-year old Jason Moloney (17-0, 14 KO) of Australia. Moloney enters off a stoppage of former 115 lb. titlist Kohei Kono, a former Inoue victim, and is one of the somewhat unknown commodities but then again Rodriguez might be too. Rodriguez won the vacant belt against former titlist Paul Butler and showed class in doing it but his credentials are developing.
If Inoue gets by Payano, the winner of Rodriguez-Moloney would likely be his best opponent on paper since Narvaez. He would have the chance to capture a fully regarded title in his third weight class before he even arrived at the finals. Inoue currently holds a WBA belt in the class but it’s their lesser title and not the one currently owned by Ryan Burnett.
Northern Ireland’s Burnett (19-0, 9 KO), 26, was recently the unified WBA/IBF titlist and is the number one seed in the field. He’s on the other side of the bracket and the only way he and Inoue will face off is if they both make the final. Burnett will have to handle 35-year old four-division former champion Nonito Donaire (38-4, 24 KO) of the United States in his opener on November 3rd. The winner of Burnett-Donaire will then face the winner of the battle between 30-year old WBO titlist Zolani Tete (27-3, 21 KO) of South Africa and 30-year old Mikhail Aloyan (4-0) of Russia on October 13th.
This isn’t going to be an easy road for anyone. The combined record of the field is 159-9. Three of the top four seeds (Burnett, Inoue, and Rodriguez) are undefeated while Tete has won eleven in a row dating to 2012. None are older than 30.
For Inoue though, the chances might be bigger than for anyone else. Already a staple in many pound-for-pound listings, Inoue can go from looking like a special talent here to fully proving that what many thought they were seeing arrive in 2014 is finally, fully here.
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]