Fighter’s primes are a tricky thing.
They feel longer these days, largely because everything takes longer these days. In an era where someone getting in the ring three times in a year is celebrated, how can it not? Fighters do age less violently with less fights and more recovery. Even if fighters don’t actually stay young longer, they age together. It extends today’s and holds tomorrow’s in the wings.
At 29, bantamweight leader Naoya Inoue (22-0, 19 KO) would traditionally be toward the end of his prime around his weights. Inoue is not weather beaten at 29. Universally seen as one of the most talented boxers in the world, we can assume he is still very much in the heart of his prime right now and it’s unclear when the exit point will begin.
It doesn’t mean something can’t be lost.
Inoue was in his prime already when he defeated veteran four-division titlist and former lineal Jr. featherweight champion Nonito Donaire in the 2019 Fight of the Year. Inoue unified his IBF belt with Doanire’s WBA, and winning a World Boxing Super Series tournament. With three fights in the nearly three years since that win, two against decidedly lesser fare, it’s hard to see that as anything other than lost prime.
It wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Inoue was scheduled to face then-WBO titlist Johnriel Casimero for additional unification. While it would have been Inoue’s second appearance in the States, it was in manys ways supposed to be his real launching pad. COVID wreaked havoc on many careers.
Inoue’s was one of the most impacted. Instead of a path that seemed aimed at total unification of the division, Inoue instead returned late in 2020 to stop solid, serious contender Jason Moloney. It was at least a quality outing, red meat in a lone appearance that year.
2021 was anything but. Inoue faced two forgettable and uncredentialed opponents, one a mandatory for whatever that’s worth, in fights he couldn’t lose and couldn’t really capitalize on. It was a stark departure from the run Inoue had been on at bantamweight.
In his first five fights in the division, Inoue faced nothing but fighters ranked in the top ten by TBRB and Ring. Most were ranked in the top five by one or both. It was one of the longest such runs in the sport. 2021 started a new streak with two unranked opponents.
That streak ends next and takes the circle right back to where it was before COVID.
For Inoue, it’s a chance at a reboot.
Inoue will step in next Tuesday (ESPN+, 5:30 AM EST) for a rematch with a now 39-year old Donaire (42-6, 28 KO). Donaire has looked excellent since the loss to Inoue. Donaire was out of the ring for 2020 before a big 2021 that saw him decimate undefeated two-time Olympian Nordine Oubaali for the WBC belt and then add a knockout defense of Reymart Gaballo.
Ring already recognizes Inoue as rightful champion. TBRB will recognize the winner of next Tuesday’s affair. There is little argument against Inoue and Donaire as the two best bantamweights in the game right now. They were in 2019 too, though various rankings didn’t reflect that yet as Donaire’s return to the division was still an unfolding tale.
This won’t be an easy fight for either man and, though an underdog, Donaire remains dangerous. He broke Inoue’s nose and orbital bone last time and subtle changes to the shape of Inoue’s face are visible evidence of the battle. Donaire is fighting with an ease he often lacked in his prime, like a fighter enjoying his twilight and all the knowledge the years his Hall of Fame career provide.
Inoue isn’t Oubaali or Gaballo. Despite his suffering, Inoue still managed to win eight or nine rounds the first time. An eleventh round body shot might have drawn a full count with the referee better positioned. Only one man, featherweight Nicholas Walters, has stopped Donaire. If Inoue can pull it off in the rematch, it would be a feather in his cap.
Would it be the end of his run at bantamweight?
If Inoue wins, he could always face current WBO titlist Paul Butler (34-2, 15 KO), though this would be a case where unification isn’t always to be lauded. Sure, anything can happen, but anything isn’t likely to be Butler having a whisper of a chance against Inoue. Butler is a beltholder by circumstance after Casimero lost his belt outside the ring.
Inoue could also find bigger money in a fight with one of the big names from Jr. bantamweight. A clash with Roman Gonzalez in particular, still arguably boxing’s biggest star below lightweight, would sell on both sides of the Pacific. Inoue never saw any of the foursome that made the last near-decade at Jr. bantamweight a golden era for their class. It would at least fill some of that gap.
The real journey for Inoue is likely to be north sooner than later. A win over Donaire would get people talking again in a way they haven’t since at least the Moloney fight and that talk will be about what he can do at Jr. featherweight.
Jr. featherweight is young, hot, and loaded. Inoue’s affiliation with Top Rank could limit some options with PBC behind the bulk of the best at 122 lbs. 27-year old unified titlist Murodjon Akhmadaliev (10-0, 7 KO) is an exception. Akhmadaliev holds the belts in class Stephen Fulton does not and would be a logical place to start for what could be a title in Inoue’s fourth weight class.
A win there would begin demand for a fight with the winner of this weekend’s Fulton-Daniel Roman fight in earnest.
A reboot is a start point. The next step is regaining career momentum against high quality foes.If he beats Donaire, what comes next will set the stage for the battles that will define how Inoue is remembered.
Inoue might already be Japan’s finest fighter since the great Fighting Harada. Entering 2020, it looked like he was on track to challenge Harada for that top spot. He’s been one of the best fighters in the world since 2014, a year when he won his first belts at 108 and 115 and earned the nod from this website as Fighter of the Year.
Given his speed, reflexes, talent, and crippling power, Inoue still has the potential to be more than any of what he's achieved so far. Inoue-Donaire II reboots Inoue’s opportunity to make his case as the best fighter of his era.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.