The idea that boxing’s best have already settled into the rearview mirror is disproven regularly. There’s always someone new, somewhere on the scale, who comes along to expand the history of where they stand.
27-year old bantamweight leader Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16 KO) of Japan is widely seen as one of boxing’s best talents. A two-division titlist by his eighth fight, Inoue seems to have hit his full peak at 118 lbs.
Let’s hope he sticks around.
Since moving to the class in 2018 to hand former titlist Jamie McDonnell his first knockout loss in one round, Inoue has gone 4-0 with three stoppages (all against men title level fighter who had never been stopped) and a decisive unification decision over veteran future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire in the 2019 Fight of the Year. Inoue picked up the IBF, WBA, and Ring Magazine belts, and World Boxing Super Series trophy, along the way.
This Saturday (ESPN+, 7:30 PM EST), Inoue makes his first start since the Donaire win last November to face 29-year old Jason Moloney (21-1, 18 KO) and second appearance in the States. COVID conspired against a spring unification match with WBO titlist Johnriel Casimero (30-4, 21 KO). For that fight to possibly grow wings again, Inoue will have to win here.
Moloney is a quality contender whose single loss came via split decision in his first title try against then-IBF titlist Emanuel Rodriguez. Moloney has won four in a row since, all inside the route. Inoue upended Rodriguez in two brutal rounds but triangle theories often fail in boxing. Moloney is his own unique challenge.
Moloney is also the fifth straight outright top ten bantamweight Inoue has faced. Heading into their fights with Inoue, McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano, Rodriguez, and Donaire were all rated in the top ten by both TBRB and Ring, none of them lower than sixth in either. If one accepts that as a reasonable gauge of the condition of the division, then Moloney fits the same outline.
The Australian is rated fifth by TBRB and sixth by the Ring.
There are some already pondering Inoue at Jr. featherweight or featherweight. It’s fine to do so, but there is no need to rush.
While scale jumping is eye-catching, it’s easy to observe how misleading it can be in the last thirty or so years as a measure of accomplishment. Who a fighter jumps up to add belts against matters more than how many belts they acquire. The number of fighters with titles in four or more weight classes has exploded from none prior to the late 1980s to around twenty without adding straps beyond the ‘big four’ belts or WBA sub-title silliness.
Think of some of the names who fell just short of four titles in earlier eras, men like Tony Canzoneri, Henry Armstrong, and Alexis Arguello. Have there been twenty fighters better than them in the last twenty years?
It feels safe to say...probably not.
Often today scale movement seems to come from skipping over, or finding business obstacles to making, lucrative fights that could keep talents where they are. There is also the reality that purses and pounds seem to grow together. Manny Pacquiao was helping to set revenue records at 130 lbs. That revenue was relative peanuts compared to the pots of gold when Pacquiao got to welterweight. Neither Floyd Mayweather or Oscar De La Hoya really started to hit their revenue peaks until welterweight either.
It all makes fiscal sense, but it can work against the sort of real legacy defining runs in single weight divisions that stand the test of time.
Bernard Hopkins’s run at middleweight built to where it merited the question of where he stands with Carlos Monzon or Marvin Hagler. Joe Calzaghe closed strong enough at super middleweight to at least debate the pedestal in that class with Roy Jones. Ray Leonard, in a shorter span of time, cleaned out an all-time great welterweight division with an exclamation point win over Thomas Hearns that put him squarely in the conversation with anyone not named Robinson at 147 lbs.
They etched their place in history in a way where accomplishments past their best weight class could embellish their standing. Inoue can look to a recent foe in Donaire for the opposite effect. There is a case for Donaire’s best weight also being bantamweight but he went up before he could finish his run in the class. Donaire has had a great career regardless but another prime year or two at bantamweight and the possibility of clashes with Abner Mares or Anselmo Moreno when they were there too might have elevated him even farther.
It’s what makes Inoue-Moloney, and whatever follows, intriguing. Bantamweight isn’t Inoue’s first class. It is where his prime form has exploded into full view. He has a chance to have the sort of run bantamweight hasn’t seen in a long time. If he runs his record at bantamweight to 5-0, all of them legitimate top ten contenders, the run has much room to grow. With fellow Top Rank stablemate Emanuel Navarrete moving on from 122 to 126 lbs., there isn’t anything particularly rich yet at Jr. featherweight.
That will surely change. Jr. featherweight is loaded with fresh talent right now and a major fight is likely to emerge.
It’s not here yet.
At bantamweight, there are still two major titles he can pick up. Aside from Casimero, a win by WBC titlist Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12 KO) over Donaire in December would make him a must before Inoue could say he’d cleaned out the class. There is also veteran Guillermo Rigondeaux.* While past his best, the Cuban is still a cagey and difficult out.
*Bonus points for Rigondeaux also technically being the lineal champion at Jr. featherweight. His Twitter account reminded everyone just this week and he never lost it in the ring so if he says so good enough here.*
And of course, there is likely still to be one of the big names from three pounds south. Regardless of how much is left physically after a potential Juan Francisco Estrada-Roman Gonzalez rematch, it’s impossible to ignore the potential windfall that would be there for either to go up to face Inoue.
If Inoue keeps picking off the top ten at bantamweight and adds the lineal king at Jr. bantamweight too, that’s basically a clean out of bantamweight on ‘back when there were eight weight classes’ terms.
Barring an inability to make weight anymore safely, Inoue can carve a place now on an expanded global stage and he can do it while making the most of his prime where his body belongs. Inoue chasing the historical standing of an Eder Jofre, Ruben Olivares, Carlos Zarate, Panama Al Brown or any other bantamweight immortal is still quite far away. That Japan’s greatest pugilist, Fighting Harada, was also likely at his best at bantamweight makes it fun too.
There are enough good fights, enough chances to add volume to the run, to make being in those kinds of conversations at bantamweight possible.
In the end, that’s the best almost anyone can achieve in any era: do enough to be a substantive part of the conversation with the best of what came before them. Inoue has laid a foundation at bantamweight. Heading into this weekend, the sky is still the limit and the run is still there to be had.
Inoue just has to stay awhile.
The scale will be there when he’s done.
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org