Naoya Inoue should proceed with caution if his plan is to move to featherweight, according to Paulie Malignaggi and Teddy Atlas.

Inoue, 31, is widely recognized alongside Oleksandr Usyk and Terence Crawford as one of the world’s three finest fighters, and he enhanced his reputation in May when he recovered from a knockdown to stop Luis Nery and defend the undisputed junior featherweight title.

His co-promoter Bob Arum recently revealed he plans to again move up in weight – the prospect of him competing at 126 pounds comes after he won his first title at 108 pounds – but having been knocked down at 122 pounds and seen other fighters, the great Vasiliy Lomachenko among them, undermined by too significant a natural size disadvantage, two of Inoue’s highest-profile admirers don’t want him to rush into taking the same risk. 

Mexico’s Rafael Espinoza, 30, represents one potential future opponent if he defends his WBO featherweight title against Sergio Chirino Sanchez on Friday, and speaking on ProBox TV’s "Deep Waters," Atlas said of the knockdown inflicted by Nery: “It might be a little warning sign. ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t just take for granted, as great as you are, as great as you’ve been, that you move up without thinking about the weight class that’s coming next.’

“Having said all that, if they want to get a title for him, right away – what I’m about to say shouldn’t be controversial; it’s the truth – his promoter’s 92 years old. You think he’s going to have a lot of patience, wanting to wait? I’m not saying he’s gonna throw him to the lions. There is no throwing Inoue to the lions – he’s that good. But he’s going to say, ‘Hey, I’d like to see him fighting sooner than later for a featherweight title.’

“He promotes the guy that has a featherweight title, Espinoza, and I can see that fight being made sooner than later – not waiting on that – for one reason. You can hit Espinoza. Yeah, he’s terrific. Yeah, he made a Rocky-esque [performance to win] his title [against Robeisy Ramirez]. It was unbelievable; comes off the floor in the fifth round, then in the 12th round he almost stops Ramirez. Incredible. But you can hit him, and anyone Inoue can hit, he does carry his power. Anyone he can hit he can beat, and he can win a title.

“Lomachenko’s one of the greatest fighters of all time. He doesn’t always get enough credit. [Gervonta] ‘Tank’ Davis is tremendous. Right now, just talking about Lomachenko, who’s been around longer; two-time gold medalist from the Olympics; moved up three weight classes. Everyone comes to a point. There’s two things that get the really good fighters. One of them’s Father Time. Nobody’s beating him. The other one is how many weight classes you go up. At some point, you hit your max, unless you’re that kind of special skeleton, where you can put on the weight; you can go up, and you’re special in ways you carry your power; you carry your speed, like [Manny] Pacquiao did. That was very rare.”

Malignaggi won world titles at junior welterweight and welterweight, and he added: “I think we’ve got to stop with the constant push of moving up in weight classes. This is one of the biggest reasons PEDs are so rampant in boxing. A guy makes it to 122, right away you’re talking about what he might do in the next weight class, so eventually guys just can’t keep up with the expectation, unless they’re doing PEDs. 

“When you see Inoue getting dropped at 122, despite the domination he’s still showing, you’re starting to realize, ‘Maybe there’s a ceiling here.' He’s starting to feel the punches a little bit too much; a guy dropped him that had no business stopping him, even though he got up and dominated him. What are we going to see from Inoue at 126? Eventually we’re going to see Inoue at 126. I just wouldn’t say that it’s going to be as quick moving up the ladder as he went from say 118 to 122, which he did quickly. I think there’s gonna be a little bit of a slower pace, moving up in weight, little by little.