TWO days before KSI and Logan Paul hijacked a boxing ring in Los Angeles and highlighted how difficult the sport is to master, Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire delivered a bedazzling exhibition of boxing at its finest inside the Super Arena in Japan.
For the umpteenth time, the Sauerland-promoted World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) showed exactly why their matchmaking philosophy (matching the best versus the best makes the best fights) should be adopted by every single major promoter. The 26-year-old Inoue and the comparatively ancient Donaire, 36, were thrown together in a battle of the ages by the tournament that whittles eight of the division’s best down to two.
Coming less than a fortnight after fans were treated to the Josh Taylor-Regis Prograis thrill-fest that was the WBSS lightweight final, Inoue and Donaire concocted something even better. By virtue of the blood and guts they shared, the rivals became partners who will forever be associated with each other: Inoue and Donaire now rolls off the tongue like bangers and mash, with the sportsmanship the pair displayed providing the gravy.
After 12 rounds of thunderous action, Inoue added the WBA bantamweight title to his IBF championship when he won a unanimous decision via scores of 114-113 (Robert Hoyle), 116-111 (Luigi Boscarelli) and a misleading 117-109 (Octavio Rodriguez). The Japanese virtuoso also claimed the increasingly picturesque Muhammad Ali trophy but not before he allowed Donaire to take the award back to his hotel so the veteran could keep a promise to his sons.
“With tears in my eyes, I humbly asked Inoue to borrow it for a night, not for me but for my word,” Donaire explained. “It’ll be a life lesson my boys will learn. That you do your best and you [can still] come short. You will win. You will lose. But in either aspect you will do so gracefully.”
This was one of those fights where the loser’s efforts certainly deserved more than just a pat on the back. In many ways they were just as impressive as the victor’s. Especially when one remembers that Donaire – widely regarded as the nicest man in boxing following Anthony Crolla’s retirement – was considering his future as recently as last year when he lost to Carl Frampton at featherweight.
Indeed, when he announced his plan to strip weight and drop to bantamweight, few observers felt it was a wise move. Boxing News even advised three-weight world titlist Donaire against shifting so many pounds this late in his career.
But his return to the 118lb class and entry into this tournament (which Donaire credits to Richard Schaeffer), saw the Las Vegas-based Filipino orchestrate something of a rebirth. Few expected it would grow into a performance quite like this.
Wins over Ryan Burnett (forced out with an injury) and Stephon Young en route to the final underlined that Donaire was far from finished, but his performance against one of the most fearsome fighters in world boxing was on another level entirely.
The “Monster” set about the veteran late in the opening round and scored with two bristling left hooks. Many had predicted an early victory for Inoue but Donaire, who had withstood featherweights’ bombs in the not so distant past, did not look like being overawed. Savvy with his jab and successful on the counter, Nonito’s ability to slow down time and consider his options is a trait only the wisest can boast.
He rallied heartily in the second, showing his class with his lead hand and trailing combinations. Inoue fired back – that left hand again on target – before the favourite suddenly found himself nursing a nasty cut at the end of the session. The yawning wound oozed throughout the bout and would later be stitched under the glare of a torch from a camera phone in the changing rooms.
A left hook from the “Filipino Flash” had done the damage and, in rounds three and four, the old maestro, using his obvious size advantage, threatened to take over. Inferior fighters to Inoue might have unravelled. We’ve seen it many times in the past (think Kelly Pavlik being bewitched by Bernard Hopkins or Davey Moore being outclassed by Roberto Duran) when the heavily hyped are exposed by cunning. But Inoue, despite the cut and the traps Donaire was setting, refused to yield.
They traded punches through the middle rounds. Inoue’s seemed to carry the greater threat. On his toes but always ready to plant his feet, the sheer speed of Inoue’s right hand was a sight to behold. Inoue’s work was a delight to watch, too. He was timing Donaire’s jab and countering sharply with his right. In response, Nonito slipped both inside and outside of the punches being fired at him, draining the effectiveness from his rival. But in the end, if Donaire’s experience made the fight such a classy spectacle, it was Inoue’s youth that won it.
Yet another booming left hook hurt Donaire in the ninth but, in keeping with the theme of the fight, the underdog summoned his reserves and volleyed back, a right hand in particular rocked Inoue to his boots.
Inoue would later explain the extent of his injuries. His right eyelid was not only cut, the bones around it were fractured. His nose was broken. “The [Donaire] left hook was really intense,” he said.
But he somehow found the energy to attack in the 11th. He ploughed a frightful left into Donaire’s stomach. The underdog felt it immediately and as the agony swelled, he sought escape first by jogging away from Inoue and then by taking a knee. He pluckily got to his feet after listening to the count from referee Ernie Sharif.
Some complained that Donaire was the beneficiary of a long count. Whatever. It seemed a shame to grumble. Particularly when imagining the heroic effort required to rise. Inoue moved in to finish the job only to be caught by a thudding left hook on the inside.
Donaire had some success at the start of the 12th, too. But Inoue regained control, his right and left hands taking turns to attack. Donaire survived the final storm and, in doing so, enhanced his own reputation considerably.
“I had double vision since the second round,” Inoue said, “but I was victorious and I am very proud of myself.
“I believe that I have a bright future. Nonito Donaire was very, very strong. I think Donaire is a true champion.”
While Donaire’s place in history was confirmed in defeat, Inoue’s own position soars. Considering he’s only 26, and with world belts in four divisions already, there is a possibility – if he doesn’t burn out – he will be remembered among the best of them all.
“Naoya Inoue is a generational talent, the sort of fighter who comes around once a decade,” said Bob Arum.
The ageless promoter, who Inoue is now signed with, is not shy about making grandiose statements about his fighters. But with Inoue – like with Manny Pacquiao before – one senses that Arum is on to something.
“You are looking at an all-time great who is entering the prime of what will be a historic career.”