Boxing writer John MacDonald takes a look at the professional career of one of the sport's true all-time greats, Naoya Inoue.
During the course of 24 fights, only three opponents have heard the final bell.
That statistic alone is impressive, but what makes it truly remarkable is that 18 of those bouts have been for world titles.
During the infancy of Naoya Inoue's career, it was clear that he was different.
He turned professional at 19 and in just his fourth fight took on, world ranked, Ryoichi Taguchi for the Japanese light-flyweight title. Taguchi would later go on to capture the IBF and WBA world titles, but on the night, he was no match for the prodigy, as Inoue won a wide unanimous decision.
Eight-months later, Inoue was a world champion, in his sixth fight. Days before his 21 birthday, ‘Monster’ halted Adrian Hernandez in sixth round to win the WBC light-flyweight.
At the time, Hernandez was considered one of the best fighters in the 105lbs division. Despite a gulf in experience, Inoue was simply too good. No Japanese fighter has won a world title in fewer bouts.
A successful defence against Wittawas Basapean followed, but Inoue quickly outgrew the division. Rather than moving to flyweight, he opted to jump two weight classes to take on Omar Narvaez. The WBO super-flyweight champion may have been 39-years-old, but he still had a strong claim to being number one at 115lbs.
Narvaez was a crafty southpaw with an extensive amateur pedigree, who had made 11 successful defences of his title, having previously held the WBO strap at flyweight. Facing the Argentinian was a risk, but one which Inoue was believed he could handle. His confidence was well-founded, as he stopped the veteran in the second round.
In 2017, it appeared that the Japanese was on the verge of securing super fights against Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez, as he shared a card with the aforementioned pair, forcing Antonio Nieves to retire on his stool at the end of the sixth round.
Those fights never came to fruition as, once again, it became too arduous for Inoue to make the weight. He left the division having made seven successful defences of his strap.
the Japanese sensation had no interest in taking on an easier opponent as he acclimatised to bantamweight, instead, he challenged Jamie McDonnell for the WBA ‘Regular’ belt.
McDonnell was massive at 118lbs; he had a greater reach than Mike Tyson and had a five-inch height advantage. Observers questioned where Inoue’s power, which had been devastating at lower weights, would have the same effect at bantamweight. Inoue silenced his doubters by stopping the Englishman in the first round.
In 2018, he entered the World Boxing Super Series, which pitted eight of the best bantamweights in the world against each other. In the first round of the tournament, former world champion, Juan Carlos Payano, suffered the same fate as McDonnell, as he was halted by ‘Monster’ inside the first three minutes.
The semi-final saw Inoue take on, unbeaten IBF titlist, Emmanuel Rodriguez. The Puerto Rican succeed where Inoue’s previous bantamweight opponents had failed, by hearing the bell to signify the end of the opening round. However, the fight was over in the second frame.
In the final, he battled four-weight world champion, Nonito Donaire. The American was a significant underdog, but had revitalised his career by dropping back down to bantamweight, having previously campaigned as high as featherweight.
The bout was a classic as the veteran was able to withstand the heavy artillery from his younger foe and responded with hurtful counters. The action was back-and-forth, but ultimately Inoue was victorious on the judges’ scorecards.
The fight was deemed Fight of the Year by fans and pundits alike. As such, there was great excitement ahead of a rematch two-and-a-half years later.
Since their first encounter, Donaire had captured the WBC belt, ensuring there were three world titles at stake. Their first encounter was competitive, their second was not. Donaire was on the canvas in first round and the fight came to an end in the second.
In December, Inoue fought, WBO holder, Paul Butler to become undisputed champion. The Englishman was expected to be halted early, but he exceeded expectations to survive to the 11th round, before succumbing to his fate.
Having cleared out the 118lbs division, Inoue is once again daring to be great by taking on WBC and WBO champion, Stephen Fulton.
As has been the case previously when Inoue has moved up in weight, the question of whether is power will be as potent against bigger fighters has been posed.
Despite the highlight-reel knockouts, it would be incorrect to deem Inoue simply a puncher. He is a skilled technician whose stoppages are a result of precision as well as power.
Everything Inoue does is underpinned by exceptional footwork. He is always perfectly balanced and has the ability to make any ring feel claustrophobic.
Regardless of the outcome against Fulton, we have been privileged to witness the career of an exceptional fighter.