Fighter primes are a difficult thing to do.
They feel longer these days, mostly because everything lasts longer today. At a time when someone is celebrated three times a year, how can they not? Fighters age less violently with fewer fights and more healing. Even if fighters don’t actually stay young any longer, they age together. It extends today and keeps tomorrow on its wings.
At 29, bantamweight leader Naoya Inoue (22-0, 19 KOs) would traditionally be towards 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 that he is still very much in the heart of his best now and it is unclear when the starting point will start.
It does not mean that something cannot be lost.
Inoue was already in his prime when he defeated veteran four-division starter and former line Jr. featherweight champion Nonito Donaire in the 2019 Battle of the Year. Inoue united his IBF belt with Doanire’s WBA, and won a World Boxing Super Series tournament. With three fights in the nearly three years since that win, two against a definitely lower fare, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a lost first.
It was not the way it had to go. Inoue was scheduled to face then-WBO headliner Johnriel Casimero for additional unification. While it would have been Inoue’s second appearance in the United States, it was in many ways supposed to be his true launch pad. COVID has caused chaos in many careers.
Inoue’s was one of the hardest hit. Instead of a path that seemed aimed at total unification of the division, Inoue instead returned in late 2020 to put an end to solid, serious challenger Jason Moloney. It was at least a good quality excursion, red meat in a single appearance that year.
2021 was anything but. Inoue faced two forgettable and unbelieving opponents, one obligatory for whatever it was worth, in battles he could not lose and could not really capitalize on. It was a severe departure from the race Inoue was at a 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 running races in the sport. 2021 began a new streak with two undefeated opponents.
This sequence ends later and takes the circle straight back to where it was before COVID.
For Inoue, it’s an opportunity at a restart.
Inoue will intervene next Tuesday (ESPN +, 5:30 AM EST) for a rematch with now 39-year-old Donaire (42-6, 28 KOs). Donaire has looked great since the loss to Inoue. Donaire was out of the ring for 2020 before big 2021, which saw him drop undefeated two-time Olympic Nordine Oubaali for the WBC zone and then add a knockout defense from Reymart Gaballo.
Ring already recognizes Inoue as a legitimate champion. TBRB will recognize the winner of next Tuesday’s issue. There is little argument against Inoue and Donaire as the two best bantamweights in the game right now. They were also in 2019, although various rankings have not yet reflected this as Donaire’s return to the division was still a developing story.
This will not be an easy battle for both men and, although a subordinate, Donaire remains dangerous. He broke Inoue’s nose and orbital bone one last time and subtle changes to the shape of Inoue’s face are visible signs of battle. Donaire struggles with a facility he often lacked in his heyday, as a fighter enjoying his twilight and all the knowledge the years his Hall of Fame career provides.
Inoue is not Oubaali or Gaballo. Despite his suffering, Inoue still managed to win eight or nine rounds the first time. An eleventh round body shot may have drawn a full count with the referee better positioned. Only one man, fluffy Nicholas Walters, 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 career at bantamweight?
If Inoue wins, he could always face current WBO title Paul Butler (34-2, 15 KOs), although this would be a case where unification is not always commendable. Sure, anything can happen, but something probably won’t be Butler having a chance against Inoue. Butler is a belt owner of a circumstance after Casimero lost his belt outside the ring.
Inoue could also find more money in a fight with one of Jr.’s big names. bantamweight. A collision with Roman Gonzalez in particular, still likely the biggest lightweight boxing star, would be sold on both sides of the Pacific. Inoue has never seen any of the quartet that made the last nearly-decade at Jr. bantamweight golden age for his class. It would at least fill some of that gap.
The real journey for Inoue is likely to be north sooner rather than later. A win over Donaire would make people talk again in a way they haven’t since at least the Moloney fight and that chatter will be about what he can do at Jr.
Jr. fluffy weight is young, warm and loaded. Inoue’s addition to Top Rank could limit some options with PBC behind most of the best at 122 lbs. 27-year-old unified starter Murodjon Akhmadaliev (10-0, 7 KOs) is an exception. Akhmadaliev holds the belts in the 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 start a claim for a fight with the winner of this weekend’s Fulton-Daniel Roman fight seriously.
A restart is a starting point. The next step is to regain career momentum against high-quality enemies. If he defeats Donaire, what comes next will set the stage for the battles that will define how Inoue is remembered.
Inoue may already be Japan’s best fighter since the great Fighting Harada. Entering 2020, it seemed like he was on his way to challenging Harada for that top spot. He is one of the best fighters in the world since 2014, a year when he won his first belts at 108 and 115 and won the nod of this site as Fighter of the Year.
Considering his speed, reflexes, talent and crippling power, Inoue still has the potential to be more than any of what he has achieved so far. Inoue-Donaire II resumes Inoue’s chance to make his case as the best fighter of his time.
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. Union of America).