Will Naoya Inoue deliver on his ‘Monster’ reputation?
One of Japan’s finest exports is the legendary Godzilla and the country is sending a monster of another sort to American shores this weekend. Naoya Inoue 13-0 (11) is 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, soaking wet, but this diminutive monster wants to wreak destruction like no one before him at junior bantamweight. Forget about size, for the moment. To date, the 24-year-old prodigy is a two-division champion (accomplished in eight fights!), earning the “Monster” nickname by knocking out 11 of 13 victims. The Japanese are well-known for respect and decorum, which is why we see more ambition than ego from Inoue. Make no mistake though; Inoue is fueled by global aspirations. That starts with his American debut, at StubHub Center in Carson, California, on HBO’s excellent super flyweight tripleheader (titled “SuperFly,” 10:15 p.m. ET/PT), against U.S.A.-bred Antonio Nieves, 17-1-2 (9), who will try his hand as the gatekeeper to American riches.
This will be Naoya Inoue’s first fight outside of Japan and is eagerly awaited by diehard fans as well as boxing insiders. Both sets have tipped the slugger as a future great, for what seems like ages instead of years. Inoue is hyped, telling writers at the press conference announcing the fight, “Fighting in the U.S. has been what I’ve hoped would happen. I’m just so excited and can’t wait for it. I think that having a match in the U.S. is the first step for me to become a star boxer.” The expectations are that his performance is commensurate to Inoue’s nickname, a display that will usurp Inoue’s given name, since “monster” is the essence of what Inoue has produced inside the ropes so far.
This is the start of the WBO beltholder’s American journey, with the preferred destination undoubtedly Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez. First, Gonzalez has to reverse a controversial title loss to WBC titlist Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in the main event. The plan is for Inoue to build his brand, creating a demand for the showdown with Gonzalez in 2018. That would be the highlight of next year and picking the winner is anything but an easy choice. I lean toward Inoue, who is a little faster, a little bigger, a little more powerful and a little younger…and, in boxing, a little means a lot! Yes, Gonzalez has the edge in experience but Inoue can make up for that with his unquestionable dynamism.
It should be satisfying to watch the opening of one of boxing’s hidden treasures. Inoue is on the verge of entering his physical prime, after overcoming injuries (right hand and lower back issues) that slowed his progression in 2015 particularly. The hand injury was suffered in Inoue’s two-round evisceration of Argentine wizard Omar Narvaez, his best foe to date, that forced Inoue out of action for an entire calendar year. Injuries are not on his mind, pushed aside by aspirations, “Making my debut in America, I’d like to showcase my own Naoya Inoue style of boxing. Winning is the primary thing for sure but I’d like to create some moments that will entertain the fans, including one where I knock out my opponent.”
Inoue’s reputation is earned; as his nickname properly implies, the Japanese iconoclast is a giant when it comes to power. A boxer-destroyer, he overpowers with speedy precision, as much as pure power, impugning a sense of hopelessness upon disoriented foes. His knockout of defensive master Omar Narvaez was dazzling, both in its dominance and surgical coldness. Another knockout came against former title holder Kohei Kono, never stopped in nearly 50 previous bouts, who lasted until the halfway mark. Inoue has scored 10th and 11th round stoppages, so is not a one-trick pony. Yet to see Inoue frustrated by mobile boxers and he is one of the best body punchers as well. I can imagine youngsters from Mexico looking upon his style with envy.
Notably, Inoue has looked his best against the toughest opposition, a sure sign that he is motivated by a challenge. He told Kaz Nagatsuka, of BoxingScene.com, how he approached the new year. “First off, I will have to reflect on how I’ve practiced, to develop myself further from this point on. I have got to finish every fight I fight in a better fashion. I’ve got to fight more perfectly in 2017,” Inoue said. “Having the right conditioning for my fights and fighting with better balance will be what I want to improve this year.”
A third contingent is happy with what has been put together for this HBO tripleheader; those are the six promoters (Teiken Promotions, Nakornloung Promotion, Ohashi Promotions, Salita Promotions, Promociones del Pueblo and Zanfer Promotions) who worked to get this show completed. Tom Loeffler, managing director of K2 Promotions, told our Steve Kim, “I think this is really one of those situations where we created a win-win situation for the boxing fans. The cooperative spirit of all parties was the key in putting together this outstanding, world-class international card. You just know that’s going to be great entertainment – you have to applaud these fighters for making these fights. Many fans and media feel is the best card of 2017.”
Lost in all the discussion of Inoue is Antonio Nieves, a proud and capable opponent of Puerto Rican heritage. While Nieves does not appreciate the dismissals, it is added motivation. Despite facing a menace, and even more menacing odds, Nieves says he has not lost sleep over the task. Telling BoxingScene.com’s Thomas Gerbasi, “I’m sleeping like a baby. I got to get up too early to run to be thinking about him.” Although, you have to take his comments with a grain of salt, given Nieves claims he’s never heard of Inoue. “I didn’t know who he was until the fight came across the table. I’ve been fighting at 118 and 122, so I wasn’t really paying attention to 115.” That, coming down a weight class, may the only advantage the 30-year-old has on paper.
Nieves seems genuinely focused and motivated by the chance to appear on HBO. “I know that it’s a life-changing fight, I understand, that when I win this, it’s gonna change everything. Bigger fights, bigger paydays. And that’s how I’m taking it because not many people get a chance like this ever in their life. So, I’m coming into this fight with that, I know I’m going to do everything that I have to do to be victorious and it’s going to be life-changing.” Nieves did admit a victory would not compel him to leave his job at a local Cleveland Bank.
After quickly signing his name on a contract, Nieves focused on the tremendous task handed to him and studied up on his opponent. “He’s a great fighter,” Nieves said. “He has fast hands; he’s strong and he’s a solid fighter overall but I don’t see anything super-spectacular about him. Yeah, he’s strong and he’s quick but that’s pretty much it. He’s an all-around fighter but there are a lot of people out there like that who haven’t got the spotlight he has.” While that view may change when faced with Inoue in person, instead of video footage, Nieves appears to be approaching the fight with the right amount of confidence and respect.
The foreseeable future, even if HBO were to invest in Inoue after this fight, of this Japanese monster is still uncertain. While doing his best not to cast doubt on a high-noon duel with Roman Gonzalez, there have been rumors that Inoue is ready to move up another weight class. Inoue, an honest individual, addressed those concerns at the press conference. “Hopefully, it (the Gonzalez fight) will happen soon because I’m potentially moving up to the bantamweight class. So, it will depend on the timing.” Remember, Inoue is a huge star in his own country, so is not dependent nor subservient to the whims of HBO. For now, let’s just enjoy a monster movie on Saturday night!