Naoya Inoue – Creating a Monster
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Ring Magazine
AS FIGHTERS ARE THE SUM OF THEIR PARTS, NAOYA INOUE’S BRILLIANCE COMES FROM MORE THAN JUST SCARY PUNCHING POWER
When bantamweights go to bed at night, they should be checking underneath it for Naoya Inoue.
No one is matching “The Monster” when it comes to wreaking havoc in the professional ranks. Vasiliy Lomachenko has the reputation for making top-level opponents quit in frustration. Terence Crawford dazzles fans with his improvised blend of skill, speed and spite. Boxing’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez, has been capturing the public’s imagination with career-defining superfights.
All well and good – but nobody is doing it like Inoue.
“I’ve been saying for a while now that Naoya Inoue is the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing,” said trainer and cutman Rudy Hernandez. “I rank him above Lomachenko and Crawford because this guy has not only challenged the best, he’s knocked them out and left no doubts about who he is.
“Every 10 years or so, we get a special fighter. Inoue does things with such ease, it reminds me of a Mike Tyson or Sugar Ray Leonard when they were in their prime. But because this kid is Japanese, he’s not getting the attention he would be getting if he were an American. He’s the guy in boxing right now that everyone should be looking out for. His timing, his punching power, his boxing IQ is superior to all.”
Following crushing first-round victories over Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payano in 2018, Inoue was matched against unbeaten IBF titleholder Emmanuel Rodriguez in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series. That bout took place at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 18, and many expected the talented Puerto Rican to provide Inoue with a serious challenge.
He didn’t have a prayer.
Rodriguez, never down in his professional career, was dropped three times and pulverized in two rounds. Roughly eight hours later – his mission complete – Inoue was on a flight back to Japan as The Ring Magazine’s 118-pound champion. Meanwhile, the ratings panel was deliberating his inevitable move into the top five of the mythical pound-for-pound ratings.
For the third time running, Inoue had exceeded enormous expectations and the boxing world was speechless. Next up is Nonito Donaire, the reigning WBA bantamweight titleholder, and, as good as he is, “The Filipino Flash” will open as a huge betting underdog.
So, what makes Inoue so special? It’s not just one thing, that’s for sure. The power is obvious, but the sum of his parts is more complex. In an effort to explore the fascination the boxing world has with this gifted three-weight world titleholder, The Ring reached out to an assortment of fighters, trainers and analysts and asked them to dissect one of the most formidable fighters in recent memory. We selected six categories: power, speed, fundamentals, economy, balance and body punching.
Carl Frampton, former two-weight titleholder/TV analyst: Inoue’s power is astonishing, but he’s accurate and he punches correctly. He gets good length on the shots and turns his knuckles over. His biomechanics are perfect. I was sitting up-close near the ring apron (at the Rodriguez fight doing commentary), and there’s apparently TV footage of me on social media just shaking my head in disbelief. His win over Rodriguez was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. That’s a big statement, but he was brilliant.
Stephen “Breadman” Edwards, trainer: He’s probably the hardest puncher pound-for-pound in boxing right now. The thing I like most about him is that he knocks people out with so many different shots: the right hand to the head, the left hook to the body, the left hook to the head – he’s very even-handed. This guy is one of the biggest punchers from the lower weight divisions that I’ve seen in my life. You’re talking guys like Manny Pacquiao, Alexis Arguello, Ruben Olivares – Inoue is one of the biggest punchers ever from 126 on down.
Joe Gallagher, trainer: You meet him face-to-face, then see him in the ring and it’s like two totally different people. It’s like he’s walking around with bazookas in his gloves. That was a fantastic win last time out. I worked against Rodriguez with Paul Butler (Rodriguez won the vacant IBF title by unanimous decision in May 2018), and he’s a solid operator. Against Inoue, Rodriguez probably won the first round, but once Inoue detonated that left hook it was game over. He just came in and absolutely crippled him with a body shot. To have Rodriguez turning to his corner and shaking his head – a fighter of that quality – speaks volumes about Inoue’s power. He was hit and he stayed hit. It’s unbelievable that Inoue has that much power for such a small man.
Steve Kim, ESPN columnist: On a scale of 1 to 10, based on recent results, Inoue’s power is a 10-plus. He’s tearing through opposition that’s known for being very durable at an unprecedented rate, and two of those guys (McDonnell and Payano) didn’t even see Round 2. It’s impressive because the Payano knockout was a one-punch right-handed shotgun, but then he overwhelmed Rodriguez with combinations that were as fast as they were powerful. There’s a versatility with the way he punches; it’s not just about being strong, it’s about executing and doing so at a world-class level. I don’t think there’s anyone else doing it the way he is right now.
Edwards: His speed is the reason why he’s such a great puncher. A lot of times, speed is power, because you don’t get a chance to brace for the punches. If you see a punch coming, you can brace for impact, but with Inoue you can’t brace for impact. He just hits you and – boom – it’s almost like a sucker punch.
Gallagher: When you think of Sugar Ray Leonard, he had amazing speed mixed with some pop; just look at the knockouts of Dave “Boy” Green and Donny Lalonde. Inoue doesn’t lose any power despite the great speed he carries in his fists. He’s a one-punch solid hitter, but he puts his combinations together very well, and his shot selection during those combinations is very impressive.
Kim: A lot of guys are powerful, but they’re not that fast. A lot of guys are fast, but they’re not strong. Inoue seems to be a deadly combination of both. He doesn’t just hit you hard, he hits you in such a blinding way. If his speed isn’t a 10, it’s probably a 9. If he didn’t have the heavy-handedness and jolting power, I would argue that he could win a lot of these fights just by boxing.
Frampton: Inoue, like Canelo, has brilliant basics. The one thing we need to see from Inoue is how his movement is when he gets put under serious pressure. How does he slip shots and move under fire? We’ve seen that from Canelo, and he’s brilliant at it. But from what we have seen so far, Inoue looks like almost the perfect fighter.
Zolani Tete, WBO bantamweight titleholder: He does everything perfectly, and as short as he is, he knows how to deal with a tall fighter. His technique and timing is perfect, and that’s what makes him one of the best pound-for-pound. It’ll be a good fight between us when it happens. It’s brains against brains; Inoue is a very smart fighter and I’m a very smart fighter. It’ll be all about chess, and whoever makes a mistake will pay for it.
Ben Davison, trainer: The likes of Crawford and Lomachenko are maybe a step ahead when it comes to skills and fundamentals, but Inoue has freakish power, and that’s his advantage. As we’ve seen with (Deontay) Wilder, that type of power can make up for any small cracks in a fighter’s game. I’m not saying Inoue makes a lot of mistakes, but if there are areas where he’s not as developed, the power is making up for it. It’ll take somebody with a very, very good skillset to exploit any deficiencies, but maybe Inoue has even more (skills/talent) than we know about and he’s not been forced to show it yet.
Edwards: Inoue, as far as punch delivery and punch release, is a fighter you would want a young kid to watch. He doesn’t load up or draw back or anything. The punches come straight from his shoulder, he pushes off his feet and turns in with his hips. He has close to perfect punch technique. Joe Louis had that. Alexis Arguello, Ricardo Lopez and this kid right here, his punch technique and punch release is right up there with theirs.
Doug Fischer, Ring Magazine editor-in-chief/TV analyst: Combined with his speed and power, the thing that makes Inoue such a dynamic puncher is his technique; he has the fundamentals. His feet are under him, and that’s your boxing foundation. Inoue is brilliant at catching guys just as they’re about to release their own power. That’s down to his fundamentals, and in some ways – and I’m not a big fan of this guy – he reminds me of Andre Ward. Ward did a lot right, and his foot placement and balance were always there with any punch he delivered. The difference is that Inoue is a bit more dynamic; he’s quick-twitch, his hands are quicker and there’s more natural power.
Kim: Inoue has a fundamentally classic style. Crawford is more like a jazz musician; he just kind of riffs, he naturally flows and adapts on the fly. He’s always riffing and doesn’t play to a script. I’ve called Lomachenko the Baryshnikov of boxing; it’s like ballet in there. But I’m not sure you could teach that style. Inoue’s style is classic and it’s textbook – the way he holds his elbows, the way he tucks his chin in a little bit. If you had a young kid coming into the gym for the first time and you asked yourself, ‘Who can he be like,’ while not at the same level, ideally it would be Inoue.
Tete: As a fighter you must hit the target, not just throw for the sake of throwing. This is why you don’t see me wasting punches. I check the target and I hit the target. If the target isn’t there, then I pull my punches, because I don’t want to get exhausted. Whatever I throw, I throw with mean intentions and I throw with power. Inoue does that too.
Billy Graham, trainer: He wants to knock you out. I like people who go for the knockout, but you can bet your life he won’t go crazy looking for it. He’s very economical; he sets things up, uses his feet, and fighters like that are always the best punchers. He’s always on balance, he has great leverage and all that power is coming from the floor.
Rudy Hernandez, trainer/cutman: Inoue doesn’t waste punches. He picks up on the timing of an opponent, then he executes. He’s so good at it – it’s effortless. That’s what makes him the best fighter in boxing. He’s a technically fine-tuned machine. He may not look like much, he may not look dangerous, he’s just very, very effective with everything he does.
Davison: One thing I’ve noticed is when someone’s stood in front of him, he is very well-balanced, and that’s when he gets the most leverage. Sometimes he overreaches when he has to come forward. When he has to step into his shots, he can get caught overreaching. But when someone’s standing there mixing it with him, Inoue is very well-balanced. He’s also very good at changing his head position, so he can vary up the shots he starts (his combinations) with. He has a very wide shot selection and does well adapting.
Edwards: His balance is everything. His balance is the reason he can punch in combination. If he didn’t have such good balance, he would only carry his power for one or two shots. Deontay Wilder throws a big right hand and doesn’t throw anything after that because he’d fall over. He puts everything into one shot. Inoue throws three or four deadly shots, so that’s why I say he’s the best puncher in boxing. Wilder might be the hardest puncher in boxing, but Inoue is the best puncher in boxing.
Fischer: His balance is what makes him such an effective puncher and boxer. When Inoue goes in for the kill – and I’ve noted this – he can jump back out of range at any moment. If his opponent tries to nail him, he can step back, step in, jab, boom, boom and hit the opponent with combinations. He’s very adept at that, and that’s down to his balance, athleticism, reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
Tete: He is a very good body-puncher, and his intention is to knock the guy out when he throws there. We saw that in his last fight (with Rodriguez); once Inoue lands to the body, the opponent doesn’t want to fight anymore. That’s because of the pain. Body punching like that is a killer in the sport of boxing. If you want to knock a guy out, go from body to head. Killing the body is the best thing.
Graham: His body attack is brilliant. People often make a mistake and think boxing skill is just someone who’s tall and throws long, correct punches. When you’re a shorter man and you’ve got to get inside and work the body, you’ve got to be technically excellent. You get big punchers who swing and take you out, but a precision puncher has to be so technical. The best body-punchers are people who can put singles to vital areas at the right time. That’s what Inoue does; he’s a perfect precision puncher.
Hernandez: Inoue is a well-educated fighter. He understands that if you hit the chin, the guard goes up and the body is open. He combines head-body and body-head. He won’t just attack one or the other. If you pay attention to the way he threw the left hook (that floored Rodriguez for the second knockdown), the way it was delivered was awesome. It’s little things that the great fighters do that make such a big difference when they land their punches. It was a very short left hook, but the manner of how it was thrown, the angle of delivery made it so much more effective. He knows where that liver is at – you can’t beat that.
Fischer: I wrote about the body attack in my fight report from the first Superfly card (when Inoue faced Antonio Nieves). Inoue didn’t blow our socks off that night because he was very patient in stopping Nieves. He just broke him down gradually, systematically, with the body attack, and I liked his commitment to the body. What really impresses me is that Inoue can be in there with someone with a negative style, a mobile style, and he can still get to their body and get to it quickly. Rodriguez can move well, Jamie McDonnell can move well and (Omar) Narvaez made a career out of fighting in that style. I said in my fight report for the Nieves fight, “(Inoue) is an excellent body-puncher, definitely one of the best in boxing.” Since then, I think he’s become arguably the best body-puncher in boxing – definitely top three.
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing.
26 Years old
118 Pounds (fight weight)
81 Amateur fights (75-6, 48 KOs)
18 Professional fights (18-0, 16 KOs)
11 World title fights (11-0, 10 KOs)*
6 Fights to win his first title
8 Fights to win a title in a second division
18 Fights to win a title in a third division
7 Fights against former or current titleholders (7-0, 7 KOs)
*WBA “regular” title bouts not included