Naoya Inoue holds off Nonito Donaire for unanimous decision victory, claims Ali trophy in epic battle
SAITAMA, Japan – “We’re both warriors, and both of us are willing to go to war,” said Nonito Donaire in an interview with The Ring ahead of the World Boxing Super Series final. He meant every single word.
Japanese powerhouse Naoya Inoue captured the Muhammad Ali trophy and the WBA bantamweight title by scoring a 12-round unanimous decision at the Saitama Super Arena, but he was taken to hell in back by a truly great fighter in the twilight of his career. The official scores were 116-111, 117-109 and 114-113.
Inoue, who entered the bout as The Ring Magazine champion and the IBF titleholder at 118 pounds, forced Donaire to his knees with a brutal left hook to the body in Round 11 but, as he had done all the way through, “The Filipino Flash” dug deep and returned fire.
“I know this will sound strange, but I saw two Donaires from Round 2 until Round 12,” said a marked up-Inoue (19-0, 16 knockouts) via a translator at the post-fight press conference.
The action was intense in Round 1 with Donaire absorbing the initial assaults and releasing his own counters. Members of the press, accustomed to seeing Inoue opponents melt, gasped as Donaire took flush shots and refused to give ground. The 36-year-old veteran was in the hunt and a solid left hand suddenly cut Inoue over the right eye in the second.
Wounded for the first time in his career and shaken, Inoue elected to impose his underrated craft on the savvy veteran. He boxed beautifully at times and was a lot more energetic as the middle rounds approached. Donaire had his moments in these sessions but he was always a step behind.
In Round 6, Inoue increased the pace and put the power back into his work. He landed three enormous head shots and absolutely nothing happened. Normally it’s all over, but the gallant Donaire was going nowhere.
The eighth was unforgettable. Great fighters separate themselves from good fighters when they rally against the odds. Donaire should not have had the reserves to mount an attack, and that’s what made his effort all the more astonishing. Huge shots snapped Inoue’s head back and a right hand left him woozy at the bell. The blood was now flowing freely from the Japanese star’s right eye.
And Donaire wasn’t done. It was more of the same in the ninth when Inoue was hurt badly by another right. This time he was forced to hold and display warrior spirit himself, and that was new territory for him. Inoue had only been the 12-round distance once in his career, whereas Donaire had been the limit on nine occasions.
Inoue, however, trumped the veteran’s experience with a sudden moment of brutality in the 10th. A sickening right hand landed and Donaire’s ability to survive the follow up was remarkable. The left hook to the body in the 11th also looked like a fight-ender when Donaire jogged a few steps before dropping to his knees. The English-speaking members of the press began shouting that it was over, but Donaire, predictably now, was up at nine and throwing leather. Inoue went for the finish, but the stricken champion responded instinctively with a dynamite left that buzzed the Japanese hero. It was just amazing!
Both warriors traded down the stretch and when it was all over, the respect they had afforded each other through the promotion returned. The fighters embraced warmly in Donaire’s corner.
The 26-year-old Inoue entered this fight as the most devastating force in world boxing. His WBSS quarterfinal match with former titleholder Juan Carlos Payano lasted just 70 seconds. He followed that with a second-round stoppage of the previously unbeaten Emmanuel Rodriguez, who was taken out at 1:19 of Round 2 in May. Donaire turned out to be an entirely different proposition. Don’t let anyone tell you this fight merely exposed Inoue’s limitations. That is not true. Donaire, even at his advanced age (especially for sub-lightweights), is a great fighter – period.
Now that his work in the tournament is complete, Inoue will target WBC counterpart Nordine Oubaali, who scored a 12-round unanimous decision over his younger brother, Takuma, on tonight’s undercard. While it’s possible that mandatory assignments could intervene short-term, boxing fans are sure to be treated to more Inoue superfights in the very near future. These 12 rounds will likely make “The Monster” an even better fighter than he was before, and that is not good news for prospective opponents.
Donaire has been a terrific ambassador for the sport and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. Charming, intelligent, articulate; the former champion has so much to offer outside the ropes, and there’s no need to carry on fighting. However, who the hell is going to tell him to call it quits after this effort? He remains one of the very best bantamweights in the world today.
“What you saw tonight was the best boxing can offer,” said Kalle Sauerland, founder of the WBSS. “If you can top the fight two weeks ago (Josh Taylor MD 12 Regis Prograis), I think, tonight, we managed it.”
That was not hyperbole.
During the press conference, it was announced by Top Rank president Todd duBoef that Inoue had signed a multi-fight, multi-year contract with the promotional outfit. His first two bouts will take place in the U.S. and will be televised by ESPN.
“I’m happy to have signed with Top Rank,” said Inoue. “I will rest for a while, then resume training, and I will be ready to fight for Top Rank in the United States.”
Donaire, who was not in attendance at the press conference, falls to 40-6 (26 knockouts).
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing