More than two years since they met in a 2019 Fight of the Year classic, Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire rematch this Tuesday with bantamweight supremacy at stake. Another classic incoming? Luke G. Williams previews the action…
Time waits for no man, but the incredible Nonito Donaire (42-6, 28 KOs) has delayed the inevitability of temporal decay for longer than even his most fervent admirers may have hoped.
Back in November 2019, the future Hall of Famer became just the second man to last 12 rounds against the ferocious fists of Naoya ‘Monster’ Inoue, dropping a clear but incredibly hard-fought unanimous decision in the final of the World Boxing Super Series 118lbs tournament in the Super Arena, Saitama, Japan.
At the time, it seemed the perfect note on which to bow out – after all Donaire – then 40-6 with world titles in four weight classes on his CV – had nothing left to prove and no more worlds to conquer.
How wrong we all were!
After a year-and-a-half absence from the ring, the Filipino phenom returned to action in May last year and was the betting underdog against the rugged and unbeaten Nordine Oubaali. Many figured Donaire was back for one final pay day and that Oubaali might apply the final rites to the old warrior’s career.
Instead, Donaire sensationally stopped him the Frenchman in four to annex the WBC 118lbs title and become – at 38 – the oldest bantamweight world championship winner in history. For good measure, he then defended the strap against another unbeaten dangerman – fellow Filipino Reymart Gaballo – also stopping him in four.
Now Donaire is eyeing perhaps the most sensational scalp of his career in Japan’s unbeaten and fearsome Inoue, a 29-year-old at the peak of his formidable and savage powers, as well as the holder of the WBA super, IBF and lineal bantam titles (only Paul Butler’s inconsequential WBO strap is not up for grabs on Tuesday).
And Donaire is clear about one thing – he’s not getting in the ring for a payday – he’s there to win.
“After the last fight [against Inoue], there was a fire burning inside of me,” the 39-year-old announced in the lead-up to Tuesday’s showdown, which once again tales place at Saitama’s Super Arena.
“I know I can beat him at my best,” Donaire continued. “That was what was inside me going into the locker after the fight. I wouldn’t want this rematch if I didn’t think I could win this fight. I’m very, very motivated. This is the fight that I’ve been aiming for, to accomplish everything that I have not accomplished in boxing. I’ve accomplished everything in boxing except become the undisputed, and this is the road to the undisputed.”
Is it possible to construct a case for a Donaire win? Well, it is true that last time around he pushed Inoue harder than any other man has managed. True, he did not floor Inoue in their first fight, but he did hurt him on several occasions, and he also succeeded in fracturing his eye socket. Donaire was also able to hit Inoue, usually a master at being out of range by the time an opposing punch arrives, with far more regularity than any of the Japanese pugilist’s previous victims. In short, Donaire made the ‘Monster’ look human and made a fighter who hitherto appeared immortal look vulnerable at times.
It will be of encouragement to Donaire that Inoue’s form-line since the duo’s first fight is hard to read. Inoue’s seventh-round victory against Jason Moloney in October 2020 was convincing enough, but his following two fights last year – stoppages of wildly overmatched opponents in Michael Dasmarinas and Aran Dipaen – offered few indications of whether Inoue is still on an upward trajectory, or whether he may – at 29 – have reached the beginning of a period of gradual decline.
Certainly, in each of these three fights Inoue did not look quite the unstoppable force he was in 2018 and 2019, when he swept aside world level operators Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano and Emmanuel Rodriguez in one, one and two rounds respectively. Donaire will surely be telling himself that Inoue is not the same man he was before the two men shared those 12 savage rounds in Saitama.
Frustratingly, the pandemic has robbed Inoue’s career of much of the momentum it seemed to possess when he beat Donaire. At that point he looked a shoo-in to assume consensual pound-for-pound number one status sooner rather than later, but his subsequent promotional link-up with Top Rank has – thus far – been disappointing and not resulted in him becoming the mainstream superstar that his talents warrant.
All these factors – combined with Donaire’s astonishingly competitive spirit, ringcraft and experience – will give the Filipino hope that he can overcome the long odds of around 5-1 that most bookmakers have pegged his chances at.
However, as much as a Donaire win would represent a fairy tale of the most heart-warming nature, at some stage on Tuesday, cold, hard reality will surely intercede. For a lower-weight fighter to still be competing at world level aged 39 is phenomenal, but Donaire’s incredible run simply cannot last.
Logic, biology and boxing history all point to the inevitability that Donaire’s decline since these two last met must be steeper than Inoue’s. Furthermore, although he gave Inoue a torrid time in the first fight, Donaire still did not win and – one scorecard apart – did not really get that close to winning. Indeed, he needed all his guile, and a hesitant refereeing performance from Ernie Sharif to make it out of the eleventh round after Inoue felled him with a truly vicious left hook to the liver.
Indeed, I would argue that the main takeaway of significance from the first Donaire-Inoue fight was not what it taught us about Donaire – his credentials having long been established – but rather what it taught us about Inoue – namely that he possesses a warrior’s heart and competitive spirit in abundance, and that even when things don’t go his way and he fails to secure an early KO he remains one of the most dangerous unarmed men in the world.
As such, I fancy Inoue big in this fight. Donaire will give it everything, but this time not only will it not quite be enough, but I see him being conclusively stopped somewhere between the mid and later rounds.