Japanese phenom Naoya Inoue and legendary fighter Nonito Donaire will square off in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament final at Saitama Super Arena on Thursday night.
The two will rumble with the big Muhammad Ali Trophy at stake. But for the 26-year-old Inoue, who is heavily favored to win, the bout might be about cementing his legacy and best-in-business label.
Even Donaire, who has captured world titles in five different weight divisions, admittted that Inoue is on another level.
“I think the difference (with) Naoya, Naoya is a top fighter in the world, in pound-for-pound,” the 36-year-old Filipino said at a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. “I’ve fought guys who were the best in their divisions, but not in pound-for-pound like Naoya, which is very exciting for me.”
But Donaire, who resurrected his reputation by retaining the WBA bantamweight champion since last year, said with a smile that he will enter the ring against Inoue with higher motivation.
“I think that it’s more (about) fighting Naoya Inoue. That gives me more of the feeling,” Donaire said of the differences between this fight and his past big matches. “As a fighter, you find the moment because, I’ve accomplished so much, that you need . . . I need someone to get me to the moment of motivation.
“That brings back the youth again, that I have to be at my best. But being in this tournament, it has been just tremendous. The focus is just (with) all these young guys coming and trying to prove themselves and trying to (win) without the old generation. But so far, I’ve proven that I’m a wall that needs to be climbed. That is not an easy wall to climb.”
Donaire, who turns 37 on Nov. 16, has a 40-5 record (26 knockouts) as a pro. The Filipino Flash advanced to the WBSS final by beating Ryan Burnett and Stephon Young in the first two rounds of the tourney.
WBSS promoter Kalle Sauerland has declared that Inoue is the pound-for-pound king. But on Tuesday, he made the same statement about the Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, native who is unbeaten but has boxed just four rounds in his previous three matches.
Inoue, who is dubbed “The Monster,” took down Juan Carlos Payano in the first round and Emmanuel Rodriguez in the second round to reach the WBSS final.
“For me, (Inoue) is a pound-for-pound king at the moment,” said Sauerland, noting that there are other great fighters in the sport like Vasiliy Lomachenko (WBA and WBO lightweight champion) and Canelo Alvarez (WBO lightweight and WBA and IBF middleweight champion). “But for me, take away the weights, and you look at Inoue and everybody else in the sport, no one else has done in boxing (what he’s done) in the last couple of years.”
And Inoue himself, who is currently No. 4 in Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings, cared the least about the PFP status.
“I haven’t thought about the pound-for-pound conversation all that much,” Inoue said with a bitter smile. “It’s something that people outside will decide and (the evaluation about me) will only go up by me keeping competing. I really haven’t thought about it other than that.”
The only focus for Inoue, an Ohashi Gym boxer who holds the regular championship belt in the WBA bantamweight division, is to make sure he wins on Thursday night.
“It’s been about a year since the tournament kicked off, and I feel like I’ve finally gotten to this point,” said Inoue, who is 18-0 (16 KOs). “And being able to fight against Donaire was the best-case scenario that I’d imagined. So I’m looking forward to the fight.”
Between the two boxers, who are friends, there are no ill feelings. Both said they have the utmost respect for one another. In fact, Inoue said that he watched Donaire’s fights even before he turned pro.
“He’s one of the fighters I’ve looked up to,” Inoue said of Donaire, the first Asian to win world titles in all four major organizations. “I’m honored to be able to fight someone like him in the final, and I would like to make the generational change (by winning).”
On the undercard, Inoue’s younger brother, Takuma Inoue (13-0, three KOs), who is the interim WBC bantamweight champion, will take on France’s Nordine Oubaali (16-0, 12 KOs), who is the current title holder, as well.