SAITAMA – Japanese prodigy Naoya Inoue was a heavy favorite coming into the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight final on Thursday night.
The undefeated king known as “The Monster” won, but it was an unexpected struggle.
Inoue (19-0, 16 knockouts) defeated future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire by a unanimous decision (116-111, 117-109, 114-113) before a jam-packed crowd at Saitama Super Arena.
The 26-year-old Inoue received the Muhammad Ali Trophy for the tournament victory.
Donaire, who has earned world titles in five different weight classes, fell to 40-6 (26 KOs).
Inoue was bruised above his right eye during the second round courtesy of a Donaire blow. He said after the fight that he had double vision for the rest of the bout.
In the 11th round, Inoue landed a vicious left hook to the body of Donaire, who is nicknamed “The Filipino Flash.” Donaire was knocked down and it appeared to be the end of the fight, but he got back up and kept competing until the final bell.
“Donaire was very tough,” Inoue, who holds WBA and IBF title belts, told the fans. “Thank you all for coming on a Thursday night!”
Inoue, who had competed in just four rounds in his previous three bouts, said he got off to a good start in the opening round but had to change change his game plan after he took the punch above his right eye from a feint.
Unable to see clearly, Inoue couldn’t fire his powerful straight right and was forced to fight defensively.
“I wasn’t seeing with my right eye, and that means I couldn’t fire my straight right (with confidence),” said Inoue, who received five stitches after the fight. “If I did, I could’ve been hit with (Donaire’s) left.”
Occasionally bothered by the blood from the bruise, Inoue still managed to do damage to Donaire. He nearly earned a knockdown in the fifth round with a right counterpunch.
But Donaire, capitalizing on his slyness, had his moments, too. In the eighth and ninth, the 36-year-old gave Inoue some damage with his right.
He showcased his endurance by not getting knocked out by Inoue, who has one of the hardest punches in the sport. With the 11th-round body shot, which hit around his right rib, Donaire looked anguished with one knee down on the canvas, but eventually stood back up and did not abandon the fight.
Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, native Inoue had posted eight consecutive KO wins, but the streak came to an end in the WBSS final.
“I said before the fight that I’d create a generational change by winning, but I’m not sure I proved that with how I competed,” Inoue said. “This is boxing. It’s not an easy business and I realized that through today’s match.”
Hideyuki Ohashi, Inoue’s gym president and former WBA and WBC minimumweight champ, said: “He had a tough fight. He took damage a few times, which I’d never seen before. But he still managed to knock (Donaire) down and it ended up being a great fight. (Inoue) proved his toughness, which some had worried about. This win is such a valuable win.”
WBSS promoter Kalle Sauerland appreciated that the two legendary boxers put up a nail-biting battle for the distance.
“With the sport of boxing, we’ve had ‘the Rumble in the Jungle.’ We’ve had ‘the Thrilla in Manila,’ ” Sauerland said. “Tonight, we saw a drama in Saitama. Because what you saw tonight was the best boxing can offer. You’ll never, ever see a better fight than tonight. That was the pinnacle of the sport.”
In an earlier fight, Takuma Inoue, Naoya’s younger brother and the WBC interim bantamweight champion, faced Nordine Oubaali in a title unification fight. But the Japanese fell to the regular belt holder from France via unanimous decision (110-107, 117-110, 115-112).
The younger Inoue (13-1, three KOs) was overwhelmed by Oubaali (17-0, 12 KOs), who was more physically imposing, in nearly every round. In the fourth round, he suffered the only knockdown of the fight.
Oubaali asserted that he is the best in the bantamweight class and wanted to fight Naoya, who expressed his desire to make the showdown a reality.
After the event, major boxing promoter Top Rank announced that it has concluded a multiyear contract with Naoya Inoue. Its president, Todd duBoeuf, said the Japanese boxer’s next two fights will be in the United States.