Naoya Inoue, Japan's Greatest Boxer, Is Fighting for the World

A small guy with huge power, Inoue is riding the myth-making powers of streaming onto the world stage.

by Gabe Oppenheim
22 November 2019, 7:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

An hour before the weigh-in for one of this year's biggest boxing events, I arrive in the Grand Palace conference room in IIdabashi, Tokyo, a narrow space with marble columns, shiny golden, damask wallpaper, brown fluted curtains and crystal shard lighting fixtures protruding from the ceiling like stalactites, or the spiky ice of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

This is where the Japanese Boxing Commission and the country’s main promoter, Teiken, usually hold big weigh-ins—which is to say, solitude is in short supply. I’ve shown up early, but even so, there are already 20 photographers and cameramen snapping away. By the time the weigh-in begins, the crowd will have thickened considerably, adding up to six or seven rows of reporters.

They're here for Naoya Inoue, the 26-year-old bantamweight with a sharp jawline, high cheekbones, and a parted bowl haircut who's already well-known in the fight world. In Glasgow and Los Angeles, both cities in which he has fought. In the Philippines, the source of Inoue’s sparring partner on multiple occasions and his decade-older foe this time around. In Guam, where he has held training camps. And, of course, here in Tokyo, where Inoue's legend has been growing since he was a teen.

In a bit more than 24 hours after the weigh-in, on Nov. 7, Naoya will defend his 118-lb. title belt just north of Tokyo in the Saitama Super Arena. It's a match that will double as the final of a tournament of present and past championss, which Inoue has made his own showcase, KO-ing highly-pedigreed dudes in mere minutes.

Inoue is already perhaps the third-best boxer in the world, pound-for-pound, before the fight. A win in the tourney final might not change that utterly subjective ranking, but it would cap off what has been a tremendous run since he missed out on making the 2012 Olympics, in which his national team friends Ryota Murata and Satoshi Shimizu both won medals.

Inoue has won world titles in the pros in three weight classes since, and almost never fails to put on a show of efficient, supremely-torqued power, thumping and thwacking opponents in such a way that everything sounds different, his hands heavy and volatile like leaking car batteries.

If he wins the final without major injury, the Las Vegas-based promoter Top Rank—which built the careers of De La Hoya, Mayweather, and Pacquiao—will announce his signing thereafter, and plan to have him fight twice in the US in 2020, with all his bouts airing on ESPN.

And yet despite that offer—frankly, I think Top Rank will take him on regardless of the result—the stakes hardly seem high, owing to Inoue’s power and his opponent, former champ Nonito Donaire, staring down his 37th birthday. The match can go just one way, its route as pre-determined as that of the enthronement parade of Japan’s new emperor Naruhito, which goes down two days later.

A 5’5” man, by virtue of preternatural power and a super slo-mo 4K camera mounted above one of the ring posts, can appear a mythic creature.

Because Inoue currently appears in the US on the relatively-unknown sports app DAZN, much of his fighting has been distilled into the visual language of our time: a clip posted to Twitter, a highlight reel on YouTube, a slow-mo GIF showing off his power. These snippets of brutal genius have helped establish him in a country where, even with Mayweather and Pacquiao and every other example to the contrary, boxing still has a love affair with its heavyweight heyday. Inoue has been, so far as programming is concerned, just one digital box inside another, accessible via click—although not in his native Japan, where he literally appeared on the most popular New Year's Eve show a year ago because, in his own words, "I asked my manager." (This is a braver request than it sounds, because the show involved him getting slapped in the buttocks, punched in the groin, and having a crane operate mere inches from his face.)

Of course, you still have to be spectacular to cross over. Or, as former HBO commentator Larry Merchant wrote me in an email, “All Inoue has to do is knock out 20 straight opponents (like Golovkin), take on the current crop of featherweights, and get Japanese fans to fill [US] arenas. As they say, it’s not supposed to be easy.”

And Inoue isn’t the first Japanese fighter to headline American cards at 118 pounds. When I was researching my book on Philly boxers, I came across the '80s rivalry between South Philly bantam Joltin’ Jeff Chandler and Eijiro Murata, who contested two high-level fights in Tokyo and one in Atlantic City. Of course, they predated the internet, let alone streaming.

But Inoue’s rep has been built in the US by online feeds, legal and otherwise. DAZN may have paid Mexican Canelo Alvarez more than $300 million (the payment plan is more complicated than that, but just let it be for now), but HBO and Showtime built Canelo’s career. Inoue is a fighter defined by streaming. It’s not about the money or the geography, it's about access. Which is to say: There’s never been a better time to be a Japanese superstar, athletes included, because there’s never before been such an age of globalized entertainment. If you can fall in love with “Sacred Games” or “High Seas” (the first’s Indian, the second Spanish, and I recommend both), why can’t combat fans get down with a Japanese bantamweight?

The Saitama arena is a mere mile from my hotel, but I take a cab out of nerves. A massive crowd, in all its liveliness, can nevertheless seem an expansive void—a setting in which one might be swallowed. A press pass doesn’t alter that feeling.

Inoue’s younger brother, Takuma, 24, precedes him in the ring. He's technically sound but without power, and makes a failed attempt to snatch a bantam title from a southpaw Frenchman whose back is all knotted muscle. Okay, sure, but that was inevitable—we’re all really here just to see Naoya fight old man Nonito Donaire, right?

Round one: The front curlicue of Donaire’s hair looks like soft-serve ice cream. Inoue’s trunks bear the name of his toddler son Akiha on the beltline. Inoue lands the jab to the body and the right, too. In one sequence, he lands the right over Donaire’s outstretched left. If Inoue can score over the top like that, it’ll be an early night indeed. And here’s what I mean by early.

In October 2018, in the World Boxing Super Series quarterfinal, Inoue KO’d 20-1 former champ Juan Carlos Payano in 1 minute and 10 seconds.

This past May, in the tournament’s semifinal, he KO’d undefeated champ Emmanuel Rodriguez in 4 minutes and 19 seconds.

Those are shinjirarenai (unbelievable) times. These were KOs that resulted in exclamations of “yabai” and “maji?!” (shit, is this for real?!).

Back to round one: Donaire throws a nice shot to the body here and there, but the Inoue right seems stronger. It literally pushes old man Donaire back several feet when it lands. And then there’s this massively telling simultaneous throw-down of left hooks. It’s a perfect example of the worn, yet accurate, advice, that has been passed down in gyms for as long as anyone can remember: Don’t hook with a hooker. As in, don’t trade that shot if your foe has a tighter turn on his, because his will land flush against your face on the inside and your arm will fly wide.

It’s an auspicious start for Inoue, but Donaire winds up landing his hook on the inside only moments later. And it’s this second punch that’ll prove predictive.

In the second, Donaire dictates the first 30 seconds, just in terms of movement. He’s engaging where he wants to, walking Inoue backward, landing body shots. And yet none of that work sounds as powerful as the straight right Inoue shoots down the middle. Hell, Inoue seems to get comfortable in the ring. He lets his left hang low, shooting a Roy Jones up-jab. The otherwise quiet crowd cheers loudly.

Donaire throws a right Inoue can see coming and slips, his head coming to rest on Inoue’s right shoulder. The two fighters each end up with his weight dipped, the perfect crouch prelude to a left hook. So who’s the actual hooker?

We find out in a literal second: On this night, what many thought Donaire’s final high-stakes hurrah, he’s the man with the more taut, torqued trick. Given Inoue’s last half-decade of steamrolling dudes, the old guard beating new to the punch is surreal. And yet this one shot doesn’t end the night. Both men are far too strong for that. It just alters the nature of the encounter fundamentally. Donaire, we’ll find out later, broke part of Inoue’s orbital bone and nose with this shot. And what we can see has its own gruesomeness: the punch opens a cut on Inoue’s eyelid that sees him bedeviled by blood.

Inoue and Donaire trade punches.
Inoue and Donaire trade punches. Image: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Inoue never stops banging away at his Filipino counterpart, mind you, racking up rounds on the judges’ cards. And yet, he takes so many shots from Donaire. The Japanese hero is a sucker for the counter and lead right-hand, as if he can’t see ‘em coming.

Which is actually the case: That eye-socket cracker has given Inoue double-vision, if he’s to be believed. (No one seems not to.) In the following days Shingo Inoue, Naoya's father-trainer, will say of the injury, “That’s why all our plans went crazy.”

And yet his son actually had a plan for this outrageously unanticipated contingency.

According to Japanese sports show “S-PARK”, Inoue actually recalled a fight six years earlier in which Donaire, who was then his athletic idol, took a hard left that messed up Donaire’s eyesight. Donaire’s move in that moment was to use his right glove as a kind of patch—blind the damaged eye so the good one could continue its work.

Ostensibly, Inoue remembers this moment well. Incredibly, he decided it was his own best chance against the guy who did it first.

And so the fight proceeds, Donaire absorbing Inoue’s shots in a way no one has prior, tremendous blows that would fell many a big man, let alone a bantam. Inoue attacking as if a pirate, although some of his shots don’t appear to be thrown with full intent to harm. There’s a hesitancy.

Even so, Inoue is a thumper. In round 11, he throws a combo so creative I can’t recall seeing it before: He leads with a massive right uppercut that misses but follows up immediately with his trademark left to the liver. The punch causes grown men to roll around the floor crying. The only reason Inoue hasn’t even attempted it to this point is because it requires him to bend leftward, which would put his damaged eye straight in front of Donaire and vulnerable to further harm.

The body shot has a delayed effect. Its recipient drops not immediately but after a short delay, almost always. Donaire, nearly 37 and savvy, uses the short delay to run away from Inoue, so that when he does finally crumple to the canvas, he’s bought himself seconds of recovery time additional to the ref’s 10-count.

Which is where things get messy. Ref Ernie Sharif of Pittsburgh actually uses his belly to bop Inoue away from Donaire while the latter is still standing and the former is about to throw a potential KO combo. The ref literally shields Donaire from further punishment with his paunch.

But this is a primal venture. On the most basic level, Donaire takes a brick to a vital organ that would render anyone else utterly helpless, yet he rises before the 10 count. In these circumstances, that’s survival enough for me—so long as Sharif is suspended for a bit. (That dude is a lawyer during the week, so he knows there are lines one can’t simply cross without repercussion.)

Inoue wins by unanimous 12-round decision. The belts, the trophy, this tournament; it’s all his. (Except, for a day, the trophy, which Donaire promised to bring home to his kids and Inoue yielded out of what he calls a mutual understanding of the nature of fatherhood.)

What does it all mean? I’m afraid that depends on you. If you’ve got some sort of fear of the world beyond your boundaries, this may be a sport you should never have checked out in the first place. (That’s you, Rod Salka, or it was. I hope you’ve grown.) But if you’re okay with the violence—its own issue and a serious one—watch the globalization of this game with glee.

The pool of potential contenders is now the population of the Earth. No matter the labels they used before, only in this new age of billions of screens can anyone authentically be tagged champion of the entire world.

Not incidentally, Top Rank knows this. A decade ago or so, it began trying to cultivate fighters in China, and put on shows in Macao. It never quite came off, for reasons that are hard to explain but likely involve government funding, top-down planning, the gambling habits of corrupt ministers.

And so somehow, as Japan has been passed by Asia’s rising economies in all sorts of sectors, the quality of its boxing has defied trends, offering a product Top Rank is only too eager to import.

Meanwhile, Inoue is in waiting mode. The first big check-up of his broken orbital bones is in a month. At that point, his team will have an idea of just how long he might be out. Top Rank vice-president Carl Moretti texted me, among other lines, “Not worried.”

He knows far better than I, obviously. I do know I’d be anxious as hell sitting on the sidelines now, were I Inoue—and not just because he’s on the cusp of something big, with more screens in the world to display his prowess than ever before. And more dollars to market those shows.