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Road To Undisputed #5: Bantamweight

Naoya Inoue

Welcome to “Road To Undisputed,” a brand new series where I look at every weight class in boxing, look at the champions and contenders and map out a road to crowning an undisputed champion and the chances of it happening anytime soon.

This week, we’ll take a look at the bantamweight division, whose top champion is considered by some as the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world.


Titleholders:

  • WBA “Super” and IBF: Naoya Inoue 
  • WBA “Regular:” Guillermo Rigondeaux
  • WBC: Nordine Oubaali
  • WBO: John Riel Casimero

Contenders:

  • Jason Moloney
  • Nonito Donaire
  • Emmanuel Rodriguez
  • Charlie Edwards
  • Zolani Tete
  • Reymart Gaballo
  • Takuma Inoue
  • Joshua Greer

Current Outlook:

The bantamweight division got a much-needed shot in the arm thanks to the World Boxing Super Series, which was won by Naoya Inoue. Although Inoue was the prohibited favorite, it didn’t stop the finals from giving fans one of the best bantamweight title bouts in history when he defeated Nonito Donaire.

Since then, Inoue stood atop the division as its king. The other champion in the division that is perhaps in the conversation for No. 1 bantamweight is WBO titleholder John Riel Casimero. Both he and Inoue were originally supposed to meet in April in a three-belt unification, but that fight was called off due to the pandemic. Since then, both men went their separate ways with their next fights. Inoue stopped Australian challenger Jason Moloney and Casimero defeated Duke Micah.

Inoue presents a level of power almost unheard of in the lower weights with a ferocity and aggressive style to match. However, Inoue isn’t just some knockout artist. His technical mastery and all-around skillset is about as good as anyone in boxing today with only Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez in his prime being able to match him as far as anyone in the lower weights in the past decade or so.

Casimero, on the other hand, has been on a ridiculous tear on the bantamweight division ever since a somewhat failed run at super flyweight and above from 2017 to 2018. Since dropping to bantamweight, Casimero has shown to have power from the opening bell to the very end of a fight, punishing everyone who dares to fight him on the inside and at close distance. As far as confidence and momentum, Casimero might have the most of it out of everyone in the division.

As it stands, both men are more than interested in making the fight a reality for 2021, resulting in the WBA, WBO and IBF titles being held by one man if it does get made.

The other champion at 118 pounds is Nordine Oubaali, who holds the WBC title. Oubaali won the title when he defeated Rau’shee Warren in January 2019 but has since then looked impressive in title defenses against Arthur Villanueva and Takuma Inoue (who is related to Naoya). Oubaali is one of the top fighters in the division, but lacks the visibility his fellow champions have. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to call Oubaali the most underrated guy in the division simply based on how little attention he gets from most pundits.

The other titlist in the division, Guillermo Rigondeaux, is a bit of an anomaly. Right now, Rigondeaux today looks somewhat different from the fighter he was before he lost to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2017, being a more aggressive and less technical-savvy fighter nowadays. It makes for more exciting fights, but Rigondeaux has lost a step or two from when he was a pound-for-pound star. What makes things even weird is the fact that he holds a secondary title but it almost looks like his career has no direction and it’s been that way for a while.

The rest of the division has a number of title challengers and former champions, none of which really present much of a threat to Naoya or Casimero. Zolani Tete was considered one of the bantamweight’s best until he got dominated by Casimero in 2019. Andrew Moloney and Emmanuel Rodriguez are top 10 guys and were soundly decimated and deconstructed by Inoue. Others, such as Takuma and Joshua Greer, failed to win when they either stepped up in competition or were put in a position to get a title opportunity with a win.

It’s pretty clear that the trio of Naoya, Casimero and Oubaali are probably a step above everyone else, with Oubaali perhaps being the one most likely to lose his title anytime soon.

What will it take to get an undisputed champion?

The path to undisputed is very simple. If Inoue vs. Casimero does get made, all the winner has to do is fight Oubaali. Getting those two fights to happen may be a tad more complicated, however. Oubaali was supposed to defend his title against Donaire in December but that was scrapped as a result of Oubaali testing positive for COVID-19.

There’s no telling if Oubaali will revisit that fight in 2021. With his future currently unknown, it’s hard to tell whether or not an undisputed title fight is in the cards for 2021. Were it not for the pandemic, I would have put the odds of seeing an undisputed champion in the next 18 months closer to 60 percent. Right now, I would put it at less than 50 percent.

As far as contenders are concerned, I don’t really see anyone in the division beating Inoue or Casimero. They are definitely a class above the rest of the division. Even Donaire is a question mark at this point because it’s been a year since he last fought and is coming off a brutal war. Add in all the tough fights he has had and the punishment he’s received throughout his career and one has to question whether or not we’ve seen the last of Donaire at his best.

In the absolute best case scenario, Inoue and Casimero fight next spring with Oubaali getting a title defense in the first half of 2020 and then close out the year with the undisputed title fight. The worst case scenario is that everything stalls to the point where an Inoue vs. Casimero fight is even questionable for next year.

All in all, the division is in a great place at the moment with one of boxing’s top pound-for-pound stars at the top. However, it’s only a matter of time before Inoue moves up to super bantamweight. It would be a shame if the end of his run at bantamweight ends without fighting all of the top guys in the division.

Chances of there being a minimumweight champion in the next 18 months: 40%

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