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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 27: Naoya “Monster” Inoue

Naoya "Monster" Inoue

Anyone who knows me knows the love I have for Thomas Hearns. For years I’ve looked for another fighter comparable to the “Motor City Cobra.” There were a few occasions when I thought I found similar versions in Junior Jones and Nicholas Walters. While both had excellent careers, neither amounted to the same type of success Hearns had garnered. Finally I’ve found the true successor to the style and explosiveness of the Memphis born legend. He hails from Japan and is nicknamed “Monster.” He’s also my 27th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

After a solid amateur career in his native Japan, Naoya Inoue turned pro at the tender age of 19 in October of 2012. In just his fourth pro fight, Inoue completely dominated future world light flyweight champion Ryoichi Taguchi over 10 rounds to win the Japanese light flyweight title. Two fights later on April 10, 2014 and four days shy of his 21st birthday, Inoue battered Adrian Hernandez into a sixth round submission to win the WBC light flyweight title. It would begin a reign of terrorizing world class fighters that is now in its 10th year.

Inoue moved up to 115 pounds, completely skipping the 112 pound division, to challenge southpaw technician and the reigning WBO jr. bantamweight champion, the Argentinian Omar Narvaez on December 30, 2014. This fight was eerily reminiscent of Hearns against Pipino Cuevas. At 5’5, Inoue towered over the diminutive 5’2 Argentinian champion. Inoue, behind a piston-like jab, dropped Narvaez twice in round one and knocked him out at the end of the second round with a cannon-like left hook to the rib cage. This fight exemplified why Inoue is one of the greatest offensive fighters in boxing history. He has perfected every single punch in a boxer’s arsenal. Besides his battering ram of a jab and debilitating hooks to the body, Inoue’s right cross is also greater than 95 percent of all men who ever stepped into a boxing ring. At the age of 21 and only eight career fights, I felt at the time that Inoue was one of the 10 best active fighters in the world. Unfortunately, the majority of boxing fans hadn’t yet heard of this special fighter from Japan.

Over the next three years, Inoue successfully defended his 115-pound title seven times in overwhelming fashion, knocking out six of the contenders. Then, in the most important decision of his career, Inoue went up in class to 118 pounds. In his very first fight at 118, Inoue challenged British WBA bantamweight champion Jamie McDonnell for his title on May 25, 2018 in Tokyo. The now 25-year-old “Monster” completely obliterated the British champion in less than two minutes. At this point of time there was no doubt in my mind that despite only having 16 pro fights, Inoue was the greatest Japanese fighter who ever lived. He would put an exclamation point to this distinction after the completion of the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament.

In his next two fights, both as part of the WBSS tournament, Inoue knocked out Juan Carlos Payano in the first round and Emmanuel Rodriguez in the second round while adding Rodriguez’s IBF title to his trophy case. This would result in Inoue facing legendary Filipino boxer Nonito Donaire to determine the winner of the WBSS 118-pound tournament. It was a night those who attended the fight in Saitama, Japan would never forget.

In a bantamweight version of Sugar Ray Leonard versus Thomas Hearns, both Inoue and Donaire put on an incredible display of power, speed, heart, skill and intestinal fortitude. The 26-year-old Inoue was severely tested for the first time in his career. The 37-year-old Donaire showed why eight years prior, people were comparing him to Roy Jones, Jr. Early in the second round, Inoue suffered a nasty cut around his right eye from a vicious Donaire left hook that impeded his eyesight for the majority of the fight. Donaire ate several right crosses to land equally vicious rights of his own. In the fifth round, Inoue had Donaire in major trouble and almost put him away before the bell saved the Filipino great.

Virtually dead even after an epic ninth round that saw Donaire badly hurt Inoue and a 10th round that saw both fighters land one bomb after another, it was the 11th round that clinched the fight for Inoue. Midway through the 11th, Inoue landed a left hook to Donaire’s rib cage that sent the Filipino star running across the ring in pain. Barely getting up at the almost count of 10, Donaire withstood a barrage of bombs before hurting Inoue with his own left hook to the chin to survive the penultimate round of the greatest fight in bantamweight history. Inoue wisely outboxed Donaire in the 12th and final round to secure the victory and crown.

It was only fitting that the man who presented him was the fighter he supplanted as the greatest Japanese boxer of all-time, Fighting Harada. Like Leonard-Hearns I, it was a fight where both fighters came out as winners. Despite winning the fight, Inoue suffered a broken orbital bone and nose. Donaire, despite losing, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest fighters ever to come from both Asia and the Philippines.

Today, Inoue still reigns supreme as the real bantamweight champion of the world at the still relatively young age of 28. There is not a bantamweight in the world today that has a shot in hell at beating him. Undefeated at 21-0 with 18 knockouts, Inoue has already proven in less than a decade as a pro boxer that not only is he the greatest Japanese fighter of all-time, but also the 27th best fighter of the last 45 years.

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