Scotland welcomes sighting of 'The Monster'
Photos: (top to bottom) Mark Runnacles/Getty Images; Chris Williamson; Koki Nagahama/Getty Images; Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
As Naoya Inoue prepares for his World Boxing Super Series semi-final in Glasgow this weekend, Chris Williamson ponders the Japanese superstar's reign of terror and asks whether Emmanuel Rodriguez can halt his rise...
As with much Japanese culture, the legendary Korakuen Hall doesn’t make itself immediately accessible to outsiders.
Attached to the vast Tokyo Dome complex which hosted the most famous upset in modern boxing history 29 years ago when James Douglas busted Mike Tyson’s cloak of invincibility, the hall is reached by travelling up a number of floors in a nondescript building which takes some trial-and-error to navigate. Thankfully, as with experiencing the country itself, the effort pays off handsomely. Inside, as vendors dispense Kirin beer to thirsty fight enthusiasts, one is greeted with a glass cabinet displaying in chronological order six incarnations of the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) national championship belt.
Naoya Inoue was born three years after Douglas departed Japan as heavyweight champion, in the Kanagawa prefecture located just south of the capital. When turning professional at the Korakuen aged just 19, Inoue will likely have glanced at the belts, serving as motivation that before long he'd possess the modern version of the prize himself. In fact, the young star was fast-tracked to such an extent that after three swift, well-attended knockout wins at the hall, Inoue made the bold step of challenging seasoned Japanese light-flyweight champion and future world titlist Ryoichi Taguchi on home soil of Kanagawa.
A brilliant performance from the young challenger saw Inoue win the title via unanimous ten-round decision before even more audaciously challenging - and winning - the WBC light-flyweight title from superb Mexican Adrian Hernandez, with a sixth-round TKO in just his sixth professional fight. Inoue finished matters with a beautiful straight right at the end of a typically quick combination. The secret was well and truly out and Inoue was a star.
Interestingly, for a long time the JBC would only sanction WBC or WBA title bouts, eschewing the IBF and WBO. In this modern age, however, and after one successful WBC light-fly defence, Inoue leaped a division to begin what became a seven-defence reign of terror at super-flyweight after winning the WBO title against Omar Narvaez.
After registering two stunning successive first round knockouts against Jamie McDonnell (to win the WBA ‘regular’ title) and Juan Carlos Payano in his only two bouts at the bantamweight limit, Inoue (17-0) now faces the undefeated Puerto Rican IBF champ Emmanuel Rodriguez in the World Boxing Super Series 118lbs semi-final this weekend in Glasgow. Of course, Rodriguez is known to British fight fans for outclassing Paul Butler in London to claim the vacant title one year ago.
Rodriguez (19-0) should represent a tough assignment for 'The Monster'. Having said that most of us expected a tricky contest when Inoue squared up to Payano, rather than a swift, iconic knockout reminiscent in its aesthetics of Michael Nunn's first round KO of Sumbu Kalambay.
Inoue, just a year into his bantamweight campaign, is already ranked number 1 at the weight in the Boxing Monthly rankings, with Rodriguez number 5. “My aim is a KO in any fight,” said Inoue this week. “In my last two fights last year, that moment just happened to come in the first round. My goal is not to finish the fight in the first round, but I will go for the KO when I see the chance.”
One of many benefits of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) schedule is the regularity with which the double-header format is engaged to move the competition along, providing local fans with unexpected chances to glimpse stars from the other side of the world. Glasgow fight enthusiasts, already anticipating Josh Taylor’s challenge to Ivan Baranchyk on the same bill, will surely create a fervent atmosphere for Inoue vs Rodriguez, a scarcely-believable bonus to that main event.
Inoue seems to be in the form of his career, viewed as the cover of the current issue of Boxing Monthly anoints him, as something of a 'mini-Mike Tyson'. Of course, boxing history is littered with vaunted knockout artists coming unstuck when faced with less-heralded opposition able to execute a game plan which lessens the power advantage. Vince Phillips' stoppage of Kostya Tszyu and Rolando Pascua’s KO defeat of the fearsome light-fly champ Humberto Gonzales come immediately to mind.
Whether Rodriguez has the combination of steel and skill necessary to emulate those underdogs remains to be seen. The Puerto Rican is very well-schooled, neat and tidy and appears to have a tight defence. He will need it. He also appears quietly confident and to be relishing the huge challenge he faces.
“I am well aware that I am fighting a guy considered the best by reporters and fans, but I have been waiting this moment my entire life, “ he said this week ahead of the semi-final. “I always wanted to fight the best. We are going to go in with all the tools and I can tell you that we will get nothing but the victory and shut up some people’s mouths. On May 18 I will still be the world champion and I will go all the way and take home the trophy to Puerto Rico.”
Inoue's body punching in particular is truly fearsome. He will often focus on the body until his victim's hands are slowly and inevitably tempted down to protect a battered torso, whereupon he will switch up with fast accurate combinations to the head. Inoue's left hook in particular is a thing of terrible beauty and he has no known weakness.
This is the crux; although Rodriguez is an excellent fighter, Inoue appears to be a special one. The Japanese wrecking machine’s punches seem to have a different level of impact than other boxers do, leaving men shocked and crumpled in a similar state to those brave enough to challenge Julian Jackson in his pomp.
Neither McDonnell or Payano had ever been stopped, but they simply wilted when faced with the power and technique of Inoue. The pick then is for Inoue to finish Rodriguez inside six rounds to advance to the WBSS final and a meeting with Filipino veteran Nonito Donaire.
While visiting Japan one local sports fan told me that middleweight Ryota Murata's popularity could be partly explained because the Japanese are so enamoured with the Olympic games. As the 2020 Tokyo games approach, Murata - now a former champion - and the suspended Daigo Higa are now firmly in the shadow of the little bantamweight who, Olympic champion or not, appears to be every bit the hero Japanese boxing needs.