Why Naoya ‘The Monster’ Inoue should be your favorite fighter

Mike Coppinger, ESPNJul 23, 2023, 7:30 a.m. ET

His opponent, Paul Butler, was in survival mode throughout the fight, very reluctant to throw punches for fear of opening up his guard.

Butler knew what he was fighting: not just any boxer, but the boxer who had earned the nickname “The Monster” for his unbridled strength, lightning-fast hands, and masterful use of angles.

Over the years in which the Japanese star has cut through various weight classes with ease, Naoya Inoue’s wins have transformed him into something approaching mythical status.

Top Rank Boxing is now on ESPN and ESPN+. Subscribe to ESPN+ for exclusive boxing events, weigh-ins and more.

Tuesday, 4:30 a.m. ET on ESPN+: Stephen Fulton vs. Naoya Inoue, 12 rounds, for the WBC and WBO Fulton junior featherweight titles

Butler, a solid fighter who happens to hold the last belt that stood between Inoue and the undisputed bantamweight championship, knows firsthand what makes Inoue so special.

Even though he was on high guard throughout their December meeting, Inoue still found a way. That he was able to stop Butler was not that impressive. That Inoue (24-0, 21 KOs) was able to do it even though Butler didn’t want to get involved? Very rarely. Fighters often criticize their opponent for “running” to explain why they can’t award a KO in a boring fight. There’s no need for excuses with Inoue.

He exploded into the American boxing consciousness with a top-10 bantamweight trio of knockouts in title bouts from 2018 to ’19 in Japan, broadcast in the early hours of the morning in the United States.

Now, Inoue, ESPN’s number 2 pound-for-pound boxer, is ready for his toughest challenge yet, another chance for his legend to blossom. In his first fight at 122 pounds, Inoue will challenge Philadelphia’s top junior featherweight boxer Stephen Fulton for the WBC and WBO world titles on Tuesday in Tokyo (4:30 am ET, ESPN+).

Fulton (21-0, 8 KOs) is a pound-for-pound talent, sitting just outside the top 10 and naturally much bigger than Inoue (he won his first title at 122 pounds.) Inoue won his first title at 108 pounds, and so far, his talent has proven too difficult to contain by size.

“I pushed my building boundaries, my boundaries,” said Inoue, 30, on ESPN’s “Camp Life.” “I really don’t know what kind of fight it’s going to be. I’m just going to do everything I can to win. If I get the chance I’ll go for the KO and if it doesn’t go like that I’ll just focus on keeping my fists solid to get that win.”

How good is “The Monster”? We take a look at what makes Inoue so special ahead of his fight with Fulton.

‘Inoue has good eyes’

Naoya Inoue, left, moves up in weight to challenge WBC and WBO junior featherweight champion Stephen Fulton Tuesday night in Japan. YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP via Getty Images

Inoue rarely makes mistakes, even though he is very offensive. During a series of three fights, his first at 118 pounds, Inoue won the competition. First, he scored Jamie McDonnell’s eye-opening first-round TKO in May 2018 to capture the bantamweight title. Five months later, Inoue dominated the bona fide bantamweight top 10 with a first-round knockout of Juan Carlos Payano. His best win at bantamweight came in his next fight, a second-round TKO of Emmanuel Rodriguez in the World Boxing Super Series to claim another 118 pound title.

Throughout those three bouts, one attribute stood out: Inoue’s vision. It’s his ability to shoot opponents while staying in position to take advantage of gaps that makes him dangerous.

“Inoue has a great ‘eye’ with a poise of steel that allows him to see where the gaps are and the proper placement for certain shots,” famed coach Teddy Atlas told ESPN. “His incredible confidence and belief in himself with these attributes and the timing and placement of his feet that give him a strong balance to deliver his punches make him very effective on offense.

“Add in his habit of covering well with his hands, and solid basics overall and he’s a ‘Monster’ to deal with.”

‘He’s vicious’



Naoya Inoue KO Nonito Donaire in the Round 2 rematch

Naoya Inoue defeated Nonito Donaire in Round 2 to unify the WBA, WBC, and IBF world bantamweight titles.

Inoue didn’t face much difficulty during his first three fights at 118 pounds, all of which didn’t reach the opening bell for Round 3, but that changed in a major way in his fourth fight.

In the World Boxing Super Series finals, Inoue stepped in to compete in a bout with aspiring Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire in November 2019. The fight was brutal, ESPN’s best fight of the year showcased the character Inoue possesses.

The 26-year-old suffered a broken nose along with an orbital fracture in the first three rounds, but never faltered. Inoue continued to press forward against an impressive puncher and broke through in Round 11 when he folded Donaire with a body shot.

Donaire appeared to be on the verge of being stopped but somehow he heard the final bell as Inoue punished him for the final two rounds despite two injuries affecting his vision and ability to breathe.

Editors’ Choice

2 Related

“He’s tough,” Donaire said. “I didn’t expect that from him. He can crack them too. … He’s got speed. He’s got the whole [package],” said the “Filipino Flash” at the DAZN Boxing Show ahead of his rematch with Inoue in June 2022. In that second fight, Inoue was beyond doubt with a crushing, second-round TKO of Donaire, to add a third bantamweight title.

He sent Donaire to the canvas with a cutting right hand in Round 1 — Donaire said it was the hardest punch he had ever landed — and then Inoue knocked Donaire down again in Round 2 on the eve of a TKO victory.

“He’s a mean kid—-,” Mike Tyson said on last year’s “Hotboxin'” podcast. “… He doesn’t look like much. He is better than Manny Pacquiao. … He is vicious. … He is a monster.”

Hall of Fame promoter Lou DiBella, who oversaw HBO’s boxing program from 1989 to 2000, echoed Tyson’s sentiments.

“He’s a complete fighter and this sets him apart from a lot of other Japanese fighters historically: he’s a badass,” DiBella told ESPN. “He’s got a tough killer mentality.”

‘He’s the best fighter ever from Japan’



Naoya Inoue flirted with Paul Butler before winning by TKO

Naoya Inoue defeated Paul Butler by technical knockout to become the undisputed bantamweight champion.

Inoue is not yet a star in the United States. After all, he’s only fought in the US three times, with the rest of his fights taking place in Japan, where he’s become an icon. Most of his fights recently aired on ESPN+, but early in the morning on the east coast, and early in the morning on the west coast.

The lack of visibility has made it difficult for Inoue to break through in the US, but there’s no questioning what he means in Japan.

He fought in front of sold out audiences in his homeland and earned a sizable gate. Inoue regularly attracts an audience of millions and millions. And in a boxing-mad country, he stands above the rest.

“Japanese boxing has centuries of history…he’s the best fighter ever from Japan,” said DiBella. “He has no weaknesses. Fulton is a hell of a talent, he’s not without a chance here. But ‘The Monster’ hasn’t done anything wrong. You have to counter him to perfection to stand a chance. He’s just an amazing fighter to watch.”

‘Really good boxing IQ’



Naoya Inoue scored 3 knockdowns in his KO victory over Michael Dasmarinas

Naoya Inoue put in a great performance as he scored three knockdowns through three rounds of competition defeating Michael Dasmarinas easily.

Far more than just a tough boxer with knockout power in both hands and a special athletic gift, Inoue also has the ring smarts to accompany those physical traits.

Former junior welterweight challenger Dmitry Salita witnessed Inoue’s boxing thoughts firsthand. Salita promoted Antonio Nieves, Inoue’s opponent for his US debut, and watched Inoue flirt with the American in an HBO triple header in September 2017.

This week’s headlines from

Get exclusive access to thousands of premium articles every year from top authors.
• NFL executives rank the best cornerbacks »
• First half scores for all 30 MLB teams »
• Best unsigned NHL free agent »
More ESPN+ content »

“He has a really good boxing IQ,” Salita told ESPN. “…With Inoue, similar to [Terence] Crawford, he’s a very good distance judge and knows how to change pace. He knows how to vary his power shots. He sometimes throws punches just to calm his opponents and make them feel safe.

“He has a few different levels of strength. He has light punches, medium shots and he calms his opponents down so they think he’s a good punch but not a very big punch. He’s able to deliver his punches and change his pace throughout the fight and during the round. He’s very explosive and he can literally go from 0 to 60 in milliseconds.”

Salita was also impressed by Inoue’s disciplined approach.

“He seems to have been built mentally, physically and spiritually to be a special fighter from a young age. When the going gets tough and you get tired, he can continue the education he had from when he was a kid.”

Simply put, to quote DiBella, “If you don’t love this kid, you know nothing about boxing.”

Related Articles

Back to top button