Naoya Inoue is a fighter to restore one's faith in the sport of boxing.
After a decorated amateur career in which he went 75-6 with 48 KOs--keep in mind, that means 48 knockouts within just three rounds apiece--Inoue decided to go pro. For most boxers, "going pro" means facing a string of no-names, debutantes, and career-long losers. For Inoue, however, it was time to step up.
Joining the famed Ohashi Boxing Gym in Yokohama, Japan, Inoue signed an agreement promising never to fight easy competition of his own accord. So far, he's kept true to that promise. Combined, Inoue's professional opponents to this point boast a record of 124-26-10. There are only seven names on the 21 year-old's resume, but they are big ones, the most recent one standing head and shoulders above the rest.
April 6th, 2014, Inoue faced Adrian Hernandez, holder of the WBC light flyweight belt and number one 108 pounder on the planet. It took Inoue, who was himself unranked at the time, a mere six rounds to get the win.
More impressive than the win itself, however, is the way in which it came about. It looked, for all the world, like the 5-0 Japanese prospect vehemently defending his belt against the 29-2 Mexican. From the opening bell, it was Inoue in charge of the action, pushing the pace, and chasing the champion around the ring. Inoue marched forward behind an endless barrage of fast, powerful punches.
As surprising as it was to watch Inoue treat the top fighter in his division like this, his goals and aims are always the same. As a pressure fighter, Inoue has vast potential, even beyond the greatness he has already realized in his young career, and he achieves his suffocating forward momentum with a dangerous left hand. In addition to his hook, Inoue possesses a very effective jab--or rather, two very effective jabs, which he mixes up beautifully to keep his opponents off-balance, tentative, and open to his powerful knockout punches.
Today we will examine Inoue's jabs to gain a better understanding of this enigmatic fighter--this champion novice--as he gets set to face his toughest challenge yet, 11-time super flyweight and 17-time flyweight champion Omar Narvaez.
Jab No. 1 - The Harada
Inoue's first jab is an instrument of both physical and mental pressure. It is the spittin image of the jab of another Japanese great, Masahiko Harada, better known as "Fighting" Harada, who stands in the annals of boxing history as one of the greatest pressure fighters the sport has ever seen. Here it is.
Harada's jab was a machine gun loaded with pillows. Not that the punch couldn't hurt if it landed, but landing clean or doing damage was never the intent of this rapid-fire, low-impact punch. Rather, it kept his opponent off-balance and uncertain--afraid, even--of his relentless onslaught and fearsome power punches. Harada's jab stayed constantly in the face of his adversary, both measuring the distance and forcing the other man to react to his presence.
Inoue uses his softball jab in much the same way. It is frequently thrown in twos and threes, blinding and backing up his opponents until, in their efforts to move around or away from the jab, they walk into the path of a more meaningful shot.
Here, Inoue (in the white) touches his opponent three times, quickly but not urgently. The jab in this sequence is not the end goal, but it wears his opponent, Samartlek Kokietgym, down nonetheless. And then, when the Thai can do nothing but look for a way to escape, Inoue lines him up for a long overhand right.
The Harada-esque jab also turns Inoue into a fearsome volume puncher, despite the fact that he tends to fight in spurts and spots. Here, he keeps his flicking jab trained on Samartlek's face, mixing in other punches that, even when they fail to land, turn his opponent into a timid, defensive creature.
Jab number two, however, is a large part of what makes the Harada so effective. Against tough, experienced fighters, a touching, powerless jab can only do so much. To garner the desired result, every extension of the left hand must elicit fear in the opponent, or at the very least a defensive response. Which means that, even if only occasionally, the jab has to hurt.
Jab No. 2 - The Leonard
Where the pawing Harada exists to establish rhythm, the Leonard exists to break it. This is the fast, full-bodied straight left that snaps heads back and caves in chests. The one that makes you wish for a nice, predictable left hook. A long-shafted arrow that hits like a lamppost.
Below, you can see it thrown by the master himself.
Benny Leonard, the "Ghetto Wizard" stood at the forefront of a wave of tough-as-nails Jewish fighters in the early 20th Century. Known fondly as the King of the Lightweights, Leonard kept challengers away from his coveted title with grace and aplomb. His distance control was renowned, and it was this jackhammer jab that persuaded countless skilled opponents at bay as he boxed and danced around them.
Inoue, like Leonard, bounces gracefully around the ring, and peppers his enemies with sharp left-handed retorts as he does.
Rhythm is one of the lesser understood aspects of combat sports, but here it is displayed clearly. Inoue hops in and out of range, looking very much like a dancer moving to a steady beat. Then, just as Samartlek lowers his guard, Inoue changes speed and spears him with a long, straight jab.
And again, this hard jab is the key to Inoue's success with the softer, probing variety. Watch Inoue work his magic below.
Two hard jabs, one to the chest and another to the nose, convince Samartlek that Inoue's left hand is something to be feared. Inoue stalks forward, lowering his left shoulder as if loading up another shotgun jab, and simply twitches. This feint, subtle as it is, prompts a huge flinch from Samartlek. He tries to slip, parry, and block all at once, completely unsure of what to do.
And when the power jab can elicit this kind of response, an opponent is helpless to Inoue's virtuosic blending of the two varieties. In the sequence below, it all comes together beautifully.
Inoue stabs Samartlek with a hard jab to the shoulder. This isn't a scoring, or even a very effective punch in its own right, but it establishes Inoue's left as a threat, which comes in handy when, a moment later, he uses the soft, Harada variety to set up a combination. The flashing jab keeps Samartlek blind to the wide right downstairs and a left hook around the guard up above. Now, as Samartlek is put entirely on the defensive, Inoue changes things up again, and throws a hard 1-2. This one does not begin with the Harada jab, but rather starts with a spearing Leonard left to the chin, followed by an equally hard right hand over the top. Both punches land, and leave Samartlek reeling, an easy target for Inoue's next two punches, which land even cleaner.
This constant variation of rhythm and power makes Inoue a very difficult fighter with whom to contend. His confidence in his own abilities is obviously very great, and it grows round-by-round as he breaks his opponents down with speed, power, and sheer force of will. Narvaez will be the greatest opponent he has ever faced, and the odds are great that Inoue will falter for the first time in his professional career on New Year's Eve. However, the odds were against him against Adrian Hernandez as well, and Inoue rose to the occasion in spectacular fashion.
Whether or not he wins, Naoya Inoue is a fighter to watch and admire, both for his credible skills, and his courageous approach to one of the toughest sports on earth.