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Inoue vs Donaire preview: What’s at stake, how they got here, and how the fighters match up

Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire meet Thursday in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight final.

Muhammad Ali Trophy Semi-Finals - World Boxing Super Series Fight Night Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

This Thursday from Japan — which means the fights will stream live on DAZN starting at 5 am ET for US viewers — Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire meet in an unexpected World Boxing Super Series bantamweight final.

Here’s a look at the matchup, plus another bantamweight title fight on the undercard.

What’s at stake?

Inoue is defending the IBF bantamweight title and Donaire the WBA bantamweight title, plus we’ve got the Ali Trophy on the line for the winner, and the winner will be considered the No. 1 man at bantamweight, too. Inoue already is by pretty much everyone, and weird Cinderella story Donaire is up there in the rankings. If he pulls this off, you just can’t deny him the top spot, unless it’s some ridiculous robbery or the like. So it’s a big fight, yes.

How did Naoya Inoue get here?

The 26-year-old Inoue is a destroyer, plain and simple. He’s near the top of a lot of pound-for-pound lists for very good reason. Not only has he won world titles in three weight classes (108, 115, and 118), but he’s absolutely smashed just about everyone he’s faced, and he just seems to be getting stronger with each move up in weight.

Muhammad Ali Trophy Semi-Finals - World Boxing Super Series Fight Night Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Inoue (18-0, 16 KO) has gone the distance exactly two times in his career. The first time was against Ryoichi Taguchi, a really good fighter Inoue faced in what was Naoya’s fourth pro bout back in Aug. 2013, winning the Japanese 108-pound title by 10-round decision. The second time was David Carmona in May 2016, with Carmona surviving 12 full at 115 pounds.

Other than that, Inoue has pretty much trucked his opposition, and his competition has been solid since that fourth pro bout over six years ago. He won the OPBF junior flyweight title in his fifth fight, stopping Jerson Mancio in five. In his next outing, he stopped Adrian Hernandez in six to lift the WBC title at 108 pounds, and he defended it against Samartlek Kokietgym, who went into the 11th round but had taken a beating before finally being stopped.

In a daring move up to 115, skipping right past the flyweight division, Inoue was matched with crafty Argentine veteran Omar Narvaez in Dec. 2014. It would have been reasonable to expect Narvaez to give Inoue some fits, at least tactically, but Inoue crushed in in two to win the WBO super flyweight title. He made successful defenses against Warlito Parrenas, Carmona, Petchbarngborn Kokietgym, Kohei Kono, Ricardo Rodriguez, Antonio Nieves, and Yoan Boyeau, dominating them all, though Carmona did have a few moments in their distance fight. The Nieves fight saw him make his U.S. debut on an HBO-televised card, and he stopped NIeves after six rounds of one-sided action.

Inoue moved up once more in May 2018. Again, it would have been reasonable to expect he would slow down in the move up. Instead, he has absolutely demolished three straight good opponents. He beat Jamie McDonnell for the WBA secondary “world” title in 1:52, and followed that up with a 70-second knockout of former titleholder Juan Carlos Payano to open his run in the World Boxing Super Series tournament in Oct. 2018.

In the semifinal round of the WBSS, Inoue went to Glasgow for a neutral ground fight with Puerto Rico’s Emmanuel Rodriguez, the IBF titleholder. Rodriguez, like McDonnell and Payano, is a legitimately good fighter, a quality bantamweight. Inoue put him down three times in the second round for the stoppage.

None of Inoue’s last four opponents, dating back to Dec. 2017, have seen the fourth round. None of his last seven opponents, dating back to Dec. 2016, have seen the seventh round. Pound-for-pound, he may be the most intimidating man in boxing today. And what keeps him dangerous is that it doesn’t seem like that has made him cocky or arrogant; it has made him confident, but not to the point of the confidence becoming a detriment, at least so far.

There are questions about just how high Inoue may be able to go in weight. He’s getting to the point where he’s going to start being legitimately small for his weight classes if he tries to move up to 122, but he’s been so good that it seems more intriguing than anything. If he does the job in style on Thursday, who wouldn’t want to see him take a crack at Rey Vargas or Emanuel Navarrete, just to see if he can do it?

How did Nonito Donaire get here?

Nonito Donaire is going to turn 37 on Nov. 16, nine days after this fight with Inoue. The Filipino veteran has won titles at 112, 118, 122 (twice), and 126, plus an interim belt at 115. His world title wins started way back in 2007, when he blasted out the heavily favored Vic Darchinyan on Showtime. He was once considered a top pound-for-pound fighter.

And he wasn’t really supposed to be here on Thursday.

Ali Trophy Quarter-Finals - World Boxing Super Series Fight Night Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Going over all the achievements of Donaire’s long career would take pretty much forever, and frankly most of them aren’t relevant to this fight, anyway. He’s Hall of Fame-bound. But he’s had his ups and downs since 2013, when he was beaten by Guillermo Rigondeaux. Some nights he’s looked good, others not so much. He struggled at 126 and admitted he simply wasn’t a featherweight.

When Donaire (40-5, 26 KO) signed up for the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament last year, it was a surprise to pretty much everyone. After all, “The Filipino Flash” hadn’t fought at 118 pounds since 2011, so we’re talking seven years and him going up not just to 122, but then to 126. Coming back down in weight is tough for veteran fighters, even if they’re Donaire types who constantly stay in fighting shape.

Nonito wasn’t given much chance in the tournament, and not just because of the suspicion that he might be weight-drained, either. There was also the fact that, quite frankly, he was years past his best days. His prior two meaningful fights had seen him drop decisions to Jessie Magdaleno at 122 pounds and Carl Frampton at 126 pounds. He was still good enough to hang in fights like those, but not win.

Donaire was matched last November against Ryan Burnett, the WBA titleholder, in the opening round. It was a good, competitive fight for almost four full rounds, and was shaping up to be very intriguing, it seemed. Then Burnett took a knee at an odd moment. When he got up, it was clear he wasn’t right. The round ended, and Burnett had to quit in the corner due to a back injury. He left on a stretcher.

That’s not how Donaire wanted to win, but he got the win. So it was on to the semifinal round and a unification fight with WBO titleholder Zolani Tete in Lafayette, Louisiana, in April of this year. Then Tete pulled out three days before the fight due to a shoulder injury.

WBSS alternate Stephon Young subbed in against Donaire, and credit to the overmatched Young, he did his best to punch his own unlikely ticket to the final. Then Donaire caught him with his vaunted left hook, one of boxing’s true eraser punches. And it just plain over with.

So Nonito is in Saitama, ready for Inoue, or as ready as he can be. He’s old, frankly, and he hasn’t won a fight on this level in a long time. This would, in fact, be a career-best win for him. He’s never fought anyone seen the way Inoue is now, even Darchinyan in 2007.

How do the fighters match up?

Physically, Donaire has some minor advantages. He’s listed at 5’7½” to Inoue’s 5’5”, and has a 68” reach to Inoue’s 67½”, which is close enough to be negligible, really.

Style-wise, I mean, Inoue does what Inoue does. He’s not just a puncher, mind you; he can box, his game is grounded in fundamentals, and he’s proven that if he has to go into deeper rounds, he can hold up. He doesn’t have to get guys out in a few rounds to win, it’s just most people can’t take the punishment from him for too long. He’s a vicious body puncher and breaks the will of his opponents, and he can do it real fast.

Donaire’s main tactical flaw is a simple one, and it’s been there forever, even back when he was a top P4P guy, and it comes from his greatest asset, the left hook. Donaire has a habit of falling in love with that punch to the point he can be one-dimensional and ineffective. The good news is that, again, his left hook is a genuine eraser, a monster punch. But if it’s all he’s looking for, he becomes predictable. It may be his only legitimate chance at the upset on Thursday, but Inoue will be prepared for it, too. It can be neutralized. That said, if Inoue feels he’s building momentum and gets a little reckless looking for a finish, Donaire could absolutely sneak it in and end the fight. Double-edged sword, of sorts.

Who’s the favorite?

As of this writing, Inoue is a very strong favorite, listed between -670 and -1250 on various sportsbooks. This makes sense, with all due respect to Donaire. You have to consider that Nonito was the underdog against Burnett (who was around these same odds) and Tete (who was -500 to -600 or so).

Nonito wasn’t supposed to be here, period. If I’m harping on that, it’s because it has to be clear how unlikely this really was believed to be when this tournament started a year ago. Donaire is listed between +376 and +550 right now.

But it also has to be said that these odds have narrowed considerably since they opened with Inoue around -2500 and Donaire around +1000. Donaire has some believers, or at the very least, some people wiling to take a gamble on him doing it one more time.

Who will win?

Check back for our staff picks on Wednesday!


Rau’shee Warren v Nordine Oubaali Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There’s another world title fight on the undercard, as WBC bantamweight titleholder Nordine Oubaali will defend against Naoya’s brother, Takuma Inoue.

Oubaali (16-0, 12 KO) is a 33-year-old French fighter and two-time Olympian. He fought at Beijing 2008, losing to Chinese amateur superstar Zou Shiming on a jury decision in the second round. At London 2012 he beat Rau’shee Warren in the second round before losing to Michael Conlan in the quarterfinal, finishing out of the medals again. He did win bronze as a light flyweight at the 2007 World Amateur Championships, and overall had a fine amateur career.

Oubaali turned pro in 2014, making his debut on a card in Morocco, with his next 13 fights coming in France. He won minor and regional titles, then in January of this year, on the Pacquiao-Broner card, he came to Las Vegas to face old amateur rival Warren for the vacant WBC bantamweight belt, winning a clear and deserved decision in a good fight. He made his first defense on July 6 in Kazakhstan, stopping Arthur Villanueva after six rounds.

Inoue (13-0, 3 KO) isn’t much like big brother Naoya, as you can probably tell from the KO percentage, but the 23-year-old fighter is a quality contender and a big step up in competition for Oubaali compared to Villanueva. This is a legitimate title matchup.

Inoue went pro in Dec. 2013, and in his fifth pro fight in July 2015, he won the vacant OPBF super flyweight title by outpointing veteran Mark Anthony Geraldo at Korakuen Hall. Frankly, his level of competition hasn’t really risen since then. He defended that title twice before moving up in weight in Sept. 2016, and has steadily won fights as a bantamweight without making big international waves. He’s not the destroyer his brother is, and as such there’s no real fascination with him.

In Sept. 2018, Inoue won a WBC eliminator over Mark John Yap, and three months later claimed the interim WBC bantamweight title with a decision victory over Petch Sor Chitpattana.

Inoue will have home field advantage, but judging in Japan — even in fights with international judges — is generally considered to be pretty fair, so Inoue is going to have to earn it with Oubaali, and vice versa. It’s a very good co-feature matchup on this card.

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