2019 was a pretty good year for good and great fights in the boxing world, but when all was said and done, the near-unanimous choice for Fight of the Year went to Nov. 7 war in Saitama, Japan, between Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire.
It’s important to remember how this fight was seen coming in. When Donaire, years after having left the bantamweight division, announced he would return to 118 pounds for the World Boxing Super Series tournament, there were rightly plenty of skeptics.
“The Filipino Flash” had no doubt seen better days, being in his mid-30s and all, and it had been a long while since he scored a seriously good win. Coming down in weight, too, is never easy for aging fighters, or at least rarely easy.
Donaire (40-5, 26 KO coming in) was also on an odd run. To reach the tournament final, he’d beaten Ryan Burnett via a freak injury that eventually retired Burnett after a comeback bid, with the victory giving Donaire the WBA bantamweight title. That was fluky, with due respect to a fight that through about four rounds was shaping up to be a good one.
In the tournament semifinals, scheduled opponent Zolani Tete pulled out during fight week, so Stephon Young stepped in as a tournament alternate. Donaire obliterated Young with a vintage Nonito left hook in the sixth round, but Young was no world contender.
Inoue (18-0, 16 KO coming in), meanwhile, had just kept earning his “Monster” reputation. In the opening round of the tournament, he trounced the capable ex-titlist Juan Carlos Payano in 70 seconds. In the semifinals in Glasgow, he destroyed Emmanuel Rodriguez inside of two rounds, taking the IBF title.
There were some worried that Inoue would absolutely demolish the aging Donaire, that Nonito no longer had the ability to hang with the younger warrior, let alone sincerely challenge him.
But any doubts about Nonito Donaire’s latest run came to an end in November, as he went toe-to-toe with Inoue for a full 12 rounds. Donaire lost, no question, but he had more than his share of moments, and Inoue left with two belts and the Muhammad Ali Trophy, yes, but also a fractured orbital.
It is a stunning fight, an instant classic, and if you still haven’t seen it, do yourself the favor and watch it today. Inoue is what he’s supposed to be, and Donaire turns in a classic boxing story of performances, a great thought to be past his prime, and maybe he really is, but he puts every single thing he has into at least one more great fight. Even in defeat, Nonito Doanire’s legacy was only enhanced with this fight, and it was a big one for the victorious Inoue, too, as he proved he could handle real resistance.
As for where they are now, Donaire promoter Richard Schaefer would like to see a rematch, and the path to one — with all four bantamweight titles on the line — is actually pretty clear for once. Not easy, mind you, but the road to get there is very obvious. It’s up to the fighters.