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Naoya Inoue’s big Top Rank push may be delayed as COVID concerns linger

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The bantamweight star expects to fight in the spring, if things can be worked out in Japan.

Naoya Inoue v Jason Moloney Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images

It looked and felt like Naoya Inoue would exit 2020 and blast into the new year at a new level, but the Inoue push will fall behind a bit, and you can blame COVID.

Following his brutally efficient outing against Jason Moloney on Oct. 31, Top Rank boss Bob Arum spoke glowingly of the Japanese boxer. His enthusiasm pointed to a forthcoming push in prominence for the 27-year-old, who holds the WBA and IBF bantamweight titles.

And that made sense. Terence Crawford fell out of favor after looking to engineer a leverage play, as he sought to secure a fight against the PBC talent Errol Spence. Top Rank wanted some new focal points for fight fans to enthuse over.

But uncertainty with COVID is gumming up the works as Top Rank and Team Inoue — including Japanese promoter Akihiko Honda — figure out the 118-pounder’s next tussle.

“People want the next fight in Japan, a huge fight there,” Arum told me.

Filipino Michael Dasmarinas (30-2-1) is the IBF mandatory challenger, and reports are that will be Inoue’s next fight. Arum says the plan is in place: “All terms are agreed to. The problem is, foreigners can’t go to Japan. Honda has all these fights, for Inoue, for Ryota Murata, and he can’t do them,” said Arum.

Japan’s trouble with COVID has been up and down, and starting toward the end of September, the country saw cases rising, and they’ve not had the same success in pancaking the curve that they did early in 2020. Hospitals in the regions worst-hit by COVID are close to over-flowing.

Boxing aside, the nation’s leaders are puzzling over how to handle the fact that the 2020 Olympics are supposed to start in Tokyo on July 23. Word is, as of now, it’s full steam ahead. Large sumo rugby tourney events are unfolding, so by and large the desire to keep entertainment commerce alive seems unwavering.

You remember Arum was doing business in Macau some years ago. He will be checking back in there, seeing how things stand for doing more boxing business. Maybe that could include a place for Inoue to show his skill set. Makes sense — Macau has not had any new COVID-19 cases since June and there have been zero reported COVID deaths to date.

We are seeing other pockets of positivity, too. In and around Saudi Arabia, for instance, there is a renewed appetite for bringing in large-scale events, with the assumption that by, say, May or June, they’ll be far enough along in immunity efforts that it wouldn’t be irresponsible to try and herd around 40,000 into a stadium.

But we are still in a zone of uncertainty, and a lot of fights that might otherwise come together are still up in the air.