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How do you beat Naoya Inoue?

Paul Butler came to survive on Tuesday in Japan – is there any other way?

Will anyone have the solution to the Naoya Inoue puzzle?
Will anyone have the solution to the Naoya Inoue puzzle?
Photo by YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP via Getty Images

It’s almost as if Paul Butler gave away his game plan during the ring walks on Tuesday. The Briton – who’s assignment was to become the first undisputed bantamweight champion in half a century – strolled out to “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and, from the opening round inside the Ariake Arena, it was clear that he was in attendance to be just that. A survivor.

Naoya Inoue stalked, harassed and bullied Butler for every second of their undisputed bantamweight contest. The Briton circled the ring with his hands held high, unable and unwilling to engage with the “Monster” and, in turn, copped copious amounts of punishment to the body and head. This fight was more akin to a journeyman giving a prospect rounds to unearth his talents, rather than what is deemed by the belts on offer as the pinnacle of the division.

“Have a bit of swagger about you,” shouted Butler’s experienced trainer, Joe Gallagher, midway through round 4, clearly concerned by the story that was unfolding in front of his eyes. But Butler only had his eyes set on the finish line – like an overweight and unprepared marathon runner, it was just about getting to the finishing line and not about how.

Inoue became frustrated in patches, but not undeterred. He dropped his hands and gestured Butler forward on occasion, but the Briton wouldn’t be tempted into heroics or a gung-ho rally.

I am reluctant to be too critical of Butler’s efforts on away soil. It was clear that Butler’s raison d’être was to dig in and take this fight the distance, but his stubbornness and inability to throw anything of note back simply angered Inoue. The best form of defence can often be attack in boxing but Butler’s inability to set traps or counter the lightning speed of the 29-year-old seemed mission impossible.

The Japanese pound-for-pound star fought with an obsession to stop Butler – who is the first man to take Inoue past eight rounds since 2019 – and the end finally came at the 1:09 mark of round 11. Inoue’s jab once again caused an opponent to freeze in the headlights and he showed a frightening willingness to punch through the guard and excavate openings when patience wouldn’t cut it.

An absence of television or streaming coverage in the United Kingdom for this contest – airing on a Tuesday morning – perhaps underlined the futility of Butler’s trip to Japan (barring a seven-figure pay-day).

So how do you solve a problem like Naoya Inoue? His 19th straight title fight, essentially, turned into a spar in Tokyo and his decision to move up to 122 pounds is now born out of necessity after drinking the tap dry at bantamweight.

Jason Moloney and Nonito Donaire started drawing the B of a Blueprint, but were still unable to capitalise on positive aggression and an insistence of gaining Inoue’s respect.

What is clear is that merely surviving a fight with the “Monster” has now become a target for his opponents; a badge of honour. Butler appeared half relieved, half disappointed as he kissed Inoue on the cheek post-fight – the closest he had got to him all evening – as an evening where his ambition and drive to become the best in the world drained from his heart as soon as the opening bell rang.

Lewis Watson is a sports writer from London, UK, and a member of the BWAA. Follow or contact him on Twitter @lewroyscribbles

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