"The Monster" Naoya Inoue, the No. 1 seed in the World Boxing Super Series eight-man bantamweight tournament, lived up to his billing as he outpointed four-division world titlist Nonito Donaire to unify 118-pound titles on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.
Inoue (19-0, 16 KOs), in the toughest fight of his career -- and a fight of the year candidate -- overcame a terrible cut over his right eye, suffered in the second round, and a bloody nose, inflicted in the third, to drop Donaire (40-6, 26 KOs) with a body shot in the 11th round and win a classic battle 117-109, 116-111 and 114-113.
So now what? Let's take a look at what's ahead for the newly signed Top Rank boxer:
How did Inoue look against Donaire?
This wasn't his most dominant performance, but the nature of this fight is exactly what Inoue needed. Inoue had been dispatching world-class foes so rapidly that many wondered if the 36-year-old Donaire could even go a few rounds.
Well, he did more than that. Donaire gave Inoue his sternest and longest test as a professional. Donaire's length and reach troubled the shorter Inoue, who was able to box effectively for stretches but always had to be wary of Donaire's trademark counter left hook. Inoue also had to deal with a right hand that buzzed him more than once. In the ninth round Donaire caught Inoue with it and at that point that the fight was still very much in the air.
We found out something about Inoue tonight: He isn't a front-running bully who folds at the first sign of resistance. In the championship rounds when he needed another gear, Inoue found it. He hurt Donaire late in the 10th round, and then in the 11th, Inoue dropped Donaire with a left hook to the body.
Look for Inoue -- who has won titles at 108, 115 and 118 pounds -- to settle in a bit as a bantamweight. Since winning the WBA belt by blasting out Jamie McDonnell in one round last year, Inoue has now made three title defenses. Donaire's size advantage troubled him throughout the fight and Inoue admitted he still needs to get stronger in this weight class. He's only 26 and in his physical prime. Eventually he'll move again, but there's still business to take care of at bantamweight. -- Steve Kim
Now that Inoue has signed with Top Rank, what's next for him?
Inoue signed a multiyear co-promotional deal with Top Rank to fight on ESPN platforms beginning in 2020. In securing Inoue's services, Top Rank now promotes three of the top four fighters in ESPN's pound-for-pound rankings: Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford and Inoue, with No. 3 Canelo Alvarez aligned with Golden Boy Promotions.
Top Rank plans to bring Inoue to the United States for two fights in a row in 2020. A third fight will follow later in the year, at home in Japan, where he is already a superstar. But he is looking for more worldwide exposure. Inoue suffered a terrible cut over his right eye against Donaire, so it is possible that could delay his 2020 schedule, but count on him fighting in the U.S., where he has only boxed once before.
What weight Inoue fights at remains to be seen. Top Rank could try to match him in a further unification fight with Nordine Oubaali, which would have a built-in storyline of family revenge. Oubaali outpointed Takuma Inoue, Naoya's younger brother, in Thursday's co-feature.
Another very makeable and intriguing fight -- though unlikely next -- would be a match against junior featherweight world titlist Emanuel Navarrete (29-1, 25 KOs). That would be a perfect matchup for when Inoue decides to move up to the 122-pound division and go for a world title in a fourth weight class. -- Dan Rafael
Should Donaire retire? What's left in the tank?
I'd like to see him retire. Donaire is 36 years old and he has done everything a fighter can do, plus he made millions along the way.
Despite losing to Inoue, he would be walking away on a high note in my view, given how sensational the fight was and how well he performed -- sort of like how heavyweight great Wladimir Klitschko retired following his loss to Anthony Joshua in the 2017 fight of the year.
However, knowing his competitive fire, it would not necessarily surprise me if he took a bit of a rest and decided to give it another go. If he does, he can still certainly compete with anyone at bantamweight or junior featherweight, where he has also held a world title. -- Dan Rafael
Is Donaire a Hall of Famer?
Donaire deserved a place in the International Hall of Fame, even before this bout with Inoue. The result of the World Boxing Super Series was only going to add to his legacy and reputation if he would've come out victorious.
He won titles in four divisions, ranging from flyweight to junior featherweight. Donaire's first victory over an undefeated Vic Darchinyan earned him the IBF flyweight belt -- his first world title -- in 2007. Then he beat the highly regarded Fernando Montiel, in his prime, to unify the WBC and WBO bantamweight belts in 2011 ESPN's knockout of the year.
In 2012, he was ESPN's fighter of the year as he defeated Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce in succession. And it was during this era he volunteered for year-round random drug testing, making him a pioneer in many respects. For a good five years, he was considered among the very elite in the sport, and he was a fixture on every credible pound-for-pound list.
Later in his career as he moved up in weight, it took high-quality fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Nicholas Walters, Jessie Magdaleno and Carl Frampton to defeat him.
So yeah, book his reservation for the Hall of Fame. -- Steve Kim
What do you think about Takuma Inoue?
Takuma Inoue, the younger brother of Naoya Inoue, came up short in his attempt to win the WBC bantamweight world title against Nordine Oubaali on the undercard. The scores were 120-107, 117-110 and 115-112 for Oubaali. Unlike his brother, Takuma Inoue simply didn't have the jolting power to turn the fight around and he was never really able to hurt the defending champion until the last round, when he was well behind on his card. For much of the night Oubaali, a short and stocky southpaw, was able to enforce his advantage in physical strength and punching power.
Takuma is a competent boxer, but the power deficit was evident in this fight. Coming into this bout, he had just three stoppages in 13 professional outings. Oubaali, who had 12 stoppages in 16 fights coming in, was the much more forceful fighter, scoring a knockdown in Round 4 with an overhand left hand. While he had some moments, Inoue simply didn't have enough to take the title from Oubaali, who made his second successful defense of this 118-pound belt.
While his brother Naoya is special, Takuma is just solid. That's no knock on him. Very few fighters possess the gifts of Naoya, ESPN's No. 4 pound-for-pound fighter. It wouldn't be out of the question for Takuma to fight for another world title in the bantamweight division down the line. -- Steve Kim
What's the future of the WBSS? What divisions should we see next?
The World Boxing Super Series has generally been excellent. The first season crowned Oleksandr Usyk as undisputed cruiserweight champion and Callum Smith as a super middleweight titleholder and the consensus No. 1 in the division. This second season has given us a fantastic final in the junior welterweight division in which Josh Taylor unified two belts against Regis Prograis on Oct. 26 -- and there's still an interesting cruiserweight world title final between Yunier Dorticos and Mairis Briedis on tap.
However, there have been numerous financial and scheduling issues that have nearly torpedoed the tournaments this year. The financing has been very shaky, so moving forward, they need to shore that up, since I have heard from many around the business that they would never commit their fighters to the tournament.
If the WBSS does go forward with a third season, I would strongly encourage the owners to revert to just two tournaments. Having three this time was too much, especially with one of them being another cruiserweight edition, which had a weak field and it has generally not produced good fights. If there is a third season they should pick any division in which they can secure top fighters with world titles. That could be tough, but they've done it well, for the most part, through two seasons. -- Dan Rafael