Atomic Blonde: Naoya Inoue Is Undisputed (Again)

There is a right way for titles to change hands, a right way to consolidate them: in a manner expeditious as it is violent, captivating as it is definitive. This is the only way Naoya Inoue accepts, and it would be uniquely his were it not for the apex predator from Omaha. Inoue is now the undisputed super bantamweight champion of the world, a distinction he secured, fittingly, on Boxing Day, stopping Marlon Tapales in ten rounds at the Ariake Arena in Koto-Ku, Japan. After two fights, the division is Inoue’s; consecutive concussive performances reminding us that if “all the belts” is your ambition—and your talent is equal to it—the excuses for falling short of your goal might reside in you.

This is not to downplay the opponent, mind you—quite the opposite. We should celebrate this growing list of former champions for acting like fighters when business, prudence, self-preservation encouraged otherwise. Be wary of those who disparage Inoue’s opponents. Those people will tell you, for example, that Inoue’s struggles with some nobody like Tapales prove that “The Monster” is a chimera: part privilege, part chemistry, all fraud. They will suggest that Inoue should prove himself by moving to lightweight or beyond, matching him impossibly until—surprise!—he finally fails at the impossible. Defeat, presumably to a man who walks around thirty pounds heavier than him, so the tortured logic goes, would invalidate all Inoue has accomplished in becoming a fighter so grossly fraudulent he needs to move up to his fifth, sixth, or seventh division to prove it.

When the crippled rats grind to motion the wheels in these feeble brains, what results are hypotheticals used not only to tear down an already all-time great fighter but to protect many of his peers from being lost in the massive shadow of this little man. Essentially, this is employing the unreal to assert the untrue; in the parlance of the dying platforms where such stupid conversations take place, it is called showing your ass.

No one should downplay Tapales, 37-4 (19), who proved himself world-class even in defeat (a concept also lost Inoue critics). We need only look to Inoue for confirmation of Tapales’s quality: Inoue is one of boxing’s active benchmarks for greatness, a kind of standard meter by which to measure others, and he does not hide his feelings well. When Inoue beat Nonito Donaire, he was jubilant, this reaction seeming as much the product of what Donaire taught Inoue about himself as it was to victory. On Tuesday, Inoue looked subdued, his quiet expression contrasted by the gaudy hardware entwining his torso. This wasn’t relief—Inoue was never in danger of losing—but it was clear Tapales had asked things of Inoue most opponents cannot.

Tapales accomplished this despite being spilled by a left hook in the fourth round, one reminiscent of the punch Roy Jones used to drop Reggie Johnson: impossibly fast, almost precognitive, a stunning burst of generational athleticism. Seeing Tapales hurt, Inoue pounced, putting Tapales down with a 3-2-3.

If Tapales wanted an out, he need only stay on his knee; if he were satisfied with not getting knocked out, as Jermell Charlo was in a lopsided loss to Saul Alvarez in September, Tapales could have tried to relinquish his titles in with an unspoken ceasefire. Instead, Tapales fought the fifth round as though he took the knockdown personally. He threw punches not desperately, not defensively, not to discourage Inoue, but to beat him, engaging the most ferocious body puncher in the sport on his own gruesome terms while proving Inoue’s chin in a way no one has since Donaire.

Alas, Inoue is a great fighter, and Tapales is far less than that. Tapales had to fight Inoue to beat him, a winning strategy that could only ever result in defeat, but one Tapales embraced nonetheless. And so a fighter who was not in the ring to simply survive did not. A pair of cracking right hands put Tapales down for good at 1:57 of the tenth round.

***

Three days prior, former heavyweight titlist, Deontay Wilder, lost an uninspired decision to reclamation project, Joseph Parker. It was a performance (and postfight interview) that should encourage Wilder to spend his remaining money and time with the family whose mere mention produced his kilowatt smile. The loss, however, appropriately suffered on a card billed “Day of Reckoning” was potentially ruinous, proof for some that Wilder’s relatively unremarkable title reign, one brought to a brutal end when he finally faced an opponent with championship credentials, was as much the work of a promoter looking to preserve his piece of the heavyweight title as it was the right hands Wilder used to atomize the chins of forty-two of forty-three fighters he beat.

Perhaps this deconstruction is valid. The “Bronze Bomber,” a fighter so raw his development was evident in his moniker, a reference to his placing in the 2008 Olympics, never unified the division. But by most criteria, Wilder was a wild success: he made millions, sold tickets, built a devoted fanbase (see the statue in his honor in his hometown, Tuscaloosa), defended his title by brutal knockout. Most important for those who do not connect with another man’s success, Wilder was entertaining, arresting even, never more so than in defeat. At least until he fought Parker.

Here then, is a hypothetical for those who love them so much: Perhaps that will be the final verdict for Inoue. Long after his last fight of 2023, where he ran his record to 26-0 with 23 knockouts and became undisputed again, long (or not long) after presumably moving up yet again, pursuing champions at featherweight and (how absurd is this?) beyond, after he suffered his first of perhaps multiple losses earned hounding the greatness that has ever been the North Star to his career, his apologists will at least be able to find amongst Inoue’s most stubborn critics a sympathetic ear for the merit-in-entertainment argument.

“Okay, yeah, but Inoue was entertaining, you gotta admit that.”

If that proves to be the only common ground between these rival schools in the Inoue debate, the sport doesn’t fucking deserve him.

 

About Jimmy Tobin 106 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil? The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.