When was it supposed to happen? The sixth round? The third? The first? And yet in the twelfth, he was still upright, still fighting for a victory that was never supposed to be his, a victory he came closer to snatching than any man before him, closer than any man will come for some time.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Nonito Donaire’s run in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament ended on Thursday at Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, when the future—Naoya Inoue—subsumed him. Now unified bantamweight champion and WBSS tournament winner, Inoue, who before going the distance with Donaire needed but four rounds (and hardly more landed punches) to barge into his third division, is the present as well.
Imagination has been part of the Inoue experience for years. That experience—marvel, celebrate, project— became less and less skeptical as the body count kept pace with the rounds. But skepticism remained, however much the spectacle subdued it. And it will persist for good but different reasons, which does nothing to diminish Inoue’s creep toward greatness or his idiomatic allure.
One hopes that Donaire, who sees something of himself in Inoue, will watch that generational talent take his fists to opponents and the limits of his potential alike, and think “I helped make that.” He might be wrong; his challenge, stern as it was, may have unveiled more than it improved Inoue.
There was a time when Donaire, 40-6 (26), fighting a division or two above his best weight, earned less charity. His fights were a dying man’s EKG, lulls of nothing broken up by blips of excitement. Somehow an absurd athlete with knockout power in both hands became tedious. Age, defeat, the accompanying adjustment of expectations, and a handful of earnest fights made Donaire someone to appreciate again.
He had to survive the first round, though—the first clean punch, even, for that to happen. And when he did, when it became clear that Donaire could take Inoue’s power, or at least take enough off of it to ward off sudden destruction, it was just a matter of time before the hook landed.
Two rounds, to be precise, and while Inoue took it well, it tore open his right eye. File this away about Inoue, then: he can fight through cuts. Inoue said he struggled with double-vision for the rest of the fight, something reflected in the way he—as Donaire had against Guillermo Rigondeaux—covered his eye completely with his glove. File this away, too: Inoue has a world-class chin, proving it repeatedly in turning back the last great performance in what should prove a Hall-of-Fame career.
Donaire is closer to an induction ceremony, closer to forty, too, than he is to his prime, though, and against Inoue age showed in inches. Inches, sometimes fractions of them, separated Donaire’s worst intentions from Inoue’s tantalizingly high chin. With his superhuman reflexes, Inoue, 19-0 (16), slipped and wove away from Donaire’s punches, leaving left hooks in his stead in a manner reminiscent of Roy Jones Jr. Conversely, when Donaire pivoted out after a hook or jab, Inoue often found him with the right hand; old legs and young hands conspiring against the aging champion. Donaire slipped and countered Inoue’s jab with rights enough to confirm Inoue’s chin and imperfection, Inoue applied the same strategy with greater speed, frequency, and ferocity. But while Inoue was faster, fresher, brandishing the arrogance of an undefeated destroyer, Donaire didn’t see anything new. The aggregate of Inoue’s skill and talent may be unique among Donaire’s opponents, but the “Filipino Flash” fought like a man familiar with what he was seeing, formidable as that sight was.
And so the fighter who advanced in the tournament first because of injury and then at the expense of a midwestern replacement opponent, the fighter who may have, contrary to the aim of a tournament, reached the finals without being one of the two best fighters in it, showed the world who Inoue is.
Inoue is remarkably conditioned, proven by the sting his punches carried late and by his ability to endure Donaire’s ample bodywork. He is also a fighter, a compliment bestowed solemnly and selectively even among men who welcome the perils of a blood sport. You could see that in the way Inoue responded to Donaire’s finest moment: a ninth round in which Donaire buckled him with a right hand and tenderized him throughout. A more experienced fighter might have conceded the round in the name of caution; a lesser fighter might have as well, but not Inoue. You could see it, too, in the way Inoue shook his fists at the crowd before taking his stool at the end of the tenth. This gesture seemed less about his regaining control of the fight than it was a celebration of Inoue having learned something about himself. A man who speeds through divisions and their champions has ambition better satisfied by challenge than ease. It was his response to genuine trouble, proof of his mettle, that Inoue looked to confirm with the crowd.
Donaire also proved his mettle, surviving the left hook Inoue slashed him with in the eleventh. It took a strategic walk around the referee, Ernie Sharif, a delayed knockdown, and most of Sharif’s ten-count for Donaire to survive that body shot. But he found the grit. And when Inoue closed for the kill, Donaire found the left hook once more, backing Inoue off just enough to make lasting the round possible.
No wonder the fighters embraced at the final bell—an embrace of respect, yes, and of appreciation. Donaire demanded Inoue prove himself; Inoue demanded Donaire do the same. The force of those feelings led Inoue to Donaire’s corner minutes later, where he hugged him again, and Donaire bestowed an avuncular smile on the future, and in its familiarity, maybe his past.