“It’s a lot to deal with.”
Much praise was heaped on unified bantamweight champion, Naoya Inoue, during his seven-round razing of challenger, Jason Moloney, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night. That praise was strangely palatable for its truth; it was a campaign rooted in observation more than projection and went down smoother for it. But it was that quick observation from Tim Bradley that best captured what was obvious to all—that Inoue, indeed, is a lot to deal with.
Bradley was an honest prizefighter, and that honesty figures even in his role as company man. Which is to say, when Bradley is thinking like a fighter, responding in an immediate and unfiltered way to what is transpiring before him, you can trust him. Bradley watched Inoue strip the fight from Moloney, perhaps wondering how he might have overcome “The Monster” and realized that while he had answers, all of them were flawed.
In that respect, Bradley is not alone. Twenty men, five of them champions, have shared the ring with Inoue; and only one, Nonito Donaire, got his pound of flesh. It shouldn’t be that way. Ambition such as Inoue’s should carry a penalty, a three-division champion should suffer some for his hardware. The quality of his opponents, and the diversity of their styles should see to that. A puncher should eventually be confounded by a boxer, a boxer harrowed by a pressure-fighter, and a pressure-fighter tempered by a puncher. Inoue, though, feels style-proof because he is all three: a boxer with ruinous power who can also walk opponents down. And while a puncher might undo Inoue, anyone who can take flush Donaire’s Sunday punch has proven his chin. It’s no wonder Inoue remembers the Donaire fight so fondly: it, in his own words, “answered everything.”
“Speed is the last excitement left,” writes Don DeLillo in End Zone, “the one thing we haven’t used up, still naked in its potential, the mysterious black gift that thrills millions.” Not flashy speed, thrilling speed—speed of hand and foot, shoulder and hip, harnessed to render men silent. Inoue has it. It’s part of the preternatural athleticism that underlies his mastery, infuses his movements with a dynamism and danger reminiscent of Roy Jones. Inoue is more orthodox than Jones—he keeps his hands higher, works behind his jab—but like Jones, his bearing reflects a fighter in complete control of his generational talent. Like Jones, he leaves before you arrive, returns before you can leave, and then leaves you to pick up the pieces.
Such was the fate that befell Moloney, who was a beat behind the rhythm Inoue drummed into his skull. He started confidently enough, Moloney, fought winningly so long as he remained ignorant of what Inoue promised. Then the body punches started sinking in, the uppercuts too, and when a counter hook dumped Moloney on his trunks in the sixth, he seemed to recognize the only victory left was survival. But Inoue understands his obligation to the moment, and a counter right with ten seconds left in the seventh snatched even that chimerical palliative.
“I’m very happy and satisfied with that punch,” said Inoue afterward. What to make of that? Perhaps he considers all that preceded it typical of a fighter of his abilities. Indeed there seems nothing he can’t do offensively.
What the Japanese fighter does not have is a built-in fanbase, at least not in North America. He is not fighting in Staples Center on Cinco De Mayo weekend, or in Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade, but, then, it could be years before being a draw matters. And if ticket sales justify mismatches, and the absence of such sales produces better matchmaking, that only helps a fighter aspiring to be undisputed.
Inoue doesn’t fight in a glamor division either. And what if he did? The two best welterweights in the world are no closer to fighting now than they were two years ago. Perhaps the notion of a glamor division is antiquated anyway. Part of what makes a division glamorous is its history, yes, but fighters write that history. If a division is soft or fractured by promotional or network allegiances, what does its history offer except cruel contrast? Besides, Inoue rules his division—the WBSS tournament proved it—and participation in that tournament alone distinguishes a fighter more than some commonality of the scale with an icon long retired.
This isn’t to say that Inoue weighing less than a Leonberger doesn’t limit his appeal to some degree. Many a casual observer looks at a Tyson, a Jones, even a Pacquiao, and considers what compensation could get him to risk the man’s evil. The greater the requisite compensation, the greater the intrigue. Few of the uninitiated would need much to present their chin to a man they nearly double in weight. There is folly aplenty there, of course, and yet it isn’t hard to understand why the baddest man on the planet is supposed to embody a menace that extends beyond sport and why the specter of Inoue fails to do so.
What Inoue lacks is of little importance to those who crave a bloody spectacle. He delivers those with a consistency that binds you to his future. One day his athleticism will wane, taking his spellbinding talents with it. But a precipitous decline is unlikely because Inoue, if the first eight years of his career are any indication, will accelerate the arrival of his end. His ambition will catch up to him likely before age does. But for now, remarkably, boxing’s best fighter is also its most exciting.