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Superstar: Does Naoya Inoue’s planned fight against Luis Nery at the Tokyo Dome suggest he’s on his way to becoming boxing’s biggest star?

IN what can only be described as a jarring break from tradition, on Boxing Day my parents and presumably many others with access to Sky Sports spent their morning watching Naoya Inoue beat seven shades out of a game but ultimately overwhelmed Marlon Tapales.
Needless to say, it was not the way they imagined that year’s Boxing Day unfolding, nor anything planned. Yet, despite this, and despite knowing very little about the two boxers involved, eyes remained glued to the screen throughout and with the fight finished they even went so far as to say they could think of no better way to continue the week’s festivities. It had all started rather light, which no doubt helped. There were comments like, “He looks like a Japanese pop star,” during the fighter introductions and there was also humour to be found in the image of Inoue pausing momentarily during one of the rounds to sort out the parting in his hair. It then concluded, however, with both watching the merciless work of Inoue through their fingers, so savage was it, particularly at that time of day. Most interesting of all, though, was how captivating Inoue was and how, even with there being no connection or emotional investment, he was able to give casual fans on Boxing Day everything they want and expect to see from boxing. He was, for one, polite, both before and after the fight; respectful, well-mannered. He was then unapologetically relentless between bells, throwing every shot in the book correctly and with bad intentions, often appearing more like a computer game character than a human being. Round after round, in fact, he would continue in this manner, throwing punches at Tapales as though to stop would result in a points deduction, which, for my parents, was a sight to behold; something rarely seen in fights between boxers more familiar to them.

Inoue tags Tapales with a right (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

In many ways, the work of Inoue, such is its brilliance, transcends language and any cultural differences. It is a language easily understood by both connoisseurs of the sport and those who upon seeing a picture of the “Monster” would assume he was a Japanese pop star rather than the most terrifying boxer on the planet. Yet that, make no mistake, is what Inoue is. Diminutive, yes, and somewhat well-groomed, Inoue nevertheless has a way of making you wince and recoil when landing punches which no other boxer in 2024 can replicate. Not Artur Beterbiev. Not Deontay Wilder. No one. That he weighs just 122 pounds has no bearing on the terror he is able to deliver each time he sets foot inside a boxing ring, nor does it impact his ability to produce dramatic moments or finish fights. Indeed, whereas in years gone by we have perhaps grown accustomed to boxers in the lower weight classes producing frenetic action but more often than not having to go the distance in order to secure victory, with Inoue the very idea of hearing a final bell is the surprise. Somehow, despite his lack of stature, the shot of Inoue standing over a grounded opponent, typically demoralised and disfigured, has become one of the most commonly seen shots in all of boxing. Somehow, his nickname, despite standing at just 5’5, makes complete sense. Which is to say this: Naoya Inoue, 26-0 (23), is a star. A big one. He is a star in Japan, of that there’s no doubt, but he also has the kind of magnetism capable of attracting audiences further afield, too, if indeed that’s even the plan. Maybe, in the end, it’s not necessary. Maybe Japan, for Inoue, is enough. Certainly, on the evidence we have seen so far, he has no trouble packing out arenas in his homeland and appears to be getting more and more popular with each passing year. This feeling was then backed up yesterday (January 24) by the news that his next fight, a defence of his various super-bantamweight belts, could take place at the iconic Tokyo Dome in May. The Dome, of course, is famous for hosting the equally iconic heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson and James “Buster” Douglas back in 1990 and has a capacity of almost 50,000. It is, in other words, a venue fit for a king, or superstar. Which is precisely what Inoue, set to fight Luis Nery there on May 6, has become. He is, at 30, arguably the most watchable fighter in boxing today, irrespective of whether you even know who it is you are watching, and he also has both the nickname and look to ensure the mystery of Naoya Inoue – and indeed the appeal – is greater than whatever he is about to do with his fists. As for how powerful and big he can become, that remains to be seen. Next month there will in Boxing News be “The Power List”, which is something of a tradition in the magazine and something that will this year be compiled by Declan Taylor. In this list Inoue will of course be expected to feature and the only question at this stage is where on the list he will be ranked and whether in years to come he will find himself as the highest ranked boxer of them all. For now, that accolade remains Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’s, but one wonders whether Inoue, in selling out arenas like the Tokyo Dome for big fights like this one against Nery in May, will edge him closer and closer to usurping Alvarez. Moreover, one wonders whether Inoue in order to really become a superstar must fight regularly in the US, or whether, conversely, superstardom can be achieved by staying in Japan, where people flock to watch him in droves and understand exactly what it is they are seeing. Regardless, as we start 2024 one thing is certain: if last year’s Boxing Day is anything to go by, Naoya Inoue will be watched. Whether in Japan or elsewhere, and whether they are witnessed at night or in the morning, fights of Naoya Inoue are unmissable at this point and go well even with breakfast.
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