By Elliot Worsell
IT is somewhat fitting that at a time when a new Godzilla film is earning rave reviews around the world, Naoya Inoue, boxing’s very own “Monster”, prepares to cause his own brand of havoc for the second time this year. Not content with stomping all over Stephen Fulton in July, the WBC and WBO super-bantamweight belt-holder will, on Boxing Day, meet Marlon Tapales, holder of WBA and IBF belts, in Koto-Ku, Japan. It’s the logical next fight in the career of Inoue and, what is more, it shows the extent of both his ambition and fearlessness, setting him up for what could be a star-making 2024.
That is, of course, if he manages to do to Tapales what he has done to every other opponent he has so far faced as a pro. The sense is that he will, naturally, yet Inoue, at 30, is now competing in his fourth weight class and therefore, like any fighter chasing greatness, is also teasing the possibility of one day biting off more than he can chew.
This time last year, for instance, Inoue was cutting Britain’s Paul Butler down to size at bantamweight, a division he had ruled since 2018. Before that, he was a long-reigning champion at super-flyweight and also flyweight, having turned pro weighing just 108 pounds. Now at super-bantamweight, there is no reason why Inoue shouldn’t be ripping through the weights in the manner in which he is doing, but much of the thinking of those who picked Fulton to beat him in the summer stemmed from the idea that he was going a step too far in terms of weight class. That he then disproved this theory in devastating style should effectively silence that concern, yet there will still be some, Tapales included, who will view Inoue’s rise through the weights as a levelling out; that is, reducing the sheer monstrousness of what he brings to the ring each time he enters it.
Because at his best, and at his optimum weight (which could, who knows, be super-bantamweight), there is arguably no more fearsome sight in gloves today than Naoya Inoue. Capable, it seems, of punching through opponents in a way only heavyweights traditionally can, this diminutive figure from Japan fights like no other fighter in the lower weight classes has for some time. Poised, and technically correct, he desires the knockout finish from the very outset and never lets up until it is achieved, typically increasing his tempo and ferocity the moment he smells blood in the water. This approach has seen him end 22 of his 25 pro wins inside schedule, with only Nonito Donaire lasting the 12 rounds since 2016, and it has also given him that aura – that air of invincibility – which often means opponents are so fearful of the inevitable they are as good as beaten before a punch has even landed.
That has certainly seemed the case in Inoue’s recent fights and even against Fulton, a man considered by some to be his equal, there was never once a sense that the American had any sort of confidence in his ability to extinguish Inoue’s threat, much less take over and actually win the fight. As a result, the fight, which was billed by some as a competitive, hard-to-call affair, soon descended into yet another Inoue mismatch, with Inoue doing whatever he wanted to Fulton before ending the brutality in round eight.
Looking back, that win offered an indication, unfortunately for those in Inoue’s new weight class, that nothing had been lost in the four-pound jump from bantamweight to super-bantamweight. Moving freely, and punching as hard as ever, Inoue had no issue dealing with Fulton’s strength on the inside, nor any difficulty making a dent in Fulton when landing the first of his big shots in round one. Indeed, to look at Fulton in that very moment was to see the eyes of not only a shocked man but the eyes of all the other opponents Inoue had surprised in a similar way in years gone by.
For this Tapales, Inoue’s next opponent, will no doubt be ready. He will have been warned about it and he will have seen the look numerous times before, either when watching Inoue in the past or when studying his fights for this challenge on December 26. Whether that, or any sort of preparation, will help is another question, but Tapales, at 31, and with 40 pro fights to his name (37 wins, three defeats), is at least experienced and shrewd enough to know the size of the task in front of him.
Since losing against Ryosuke Iwasa in 2019, the man from the Philippines has won four in a row, including a two-round stoppage of Hiroaki Teshigawara and, last time out, a 12-round decision over Murodjon Akhmadaliev, from whom he took his current belts. He is a former belt-holder at bantamweight, but has been established at super-bantamweight for some time now, despite standing at just 5’4 (Inoue, by comparison, is 5’5) and fighting very small (low in a crouch, swinging wildly). Also, despite the three losses on his record (David Sanchez beat him in 2013, and he lost an early one against Brix Ray in 2009), he appears the type to have improved over the years and brings to this fight, in addition to self-belief, a southpaw style, which is something Inoue hasn’t faced since meeting another Filipino, Michael Dasmarinas, in 2021.
Still, to look at any of these things as being remotely advantageous for Tapales would be a reach and then some. The reality is, the 11th-round stoppage loss against Iwasa showed his vulnerability, as well as how easy his target is to find, and this, combined with the momentum Inoue presently enjoys, makes it very difficult to argue a case for Tapales lasting the distance, never mind winning rounds and winning the fight. In the end Inoue, like Godzilla himself, is for good reason fast becoming the “King of the Monsters”, and another stoppage here, secured somewhere around the eighth, will only add to this growing and deserved reputation.