Paul Butler is about to embark on what almost everyone is calling an impossible mission: Go to Tokyo and beat Naoya Inoue. Butler sees it very differently, writes Oliver Fennell
DEBATE RAGES, as ever, over who the world’s best boxer is, pound-for-pound. But Paul Butler makes what might be the conclusive argument.
“You’ve got [Oleksandr] Usyk, but most people think Tyson Fury would beat him,” he says. “You’ve got Terence Crawford, but some people think [Errol] Spence will beat him. And Canelo [Saul Alvarez] was beaten by [Dmitry] Bivol not long ago.
“But there’s nobody that people say will beat Inoue.”
And yet, it is that same Naoya Inoue who Butler will try to beat on December 13 in far-away Japan in what is one of the most daunting overseas missions ever undertaken by a British boxer.
No, there are no obvious names one can put forward as a potential conqueror of the Yokohama “Monster”. Not even Paul Butler – except by Paul Butler himself. He knows the size of the task and he knows he’s being written off by everybody outside of the four walls of Gallagher’s Gym in Bolton. But he politely begs to differ.
“I don’t give two shits,” he says of the predictions of a crushing defeat. “Most of these people on their laptops or phones have never put on a pair of boxing gloves. They’re just keyboard warriors. I’m trying to make history – let the haters hate!
“People are writing me off, saying it will be over in one or two rounds, posting things like ‘RIP Butler’ on social media. If I was 25, I’d be responding to every comment, but now I just ignore it.”
Now a more mature 34, Butler may these days take a pragmatic approach to online criticism, but while some corners of Twitter and Facebook are inhabited by a deliberately and gleefully caustic breed of “fan”, that’s not to say their predictions of a swift defeat are without merit.
Inoue, after all, is a formidable talent. Wherever you rank him in the pound-for-pound list, he is undeniably in the conversation for the top spot, as well as already a candidate when discussing the best bantamweight, and best Japanese boxer, of all time.
More than that, it is the way he has powered through some very, very good opposition in very, very short order. He punches in a way that is simply not seen in the lower weight classes. That is why, keyboard warriors or not, many are predicting another quick night’s work.
But Butler reckons he can weather this early storm and, the deeper the fight goes, the better his chances.
“Everyone looks at those two fights in the World Boxing Super Series [in 2018 and 2019, when Inoue beat Juan Carlos Payano in just 70 seconds and then Emmanuel Rodriguez in two rounds], but some people have taken him deep,” he says.
“Jason Moloney took him seven rounds, the Thai [Aran Dipaen] took him eight rounds, [David] Carmona went the distance. Good guys, but not necessarily the biggest names. It showed there are a few holes in Inoue, especially if he doesn’t get you out of there inside two or three rounds. If I get past four-five rounds, I’ll win.”
That’s a big if, and I’m not being a keyboard warrior in saying so. Actual warriors such as Payano, Rodriguez, Nonito Donaire (beaten in two rounds in a June rematch of his 2019 distance fight with Inoue) and Butler’s countryman, Jamie McDonnell (who lasted less than two minutes in a 2018 trip to Tokyo), are among the world-level names who failed to do just that. So, how will Butler manage it?
“He punches a lot harder than me and he’s dangerous with both hands, so I’ve got to defuse the power and avoid being hit,” he says.
“He starts fast and shuts a lot of opponents down quickly. To stop that, my feet and hands will play a big part. I move my feet better and faster than him, and my head movement is better.
“He’s better than me in some ways – his strength and power, obviously – but I match him in certain areas. I just need to match him there so I can set things up for what I do better.
“I’ve got to make sure I don’t leave gaps, as he will exploit that. My boxing brain will have to be bang-on for 36 minutes.
“He has weaknesses. I’m not going to say too much, but we’re working on them.”
Remarkably, for a 12-year, 36-fight veteran and two-time ‘world’ titleholder, Butler has never boxed outside the UK as a professional. That he will travel 6,000 miles to face Inoue inside Tokyo’s Ariake Coliseum in his maiden overseas assignment adds to the pessimistic predictions. But the man who has lived his whole life in the town of Ellesmere Port in Cheshire says this is what his career has been working towards.
“I’ve always wanted to box abroad as a pro and to walk out into an arena full of fans booing me,” he says, “although I probably won’t get that in Japan, because it’s a different kind of atmosphere there than in America or England. I know the fans are very respectful. But the thought of going into the lion’s den and causing that upset is amazing.”
And, true enough, Butler didn’t have to take this fight. As the holder of a WBO title, he could have sat on that belt, cherry-picked his challengers, and invited them on to his home turf. Instead, he is gunning for the genuine bantamweight championship of the world.
“It’s for all the marbles,” Butler says, referring to the four major sanctioning body belts. Inoue holds the other three and, while he is already recognised as the world champion by Boxing News regardless of what’s around his waist, he is obviously a completist when it comes to trophy-hunting. “No Japanese boxer has ever been undisputed [since three or four belts have been recognised], so it’s massive for Japan.”
And for Butler, too.
“It’s a chance to box someone great; he’s a superstar over there, the David Beckham of Japan, a pound-for-pound fighter, for the undisputed title. Why wouldn’t I take it?” he says. “I came into boxing to win world titles, and this is a chance to win every belt there is. It was a no-brainer.”
There is a certain sense of destiny to this match. Butler says he and Inoue have been on each other’s radars since 2016, but the fates conspired to keep them apart – and then they reconvened to allow them to meet now. Indeed, the primary motivation for Inoue targeting Butler is so he can win the one remaining major belt at the weight, and Butler’s possession of it came via a few twists of fate.
Normally, a fighter can expect to win a title in no more than 12 rounds of boxing. For Butler, it took the best part of five months. He had twice been lined up to challenge his predecessor, Johnriel Casimero, and twice the fight was called off at the last minute. First, Casimero withdrew from their December 2021 bout in Dubai, citing a viral infection, though Butler reckons it was a cover for weight-making difficulties. That theory gained traction when the Filipino was then pulled from their rescheduled bout this past April 23 in Liverpool for violating British Boxing Board of Control rules on weight-cutting by using a sauna in the days preceding the bout.
Butler instead boxed Jonas Sultan, who had been on standby in the expectation that Casimero might drop out again, and pitched a classy display of box-punching to earn a unanimous decision and, for what it’s worth, “interim” WBO champion distinction. Almost two weeks later, the WBO stripped Casimero and upgraded Butler to full champion status, having not felt satisfied that Casimero could ever again make bantamweight.
As title-winning routes go, it must have paled in comparison to dethroning a champion in the ring (though Butler had previously done precisely that, dethroning Stuart Hall for the IBF 118lbs strap via split decision in a 2014 tear-up), but Butler is happy with the chain of events even so. It is because of this belt – however he came to hold it – that he got the opportunity he wanted.
“It’s the right fight at the right time,” he reckons. “Inoue asked for it, and his team were very easy to negotiate with. He wanted it, and he wanted it this year, because he wants to move up [to 122lbs]. It’s no secret he doesn’t make the weight easily.”
Is that perhaps a glimmer of hope for the Ellesmere Port underdog? The evidence of Inoue’s most recent outing – the Donaire rematch – would suggest not, though Butler counters that Donaire’s own weight-cut might have contributed to that resounding result.
“You couldn’t knock Inoue’s performance,” he says of that June night in Saitama. “To go from having a fight of the year contender [Inoue-Donaire I in 2019] to blowing him away in a round and a half was something special.
“But Donaire was getting on a bit [at 39] and maybe had issues fighting at bantamweight. He’d fought up at featherweight, after all, and it doesn’t get easier [to cut weight] as you get older.”
Butler himself knows this struggle, and in fact this was what ruled him out of a potential Inoue showdown six years ago, one weight division down.
He explains: “Back in 2016, I was down to box in a WBO eliminator at super-flyweight [when Inoue held that belt], but I just couldn’t make the weight anymore, so the fight didn’t happen.
“It was the last time I tried to make super-flyweight. The other guy [Karoon Jarupianlerd] ended up fighting Inoue [losing by 10th round knockout in September 2016], so I would have been in line for him if I’d won the eliminator.”
Switching weight divisions at that point cost Butler not only a shot at Inoue then, but also that most crucial of assets – momentum. He had to largely content himself with stay-busy fights [a non-title rematch with Hall, comfortably negotiated the second time round, aside] until May 2018, when he was slated to fight Emmanuel Rodriguez for the vacant IBF bantam belt. But the weight-making boogieman raised his head again, Butler coming in 3.5lbs over the limit, meaning only Rodriguez could take the title. And he did just that – emphatically – dropping Butler twice and winning every round on two of the judge’s cards.
This was the same Rodriguez that Inoue would trounce a year later in Glasgow, in the semi-final match of the World Boxing Super Series tournament that Inoue would ultimately win. But drawing a comparison between the two results is misleading, Butler argues, as he was far from at his best against Rodriguez, and Rodriguez made mistakes against Inoue.
“I was ill for two-three weeks before the fight,” he says, “and I missed four days a week in the gym. I should have pulled out, but a carrot was held over me in [the prospect of a place in] the World Boxing Super Series. I tried my hardest to make the weight; I trained for three and a half hours on the morning of the weigh-in.”
As for Rodriguez’s capitulation against Inoue, “he won the first round, and then he got overconfident and met Inoue head-on, which is the last thing you should do.”
Butler promises he has the right gameplan, as well as the nous to implement it. Just as crucially, he says the weight issues, at bantamweight at least, were a one-off so, assuming he stays healthy through this fight camp, he will have the fitness required for a long, hard fight. Maybe, just maybe, more so than his opponent, if the rumours are true that Inoue is impatiently eyeing super-bantamweight.
Furthermore, Butler now has that momentum, having remained unbeaten since Rodriguez four and a half years ago and coming off arguably his finest result.
“Beating Sultan, that’s a good, credible win,” he says. “He’s beaten Casimero [in 2017], after all, and it was probably my best performance to date. I showed against Sultan I can stand and trade – not that I’ll stand and trade constantly with Inoue, just I know I can do it when I need to. I won’t be on the move constantly, either. It will be a mix of styles. You’re going to see a very good boxing display.
“Listen, I know this is a very tough fight; I’m not deluded. It’s the toughest fight of my life, but I’m looking forward to it and I’m putting the work in. I know I can beat Inoue and I’m training to do that. I’m working my bollocks off. I wouldn’t be in the gym every day if I didn’t think I’d win. Come December 13, that’s my chance to prove everybody wrong.”
If he does, it will truly be a fairytale ending. And this trip to the Far East might have one outside of the ring, too, whatever happens inside it.
“I’ve always wanted to visit Japan,” Butler says. “It’s always been on my bucket list. I might take a week after the fight to have a look around. My girlfriend wants to go to Tokyo Disneyland!”