Naoya Inoue has been an elite fighter over three weight classes but the 29-year-old says there’s a lot more to come. Photo by Naoki Fukuda
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before Oleksandr Usyk regained the No. 1 spot in The Ring’s pound-for-pound rankings.
Ring Ratings Panelist and veteran sports writer Daisuke Sugiura recently returned to his homeland where he sat down with Japan’s biggest boxing star, Ring/WBC/WBA/IBF bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue, for an exclusive interview at the three-division titleholder’s gym.
At the time of the interview, Inoue had advanced to No. 1 in Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings off the strength of his stunning second-round stoppage of future hall of famer Nonito Donaire in their anticipated June rematch. Their first fight was Ring Magazine’s 2019 Fight of the Year and Sugiura was interested in reviewing Inoue’s toughest battle to date, as well as the sensational rematch knockout.
With award-winning photographer Naoki Fukuda on hand, Inoue and Sugiura discussed the two bouts with Donaire, the pound-for-pound rankings, and the upcoming unification bout with WBO beltholder Paul Butler for the undisputed bantamweight championship.
Regarding his No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking, which made newspaper headlines and major network news broadcasts, Inoue made it clear that he believes he’s got more work to do to solidify that lofty status.
“Everyone has their own opinion and evaluation,” Inoue said of the mythical rankings. “Even now, I don’t think I’m the true No. 1. There was only one vote difference (between me and Usyk among the Ring Ratings Panel), right? If I can produce a performance that widens that gap, I think I will be able to proudly say that I am No. 1 in the world. But, still, the pound-for-pound rankings are filled with incredible fighters. I am very proud to be recognized as the top fighter. As a Japanese bantamweight, I think I should be really proud that I was declared the best among them all.”
Inoue also refuses to overlook Butler.
“I read a story that Donaire is advising him to move around, use his jab, utilize his speed, and lateral movement,” said Inoue. “If Butler does that, I think it will be a long battle. A lot of people think I’m a quick KO puncher, always knocking opponents out in the early rounds, but I’m actually not a hyper-aggressive fighter, so I’m going to have to figure out how Butler will come out and how we’ll engage.”
Read on for the full interview transcription, translated by Sugiura. In part two of the KO Magazine-style Q&A, Inoue talks about his aspirations to move up in weight to the junior featherweight division where elite-level showdowns with Stephen Fulton and Murodjon Akhmadaliev await.
RingTV (RTV): You said that your performance in the Nonito Donaire rematch was close to your best. Why do you rate it so highly?
Naoya Inoue (NI): I was obviously satisfied with my performance. The training camp went well and I was able to control my mental side well too. Compared to my previous fight against Alan Dipaen, it was almost night and day.
RTV: Were you able to do what you wanted during the fight too?
NI: Yes, I was. The way Donaire started to fight in the opening round was exactly what I had envisioned.
RTV: But you didn’t think you would KO Donaire that fast, did you?
NI: I had a hunch that it would be faster this time. I thought it would be a quick fight if Donaire came out aggressively. I was very conscious of my defense. Donaire, on the other hand, doesn’t have a very high guard. I thought it would be quick if I could fight the way I wanted.
RTV: For a lot of people, that rematch result was what they thought would happen to the first one.
NI: Same here. In the first fight, I was planning to fight like I did in the second one.
RTV: Was the problem in the first fight the injury to your right eye?
NI: That injury was everything. Also, my weight recovery didn’t go as planned. I gained only about 3kg (6.6 pounds) by the time of the fight day weigh-in. My movement itself in the fight wasn’t bad, but I hadn’t fully regained my weight, and I couldn’t produce the destructive power that I had in the second fight.
RTV: How badly were you hurt in that ninth round in the first fight?
NI: I was really hurt, like I never experienced in my career before. The left hook in the second round wasn’t that bad, it just broke my right eye, but the right hand in the ninth round really hurt me. That was the only anxious moment I ever experienced in my professional career.
RTV: Back to the rematch. How serious was the left shoulder injury you suffered before that fight?
NI: It wasn’t bad enough to affect my performance. It was not something that hindered my punch output either. It’s just that a little injury can be stressful before and during the fight. I was frustrated with it.
RTV: In your autobiography, you wrote that when you face your opponent in the ring, you can roughly get a feel for his strength and conditioning. How did you feel about Donaire’s condition that day?
NI: I think it was good. His sense of distance was perfect. He was reacting to my punches well too. Donaire was aggressive, so the fight ended up like that, but I don’t think his conditioning was a problem for him.
RTV: So, were you satisfied with the Donaire rematch because you dominated a well-conditioned, legendary fighter?
NI: Yes, indeed. I thought there was no point in beating Donaire, who is now 40, by using my physical strength (gradually over the distance). (The early KO) meant a lot because I defeated Donaire while he was still very sharp.
RTV: After the fight, you were declared No. 1 in the Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings. How do you feel about being recognized as the world’s No. 1 boxer?
NI: Everyone has their own opinion and evaluation. Even now, I don’t think I’m the true No.1. There was only one vote difference (among the Ring Ratings Panel), right? If I can produce a performance that widens that gap, I think I will be able to proudly say that I am No.1 in the world. But, still, the pound-for-pound rankings are filled with incredible fighters. I am very proud to be recognized as the top fighter. As a Japanese bantamweight, I think I should be really proud that I was declared the best among them all.
RTV: Were you surprised that you became the new pound-for-pound king after the Donaire rematch?
NI: No, I wasn’t surprised. I thought it would be possible if the fight and my performance were evaluated properly.
RTV: How did you find out that you were declared No. 1?
NI: I got a LINE message from my manager Mr. (Hideyuki) Ohashi and found out. I thought it was possible, but it didn’t hit me right away. After realizing it, I started to feel a lot of pressure.
RTV: Was it one of your goals to become No. 1 in the pound-for-pound rankings?
NI: Over the past a few years, I’ve had a couple of fights in Las Vegas, and I’ve come to learn that this pound-for-pound ranking is important. It was something I had to aim for while competing in the United States (where the media and fans constantly debate it). To be honest, when I was in the (115-pound) division (mostly fighting in Japan), I didn’t think I was getting closer to the top of the ranking (so I didn’t think about it).
RTV: How did you come to feel the value of the pound-for-pound rankings while fighting in the United States?
NI: I felt that (higher) rankings would attract attention. It can also be used as part of a promotion. It’s a ranking that raises my value.
RTV: On August 20, No. 2-ranked Oleksandr Usyk will have the rematch with Anthony Joshua, and depending on how it goes, the rankings may change again. Are you interested in watching the fight?
NI: Not really. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Usyk is going to fight next week (laughs). Usyk is a fighter in a completely different weight division, and, again, I feel so proud to be ranked No.1 but it’s not like I’m always worried about how the rankings will go.
RTV: You are already regarded as the best fighter in the world, but you’re only 29 years old. Where do you think your upsides remain?
NI: I really don’t know. I don’t know where and how much I will still be able to grow. However, I think it’s my own task to apply the level I’m boxing now to future opponents. Specifically, when I move up to (the 122-pound division), I will need to adjust against bigger and taller fighters. I think that there will be room for growth.
RTV: Before talking about moving up to junior featherweight, I’d like you to talk a little about Paul Butler, the WBO bantamweight titleholder, and very possibly your final opponent at 118 pounds. I’m hearing that you are likely fighting him in December. What type of fight do you expect?
NI: It depends on how Butler will come out. If he’s trying not to get knocked out, I’ll need a way to deal with it. I read a story that Donaire is advising him to move around, use his jab, utilize his speed, and lateral movement. If Butler does that, I think it will be a long battle. A lot of people think I’m a quick KO puncher, always knocking opponents out in the early rounds, but I’m actually not a hyper-aggressive fighter, so I’m going to have to figure out how Butler will come out and how we’ll engage.
RTV: He will definitely move around a lot.
NI: I think he will too. Butler’s strengths are his footwork, jab and lateral movement. I will need to make a solid strategy.
RTV: Although it is a unification fight, you are regarded as an overwhelming favorite. Is it difficult to stay motivated?
NI: Butler might not be as big of a threat as Donaire, especially power wise, to be completely honest, but I do think he’s a capable fighter, and this is a full unification fight at 118 pounds, so my motivation is still very high.
End of part one. In part two, which will be posted on Saturday (Aug. 27), Inoue discusses a future ring clash with WBO/WBC 122-pound titleholder Stephen Fulton, facing African-American rivals, sparring stories about featherweight standout Leigh Wood, his broadcast deal with Amazon Prime, and much more.