THE next time you are told British boxing is thriving on account of either the number of broadcasters currently flirting with it or domestic fights being offered on pay-per-view, please remember that Tuesday’s (December 13) world bantamweight title fight between Naoya Inoue – arguably the most exciting boxer on the planet – and Paul Butler, a Brit, was a contest deemed not relevant enough to be televised in the UK.
This could have been due to a number of reasons, of course. It could, for one, have been due to both boxers being bantamweights (historically an unfashionable weight class). Or it could have been due to the fight taking place on a Tuesday morning (UK time). Or it could have been due to the fact most were expecting the fight in Tokyo, Japan to be a mismatch.
Yet, whatever the reason for the blackout, the reality is this: Inoue vs. Butler, despite all it meant and despite the ever-present possibility of drama and an upset, was not a fight anybody who purports to have an interest in British boxing believed was of any relevance. And that, given some of the garbage we have been told is “relevant” in the last couple of years, is not only a crying shame but perhaps a worrying sign of the times.
Still, any fear that Butler might defeat Inoue in a gargantuan upset nobody would actually see was, as it turned out, an unnecessary one. It seemed unlikely to happen when the fight was first announced and it then seemed all the more unlikely once the first bell rang and Butler got a sense of just why Inoue has 20 knockouts from 23 professional wins. He did, for as long as he was in there with Inoue, try to give the impression of someone who was ambitious and believed in what they were doing. However, this impression was neither convincing nor enough. Indeed, despite surviving 10 rounds with Inoue, Butler was finally stopped at the 1:09 mark of round 11.
In many ways, this may have been the worst possible outcome for Butler, the WBO belt-holder at bantamweight. It would seem this way because he tried throughout the fight to avoid and frustrate Inoue and hoped, having accomplished those things, to become only the second opponent to ever take him the distance. In lasting as long as he did, he got close, too (he is the first man to take Inoue past eight rounds since 2019). But close, for Butler, was in the end not enough. Moreover, in lasting as long as he did, the Liverpudlian had to endure a great deal of punishment, especially to the body, as well as a fair amount of criticism from those who felt his effort had its roots more in survival than competition.
Whether that’s true or not, only Butler and his trainer, Joe Gallagher, will know. But, certainly, in the early going he appeared to be doing things the right way, even if, ultimately, the goal was survival. His movement, for example, appeared to be smooth and assured and his hands, too, were held high and ready to block whatever Inoue, this famous destroyer, chose to throw at his face.
He was not doing much of his own work, granted, nor even setting traps for later, but first, above all else, Butler had to get comfortable. He had to take Inoue’s power, feel it, and respond, either by moving away or throwing something back. Then he had to somehow get to grips with Inoue’s speed, which is often as much of an issue for his opponents as his power. Only after that would Butler have any real chance of plotting attacks of his own.
Naturally, this peculiar dynamic created a grossly one-sided affair, with Inoue doing all the early work from his position in the centre of the ring and Butler essentially moving, covering up, and throwing only when he realised it was about time he did.
Inoue, at first, seemed content for the fight to transpire in this way, for it did, if nothing else, allow him to set his feet, drop his hands, and unload combinations at will. Yet any fun he may have been experiencing doing this would only last so long, with each round soon starting to resemble the previous one and Butler no closer to opening up and joining in.
To entice him, there were numerous Inoue combinations thrown at Butler whenever the Japanese star managed to catch him briefly on the ropes. There were also countless left hooks thrown at the Englishman’s body which no doubt paid dividends later on in the fight.
In those moments, with Butler covering up and Inoue unleashing hell, the difference in power between the two was nothing short of remarkable. This was best demonstrated when Butler would at last clear his throat and throw something – usually a double hook combination – only for the impish Inoue to either evade the shots altogether or eat them with his hands down, completely nonplussed. He would then of course respond with punches of his own, all of which carried the venom and snap Butler’s apparently lacked.
Maybe it was simply a difference in power, then. Or maybe it was a difference in conviction. Regardless, there was a growing sense Inoue’s aim from first bell to last was to get his opponent out of there, which was an aim starkly contrasted by Butler’s: survive at all costs.
This, admittedly, made for an odd 10 and a half rounds. It had, by its second half, become a fight in which Butler was showing good survival instincts, as well as bravery whenever Inoue let fly, yet nowhere near enough to remotely trouble Inoue, or threaten winning so much as a round against him. It also inadvertently highlighted the stupidity of the belt situation in boxing, with these two men considered beforehand to be “equals” (or something close to that) in an undisputed bantamweight title fight.
As it happened, there was a huge disparity between Inoue and Butler, two men equal only in weight. There was a disparity in speed, a disparity in power, and a disparity in ambition. This Butler, to his credit, tried to remedy in the 10th round, when he was perhaps at his busiest, but that, as we all suspected, served only to leave him vulnerable to Inoue’s attacks and whatever he had planned in the championship rounds.
By then, Inoue, 24-0 (21), was sick and tired of Butler. He was frustrated with his movement, yes, but also somewhat bored by the predictable course their bout had taken. He showed, when earlier dropping his hands and beckoning Butler to come forward, that he wanted his opponent and fellow belt-holder to offer him something: punches, questions, some sort of threat. Without this, Inoue’s 19th straight title fight would otherwise descend into something more akin to an exhibition bout, or spar. He was, he realised, able to do pretty much whatever he wanted with and to Butler and could control him and manoeuvre him with just the threat of punching him (typically always a sign that two boxers belong in completely different leagues).
When the finish then finally did arrive in the 11th round, it was neither unexpected nor underserved. Inoue, for showing so much patience and never drifting from his goal, was to be duly rewarded with his 20th stoppage victory as a pro and, better yet, showed, in securing it, that his power travels late.
Butler, now 34-3 (15), probably knew that going in, but, either way, now knows it for sure. Come the 11th round, he was still caught between the excitement of seeing the finish line in sight and the guilt of not leaving it all behind. He was caught, too, without warning, by a right hand thrown to his body by Inoue. This shot then led to Butler seeking refuge by the ropes, familiar territory for him in Tokyo, and Inoue unloading the latest of many combinations to his head. It was after that Butler fell to the canvas, almost collapsing in stages, and listened to the count to follow on both his stomach and, eventually, his knees.
It delivered the final image most expected to see, even if the ones waiting for it had to wait a little longer than anticipated. As for Butler, one of the few who believed in miracles, it’s hard to know how he will come to view his big night in Tokyo. Clearly, on the one hand, he showed physical toughness, as well as no small amount of discipline, to make it as far into the contest as he did. Yet, on the other hand, what he showed in physical toughness he perhaps lacked psychologically, or in terms of ambition, when the first bell rang inside the Ariake Arena.
Ultimately, though, that is what the terrifying Naoya Inoue does to opponents. Rather than a shameful act, he makes the idea of merely surviving in his presence the best-case scenario.
Earlier in Tokyo super-lightweight Andy Hiraoka extended his unbeaten record to 22-0 (17) with a conclusive eighth-round knockout of South Korea’s Min Ho Jung, 13-4-2 (3). Hiraoka, a 26-year-old southpaw from Yokohama, dropped his opponent heavily in the eighth with a wild left hand, for which no count was required. He has now knocked out each of his last eight opponents.