Is Naoya Inoue the World’s Brightest Prospect?

By Matt McGrain on January 31, 2013
Is Naoya Inoue the World’s Brightest Prospect?
Naoya Inoue is a beautiful puncher; there is really no other way to say it. (Boxing Beat)

Although we prefer to give prospects some time to mature before we run the rule over them, Inoue is just too good—and too much fun—for us to wait…

In November of 2011, Crison Omayao traveled from the Philippines to Thailand to box Wanheng Menayothin (then 18-0), for one of the more meaningless alphabet straps. Currently the Transnational Boxing Board’s #8 ranked strawweight, the bullet-headed Menayothin was and remains an aggressive, stalking handful of a fighter but Omayao acquitted himself admirably, winning the first two rounds with mobile boxing and a very decent left jab. He seemed far and away the more fragile of the two fighters and it looked dangerously like his moving might turn into running but on my card he won no fewer than six rounds—the point that Menayothin had rather harshly had deducted for a single low blow in the ninth making it a 115-114 Omayao victory by my score. The judges disagreed with me though and Menayothin (now 26-0) was rewarded with a unanimous 116-111 victory. Omayao’s lack of aggression and persistent shoe-shining on offense had cost him, but it was an excellent performance against an opponent then in the process of breaking into the divisional top ten.

All of this made the national strawweight champion of the Philippines a strange choice to move up to light-flyweight and box the debuting Naoya Inoue in Tokyo, Japan on October 2nd of last year. Quick, sharp and never stopped, Omayao was still ranked in the OBPF top ten at straw and was not the type of opponent a teenage prospect would generally be expected to box in his first professional outing.

For many, however, Inoue is not just another prospect.

Defeat to the much more experienced Vosvany Veitia and Birzhan Zhakipov in the World Championships and Olympic qualifiers respectively were disappointing but Inoue was also capable of looking absolutely sensational, as was the case in contests with Omirbek Kudaybergenov and Bilguun Battulga at the 2010 Asian Youth Champions.

“I think his amateur record speaks for itself,” said Scott Graveson of the excellent boxingprospects.info in conversation with Boxing.com. “Had it not been for Vosvany Veitia I think Inoue’s amateur record would have had two less losses on it, and let’s not forget, Veitia is a world-class amateur himself.”

Inoue’s apparent underachievement in the amateur ranks might have been a cause for concern for some promoters, but not for Hideyuki Ohashi, who has is uniquely equipped as a two-time strawweight strap-holder to advise his new charge. Putting him straight in with Omayao did raise some eyebrows.

It need not have. Inoue became the first man to stop Omayao, blasting him out in just four rounds. Although he is only two fights into his professional career, and although at Boxing.com we prefer to give prospects some time to mature before we run the rule over them, Inoue is just too good—and too much fun—for us to wait. So here is our tentative breakdown of how good this teenager is and just how good he might become.

Style

As we shall see, Inoue has the physical and technical abilities to embrace almost any style of out-boxing he should care to, but he doesn’t seem about to go the way of the slickster. Both as an amateur and as a pro he has used those quick feet to stay in range rather than to make the distance and although it can be hoped that the inclination to box more going away may be added in time, for the moment we must categorize him as a box-pressure fighter with elements enough of the cutie to keep the emphasis on the boxing. 

Busy, nor is he in any way shape or form face-first and already with some abilities in the area of counterpunching he looks to control the space around the opponent, draw and force mistakes before taking advantage. 

Although he already has more going on in terms of style than many fighters with literally twenty times his experience, I get the feeling there will be additional layers to peel away before his evolution into a professional is complete. Given the balance of his abilities, this may be key.

Balance and Footwork

When he is relaxed in the ring, Inoue is as finely balanced as a fighter can be. When he is being particularly aggressive or in the rare instances he tightens up whilst looking to get through on his punches, he can look a little over-balanced, a little “dug-in” to the canvas. I am reminded a little of the balance problems Gamboa has exhibited since turning pro, an over commitment inviting counters.

But Inoue’s problem, such as it is, is nothing like as severe and will likely be ironed out with experience. This is the benefit wrought by the classical stance combined with a slightly narrowed stance (he used to be very deep) as opposed to the less clinical, more roughish form the Cuban uses.

In footwork, he exhibits legitimate grace and shows a preference for small moves, edging Omayoa, who is noted for his quick footwork, back in small increments which left him harmonized to the attack. He already looks accomplished at cutting off the ring, displaying that unhurried mobility that defines a professional stalker. It remains to be seen, of course, but at the moment Inoue is promising that unique and deadly combination of economy on movement without compromising on distance.

Technique on Offense

The Japanese is a beautiful puncher; there is really no other way to say it.

In his second professional outing he stopped former Thai national strawweight champion Ngaoprajan Chuwatana (then 8-10) with a single left hook after just 110 seconds. Inoue was going away when he threw that punch, planting his feet, turning slightly away from the punch and then detonating it upon Ngaoprajan’s chin. In corners of the Japanese press it was compared to the left hook Robinson used to stop Fullmer. 

Nobody has ever had Chuwatana out that quickly and he has met a few good ones, including former super-flyweight strap-holder Suriyan Sor Rungvisai, former strawweight strap-holder Katsunari Takayama and current alphabet-soup titlist at that weight, Ryo Miyazaki. Nobody has ever obliterated him like Inoue.

Against Omayao, he showed a dizzying array of punches. In the first round, the standout punch was a lead right hand to the body, which dropped the previously durable Filipino for a count. In the fourth, Inoue introduced his opponent to the canvas for the final time, and once again it was with a bodyshot (this time a left), but thrown up close, deep into the pocket, a short punch that made for a long count. In fact, there are already the bones of an absolutely extraordinary body attack at this early stage, he can throw a one-two that works up and down, he can throw a disguised left-hook around the elbow, he can throw to the body in combination, he can do this inside and out.

So he has a formidable and hurtful right hand but a left that may be developing into something of a scalpel. In a matter of seconds from the bell that opened his professional career, Inoue had thrown a disguised left-hook behind a snapping left jab. Whether it is natural or learned is not known, but it is most assuredly rare in a professional with zero experience.

The most exceptional aspect of Inoue’s offense though is his talent as a punch-picker. He is astonishingly accurate and already looks adept at picking out the right punch for any occasion. These can be technically superb punches like the one-two that is the bedrock for much of his flashier work, or punches that are a more improvised, such as the left hook he breaks off against Omayao at the end of round three or the clipping right hook he threw from the orthodox stance in the first, turning his body all the way through his lead leg. My favorite is the uppercut which looks like it might evolve into a superstar of a punch; we shall see.

Technique on Defense

One of my pet peeves in modern boxing is the static defensive guard brought through to the pro ranks by amateurs. Alas, Inoue is stricken with it too, boxing with his gloves glued to his ears, showing very little head-movement and little or no parrying skills. He also has a habit of wearing his left hand far too low whilst at distance, augmenting that snapping, seeking jab and its angles, but this is a combination that may leave him hung out to dry if he is not careful. 

Additionally, some of his more expressive punches can leave him with his chin stuck up in the air. The good news, limited to superb reactions and (possibly) judge of the distance plus hints of an excellent infighting defensive capability, does not compensate at this time, especially not as Inoue likes to box just inside long-range, just that little bit closer than a boxer with an out-fighter’s defense ought to. This is the area where his being moved along quickly might be a cause for concern. A dragon with an exposed underbelly is still a dragon but you never know in what unlikely setting some unsuspected archer may be lurking.

Improvements are required.

Temperament

The pressure on this young man is huge. He is rumored to have signed upward of ten sponsorship deals before he even threw his first punch for pay. The traditional route for a cash-cow prospect seems not to be open to him if his being matched back to back with national championship level fighters is anything to judge by—in fact the early buzz was that Inoue was going to be matched for a strap in just his third fight with even Kazuto Ioka’s name being invoked in some quarters. It seems common sense has prevailed where that potential blockbuster is concerned, but Hideyuki Ohashi is still talking of a “global opportunity” for his fledgling superstar in his third pro outing this April or May. 

As far as it is possible to tell, Inoue is equal to this pressure. In the ring he seems positively bloodless. After nearly decapitating Chuwatana with that left hook, he was a picture of calm in walking to the neutral corner, as he was after dropping the previously unstopped Omayoa in the first, returning first to his lethal body attack and then to his jab and stalk strategy as though the knockdown had never occurred. He demonstrates calm and patience and those are both very good signs at 2-0. We have yet to see how he responds to being hit and there remains the question of the considerable pressure generated outside the ring, but on both those counts we will just have to wait and see.

Punch Resistance and Stamina

These, of course, are the great unknowns for a prospect. For amateurs, the headguard and pillows defense protect against all but the most direct of punches, the standing eight-count protects a fighter from absorbing punches when hurt. The short distance protects vulnerable lungs and weak aerobic fitness and in no way prepare the novice for sucking up a hard right hand after ten rounds of fast combat. 

And fast combat is what it will likely be. Inoue has appeared busy in each of his contests, punching a lot and moving a lot. Good economy in footwork will spare him the worst of the inevitable fatigue that sets in over longer distances, but there is simply no getting away from it, he will need to demonstrate an exceptional engine before his time is up if he is to fulfill his potential. His reputation in Japan’s inner circle seems to be that of a fighter of boundless energy for whom twelve rounds will not be a problem, and setting his first two fights over the eight-round distance does indeed speak of confidence in his stamina. Tentatively, I would offer up expectations of a pass grade in this crucial department.

As to his durability, the proof of the pudding is in the eating as far as that is concerned, with nothing but hard punches on the menu. Inoue offers up no hangover from his amateur years in terms of punch resistance but is yet to be hit by the punch that will help us define his future.

Speed and Power

Unquestionably a heavy-handed hitter, almost every punch Inoue landed against Omayao drew a reaction from his opponent and from the second he was all but crumbling. For a fleeting moment against Chuwatana he looked genuinely devastating, even if comparisons to Robinson are and are almost certain to remain premature. Nevertheless I understand why that comparison was made on that occasion. Inoue demonstrated how application of superb technique can turn a heavy-handed fighter into a truly destructive one. Inoue may never recreate such a moment again. It may have been a case of his trapping lightning in a bottle, it may be the case that better fighters will be able to neutralize his offense, but if it is something he genuinely has in his locker, he will never truly be out of any fight.

Whilst he isn’t dizzyingly quick, his fast hands are similarly boosted by short, direct, accurate punching. 

As a raw talent, Inoue may be without equal simply because he isn’t raw. He looks like a polished professional, both mentally and physically and did so in the very first round of his pro career. Straps at a variety of weights seem almost assured (it remains to be seen whether the first title tilt will be at 108 or 112 lbs.) and at least one legitimate world championship seems likely.

Beyond that lies the tantalizing prospect that Inoue may be one of the best fighters of his generation. If that sounds hyperbolic, try to imagine the degree of hysteria if an American or British fighter had begun his career by knocking out the Canadian and French national champions before actively pursuing a world title shot in his third professional fight. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time he would have graced the pages of Boxing.com.

And nor will it be the last.


(Thanks to Scott Graveson of boxingprospects.info)

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Naoya Inoue vs Crison Omayao | 02/10/2012



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  1. nicolas 09:53pm, 02/03/2013

    recently I received some nasty replies, esspecially from one guy from Hawaii when I was critical of Joe Kuzumi (who I respect for his contributions) for writing an article just like this one. I think when we write articles about bright prospects, I have seen so many before. Kozumi’s article would have given one the erroneous impression to one not familiar, that he had beaten the number one fighters from both the Phillipines and Thailand, which of course is not the case. Also, in the flyweight division and below, their is such a greater lack of talent I feel in these divisions than any other. Who would have though, some 50 yrs ago that Boxing organizations would see the need to have two weight divisions below flyweight. I think that the great yrs of the flywewight divison were the 1950’s to 70’s, when these divisons at least on the world stage were non existent.

  2. the thresher 07:38am, 02/01/2013

    I know Matt, but he has had so few fights…...but I take your point

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 06:07am, 02/01/2013

    Matt McGrain- “Tora Tora Tora”....we’ll see how it goes when it’s “Bombs Away Tokyo”....otherwise great scouting report!

  4. Matt McGrain 11:11pm, 01/31/2013

    I don’t know if we can deem Ioka a prospect any longer Ted…two weight strap-holder and has been ranked in two divisional top tens.

  5. the thresher 07:12pm, 01/31/2013

    Kazuto Ioka

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