Naoya Inoue Walks the Hard Road

By Matt McGrain on March 31, 2014
Naoya Inoue Walks the Hard Road
Age’s breath is short but not short enough. If this kid can’t get it done, it can’t be done.

Both fighters wield a scalpel in their left glove but it will be the war-hammer rights that decide the fate of each man…

Vasyl Lomachenko was carried to his “title” shot against Orlando Salido in Texas last month upon a wave of positive press coverage the likes of which a novice professional has never seen. In part, this was due to the Ukrainian’s outstanding amateur record which promised much but it was also in part due to his supposed world record attempt; Lomachenko was to challenge for an alphabet strap after just one single fight as a professional.

In some corners however, a different view was taken. For some, including Boxing Monthly, The Boxing Tribune and not least, record keeping organization Fight Fax, Lomachenko was 7-0, not 1-0 going into his showdown with the veteran Salido. The source of the confusion was Lomachenko’s participation in the World Series of Boxing tournament, where he engaged in six contests sans headgear and vest over a longer distance in what was regarded by many as professional boxing by another name.

Lomachenko lost, close, sharing the responsibility with bungling referee Laurence Cole but he lost nonetheless. What did we learn? We learned that it is unwise for a green professional, regardless of amateur pedigree, to mix it with a man who has been boxing for around two-thirds of the years for which a prospect has been alive and we learned that under no circumstances should that top prospect be matched with a man who looks like a spaghetti-western villain. 

Step forwards Naoya Inoue, babyish of face, slight of frame, twenty years old and sporting an entirely legitimate 5-0 record and who makes every mistake Lomachenko did and more on the sixth of April in Tokyo.  In the other corner will be Adrian “The Confessor” Hernandez an opponent that makes Lomachenko’s mistake look like reasoned thinking.

Whilst Salido was ranked the #6 featherweight for his own supposed passing of the torch, Hernandez is the #1 light-flyweight in the world. Since taking his revenge over the world class Kompayak Porpramook in late 2012, this Mexican has being doing what he does best – destroying prospects. Like the man himself, it hasn’t been pretty.

Not that Hernandez is ugly. Rather he peers out of a face that seems misplaced. Whether staring through an opponent at a weigh-in or into a camera for a publicity shot, Hernandez looks like a man who has a specific reason for wanting to fight you but refuses to share it. There is something offbeat about him that, from a distance at least, gives him an air of the profane. 

Atsushi Kakutani (13-3-1) ran across him in August last year and tried to box-move on him. Serpentine, Hernandez stalked. “The Confessor” is a slow starter and he likes to begin his cross-examination with a jab and a long look. He is old-fashioned. Kakutani flashed him just seconds in to that fight. When action was re-joined, Kakutani appeared to be on the up and up, throwing wildly and landing some dischorded punches; repeat viewings help to reveal the less infused more affective left-hook that Hernandez employed over and over again to score on his overexcited opponent.

I wonder if perhaps this flash knockdown is one of the reasons that Inoue’s people see his beating Hernandez as probable. If this is the case, they had better take note of the stare as well as the blink. 

Kakutani’s interrogation really ended in the third, although the fight was stopped in the fourth as Hernandez landed hard jabs to open up repeat right-hands. He is a savage finisher, he means business. As I wrote in coverage of his next fight with the outgunned Janiel Rivera, “not for Hernandez the safety-first strategy of preceding a deadly punch with a careful one,” rather he trusts himself to land and throws hard punches. Also in that fight Hernandez threw some of the “tightest uppercuts in the sport” and certainly this was the punch that led to the undoing of Lomachenko against Salido, not only because he was repeatedly tagged with it but because he failed miserably to throw it. Infighting is the bane of the amateur star, it isn’t a strategy that brings a major return under that ruleset and so fighters just don’t learn it.

What is it about Naoya Inoue then that sees him walk this hard road come April 6th regardless of the emergency klaxon ringing ceaselessly from that dream-sodden ring in Texas?

When I named Inoue the brightest prospect in the world in January of 2013 he was a 2-0 professional with the traditional questions that badger every next big thing until they are answered: One, can he take it? Two, does he have an engine? Three, can he infight?

The second has been answered, if not quite unequivocally then with reasonable force. In his third professional fight, Inoue outboxed Yuki Sano (17-2-4) with his almost beautiful blend of high-energy, high-economy fighting. Footwork shorn of unnecessary steps married to an unerring accuracy in his punches combines to excuse his busy offense and allowed him to hold his power late and inflict upon a badly cut Sano the first stoppage loss of his career in the tenth and final round. His fourth professional contest, which was fought for national honors at light-flyweight against 18-1-1 Ryoichi Taguchi, himself a fine prospect, went the distance and is Inoue’s best improvisational performance to date. He threatened, even at 1-0, to develop into something of an extemporizer and here it was all but confirmed. His winging, dug-deep ice-cream-scoop hook had the look of, careful when you say it, but one Roy Jones; of course, this comparison is stylistic to the tune of a shadow of a punch, not direct. But it is there. He finds punches that look like they don’t exist and throws combinations that they don’t teach in any gym, to amateurs or to green professionals. He is naturalistic. He is raw malt. He has added speed via surety and balance to become legitimately fast-handed. He was careful about taking care of himself on the inside in that fight. He pushed with the forearm when he needed to, he threw shortarm punches, he clinched, not with the great excess of Lomachenko but occasionally and selectively. He is a natural bodypuncher which makes an absolutely enormous difference on the inside – seeing a prospect dip, pivot and drop a hook behind the elbow of a mauling opponent is the type of move that can take a tear to the glass-eye of an old-time trainer. Inoue does these things. The left to the rib he dropped on Filipino national champion Jerson Mancio in his last outing to precipitate the first knockdown of that one-sided thrashing was such a punch.

But; but, but – he gets hit.

This might not be as bad as it sounds. Firstly, he loves a tear-up. He uses his footspeed, for the most part, to stay in range, and although he has a beautiful line in counterpunching from the backfoot when he feels like it, “hitting without getting hit” is not his game at Japanese level. That is a choice. Presumably he will box with more discipline against Hernandez.

Secondly, his speed of foot does form a first line of defense. Inoue can be seen popping up behind spun opponents and waiting for them to turn before throwing. He can be in and out before his man is set. He moves well latterly in both directions. Combined with his liquid offense, this is a legitimate deterrent. 

Last but not least, he seems to have a chin that is at least solid. He was buzzed in the tenth against Taguchi but was firing back within seconds and the flush straight right that the defending champion landed on him in the opening round appeared to have little effect.

Still, Hernandez, who has only recently cast off the nickname “Big Bang” in favor of his current moniker, is a different prospect. Like Inoue he sometimes appears vulnerable to the straight right, but like Inoue he has a very good one. Both fighters wield a scalpel in their left glove but it will be the war-hammer rights that decide the fate of each man, or at least that is my guess. 

Another guess is that when he is actually presented with this wonder-boy barely out of his teens to whom he owes his biggest payday to date, and sees his slight frame and gets his first taste of that mobility and jab, Hernandez will fight with murder in his heart. His mission must be to make Inoue as uncomfortable as possible whilst maneuvering him by hook or by crook out of his comfort zone and into some unknown netherworld. 

A final guess: Inoue will be equal to the infighting challenge. There is enough there already for him to match The Confessor for short spells and he has spring enough in his legs to escape and distance enough in his heart to make that spring count. Good judgment doesn’t hurt; although we won’t insult Hernandez by suggesting Inoue’s is better. The fact that he is in this fight in the first place probably proves it is not. Does that make it sound like I’m picking Hernandez? That Salido taught me the last lesson I need to learn in the line of green versus brute? That even though I clearly think Inoue is better than Lomachenko, the fact that I also clearly think Hernandez is better than Salido excuses the fact and permits the sensible pick? If so then I must disappoint, not least myself. Both men have been widely ignored by fans in Europe and America, but they will know Naoya Inoue’s name after this. It will be Hernandez, not the youngster that fades down the stretch seeing the Japanese home on the cards. Out-monstering a monster is the most glorious arrival of all, a bargaining-chip strap and a high ranking his likely reward.

If I’m right, it will be a heart-breaker for Hernandez who I am sure is less than delighted at playing second-fiddle to a mere sapling even with the win still sustaining his every waking moment. If he can hold at the weight he can come again once Inoue makes the inevitable move to flyweight, but if the pounds began to soften that angular expression he may find himself cast adrift in the most savage weight division of all. Even in these days of proliferate belts a strap might be beyond a fighter of his class at 112 lbs., such is its depth.

And if I’m wrong – then we’ll know: age’s breath is short but not short enough.

Because if this kid can’t get it done, it can’t be done.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Matt McGrain 03:18am, 04/06/2014

    Hey Michael.  Thanks.  I’m on Twitter @McGrainM

  2. Michael Rousseau 07:17pm, 04/05/2014

    Hell of a write-up!! That was very well-written, interesting, and informative. Do you have a Facebook or Twitter account, Matt?

  3. Ted 06:38pm, 04/05/2014

    Koolz, come on now.

  4. Koolz 08:29pm, 03/31/2014

    Inoue Is a favorite for this fight.  It seems Japan is obsessed with getting fighters to get Belts as fast as possible!  Trying to out do other Japanese fighters.  Inoue is a rare rare talent.  I really look forward to this fight!
    He has all the tools to win against Hernandez. 
    No I do not see this as a Salido vs Lomanchenko style fight.
    Hernandez is in for a big big surprise!

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