This past week two of the bantamweight division’s most significant fighters made their way back inside the squared circle.
Last weekend at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, CA, four-division champion Nonito Donaire (42-6, 28 KOs) scored a fourth-round knockout over the previously undefeated Reymart Gaballo with a left hook to the body to successfully defend his WBC bantamweight title.
Earlier this week, three-division champion Naoya Inoue (22-0, 19 KOs) took out mandatory challenger Aran Dipaen in Japan with a dominant eighth-round stoppage. The fight with Dipaen was Inoue’s first fight in Japan in two years and the third defense of his unified WBA and IBF bantamweight championships.
Inoue, 28, is rated as one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound, currently sitting at the number four spot on Ring Magazine’s list.
In 2019, Inoue signed a promotional deal with Top Rank in hopes of getting more exposure in the United States. The Japanese pugilist’s momentum was on the rise heading into 2020, having won the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament with the final fight against Donaire considered the 2019 fight of the year.
However, since signing with Top Rank, Inoue’s career has stagnated.
The global COVID-19 pandemic played a role just like it did on the entire boxing industry, but Top Rank hasn’t done Inoue any favors by not keeping him as active as possible.
Inoue scored an impressive and emphatic seventh-round knockout over Australia’s Jason Moloney in his lone fight of 2020. But, his 2021 has seen him step in the ring twice against non-descript opponents, which garnered more apathy than admiration.
Whether it would have been against elite opponents or not, Inoue would have been better served following in Saul Alvarez’s footsteps fighting at least three times in 2021.
In a weight class where fighters rarely get the recognition they deserve due to a lack of knowledge and coverage, being visible by staying active is crucial for a fighter's market value.
Luckily for him, a major fight awaits on the horizon.
While Inoue’s career has plateaued since his fight with Donaire, his Filipino opponent has continued on his resurgent path since moving back down to bantamweight in 2018.
Donaire has fought twice in 2021, including scoring a fourth-round knockout over Nordine Oubaali to win the WBC bantamweight title in a fight that he was the underdog.
The victory gave him the distinction of being the oldest bantamweight champion in boxing history.
At 39, the “Filipino Flash” has proven to still be an elite fighter furthering his credentials as one of the best of the last 25 years. Since dropping a unanimous decision to Inoue, he has set his focus on a rematch with the Japanese technician.
“Some people call me crazy about things, but I love that fight, and I want to do it again,” Donaire said to ESPN earlier this year. “It drives me and motivates and inspires me. It gets me up early and makes me enjoy being in the gym.”
The rematch with Inoue for Donaire represents what would likely be the finale of his career, allowing him to not only avenge a loss, but also leave the sport at the top of his game.
A rematch with Donaire for Inoue is a significant bout, but would not increase his stature in the sport. It’s a means to an end in a division that doesn’t have many options.
“I have to give Nonito Donaire credit; his ability to avoid declining and continue to excel at this stage of his career is very impressive,” said Inoue to Boxingscene.com earlier this year. “He had a great performance, and it was great to see him fight like that against another world champion.
“It shows all of the hard work he continues to put in so that he can remain at this level.”
The other champion at bantamweight is John Riel Casimero, who holds the WBO title. Casimero recently won a split decision over Guillermo Rigondeaux in a fight where they seemed to cancel each other out and left fans wondering what exactly is ring generalship.
Becoming an undisputed champion has been a more common trend as of late and would undoubtedly be a notable accomplishment, but should fights with Donaire and Casimero not take place, a move up to super bantamweight would be the next step for the Japanese star.
“I’ve been placing a lot of importance on unifying the four belts, but if the individual fights don’t happen, I’ll start thinking about the super bantamweight title,” Inoue stated to Boxingscene.com.
2022 should prove to be a tumultuous year for both Donaire and Inoue. From the looks of things, a second showdown between the two seems to be what’s next.
From a legacy and financial standpoint, it makes the most sense.