The Super Arena, Saitama, Japan hosts the bantamweight final of World Boxing Super Series on Saturday night: the hotly anticipated world fight between the WBA world super champion, Nonito Donaire (40-5) and the WBA, IBF world and bantamweight Ring champion, Naoya Inoue (18-0) will culminate the conclusion of the bantamweight weight class from a tournament which began back in November 2018. Yet how did we get here?
The World Boxing Super Series is a tournament format that has been successfully marketed – and has indeed often delivered – on ensuring that the ‘best fight the best’. Eight eminent and objectively highly ranked fighters enter. They are then drawn against each other into quarterfinal bouts with the four winners proceeding into the semi-finals and then the two subsequent victors contesting the final.
The quarter-finals pitched Ryan Burnett (20-1) against Nonito Donaire, the WBO world champion Zolani Tete (28-3) vs Mikhail Aloyan (4-1), Naoya Inoue vs Juan Carlos Payano (21-3) and Emmanuel Rodriguez (19-1) vs Jason Moloney (19-1).
Donaire vs Burnett was a classy and close tactical affair which ended unfortunately and prematurely with Burnett retiring with a ruinous back injury at the end of the fourth round; an injury which, following a comeback fight, resulted in Burnett sadly having to retire from professional boxing aged only 27. In his side of the draw, South Africa’s Tete overcame Aloyan in a competitive fight to win via unanimous decision and retain his world title.
Naoya Inoue concussively obliterated southpaw Juan Carlos Payano in their quarterfinal with a one-two, left-right combination after only 70 seconds had elapsed in the first round, setting up a semi-final contest with Emmanuel Rodriguez, who beat Jason Moloney via split decision 115-113, 115-113, 113-115.
The semi-finals and Donaire did not get his promised WBO title shot, as Tete withdrew from their planned contest and thus the tournament with an acute shoulder injury. American Stephon Young (18-2-3) replaced him and he was conclusively stopped by a knockout, jaw swiveling Donaire left hook with 27 seconds left in the sixth of the 12 scheduled rounds.
Inoue again annihilated his opponent, stopping the then-undefeated Rodriguez in their semi-final with repetitive, spiteful left hooks to the body that left the Puerta Rican fighter bent-over and shaking his head in the direction of his corner, with a desperate countenance that concurrently implored both mercy and salvation. It is worth also acknowledging that despite this being only the second round and therefore still within the early stages of the fight, Rodriguez’s head contorted the distorted features of a bloodied nose and mouth and a closed right eye.
And so to Saturday’s final.
The sentimental appeal here is the narrative of the popular ageing champion (Donaire will be 36 when he fights on Saturday) vs the regnant, younger fighter (Inoue will be 26); the stylistically classy and powerful Donaire vs the Japanese wrecking-ball that is Inoue; the experienced statesman in his 46th professional fight vs the undefeated champion in his 19th.
Inoue isn’t without class, but his power is the headline-grabbing attribute he is renowned for and typecast to. 16 of his 18 fights have finished within the distance. Donaire also carries power – 65% of his victories have ended via knockout – and he has looked rejuvenated and inspired during this tournament, whereas beforehand there were increasingly-vocal and written suggestions that his speed and athleticism were beginning to evidence the inevitable signs of age-induced degradation. But can he rally again? Can he overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle which is the Ring magazine #4 ranked pound-for-pound ranked fighter to hold a career ninth world title ranging across all the four main sanctioning bodies?
This writer does not suspect so. Though I, like many, would also dislike seeing Donaire get brutally stopped. A fitting tribute for a fighter of his enduring class and stature would be to exit the elite level of world championship boxing having at least heard the final bell. Will he manage that? Hmmm, I remain unconvinced. But you can tune in on Saturday night to find out.