Whislt most Treasure Trove articles have tried to give focus on low key bouts, there are some bigger bouts that deserve the attention of a Treasure Trove piece. Today we look at one of the biggest bouts to take place in Asia in recent years, and it was a bout that exceeded all expectations and became an instant classic. That was a bout that was well and truly in the running as the 2019 Fight of the Year, and it was the WBSS Bantamweight final.
Naoya Inoue (18-0, 16) Vs Nonito Donaire (40-5, 26)
In October 2018 we saw the WBSS Bantamweight competition kick off in explosive fashion, with Naoya Inoue taking out Juan Carlos Payano. A few weeks later Nonito Donaire upset Ryan Burnett in his quarter final bout. The two men had made it clear they wanted to face off, but to do so they would need to make it to the final, which they did, and in November 2019, more than a year after the tournament had began they finally faced off. It wasn't the WBSS final many had really wanted, with fans generally suggesting the best possible final would have seen Inoue face Zolani Tete, but it ended up being the final we had deserved after such a long and protracted tournament.
The expectation was that Inoue would continue to sweep opponents aside as he had done in his previous few bouts. He had needed only 19 rounds to take out his previous 7 opponents, and 4 rounds for his last 3 opponents. Since moving to Bantamweight Inoue had even more destructive than he had at Super Flyweight. Although Donaire was clearly a hall of famer, most though he was going to be taken out quickly by the Monster, and had seen better days.
What ended up happening was that Donaire, who had always been incredibly tough, refused to play his role in a mismatch. Instead of toppling over at the power of Inoue the Filipino pressed, was aggressive, and showed a chin made out of something they should be making tanks out of. He took huge shots, and despite being shaken a number of times he was only dropped by a body shot. Even that came later, and came after he had drawn first blood.
This bout was as good as any other world level bout in 2019, and saw two men with massive amounts of respect for each other beat the living snot out of each other in a bout that had massive amounts of drama, incredible skill level, a little bit of controversy and so much action!
Here we give one of the biggest and best gems of last year!
In 2019 we saw the Bantamweight division go through a lot of changes. We saw titles change hands, one old veteran look resurgent, and one contender essentially prove, again, that they can't make the weight any more. It was a division that benefited from the occasional surprise, and saw the WBSS add real prestige to the divisional kingpin. It's a division that is one of the strongest in the sport right now, and one of the most interesting, with so many match ups that could end up amazing us this coming year.
WBA "super" and IBF - Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16)
The division's kingpin right now is Japanese "Monster" Naoya Inoue, the man who unified the WBA "super" and IBF titles and won the WBSS late last year. The Ohashi gym fighter, who recently inked a deal with Top Rank, has the star power, the destructive punching, the skills and mentality to prove himself that we should be wanting to see from more fighters. At the time of writing he's pencilled in to fight in the US on April 25th, and is expected to have a huge year, working alongside Top Rank to increase his profile. Expect a big year from Inoue.
WBC - Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12)
French-Moroccan Nordine Oubaali cemented his place among the divisional elite with an under-rated 2019 campaign. He began the year beating Rau'shee Warren for the vacant WBC title, and then travelled to defend it against Arthur Villanueva and Takuma Inoue. The powerfully built champion is now 33 and will be looking for big money fights in 2020, if he can get past WBC mandatory challenger Nonito Donaire. Although talented, strong and heavy handed there were question marks asked of him late against Takuma Inoue, and we do wonder about his stamina and punch resistance. Those two issues aside, he looks fantastic, and it will take a special fighter to beat him.
WBO - John Riel Casimero (29-4, 20)
Multi-weight world champion John Riel Casimero put the cat among the pigeons in the division last year when he stopped Zolani Tete in 3 rounds to claim the WBO title. He then made it clear that he wanted Inoue next, in a bout that could well be confirmed by the time this gets published. The explosive, yet inconsistent, Filipino is both a genius and a rotter depending on how he feels on any given day. At his best he is a talented, heavy handed and unpredictable thunder-puncher. On other days he's the sort of fighter who sleep walks through bouts he should win. If he's on form he could be real trouble for Inoue with his unconventional shots and spiteful power.
The Bantamweight division is one of the most complex right now, with a host of fighters in and around world level. It's unfortunately a bit of a mess due to how many contenders there are floating about, and the fact that both the WBA and WBC have really mismanaged their titles this past year, but with the WBSS under way we should see the division being sorted out through 2019.
Nonito Donaire (39-5, 25) - WBA "Super" (0 defenses)
Filipino veteran Nonito Donaire became a champion once again this past November, just 2 weeks before his 36th birthday, when he defeated Ryan Burnett, who had to retire in the corner with a back injury. That win saw Donaire claim the WBA "super" title, that Burnett had held, and put himself in line for major bouts down the line. Although not the fighter he once was Donaire is still a tough, dangerous, experienced fighter who has a devastating left hook. Even prior to the injury for Burnett we saw Doniare having success against the younger, quicker man, and it seems like the move back down to Bantamweight may well give his career one last burst of life. Sadly though we wonder what his body still has left in it and whether he could really go 12 rounds at a good pace.
Naoya Inoue (17-0, 15) - WBA "Regular" (1 defense)
Although Donaire is the "super" champion it's probably fair to suggest that Naoya Inoue is the division's #1 fighter. He has fought just twice as a Bantamweight, but demolished both Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payno in those fights, stopping both men in the opening round. Inoue really made his name at Light Flyweight and Super Flyweight, winning world titles in both weight classes in 2014, and has notched up a string of notable wins during what has been a short and very exciting career. Dubbed the "Monster" Inoue is an incredibly scary fighter in the ring, with incredible power, timing and speed. The only questions he needs to answer are related to his durability, and he has had a history of hand problems during his career.
Zolani Tete (28-3, 21) - WBO (3 defenses)
Talented, yet frustrating, WBO Zolani Tete is a big of an enigma at Bantamweight. He moved to the division a few years ago and and quickly took the WBO "interim" title, by defeating Arthur Villanueva in a dire and forgetable fight. He then followed that up by smashing Siboniso Gonya in 11 seconds before being defending his belt in unmemorable bouts with Omar Andres Narvaez and Mikhail Aloyan, going 12 rounds against much smaller men. Tete is getting a reputation as a talented fighter who lacks killed instinct and is happy to just get wins, rather than get real attention from fans. The win over Gonya, and prior to that a win over Paul Butler, showed he was a talented puncher, but the reality seems to be that he struggles to create his own offense, and depends more on countering lesser opponents. Future bouts could see him settle at the weight, and he does have size advantage over everyone in the division, but it will take a change in mentality to change his growing reputation as a nightmare to watch.
Emmanuel Rodriguez (19-0, 12) - IBF (1 defense)
Unbeaten 26 year old Puerto Rican fighter Emmanuel Rodriguez is next in line to face Noaya Inoue, as part of the WBSS, and will be looking to build on recent wins over Paul Butler and Jason Moloney. In both of those bouts Rodriguez proved he was a talented fighter, with solid power, nice movement and solid all round technical skills. Sadly though, like Tete, he appears to lack killer instinct at the top level and against Moloney we were left with serious questions about his stamina and his potential weakness to body shots, something that would be a major problem against Inoue. He's proven to be very solid but we are waiting to see him answer a lot of questions and genuinely do look forward to seeing him in his next bout of the WBSS.
Reymart Gaballo (20-0, 17) - WBA "interim" (0 defenses)
One of the "forgotten" men of the division is WBA "interim" champion Reymart Gaballo, a hard hitting and unbeaten 22 year old Filipino who really came of age in March when he dominated the previously unbeaten Stephon Young. Gaballo lacks quality wins, other than the one over Young, though showed his ability recently against Julias Kisarawe, who lasted less than 3 minutes with Gaballo back in September. The "Assassin" is one of the division's dark horses, and whilst we all dislike the interim titles we do hope it leads to Gaballo getting good fights in the new year, sadly however the belt hasn't yet helped him get a notable foe, and he's yet to defense the title despite winning it back in around 9 months ago.
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.