One of the most interesting conversations to see unfurl is the conversation about who is the #1 pound for pound fighter on the planet. Sometimes the sport does have a clear #1, for example for much of Floyd Mayweather's career he was undeniably the #1 fighter on the planet, and by the end of his career he beat the only man who really gave him much of a run for that claim. Right now however there is no consensus #1. In fact there's 3 or even 4 fighters who could all make an argument to be #1 in the sport, and in fairness to them it seems unlikely we'll see them ever clash. This isn't like Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, where there was talk of the men fighting, but instead it's fighters from completely different weight classes all in the mix to be the sports best boxer.
Today we're going to make the case for Naoya Inoue to be regarded as the #1 pound for pound fighter.
We know some people will disagree, others will agree, but as with arse holes, we all have an opinion, we all have our beliefs, and we can all be respectful. We will make the case, but we expect many will disagree, and choose many Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, or Terence Crawford as the #1 fighter. Thing is whilst we would disagree with those picks, we do understand how fans can pick either guy.
When it comes to being a pound for pound top fighter one thing we all expect is for a fighter to fight through multiple weight classes. The guys we've previously mentioned, such as Mayweather, Pacquiao, Alvarez and Crawford, have all done that. It's, in many ways, a sign of greatness. Not just having success at your natural weight but managing to have success across multiple weight classes.
Of course not all multi-weight world champions are the same. For example few would ever suggest Leo Gamez was a pound for pound great in his prime, despite the fact he was the first fighter to win world titles across the lowest 4 weight classes. And that was before the WBA handed out titles like they belonged in Happy Meals. In fact Gamez was only the sixth man to win world titles at 4 weights.
As many will know Inoue is a 3-weight champion and he is a legitimate 3-weight champion. He's not someone who has picked up just picked secondary titles and held them, instead he's actually done something we don't see too often, but he's taken every world title from a reigning champion. No vacant titles for him.
His title wins have come against legitimately top level opponents. His first title win came against Adrian Hernandez, the then WBC Light Flyweight champion, his second came against Omar Andres Narvaez, the then WBO Super Flyweight champion, then he beat Jamie McDonnell for the WBA Bantamweight title, before beating Emmanuel Rodriguez for the IBF Bantamweight title and the Nonito Donaire for the WBA Bantamweight "super" title.
Some will point towards Jamie McDonnell holding a secondary title, and technically that was true, but it does ignore the history behind McDonnell's reign and the fact that boxing politics saw him being stripped of the IBF title and denied the WBO title (See note). And it also ignores the fact Inoue went on to win the WBA "super" title soon afterwards.
Not only did Inoue dethrone good champions, but he also made at least one defense of all every world title he has won. This wasn't a case of Inoue dipping his toes at a weight to win a belt and skipping town, but actually laying down some roots at all 3 weights.
One other thing to note is that Inoue is one of the few fighters to have had success whilst completely skipping a division. The plan had been for him to get a Flyweight title bout at the end of 2014, but with no Flyweight champions available he skipped the division and took on the long reigning Narvaez at Super Flyweight instead.
To be a top pound for pound fighter someone really needs to have scored a high level of wins. Not only that but those wins really need to be quite decisive. It's hard to be regarded as a top fight if you're narrowly taking split decision and controversial wins left right and center. Thankfully for Inoue he has been scoring high quality wins, completely devoid of controversy. And these big wins really do go back years.
In just his third bout Inoue beat the then world ranked Yuki Sano, he then beat Japanese national champion Ryoichi Taguchi in his fourth bout, scoring a clear decision over Taguchi. The win over Taguchi aged amazingly with Taguchi later unifying titles at Light Flyweight.
Soon after the win over Taguchi we saw Inoue stop Adrian Hernandez for the WBC world title. Less than 9 months later he jumped up 2 weights and blasted out 2-weight world champion Omar Andres Narvaez.
Sadly Inoue's reign at Super Flyweight was under-whelming, defending against the likes of Warlito Parrenas, David Carmons, Petchbarngborn Kokietgym, Ricardo Rodriguez, Antonio Nieves and Yoan Boyeaux. The only genuine stand out defense came against 2-time WBA champion Kohei Kono, who he stopped in 6 rounds giving Kono his first stoppage loss. It wasn't down to a lack of trying however, with several fighters turning down Inoue, who had wanted to unify and was frustrated by the fellow champions and the WBC's mandatory merry-go-round. A merry-go-round that appears to be continuing to this day!
Sadly the WBC merry-go-round, which saw Carlos Cuadras, Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai having amazing bouts between themselves, left Inoue frozen out of unifying his WBO title with that belt, and essentially kept those 4 world class fighters out of his reach. This does harm Inoue's reign at the weight, but thankfully he didn't just toil at the weight waiting and after making 7 he moved up in weight once again.
At Bantamweight his competition has more than made up for the time he spent at Super Flyweight. He immediately made a mark at Bantamweight with a first round blow out over WBA "regular" champion Jamie McDonnell. He then entered the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) and beat former WBA "super" champion Juan Carlos Payano and the then unbeaten IBF champion Emmanuel Rodriguez. Between those two men and McDonnell we saw Inoue need just 4 rounds to demolish 3 world class fighters. He then beat future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire with a 12 round decision to claim the Muhammad Ali trophy and the WBA "super" title.
Donaire was the first man since David Carmona, more than 3 years earlier, to survive with Inoue, and even that was in part to a help referee who jumped in between the two men when Donairea was reeling from a body shot.
Most recently Inoue became the first man to stop Jason Moloney, doing so in 7 rounds.
In his career Inoue hasn't come close to losing. He's never been down and rarely loses rounds. Only one judge, at point, in Inoue's career even had one of his bouts close, and that was a bizarre 114-113 score card in Inoue's bout with Donaire. A scorecard that stands out as being a terrible score.
In just 20 bouts Inoue has beaten 9 men to hold world titles. He has stopped 7 of those, with only Taguchi and Donaire surviving. He has spent more than half of his career in world title bouts.
Whilst it's true that Canelo and Crawford have also beaten top competition it's fair to say that Crawford has lacked top competition recently. His Welterweight reign is terrible, and he is still struggling to secure a top win in the weight class. Much like Inoue did at Super Flyweight.
One thing that really needs to be mentioned is recent form. What have you done lately? If we ignore this one fighters like Roman Gonzalez and Manny Pacquiao would all rank incredibly highly on the pound for pound lists. Typically we might see Pacquiao and Gonzalez in the top 10, but their competition and weight exploits should see them higher in the rankings. Sadly though both guys have failed to do much at the top level in recent years.
With that in mind we should perhaps look back over the last 36 months. In that time Inoue has beaten Yoan Boyeaux, Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano, Emmanuel Rodriguez, Nonito Donaire and Jason Moloney. That's a 6-0 (5) record with 5 wins over legitimate world class fighters, and no debatable wins. They have all been definitive.
In that same time we've seen Canelo fight 4 times, going 4-0 with wins over Gennady Golovkin, Rocky Fielding, Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev. The win over Golovkin was heavily debated and the win over Fielding was regarded as a joke, much like Inoue's over Boyeaux. However the wins over Jacobs and Kovalev do hold up very well, particularly the one over Jacob's. He probably has the better wins here, but he also has arguably the weakest win, the one over fielding, and a very hotly debated one.
Likewise in that same period of time Terence Crawford Jeff Horn, Jose Benavidez, Amir Khan and Egidijus Kavaliauskas, and will likely add Kell Brook to his ledger on November 14th. All of those wins have been decisive, and he has stopped all 4 men. Whilst Horn was a reigning champion he wasn't highly regarded, Benavidez was once regarded highly but had failed to live up to his potential, Khan was a former world champion but had looked a long way from his best and Kavaliauskas was a live under-dog but relatively untested. He has been dominant, but against a lower tier of opposition.
Of course pound for pound, at the end of the day, also needs to incorporate a fighter's ability and skill set. Can they adapt? Have they got a plan B? How many flaws does a fighter have in their style? What can and can't they do?
There are, at the moment, a number of fighters who stand out here, including Crawford and Canelo, again, along with Juan Francisco Estrada. Although the men we consider as the most skilled are all very highly skilled, the reality is that not a lot separate them. They all have flaws, and they all have strengths. Notably they all have different styles and different weaknesses.
For us Inoue is on the same level as anyone in terms of ability. Like all top fighters he has a variety of tricks in his locker. Not only can he box and move, but he can pressure, he can punch, he's a criminally under-rated counter-puncher, and he can can adapt during a fighter. There are some flaws with what he does, but given how many things he does really well he's very much among the elite in terms of skills and ability. At just 27 he's still improving, but is already the best boxer-puncher in the sport.
Whilst it is his power that gets so much acclaim and attention his power really isn't his biggest asset. Instead it's his boxing IQ, his balance, his movement and his timing. Those allow him to use his power. It's these tools which have helped him have success through the weights, and why we suspect his power has carried up from 108lbs to 118lbs with no issues at all, and why we suspect it will carry up to 122lbs and even 126lbs.
Unlike many puncher's it's not the power that is the key to Inoue's knockouts. It's the mechanics behind things. He knows where he is, what he's doing there, and how to make the most of mistakes from opponents.
One complaint is that he can be hit, and it's true, he can. Everyone gets hit. Inoue has ever shown a real chin when he's had to take a shot, and has neutralised opponents really well, shutting down the capable Moloney recently to the point where Moloney landed just 62 punches in 7 rounds, at a connect rate of 19%! He might not be the most defensive fighter, but he's also not a defensively naive one. For an offensive fighter to get hit as rarely as he does is a real credit to his ability, anticipation, and ring craft. Things that are often under-rated when it comes to Inoue.
In terms of ability there are very, very few who can consider themselves even close to the elite level of skills of Inoue.
Not so much a criteria used for Pound for Pound conversation but something worth thinking about is the future position of fighters in the rankings.
For the 27 year old Inoue things are very bright. There are a host of great fights out there for him, including showdowns with Bantamweights like John Riel Casimero, Nordine Oubaali, Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Or Super Flyweights like Juan Francisco Estrada, Roman Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Jerwin Ancajas or even Donnie Nietes. He could, and likely will, move up to Super Bantamweight in a year or two, opening up bouts against the likes of Murodjon Akhmadaliev, Luis Nery, Ryosuke Iwasa, Daniel Roman, Michael Conlan, Isaac Dogboe. Inoue is in a great position looking forward.
At the moment we know that the 33 year old Terence Crawford's next bout is an underwhelming one against Kell Brook, and he has genuinely struggled to get decent Welterweights in the ring with him. If he fails to land a good opponent next year he'll be on the back end of his prime years, and Top Rank still won't have any attractive bouts for him.
Canelo is battling with his broadcaster and promoter outside of the ring. At just 30 years old he could, potentially, waste a year or two and still have a lot of attractive bouts on the table. It's a shame that he's being kept out of the ring and battling in the legal system however. He has plenty of potential opponents, but it's very unclear when he'll be back in the ring. He's been out of the ring for a year and if the legal case extends another 6 months, and there is a chance of that, it could be 18 months of his prime out of the ring.
The 33 year old Oleksandr Usyk is one of the most talented fighters on the planet. Sadly however his future doesn't look the best. He turns 34 in January and his style will struggle to hold up with his ageing body. He also will be going up against some significantly bigger men. Wins against Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury would be huge for him, but he would be an under-dog against either man, and it's hard to imagine him having prolonged success as a Heavyweight.
Teofimo Lopez looks to be the new kid on the block and the American has all the tools to be a future pound for great. He neutralised the fantastic Vasyl Lomachenko recently, and although he has struggled at times he ticks pretty much every box. Much like Inoue he wants to face the best and there is serious competition out there for him at 135lbs and 140lbs. Aged just 23 he has all the tools to be a major player in the coming years, though we do need to see what he's like when he moves through the weights.
We've just mentioned Vasyl Lomachenko and he does deserve a mention here. He's probably the best talent in boxing. He can do things others can't even imagine doing. Sadly however he was completely neutralised by Teofimo Lopez earlier this year, and with repeated injuries the 32 year old Ukrainian doesn't appear to have a long future in the sport. He turns 33 early next year and with repeated injuries his long term potential is limited, especially with his high energy style. He's never looked the most comfortable at Lightweight and it does seem likely that a move down in weight would be best for his career.
The 29 year old Josh Taylor is some one with a potentially bright future. He turns 30 in January and will, by then, be looking to to face fellow unified champion Jose Carlos Ramirez to become the undisputed champion at 140lbs. When he does that we do hope that the "Tartan Tornado" doesn't immediately move up in weight, as he will likely find himself in the same position that Terence Crawford is in, struggling to get leading Welterweights in the ring with him. We do want to see fighters move up in weight, but sometimes a fighter, and fans, need to be patient and we hope that Taylor can wait until Top Rank have some interesting Welterweights before moving up.
The past 2 years have been huge for the Charlo twins, and they headlined a split PPV earlier this year. Of the two 30 year old fighters Jermell Charlo has the better claim to be in the pound for pound conversation and is a unified champion champion at 154lbs with wins against good competition. He is in a great position at the moment, though longer term there may be some issues. We suspect he'll be racing for the WBO title next year, to become the undisputed champion at 154lbs, and the longer he stays at 154lbs the better his competition can be. Sadly though we don't see many good bouts for him at Middleweight, given so much of the division is tied up on DAZN whilst he's with PBC, and deson't have the financial backing to get people to cross the street.
In terms of skills few match Juan Francisco Estrada, and he is in an amazing position right now. The 30 year old Super Flyweight has been ordered to face Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, in what will be their third bout, and also has eyes on a second bout with Roman Gonzalez. After those bouts there are potential contests with Donnie Nietes and Kazuto Ioka for him at Super Flyweight, or a potential move to Bantamweight to pursue Inoue. He's in a great position, given who he can face, and his age. We do worry about the damage he's taken, and will take against Srisaket and Gonzalez, but there are few fighters with the options there that he has right now.
There are some great fighters out there, and some are laying down the ground work now to not just be in the pound for pound ratings but also be in them long term. Others however seem likely to struggle to solidify, or improve, their position. Either way Inoue is in a great position to add to his legacy, and even though many of his main rivals are with PBC it seems likely that the finances would make sense for them to cross the street to face the Monster, not something that is always the case.
Is Naoya Inoue the #1 pound for pound fighter?
Obviously we're going to say yes. He ticks more of the boxes than anyone else for us. He has the skills to match anyone in the sport, he has notable achievements across multiple weights, and he's got the mix of solid competition through his career and a high level of recent competition. He's rarely losing rounds, bouts with him involved aren't competitive and he's notching big win after big win.
Unlike many fighters Inoue is somewhat immune to the issues affecting boxing in the US. He is the draw at Bantamweight, he's the man other Bantamweights want to face, and there is no problems with him not getting stiff competition. The division he's in, plus divisions either side of him, as full of options.
Notably he is one of the very few active fighters in, or around, the pound for pound discussion to have scored wins on 3 different continents. This is a sign of someone who has the confidence to to travel. He could stay at home, like many fighters, but instead has travelled, and has scored wins in Asia, Europe and North America. Something we'd love to see other top fighters do.
We understand fans may disagree, and may use different criteria, and that's fine. For us however, Inoue is now the #1 pound for pound fighter on the planet, and is very much in the perfect position to solidify that claim over the next year or so. That is not something we can see for some of the other fighters in the discussion.
Note-In 2013 Jamie McDonnell won the IBF Bantamweight title but was stripped due to failing to defend against the mandatory challenger after splitting with his then promoter. The title was then won by a man he had beaten in 2011. He then won the WBA "regular" title, made a string of defenses including one over the previous WBO champion Tomoki Kameda, who vacated to face the then "unranked" McDonnell, who was the WBA "regular" champion. The political situation around McDonnell was a farce and a black eye for the IBF and WBO.
(Images courtesy of Ohashi Gym)
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).