Now the undisputed bantamweight champion, will Naoya Inoue find his real fight at 122 pounds?
Naoya Inoue, the No. pound-for-pound boxer. 2 ESPN, has proven unchallenged through 24 fights as he picked up another long-range win on Tuesday in Tokyo.
Paul Butler was no match for him. He really never expected. The Englishman was only there to surrender his WBO belt to Inoue, who won the undisputed bantamweight championship with an 11th-round knockout. (Watch this fight on ESPN+.) Butler tried to get through the fight, so Inoue had to work extra hard to find an opening. Finally, “The Monster” did so with a right to the body followed by a left hook that rocked Butler before an unanswered volley brought him down in the penultimate round.
Inoue, 29, enters the fight as the WBC, WBA and IBF champion and is a 60-1 favorite to add to the 118-pound fourth belt. With her goal achieved, she will now be campaigning at 122 pounds. Like Vasiliy Lomachenko before him, Inoue (24-0, 21 KOs) is so great that he will have to face much bigger fighters to test.
Fortunately, 122 pounds features a pair of unified champions in Stephen Fulton and Murodjon Akhmadaliev, two boxers I recently ranked in the top 20 of the 100 best male fighters in the world (Inoue topped the list).
Fulton, in particular, will present an interesting challenge for Inoue. The 28-year-old from Philadelphia often throws more than 1,000 punches in a single fight, but can also escape counterattacks. If anyone can compete with Inoue, it seems to be Fulton.
“I don’t think it’s far-fetched; I believe it’s a realistic if [Inoue] show up on time [before I move to 126 pounds],” Fulton told ESPN in June. I don’t shy away from big fights. Many people want to see [me vs. Inoue].”
However, the WBC recently ordered a rematch between Fulton and Brandon Figueroa at 126 pounds, so Fulton may well be campaigning at featherweight going forward. If Fulton does step up, his WBC and WBO titles will become available, allowing Inoue to fight for one of the two vacant belts.
In the absence of Fulton, Inoue’s most likely opponent would immediately become Akhmadaliev, who holds the IBF and WBA titles at 122 pounds. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist from Uzbekistan won the singles championship from Daniel Roman in 2020 and then made three defenses. The 28-year-old left-handed fighter is basically healthy and has enough power to keep opponents honest, but he has never met a long-distance opponent like Inoue. Nobody has, of course.
Luis Nery and Azat Hovhannisyan are the top two fighters at the WBC’s 122 pound ranking, legit competitor Inoue would be a big favorite to beat. Ra’eese Aleem and Nery sit at the top of the WBO rankings. Matches with any of these three would be exciting, but Hovhannisyan stands above the rest for his frenetic and relentless style.
If Inoue can bring his vaunted power to the other heavyweight classes — and I’m sure he can — he should also be able to clear 122 pounds. And why stop there? Inoue will likely win the title at 126 pounds too.
It’s hard to find serious flaws in his game. He offers an active power jab, delivers a series of punches from a variety of angles and speeds, and is considered perhaps the best combination punch in the game. Now, Inoue needed an opponent worthy of sharing the ring with him, someone he could find at 122 pounds.