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Can anybody beat Inoue at bantamweight? Beware of 'Chocolatito' at 115 pounds

Naoya Inoue has two bantamweight world titles and is the biggest star in the division. Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images

For the next few months, there won't be any boxing as the coronavirus pandemic has essentially brought this once non-stop sport to a halt. During this lull in the action, Dan Rafael takes a look at the bantamweight and junior bantamweight divisions.

Bantamweight

What's the biggest question you have about this division?

The eight-man World Boxing Super Series tournament left no doubt as to the identity of the No. 1 118-pound fighter in the world: Japanese star Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16 KOs). He stormed through the quarterfinals and semifinals with a first-round knockout of Juan Carlos Payano, followed by a second-round destruction of Emmanuel Rodriguez. In November in the final, Inoue won a unanimous decision against future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire to unify two world titles in what was the consensus 2019 fight of the year.

But the fight with Donaire was absolutely brutal. Although he won, Inoue emerged with a bad cut over his right eye, a fractured orbital bone and a broken nose. The question is, when Inoue returns for his rescheduled three-belt unification fight with John Riel Casimero, will he still be the dynamic and unstoppable force he was pre-Donaire, or will that hellacious fight have taken something out of him? Inoue is only 26 and has not taken much punishment in his career, but you never know until the fighter is back in the ring.

Who is the star? Who is his biggest competitor?

Hands down, it is Inoue, and it isn't remotely close. He is a superstar in Japan, arguably the most popular active fighter in the country other than maybe middleweight titlist Ryota Murata. Inoue recently signed with Top Rank and was due to face Casimero at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Inoue's biggest competitor is Casimero, who shockingly knocked out Zolani Tete in the third round in November to take his belt in a big upset.

Who is a potential dark horse?

I'm not a fan of former junior featherweight world champion Guillermo Rigondeaux's defensive and running style, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba knows how to win -- even if it usually isn't pretty to watch. He dropped from 122 pounds to 118 pounds for his fight on Feb. 8 and won a split decision over former world titlist Liborio Solis to claim a secondary bantamweight belt. Although Rigondeaux (20-1, 13 KOs) is 39 and has been hit more cleanly in his past few fights than ever before in his career, he remains an extremely intelligent fighter with above average defense. Rigondeaux could probably beat some of the better guys in the division.

What fight do you want to see next in the division?

One of the fights postponed due to the coronavirus was a May 16 bout between unbeaten world titlist Nordine Oubaali and Donaire, his mandatory challenger. Inoue-Casimero is also going to be rescheduled. Once those fights take place, I need to see the Oubaali-Donaire winner square off against Inoue, provided he defeats Casimero. It would mean the crowning of an undisputed champion (the first in the division in the four-belt era) and could mean either Inoue-Oubaali in a meeting of unbeaten titleholders or a rematch of the sensational fight between Inoue and Donaire.


Junior bantamweight

What's the biggest question you have about this division?

Who is No. 1? It's really a three-man race between world champion Juan Francisco Estrada, former champion Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and titleholder Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, who resurrected his career in a big way on Feb. 29, with a sensational, ninth-round knockout of then-undefeated titlist Kal Yafai. Currently, most view Estrada as the man in the division after his close decision over Sor Rungvisai to claim the title in April. But are you sure? Sor Rungvisai owns a win over Estrada and two wins over Gonzalez. Gonzalez also owns a win over Estrada, though that was a title defense when they were at junior flyweight. Whomever you have No. 1 on your list, there's a good chance that we will get more clarity because Estrada's mandatory challenger is Sor Rungvisai, and there has been discussion of a rematch between Gonzalez and Estrada to unify titles.

Who is the star? Who is his biggest competitor?

Gonzalez, a four-division world champion and an absolute lock for the International Boxing Hall of Fame, is the clear star of the 115-pound division, though Estrada has a good following in his native Mexico, and Sor Rungvisai is a national hero in Thailand. But Nicaragua's Gonzalez has a big name at home and in the United States. Gonzalez has been the A-side staple of televised fights for the past several years and remains so.

Who is a potential dark horse?

Andrew Moloney (21-0, 14 KOs), of Australia, has no profile in the United States, but he is very good. He was elevated from WBA interim titlist to WBA "regular" titlist recently and was supposed to make his first defense -- and his American debut -- against former title challenger Israel Gonzalez in the main event of a card on April 17, but the show was postponed due to the coronavirus. A win there could've positioned Moloney for a possible unification bout with fellow Top Rank fighter Jerwin Ancajas. Not only should Moloney have opportunities for exposure in the U.S. when boxing resumes, but he should also find himself in the picture for bigger fights than he had before signing with Top Rank.

What fight do you want to see next in the division?

Any combination of fights between Gonzalez, Estrada and Sor Rungvisai are can't miss. I would be happy to see any of those sequels. However, the one I want to see most is a rematch between Gonzalez and Estrada. In 2012 in Los Angeles, Gonzalez retained his junior flyweight title by hard-fought decision over Estrada in a fantastic battle. It has been discussed on and off since, but it needs to happen now that Gonzalez is back in the groove, thanks to his KO of Yafai. Gonzalez and Estrada are both tremendous fighters, they make good fights, and it would be a very meaningful unification bout that has been a long time coming.