Naoya Inoue can't be denied any longer.
In the wake of Canelo Alvarez's loss to Dmitry Bivol, and now, Inoue's second-round TKO of future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire on Tuesday in Saitama, Japan, there's little doubt in my mind that "Monster" is the now the pound-for-pound king.
While the Japanese star sliced his way through three weight divisions, he received little resistance until he met Donaire in ESPN's 2019 fight of the year. Inoue (23-0, 20 KOs) won that first clash wide on two scorecards, but suffered a broken nose and a fractured right orbital, the product of Donaire's heavy punches. Thirty-one months later, Donaire was no match.
The 29-year-old added a third bantamweight title with two knockdowns of Donaire, the last of which prompted the referee to stop the fight. Donaire, 39, was ESPN's No. 2 boxer at 118 pounds, and there's plenty of separation between him and the third spot (John Riel Casimero).
But at this point, there's nothing left for Inoue to prove at 118 pounds -- just as there wasn't after he captured titles at 108 pounds and 115.
Inoue said that he "would love to stay in this division" if he can accomplish his goal of becoming undisputed champion this year (Paul Butler has the WBO belt). "But if I can't," Inoue said in translated remarks, "I'm capable of raising my division."
It appears to be a fait accompli that Inoue will soon seek to conquer the junior featherweight division, where he figures to face his stiffest competition yet. After all, great boxers like Inoue usually aren't tested until they continue to move up in weight. Canelo Alvarez is a prime example of this.
The 122-pound division features better talent than Inoue has ever encountered, namely in the form of Stephen Fulton and Murodjon Akhmadaliev. Both the Philadelphian and the Uzbek are unified champions at 122 pounds.
It's possible Fulton and Akhmadaliev will meet later this year for the undisputed championship. Akhmadaliev must first defend his two titles against Ronny Rios in a June 25 rematch, while Fulton took care of business this past weekend with a decision victory over Daniel Roman. A fight for the undisputed championship on prime time in the U.S. is a good start for Inoue on that path to stateside stardom, which should continue with a bout against either Fulton or Akhmadaliev in the same kind of coveted TV slot.
"I don't think it's far-fetched. I believe it's realistic if [Inoue] comes up in time [before I move to 126 pounds]," Fulton told ESPN last week. "I don't shy away from big fights. A lot of people want to see [me vs. Inoue], a lot of people want to talk about that as well."
Of course, much must happen before Inoue and Fulton can even enter negotiations, but the matchup would give Inoue the opportunity to announce his arrival stateside.
Despite his success and co-promotional deal with Top Rank, Inoue has competed just three times in the U.S. None of those bouts featured the sort of top-flight opposition Inoue needs to become a star stateside. He also fought in the Top Rank bubble during the pandemic which unfortunately limited any big-fight feel that is necessary for all boxing stars.
Inoue's first two fights at 118 pounds were first-round finishes of Jamie McDonnell, a champion, and Juan Carlos Payano, a contender, in Japan. His third fight was a second-round KO of Emmanuel Rodriguez in Scotland to win another title. But when you're fighting in the early-morning hours in the U.S., like he did against Donaire, it's hard to grab the attention of all but the most die-hard of boxing fans.
Much of Inoue's lore was built on highlights and YouTube. If you're a casual follower of the sport, he just might be the best fighter you've never heard of.
With his frightening power and entertaining style, Inoue undoubtedly has a chance to become a bona fide star in the U.S. The Philippines' Manny Pacquiao reached superstardom in the States, and while it's nearly impossible to reach that level, Inoue can surely carve out a name for himself on a level below.
For now, his goal is the undisputed championship, and that means a matchup with England's Paul Butler, who like the rest, have little hope against the "Monster," the best fighter in all of global boxing.