Naoya Inoue is one of the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters, and on Saturday in Las Vegas, he’ll make his promotional debut with Top Rank inside the bubble at the MGM Grand conference center.
The 27-year-old bantamweight is a superstar in Japan and his signing with Top Rank presented an opportunity for a new market to discover his talent and watch as he continues his already impressive career.
The unified champion faces Jason Moloney in his upcoming title defense, but before Inoue (19-0, 16 KOs) stepped into the ring, he sat down with ESPN’s Mark Kriegel to discuss what he calls the restarting of his career, why he’s known as the “Monster” and his thoughts on Teofimo Lopez’s victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko earlier this month.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kriegel: Why do they call you “The Monster?”
My gym owner gave me that nickname — “kaibutsu,” the monster — when I had my debut match. When he was active in boxing, people used to say he was a genius. When I debuted, someone asked him how genius I was, then he answered that I was beyond that. He told him that I’m a monster.
I felt some pressure when I first got that nickname, of course. But it just got comfortable after many years. I think that’s an easy nickname to be remembered in the U.S., so I am grateful to have it.
It seems to us here in America you’re coming in as a spectacular knockout fighter. Is that how you see it?
It’s not that I’m always going to knock out my opponents. I want to show that kind of fighting as well, but I don’t believe that’s what boxing is all about. I want to show all my techniques and abilities.
What makes you great?
I don’t know. To be quite honest, I’m far from being satisfied with my own boxing. That is why I can keep myself motivated to become stronger. But … I really don’t know.
I am not yet satisfied with my boxing and career, so I still have room to be better. I’m cautious not to get overconfident. And it’s not like I’m forcing myself to think that way — I really do think that way.
You’ve been professional for eight years. You said you’d fight for eight more. What would you want to accomplish during that time?
Now is the turning point, it will be an important new start. The next fight, on the 31st, means everything to me. I hope that I can be active in the U.S. in the next eight years.
You have enormous fame, love, admiration in Japan. Why did you want to come here?
By continuing to win not only in Japan, but also in Las Vegas, the boxing capital of the world, I want to receive worldwide recognition. That’s my goal.
What motivates you?
My willingness to show better fights to my fans is my motivation. The encouragement of my family and fans means a lot — that’s what motivates me.
What is your top five pound-for-pound?
Lomachenko, Terence Crawford, Canelo Alvarez, I’m including myself, then Errol Spence.
But Lomachenko just lost. What did you make of that fight?
In that particular fight, I don’t think Lomachenko was like himself at all. I don’t believe that he has lost his skills, either. Maybe Lomachenko didn’t fit in at lightweight. Although he lost in that fight, my evaluation for him hasn’t changed.
I thought that Lopez was a brilliant fighter. He followed every bit of movement Lomachenko had made. I could imagine how much he studied and practiced.
In the second round of your most recent fight, with Nonito Donaire, he hit you with a hook that fractured your orbital bone. What do you remember about that punch?
I remember Donaire’s every move and I saw that moment I received the punch. I remember everything clearly.
I was able to know my limits through that fight. I used to think that I was a good punch-taker, but I had never been in that kind of situation, so I think I was able to know much more about myself. I think that I was able to prove my toughness.
What does Jason Moloney do well? And where is he vulnerable?
I think that he is an all-around high-level fighter. Finding his weakness is very difficult. I am well prepared and I have the strategy for when we step into the ring.
Moloney said Donaire showed everyone that in a way you are not invincible. Is he right?
That’s something to be found out in the ring. But, if he is saying that based on the 12 rounds with Donaire, he is probably missing the point. As far as that fight was concerned, I wasn’t able to do even half of what I wanted to do. It was that kind of fight.
I think everyone knows this by now, but I was seeing double starting in the second round of that fight. In the fifth, I was throwing my punches only by instinct. Obviously it wasn’t my normal fighting style. So if Moloney is strategizing based on that fight, it would be lucky for me.
You have two sons. Would you want either of them to become a fighter?
No, I do not. It is a dangerous sport. I know how hard and how painful it is.
You said, “I like to create moments that entertain the fans, including the ones when I knock out my opponents.” What do you want to show on Halloween?
If I myself can enjoy the fight, the spectators should be able to enjoy it as well. I want to escalate the enjoyment by showing my skills, techniques and power punching.