When Naoya Inoue faced Nonito Donaire in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight final in November 2019 to unify two world titles, nobody expected it to be such a back-and-forth battle. Inoue, the younger fighter and one rapidly ascending the pound-for-pound rankings, was coming off eight straight stoppage victories. Donaire had just returned to the 118-pound division after losing to Carl Frampton in a challenge for an interim featherweight belt.
But someone forgot to tell Donaire — who eventually lost a decision to Inoue –that he was still a force to be reckoned with in the division. The fight was so exciting from start to finish that it was named the 2019 ESPN fight of the year.
Almost three years later, Inoue and Donaire will meet again to unify three bantamweight world titles Tuesday in Saitama, Japan (ESPN+, 5:30 a.m. ET, with the main event expected at 8:15 a.m. ET).
Since the first fight, Inoue (22-0, 19 KOs) has scored KO victories over Jason Moloney, Michael Dasmarinas and Aran Diapen to defend his WBA and IBF titles. Donaire (42-6, 28 KOs) has collected two KO victories in the fourth round, one against Nordine Oubaali to win the WBC belt.
While many experts viewed the first matchup as a possible abrupt end to Donaire’s Hall of Fame career, his pride, experience, pugilistic skills and enormous will made the bout a memorable part of boxing’s deep history.
What made that fight so memorable? I rewatched the fight and scored it round-by-round, analyzing the big moments — from an incredible Round 5 for Inoue, to a Donaire resurgence after that and the adjustments Inoue made in the last few rounds to win.
Round 1: It was an extremely tactical round for both boxers, but Inoue was instantly able to get things going with his level-changing offense. This tactic delivered three essential things. One, landing a jab to the body assisted him in establishing his range and proper distance right away. Two, it quickly brought down Donaire’s defense as he defended the jab. Three, it helped Inoue find the target immediately.
Donaire did his best to change his positioning by swiftly shuffling in and out of range to create distance deception. However, a hard right-hand counter by Inoue hit Donaire after a careless jab. Inoue also took the initiative instead of taking the role of the counterpuncher, beating Donaire to the punch with several combinations. Donaire closed the round strong, with his forward pressure changing the tempo and showing his physical strength and tenacity. But it wasn’t enough. 10-9 for Inoue.
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Inoue
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue
Round 2: Donaire made a minor adjustment by starting out using subtle lateral movements to change his rhythm and positioning. To no surprise, Inoue converted to a back-foot counterpuncher, looking for any Donaire mistake. Donaire marched forward, looking to time and draw some offense from Inoue so he could counter with his signature left hook. Inoue made a quick guard change that created a slight hesitation in Donaire’s approach as Inoue’s jab began to find its mark. However, neither fighter would give an inch. Donaire started pressing harder, forcing Inoue to the ropes and attacking the weak side (jab side), which pushed Inoue toward his left hook. Inoue made the mistake of being trapped on the ropes and dropping to get under punches. But when Inoue popped right up as he threw a left hook, he left his right guard down. Donaire countered with his left hook, hurting Inoue and sending him into survival mode. A leisurely round to score. 10-9 Donaire (19-19 total).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Donaire (19-19)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (19-19)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (20-18 Inoue)
Round 3: Shortly after the fight, it was announced that Inoue had suffered a fractured right eye socket caused by a big left hook by Donaire that landed at the end of Round 2. Inoue’s body language in this round indicated that he was having trouble seeing out of his right eye, and he covered the eye with his right glove. Donaire came on strong, looking to inflict more damage, but inexplicably abandoned his jab, creating missed opportunities. Inoue’s impaired vision affected his accuracy, as his punches were off the mark. Still, he instinctively realized he needed to hit his target for the momentum to shift, as Donaire started covering ground quickly. Inoue began to move laterally to his left, forcing Donaire to reset his feet. Staying away from Donaire’s left hook by moving toward Donaire’s right hand was always the plan from Round 1, but it became more pronounced as the rounds went on. It was a close round. 10-9 Inoue (29-28 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (29-28 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (29-28 Donaire)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (30-27 Inoue)
Round 4: Donaire continued to march forward to dictate the pace, but his corner must have told him to use his jab more while controlling the real estate. Level-changing jabs and feints allowed for some scoring shots downstairs for Donaire. Inoue seemed to accept the disadvantage of his blurred vision, occasionally covering his right eye with his right glove. For this round and the previous one, Donaire made it a point to throw left hooks downstairs to weaken and bring down Inoue’s guard. But Inoue began to fill the space between the fighters with combinations, maneuvering left, splitting the guard of Donaire with his accurate, sharp jab, and mounting an exceptional finish to the round. Still, a vicious right-hand counter by Donaire, which Inoue slightly head-rolled, put an exclamation point on this round for Donaire. 10-9 Donaire (38-38).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (39-37 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Inoue (38-38)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (40-36 Inoue)
Round 5: In my book, the fight was now dead even and both men met in the center of the ring with a rejuvenated bounce as they circled the ring, altering their rhythms. This round began to look more like the first round for Inoue, as he probably felt the fight slipping away. Various jabs intercepted Donaire’s attacks. Finally, Inoue started landing more regularly by recognizing Donaire’s attack pattern: Donaire would walk forward and quickly fade out with his head on a horizontal line, then jab. A lightning-fast counter over Donaire’s jab landed and instantly sparked a fire in Inoue. Donaire attempted to land right crosses of his own but missed, as Inoue escaped left. Strong right hands from Inoue slowed down Donaire’s jab as a punishing right hand rocked Donaire late in the round. Nevertheless, Donaire showed heart and survived one of the best finishers in boxing. 10-9 Inoue (48-47 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (49-46 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Inoue (48-47 Inoue)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-8 Inoue (50-44 Inoue)
Round 6: Donaire seemed to be fighting on borrowed time because he was severely hurt in the proceeding round. The fact that Inoue didn’t jump right back on Donaire is puzzling but understood, as a hurt fighter is still dangerous and has a natural impulse to fight for survival by profusely fighting back. Furthermore, what was also puzzling was the low left guard used by Donaire, inviting the right cross of Inoue. A trap set by the experienced veteran or a mistake? Inoue precisely changed levels with his jab in hopes of uncovering something. Meanwhile, Donaire took advantage of Inoue’s lack of action by firing off a low-high combination of his own. Same as Donaire, Inoue defaulted into a lead hand relaxed guard while anticipating attacks. Donaire couldn’t help himself and rushed inside several times, and he was countered beautifully by pull-left hooks from Inoue. Inoue finished strong by beating Donaire to the punch with midrange combinations. 10-9 Inoue (58-56 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (59-55 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (57-57)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (60-53 Inoue)
Round 7: A close round as Donaire calculated his distance well, landing clean counters with the right hand before Inoue could get out of range. Timing is one of Donaire’s best attributes. Seven rounds in, the right cross seemed to be the theme in this battle, even though left hooks are both fighters’ calling card. Each avoided one another’s lefts by holding the right hand at home and slightly dropping their lefts intentionally for possible bait. A straight punch can beat a left hook more often than not. Inoue’s positioning and hand speed was acting as a parachute or a lifeline, especially when the tide shifted in Donaire’s favor. Inoue stood his ground and initiated the action, countering the repetitive single shots thrown by Donaire with crisp two-punch combinations. 10-9 Inoue (68-65 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Donaire (68-65 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (67-66 Donaire)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Donaire (69-63 Inoue)
Round 8: Finally, a light turned on at the start of this round for Donaire as he was ready for Inoue’s level-changing jab. Donaire didn’t reverse steps to evade his jab. Instead, he stepped into midrange with his jab, followed by a right cross as Inoue tried to sneak away out of range. It seemed that Donaire had found an imaginary key in this round, which opened up a few doors for him. Donaire started throwing punches to where Inoue was going, instead of where he was visible. A minor shift in positioning also helped cut off Inoue by forcing him toward Donaire’s jab hand. The right hook to the body assisted Donaire in pushing Inoue to the left. Big round! 10-9 Donaire (77-75 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Donaire (77-75 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (77-75 Donaire)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Donaire (78-73 Inoue)
Round 9: Motivated by what he was able to do in Round 8, Donaire seemed to have caught a second wind, forcing the pace by walking Inoue down from a safe distance. He closed off his strong side, pushing Inoue to his weak side (left). Inoue did his best to alter his lateral movement, moving left, then right, but he was caught in footwork “hyper mood” triangle stepping, meaning his feet were set parallel to each other while he was getting away. Inoue’s calm and focused posture veered off because of Donaire’s approach and possibly some fatigue from the brutal pace set in this elite-level chess match. 10-9 Donaire (86-85 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Donaire (86-85 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Donaire (87-84 Donaire)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Donaire (87-83 Inoue)
Round 10: Donaire won the last two rounds and momentarily had the door open for continued domination. Still, Inoue had other plans, setting a trap early to clear the way to where he likes to operate: his left. Using a pendulum footwork, Inoue manipulated the distance as he bounced into punching range, then out, triggering a response from Donaire. Once Donaire committed, Inoue sharply pulled and countered him with his left hook. This punch set the tone for Inoue. A single shot can magically change a fighter’s demeanor and reroute his confidence. Inoue went to another level. 10-9 Inoue (96-94 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (96-94 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Inoue (96-94 Donaire)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (97-92 Inoue)
Round 11: Inoue found his perfect game in the championship rounds. Sometimes all a fighter needs is to know the end is near before stepping it up. With Donaire being the older fighter, I can see he wanted to step up, but his body reacted slowly. Inoue’s work was exceptional. He made Donaire pay for every mistake. When Donaire threw a lazy jab, an Inoue right hand followed over the top. Inoue used his combinations instead of single shots, and attacked both the left and right sides of Donaire’s body, putting him on the defensive. Inoue decided to take control instead of reacting to Donaire’s punches. To keep Donaire from forcing him right, Inoue pulled a page out of Donaire’s Round 8 by implementing left hooks to the body that pushed Donaire right, eventually hurting him and sending him to the canvas. 10-8 Inoue (106-102 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-8 Inoue (106-102 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-8 Inoue (104-104)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-8 Inoue (107-100 Inoue)
Round 12: Donaire has one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen in a man — besides myself of course. I have no idea how he was still standing after Round 11. Donaire came out fast for the final round, with more urgency. I’m sure his mindset was to give it everything he had. Inoue never let up, realizing the key was combinations up to the head and down to the body. He was not allowing Donaire, a great counterpuncher, to set traps or time him on the way inside. Excellent finish and fight by both men. 10-9 Inoue (116-111 Inoue).
Judge Luigi Boscarelli: 10-9 Inoue (116-111 Inoue)
Judge Robert Hoyle: 10-9 Inoue (114-113 Inoue)
Judge Octavio Rodriguez: 10-9 Inoue (117-109 Inoue)
All three judges scored the bout for Inoue: Luigi Boscarelli by 116-111, Robert Hoyle by 114-113 and Octavio Rodriguez by 117-109. I scored it 116-111 in favor of Inoue in a tremendous battle.
Now you know both fighters’ weaknesses, and rematches are about minor adjustments. Let’s see how it all unfolds.
Inoue is going to start early with the body shots. He was very successful in the later rounds of their first fight, landing the left hook to the body, and then eventually knocking Donaire down in the 11th with that punch. That would be a great way to start the fight for Inoue. Go there early, especially if Donaire tries to cut off the angles.
It’s incredible that both men did the same thing in their first fight. Inoue took a page of Donaire’s book, throwing the left hook to the body so Donaire would move left. But before that, Donaire started throwing the right hand to the body, forcing Inoue to move to his right, making it easier for Donaire to land his powerful left hook.
What’s interesting to me is that I believe Donaire is better suited for this fight than he was for the first one. I scored that fight 116-111 for Inoue, but if Donaire didn’t get knocked down, it would’ve been a lot closer. I think Donaire has fought better competition than Inoue since that first fight. When you fight a certain lower tier of fighters, are you really learning anything? Are you growing as a fighter? You can get really comfortable fighting this kind of opposition. When you carry these kind of guys around — like Inoue did with Aran Diapen, who lasted into the eighth round and hit Inoue with various punches that he shouldn’t have gotten hit with — that doesn’t help you grow as a fighter. Donaire, meanwhile, fought and KO’d Nordine Oubaali and Reymart Gaballo, both in Round 4.
When you fight a rematch, it’s all about making small adjustments. During my breakdown of the first fight, I wrote that what Inoue did well at the end — going to the body of Donaire — is what he needs to bring into the rematch. Although you make adjustments and work on fixing mistakes you made, they are still flaws. Even though you adjust, when things start to heat up in the ring, you subconsciously revert back to what you are. It just happens.
For Inoue to be successful, he has to throw combinations, move left, move right. It’s all about switching directions. In the first fight, he moved too often to his left, away from the left hand of Donaire. He started moving that way even before he hurt his right eye. Inoue moved to his left so often, it was a no-brainer for Donaire to push him the other way. But Donaire didn’t see that until late in the fight. Watching, I was thinking, “Nonito, you are an elite fighter, you have a great ring IQ, so why didn’t you notice that sooner? You should’ve noticed it sooner, not in the eighth round. When you noticed that Inoue was moving left, you needed to cut that angle, forcing him the opposite way.”
I’m expecting Donaire to force Inoue to his right. Inoue doesn’t like moving right. He’s not as comfortable moving in that direction as he is moving left. He depends heavily on his jab, and when you are moving right, your jab is somewhat isolated. As an orthodox fighter, your back foot is what allows you to come forward and jab, so if you are moving left, you’re pushing off your back foot, while when you’re moving right, you’re pushing off your lead foot, your front foot. It’s much easier for Inoue to shoot his jab when he’s moving left.
Even though Donaire has lots of experience, I think Inoue, after seeing what he did successfully in the first fight and having had success at the end, will take over this fight late, and I think he wins. I don’t think the fight goes the distance. Let me put it this way: If I have to pick, I would say Inoue wins a unanimous decision if the fight goes the distance — but for Donaire to win this fight, it has to be by KO. I don’t see Donaire winning this fight if it isn’t by knockout.
Punch stats courtesy of CompuBox.