Forget the knockdown, Naoya Inoue is still the pound-for-pound best

 | 6th May | 

6 mins read

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Naoya Inoue retained his undisputed super bantamweight championship with a sixth-round knockout of Luis Nery on Monday. Getting the requisite smugness out of the way, I hate to say I told you so. Admittedly, one thing I did not tell you was that Inoue would get knocked down for the first time in his career.

The reason I did not let you in on that important fact is because I, nor anyone else, would have envisaged it happening. The near-indestructible ‘Monster’ and trips to the canvas just don’t mix. He dominates, he destroys, he does not descend. And yet, Nery had him on the deck with an impeccable counter in the very first round.

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Inoue recalibrated and blasted his man out, sending him to the mat three times in the process. But the knockdown will likely encourage questions about the four-belt super-bantam kingpin. This is the price one pays for perfection. As soon as you look even slightly human, your aura is harmed.

Many will use Nery’s moment in the sun to puncture Inoue’s claim as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. That mythical designation has already been a talking point this week. Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez declared himself to be the finest fighter on the planet on Saturday. The Mexican icon had just knocked down and outpointed Jaime Munguia in defence of his undisputed super middleweight crown.

The other prominent claimant to the pound-for-pound throne, Terence Crawford, reminded fans of his candidacy in the wake of that bout. ‘Bud’ claimed on social media that Canelo had “carried” Munguia before reasserting his own supremacy.

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So the question is; who is the best fighter on the planet? Tangibles like rankings and championships can be settled in the ring. But for this prize we are talking about a super bantamweight, a soon-to-be light middleweight and a super middleweight. Crawford has expressed an interest in fighting Canelo, but barring a weight jump of over 20-pounds, that fight won’t happen.

Thus the only way to decide is to look at the relative merits of the men involved. Let us begin at the beginning with Inoue. The knockdown is fresh and yet to take full contextual hold in the discourse. But it feels likely that it will be used to denigrate Inoue’s candidacy somewhat. 

I don’t feel it should be, though. Almost all of history’s greats have been knocked down before. Nobody thinks less of Muhammad Ali for his trips to the canvas. Nor is anyone writing Tyson Fury’s achievements because of his tendency to go down. One knockdown in 27 fights is no reason to write off Inoue.

In fact, the way he responded strengthens his pound-for-pound claim. The Japanese superstar adjusted his gameplan, sacrificing counter-punching for a sustained assault to choke the life out of Nery. The challenger had been measuring Inoue for shots so the ‘Monster’ took away the measuring tape. He closed the distance, landed to head and body and took his man out. Anyone can win a fight against an opponent that doesn’t test them. Greatness is gleaned in the moments when your foe does push you.

Inoue has eight consecutive knockouts and 24 in total from his 27 fights. He is one of only three fighters to win undisputed four-belt titles at two weights, the others being Crawford and Claressa Shields. Inoue is a four-weight world champion in all. 

Crawford can claim similar numbers. He is a three-weight world king and was the first man to hold undisputed titles at two weights. ‘Bud’ has 40 fights on his ledger, all wins. Like Inoue, he has largely taken on all-comers in the divisions he has occupied. He never managed to get a fight with Manny Pacquiao, but that was hardly his fault. The American lobbied hard for a chance that never came.

But he has knocked out the likes of Kell Brook, Amir Khan, Shawn Porter and Errol Spence Jr. Hardly a record to be sniffed at. But the pound-for-pound award is no lifetime achievement gong. It has a strong “what have you done for me lately?” bent. Crawford’s lack of activity hurts him here.

It has been excellent activity. But we are 10 months removed from his last fight, the superb Spence win. Crawford has fought once a year every year since 2019. At 36 it is natural to slow down. But the Nery win was Inoue’s third victory in 12 months. It weakens Crawford’s claim that we see so little of him. ‘Bud’ walks into unchartered territory next, taking on WBA 154-pound champion Israil Madrimov. It’s a solid fight, but perhaps not the level of super-fight Crawford needed at this stage.

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Someone who knows all about super-fights is Canelo. The Mexican has just handled a huge Cinco de Mayo local derby with Munguia, who was unbeaten coming in. He has also beaten a Hall of Fame laundry list featuring the likes of Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Sergey Kovalev and Gennady Golovkin.

Canelo is a four-weight world champion and currently sits atop the super middleweight tree as its undisputed ruler. Until he whooped Munguia there was talk that he was slowing down. It is true that since Dmitry Bivol beat him in a WBA light heavyweight title fight in 2022, Alvarez had not been the same man.

A third fight with a fading Golovkin and victories over the undersized Jermell Charlo and out-of-his-depth John Ryder did little to convince. But the Munguia win propels Canelo back into this debate. He has certainly occupied that top spot for long periods in the past. But does he still belong on the throne?

I personally don’t believe so. I think Inoue is the clear choice, despite the knockdown. Nery’s single punch did not derail a fighter operating at the peak of his powers. We have seen better versions of Canelo in the past. We don’t see much of Crawford at all. But Inoue is out every few months, knocking out world champions and top contenders. The Nery win was his 22nd consecutive world title bout. Neither Canelo nor Crawford can say that. 

All three men are modern greats and will be talked about in exalted terms for years to come. I truly believe all three have at some point been the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. But only Naoya Inoue deserves that distinction at the present moment. 

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