The Ascension of Naoya Inoue
For someone addicted to boxing, the new ESPN+ app is a very dangerous development. Suddenly, the number of fights available to watch has increased dramatically, as the app now carries bouts from around the world, as well as the normally untelevised undercards of main events.
This weekend felt like the moment when ESPN+ truly arrived. With no fights airing on Showtime or HBO, and only one televised PBC card on FS1, ESPN+ entered the breach. Early Friday morning, the app broadcast two championship fights from Tokyo, both of which ended in early knockouts. First, Ken Shiro easily dispatched Ganigan Lopez for the WBC light flyweight title, winning by 2nd round knockout. Lopez, at 36, looked completely overmatched against the much younger Shiro, who put him down with a body shot that left Lopez doubled over on the canvas, the pain overwhelming any thought of trying to beat the referee's count. This was actually a rematch of a fight from one year ago, which Shiro won by majority decision. But in the intervening 12 months, Shiro had fought and won twice, while Lopez had been largely inactive. The difference showed, and with three losses in his last seven bouts, one wonders if Lopez's career is coming to an end.
The following matchup, between WBA bantamweight champion Jamie McDonnell, and rising pound-for-pound star Naoya Inoue was more striking. McDonnell came into the fight very confident, looking to gain respect as the reigning champion who had held the WBA belt for four years, successfully defending it six times. Inoue, by contrast, was moving up in weight, and looking to extend his spotless record to 16-0. In the end, it was no contest, as Inoue demolished McDonnell with a first-round TKO. In watching the fight, I was reminded--for some reason--of Tommy Hearns's obliteration of Roberto Duran some 34 years ago. One of the unique aspects of boxing is how quickly it can disabuse a fighter of false confidence. Within a minute, an extraordinarily confident champion can realize with painful exactitude the precise limits of his own strength and ability. This is what happened to McDonnell, who lasted a mere 112 seconds, succumbing to a frightening fusillade of punches thrown by Inoue. Watching the fight, I couldn't help but think that Inoue has the potential to become a true international superstar. With 14 knockout wins in 16 fights, he is a truly exciting performer, and deserves recognition beyond Japan.
Finally, last night I used ESPN+ to watch a string of fights in Fresno, California. From the undercard, the fight that left the deepest impression in my mind was the first career loss of Ugandan boxer Ismail Muwendo, who lost by unanimous decision to John Vincent Moralde in an eight-round lightweight bout. As a historian of modern Africa, the fortunes of African boxers hold particular significance for me, and Muwendo seemed to be a rising prospect. But his fight with Moralde yielded some troubling weaknesses in his game. Muwendo threw the harder punches, and threw far more combinations than his opponent, but poor footwork and slipshod defense were his undoing, as he was knocked down twice by left hooks that only landed because of Muwendo's propensity for backing out of exchanges with his hands too low. Aside from that, Muwendo also mostly followed his opponent around the ring, failing to cut it off and effectively corner Moralde. Despite all that, I had the fight scored a draw, as Muwendo was the aggressor most of the fight and, in my opinion, won five of the eight rounds, despite the two knockdowns. But the judges unanimously scored it for Moralde. With a record of 19-1 with 12 knockouts, the 29-year-old Muwendo can come back from this defeat, but his showing nonetheless represents a serious lost opportunity, while also revealing major weaknesses in his game that future opponents will be sure to exploit.