JUST five days in July separated two of the most anticipated fights of the year. Both featured boxers riding high in the mythical pound-for-pound rankings, with the expectation that the stronger of the two performances would elevate the winner to the top spot. And then both Naoya Inoue and Terence Crawford delivered equally dominant results against equally respected opponents, leaving fans equally divided as to who is the very best in the sport today.
Given that the difference in weight between Inoue and Crawford means they will never fight one another, it is not a debate that can be settled in the ring. With that in mind, Boxing News attempts, via an analysis of 12 key areas, to work out who might be boxing’s pound-for-pound king.
INOUE First, on July 25, Inoue won every round against the bigger, unbeaten and defending WBC/WBO super-bantamweight belt-holder, Stephen Fulton, in Tokyo en route to stopping the American in round eight. It was such a complete performance that it seemed to settle the P4P debate before Crawford had even had his say.
CRAWFORD But then Crawford was every bit as impressive five days later in Las Vegas as he thrashed leading welterweight rival Errol Spence in every department, stopping him in nine to take all the belts and the legitimate world championship.
EDGE Either result on its own would have placed Inoue or Crawford head and shoulders above anyone else. That both elevated themselves further still when faced with their biggest challenges suggested the pound-for-pound king is a two-headed beast – there’s Inoue, Crawford, and then there’s everybody else. The edge, by a very slender margin, goes to Crawford, as Spence was more established than Fulton.
SKILLS AND ATTRIBUTES
INOUE A formidable offence marked by crunching power is set up by expert footwork, timing and ring positioning, and Inoue can end fights with shots either upstairs or downstairs, whether in the early, middle or late portions of a bout. He sets a fast pace and darts in an out, both exhausting and befuddling opponents.
CRAWFORD Also blessed with exquisite timing and an accuracy rate that is virtually unheard of against top-flight opposition, Crawford further benefits from long arms that are difficult to get past and which deliver slashing offence. Even the humble jab can be a power shot – he dropped Spence heavily with one.
EDGE They appear equals in almost every department, but Inoue looks the harder puncher – maybe the hardest puncher in the sport, pound-for-pound – and has also demonstrated immediate, fight-changing adjustments. Note how he dropped the axe on Fulton just after the American had had his best round, and how he annihilated Emmanuel Rodriguez in the second round, having lost the first.
RECORD AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
INOUE His 25-0 (22) record offers two breathtaking percentages – 88 per cent of Inoue’s fights have ended in a knockout, and 80 percent of his entire career has been spent contesting major ‘world’ belts. He has claimed three WBC titles, three WBO, one WBA and one IBF across four weight divisions, though has only been linear champion in one (bantamweight). His longest reign was with the WBO super-fly title, just short of three and a half years and encompassing seven defences. He holds the distinction of winning major belts in two divisions in the fewest fights (eight).
CRAWFORD The jaw-dropping 40-0 (31) record is the second-longest active unbeaten streak in the sport, though of course Crawford’s standing is much greater than that of 42-0 Jaime Munguia. His KO percentage is 77.5, and more impressively he has finished his last 11 consecutive bouts early. Crawford has held major belts in three weight classes, and most crucially has been lineal champ in all three too. His trophy cabinet contains three WBO belts and two each from the WBC, WBA and IBF. His longest reign is his current one with the WBO welterweight title, spanning five years four months and seven defences.
EDGE While Inoue has accumulated hardware in more weight classes, Crawford’s accomplishments mean more in that he is a three-divisional lineal king.
INOUE While his best performance came against Fulton, Inoue’s best win was probably the first against Nonito Donaire, in 2019. Donaire was 36 but riding a renaissance and had never been beaten at bantamweight. He proved he still had it by engaging Inoue in a Fight of the Year contender. Inoue scored a unanimous decision over a great fighter having his last great fight.
CRAWFORD His resume already boasted some fine names, but Crawford’s best win was his latest, against Spence. It was the first time he’d faced a genuine A-lister in his prime. A win against Spence in any fashion would have been Crawford’s finest work; that he achieved it with such aplomb was truly outstanding.
EDGE Donaire was a modern great in good form, so it would be unkind to criticise Inoue for dropping a handful of rounds against him, but still, Spence was supposedly at his peak, unbeaten and a belt-holder for six years when he met Crawford. Donaire might have a higher place in history, but Spence on that day represented the best win for either boxer.
OTHER BIG WINS
INOUE ‘The Monster’ improved on the first Donaire result in a rematch last year, blowing him away in two rounds with breathtaking ease. That and the Fulton thrashing sandwiched a rout of Paul Butler. There was the startling run of quick KOs over Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano and Rodriguez. Other notable victories came against Jason Moloney, Kohei Kono, Omar Narvaez, Adrian Hernandez and Ryoichi Taguchi.
CRAWFORD Crawford’s second-best win was a 2021 TKO 10 over Shawn Porter, the finest welterweight at the time not named Crawford or Spence. It was the only stoppage loss of Porter’s long and distinguished career. Crawford has otherwise well beaten a good mix of belt-holders (Jeff Horn, Julius Indongo, Viktor Postol, Ricky Burns), contenders (Egidijus Kavaliauskas, Jose Benavidez, Yuriorkis Gamboa) and veterans (Kell Brook, Amir Khan, Ray Beltran).
EDGE Both resumes are comparable in their range, depth and dominance, but Inoue’s stands out a little more for the way he’s absolutely crushed some of his better foes in very short order.
INOUE Turning pro at 19, Inoue hit the ground running as a pro and was a WBC title-holder by his sixth fight. Every match since then has been for a ‘big four’ belt. His amateur accomplishments came mainly in the youth ranks, but even then his power was evident, with 48 of his 75 documented unpaid bouts finishing early.
CRAWFORD Bud’s apprenticeship was more measured. He turned pro back in 2008 and worked his way up on smaller shows. His first notable scalp was that of Breidis Prescott in 2013, in Crawford’s 20th pro bout. He remained essentially unproven until his breakout night against Burns in March 2014. As an amateur, Crawford was the top-ranked US lightweight prior to the 2008 Olympics, but he failed to qualify for the Games.
EDGE Inoue’s meteoric rise was one of the fastest the sport has seen, and a rare category in which he is clearly Crawford’s superior.
THROUGH THE WEIGHTS
INOUE A 108-pounder on his debut, Inoue won a WBC title in that division within 18 months. Eight months later, he leapfrogged flyweight and was even more potent in his super-fly debut, wrecking long-time WBO belt-holder Omar Narvaez in two rounds. After three years and seven defences, Inoue moved to bantamweight, where his star really shone, winning all four major belts, beating the best opposition of his career in resounding style, and making several international appearances. After four and a half years and nine wins, Inoue stepped up again, to super-bantam, where he looked even better still against Fulton.
CRAWFORD A lightweight for his first 25 bouts and when winning his first world title, Crawford then excelled at super-light, the first of two divisions where he won all four belts. Crawford spent a busy two years at 140lbs, winning seven times. But his best opposition, and best form, has been at welter, where he has resided since June 2018 and won eight times, most recently against Spence.
EDGE Inoue has competed in four divisions spanning 14lbs, while Crawford has fought in three weight classes across 12lbs. There’s just 2lbs between them in that regard, but differences in weight are more pronounced in the lower classes. Another way to look at it is that it’s much rarer for a former light-fly to excel at super-bantam than it is for a former lightweight to do so at welter.
TOUGHEST TESTS/GUT CHECKS
INOUE It’s testament to his dominance that only once has Inoue even looked troubled, much less near defeat, and that was due to an excruciating injury. A Donaire left hook broke Inoue’s right eye socket in their first fight, which the Japanese man said repeatedly sent “shock waves” of pain through his body, caused double vision and took three months to recover from. Such injuries almost always end matches, and sometimes even careers, yet somehow Inoue not only won 2019’s Fight of the Year, he finished it strongly.
CRAWFORD “He’s up? How?” exclaimed Crawford when told by his corner after the ninth round that Porter was ahead. He wasn’t, but he was holding his own and had been level on two cards after eight. Too close for comfort. Crawford responded immediately and emphatically, ending the fight 81 seconds later.
EDGE You could argue that the absence of crisis in Crawford’s career shows he is the superior talent. Alternatively, you might say question marks remain over his resilience. Until he faces adversity, we can’t judge his response to it. Consequently, Inoue, with his superhuman effort the one night he seemed merely human, has proved more.
INOUE As good as Inoue has looked, and as loath as I am to do the keyboard warrior thing and search for negatives in hindsight, might the matchmaking have flattered him in some instances? For example, Fulton was the bigger man but not proven in elite class; Donaire and Narvaez were in their late 30s; Rodriguez got his tactics wrong; Butler was in survival mode.
CRAWFORD We can play a similar game with Crawford – Spence may have been damaged goods after a car crash; Porter was on his last roll of the dice; Brook and Khan were well past their best; the others were overmatched. Furthermore, at 36, there’s a feeling Crawford may have wasted several of his prime years, and he’s sometimes given the impression of not pushing for the biggest fights. There’s a fair amount of filler on his record.
EDGE Both have had periods of treading water, amassing alphabet defences against moderate foes, but Inoue has arguably done more in a shorter time, and likely has more time left.
POTENTIAL BANANA SKINS
INOUE The most obvious threat could be overambition in terms of weight gain. Assuming he collects all four super-bantam belts, Inoue will likely look towards featherweight, and maybe even beyond. The higher he goes, the bigger the risk, both in terms of the strength and durability of opponents, and also in how effective his 5ft 5ins frame and 67ins reach will be. If he stays at 122lbs, John Riel Casimero and Luis Nery both possess the kind of power and sheer will to win to pose a danger.
CRAWFORD Similarly, Crawford too must have a physical ceiling, though at 5ft 8ins and with a 74ins reach, he theoretically has sufficient height and range to go up another division or two. Talk of challenging ‘Canelo’ Alvarez at super-middle does sound absurd, though. In his current welterweight division, Crawford’s riskiest rival looks to be Jaron Ennis, who is big, rangy, young, powerful and confident.
EDGE Crawford might face the bigger threat in his current division, but will probably be able to more safely navigate further weight gain than Inoue.
INOUE A big name, at least in his homeland, since very early in his career, Inoue nowadays is seen in Japan as the “David Beckham of boxing” – he’s on magazine covers, mainstream TV and billboards. And, to his credit, he’s also made his brand an international one, fighting in the US and UK.
CRAWFORD If you think star appeal is not a consideration when assessing a boxer’s pound-for-pound standing, consider how long it took Crawford to land his first superfight. Rightly or wrongly, marketability helps make the biggest fights happen, and Crawford has been a reluctant inhabitant of the spotlight.
EDGE Even so, nothing transcends the sport quite like an American star. Crawford, albeit quietly, has finally earned his status as such, and will be a PPV headliner for the foreseeable future. And in terms of international appeal, put it this way – while Inoue is a bigger star in his own country than Crawford is in his, Crawford is better known in Japan than Inoue is in the US.
INOUE While he already has his next bout lined up – a unification with fellow two-belt super-bantam Marlon Tapales on December 26 – a more threatening (and marketable) Filipino could be the controversial and hard-hitting Casimero. More intrigue might lie, though, in any attempt by Inoue to go up further in weight to 126lbs, where the likes of Luis Alberto Lopez, Robeisy Ramirez, Rey Vargas, Brandon Figueroa and Josh Warrington reside.
CRAWFORD The biggest possible fight Crawford could make would also be the most dangerous. Crawford against Canelo would generate huge interest – and money – and while it would look ill-advised, it’s the kind of gamble on which legends are formed if they pay off. Otherwise, his most obviously marketable near-future foes would be Ennis or Jermell Charlo, while from a weight below Ryan Garcia could be viable if he rebuilds well enough from his loss to Tank Davis. He may be contractually obliged to face Errol Spence again before all of that, however.
EDGE Crawford might be in bigger fights internationally for the next year or two, but there’s no looking past that age, even allowing for him having not taken much punishment. At a relatively young 30, Inoue has by far the more time on his side, and as such the longer-term prospects for continued success.
7-5 Inoue. Crawford might be coming off the better individual win, but Inoue has proved more overall at a younger age. Crawford must therefore operate in exclusively A-list company from this point on if he is to overtake Inoue, and hope his form holds up through his late 30s if he is to hold that position. As of right now, Inoue just has his nose in front.