OFTEN when watching boxers try to beat, or in most cases survive, Naoya Inoue in Japan, you are spared feeling all the punches thrown yet can’t help but feel for the opponent on whom these punches inevitably land.

There are bigger boxers out there, of course, and therefore heavier punches, only there is something about Inoue’s intensity and ferocity that makes him somehow scarier than all the rest. Though he weighs just 122 pounds, and stands at a diminutive 5’5, the damage Inoue manages to inflict, and the relish with which he goes about inflicting this damage, makes him almost as terrifying to watch as he surely is to fight.

It is more than just terror, too. It is terrifying, yes, to imagine having to take one of the Japanese star’s punches on the face, or the body, but equally terrifying is the idea of both the anticipation and indeed the effort required to avoid these punches landing on you. Do you, for example, just meet fire with fire and go out, kamikaze-style, in what almost amounts to a mercy kill? Or, conversely, do you take the alternative route and always think of self-preservation? Do you run away from Inoue, essentially, and risk being condemned by those watching at home because you consider that outcome preferable to being punished and knocked out cold?

Ask Liverpool’s Paul Butler, who lasted almost 11 rounds with Inoue in 2022, and he still doesn’t know the right answer. To see round 11 in the presence of Inoue is no mean feat, that goes without saying, and yet still you would be hard pressed to find anybody who thought Butler won one of those 11 rounds, or indeed anyone who would choose to watch that particular bantamweight fight again. Even Butler, if asked to do it again, wouldn’t know how to do things differently. Even Butler isn’t sure how to judge his own performance 16 months on.

“In a way I was proud to get through that many rounds with him, but in another way, I wish I let my hands go a little bit more,” said the former IBF bantamweight belt-holder. “But if I let my hands go a little bit more, he may have taken me out of there early. It’s the shots you don’t see coming that do the real damage and he’s very good at timing stuff. He could have potentially got me out of there in three or four rounds if I had really gone for it early.

“The plan was always to have a look at him for four or five rounds because we knew how tight he was at the weight, then let’s see how his engine is in the second half. But I was just catching, catching, catching and not really countering too much. I think I got going a little bit in round six or seven, or eight even, but then he sort of changed everything up. He started putting his hands behind his back and dropping his hands to his knees and was trying to gauge something from me. I’m a little bit too knowledgeable for stuff like that, though. I do it with kids in the gym. He’s not going to catch me out doing that.”

Inoue lands a right on Butler in Tokyo (Naoki Fukuda)

Watching Butler fight Inoue back in December 2022 was an odd experience. By degrees suffocated and broken down, Butler still at times, especially early, showed all the movement, cuteness and ring IQ seemingly essential for any fighter with the audacity to think they can dethrone Inoue, 26-0 (23). Yet, equally, for as much as Butler moved well, defended himself well, and cleverly worked positions from which he could come back with counters, it was the next part of the plan he was unable to execute and the next step he was unable to take. Composure, alas, needed to make way for a kind of decisiveness and destruction not in Butler’s makeup.

“His power was very, very good, as everyone knows,” said Butler, “but when he hit me on the chin it was surprising. I don’t know why it was surprising. Maybe because for 12 weeks building up to the fight I had been thinking, Wow, he must hit really hard, him. I was watching sparring clips of him and seeing him put people away and I’m thinking, Wow, imagine what he’s like in eight-ounce gloves.

“But when he did hit me… listen, they were hard and they were powerful, but I didn’t feel like he had shaken me to my boots or hit me quite as hard as I had expected.

“When he did shake me to my boots it wasn’t until the eighth round. At the end of the round, I got back to the corner, and I can’t remember to this day what Joe (Gallagher, trainer) told me between those two rounds, the eighth and ninth. I just remember standing up to go out for round nine and my legs still feeling like they weren’t underneath me.”

That wasn’t the first time Butler had felt unsteady in Tokyo that night, mind you. All evening leading up to the fight, in fact, there had been a sense of unease in and around the challenger; a feeling perpetuated by the behaviour of the ones both running the show and looking to control Butler. It was, in fairness, a perfect example of the old about-turn, with the hosts switching on Butler at the point at which he, the boxer, was at his most vulnerable and in need of reassurance.

“They really looked after us at first,” he said. “They sorted out our hotels, our food, anything we wanted, and then on fight day – bang! Totally different. I was like, Who are these people? We’ve been dealing with them all week and they were fine. What have they turned into?

“It sort of flipped on its head. They were coming into the changing room and saying, ‘You’re going out in five minutes,’ and I hadn’t even got my gloves on yet. We were just like, ‘No, that’s not happening. You can’t fight without us. Get out and leave us alone.’

“Then, when I was putting my gloves on, they made me un-tape because they wanted to cut off a little drawstring on the gloves. To start with I couldn’t even get my hands in the gloves, so we put some Vaseline on my wraps to help them slide in a little bit. But they went ballistic when they saw that. They thought I was putting some sort of agent on my hands. I said, ‘Look, it’s just Vaseline. It’s just to get my hand in the glove.’ They then went and got some official in and we had to explain it all to them as well.”

And that was just before the fight.

“After the fight,” Butler continued, “they wanted me to do a drug test while extremely dehydrated. I’ll do the drug test, of course, I’m not bothered about all that, but I’m obviously dry straight after a long fight like that. I’m drinking all these bottles of water and they’re just standing there going, ‘Faster! Faster! We want to go home!’ I’m just there thinking, Wow, here I am with a banging headache and feeling sick and they’re saying this to me. I was laying down on the floor at the time and Joe is looking for some paracetamol for me because my head is absolutely killing me. They were just going, ‘No, no, no. You’re not taking anything.’ Anyway, after about two hours I’ve gone to toilet and by the time I got on the bus I threw up everywhere. I threw up all the water they had forced me to drink.

“I can see why he stays in Japan, Inoue, if I’m honest. As soon as you get to fight day everything changes and you are made to feel like he has everything in his control. I can see other people accepting that sort of treatment and it being seen as a bit of a win for Inoue’s team. But Joe wasn’t having any of it.”

Naoya Inoue with his next opponent, Mexico’s Luis Nery (Photo by STR/JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)

The next person to get the Tokyo treatment ahead of fighting Inoue will be Mexico’s Luis Nery. He challenges Inoue for his array of super-bantamweight belts on Monday (May 6) at the Tokyo Dome and will presumably, like Butler and so many others, have no idea how it feels, both to fight Inoue and feel inferior to him, until it happens. “I think he stops Nery,” said Butler. “He’s too accurate and he likes a southpaw. He’s very good with southpaws; they don’t faze him. I think he’ll get to Nery in either round seven or eight.”

As for the rest of them, they shouldn’t be getting their hopes up, either. According to Butler, it’s only Inoue’s own greed, or perhaps the greed of others, that will one day see a blemish applied to his perfect pro record.

“I’ve always said that the only thing that will beat Inoue is what beat (Vasiliy) Lomachenko in the end: size,” said Butler, 36-3 (17). “I know Lomachenko got beat in his second fight (against Orlando Salido), but that was probably just inexperience – and arguably he won that fight as well. Eventually, though, it was size that got to him. He just went up the weights too much. That plays a big part. The opponent doesn’t really feel your power anymore; they can manhandle you up close.

“I think Inoue can do well at featherweight but I wouldn’t go any higher than that. He’s not daft, Inoue. That’s why he’s currently sitting at super-bantamweight. He’s going to have a look around and see what opportunities are there for him. But for now, Inoue is definitely top, if you ask me. If you go through everything, like hand speed, chin, movement, power, he’s pretty close to your perfect boxer.”