By Oliver Fennell

MARLON TAPALES has a good grasp of English, but perhaps more importantly, he speaks Boxing News’ language.

The Filipino holder of the WBA and IBF super-bantamweight belts will face fellow double-titlist Naoya Inoue (WBC and WBO) on December 26, but despite the match inevitably being ballyhooed as a fight for the undisputed 122lbs championship, Tapales recognises its true value lies not in alphabet trophies but in status.

“It’s really, really important for me, not because it’s for the undisputed, but to beat Inoue,” he says. “He’s number one or two, pound for pound. He’s a really good, skilled boxer; they say he’s the complete package. Beating him is more important than the belts.”

And yet it is because of the belts that Tapales gets his chance. After claiming all four major straps at bantamweight, Inoue wants to do the same at super-bantam. It is similar to the position Britain’s Paul Butler found himself in a year ago: invited to Tokyo more for the hardware in his possession than for the threat he posed.

And Tapales is being similarly written off – though he says being an underdog is nothing new, and points out that he’s upset the odds before, not least when outpointing Murodjon Akhmadaliev in April to win the titles he will defend against the ‘Monster’ from Yokohoma.

“When people say I have no chance, I feel nothing,” he says. “It’s not a big deal. I’m used to people talking like that. In my last fight, they say said I don’t have a chance, they said he [Akhmadaliev] couldn’t be beaten too, but I win, so…”

As good a win as that split decision was for the 31-year-old southpaw, there is an important caveat: that while Akhmadaliev was indeed highly regarded, he was no Naoya Inoue. Tapales, accordingly, is amid the longest training camp of his career; four months in Las Vegas under the stewardship of Ernel Fontanilla.

“I train really hard and I have a good team,” he says. “Everybody is saying I can’t win, but I know what I’m working on. The chance is always there. All I need to do is work hard and anything is possible. I know what I’m capable of.”

And what, exactly, is he capable of?

“I can knock him out,” claims Tapales. “Everybody talks about his power, but I have power too; timing and power.

“I’ve seen weaknesses in Inoue. He’s a little open when he throws his punches. If I get hit, I’ll be ready with counter-punching, or I can set him up for combinations.”

Previous Inoue opponents thought they saw flaws too, but found having one of the sport’s hardest punchers bearing down on them quickly changed perceptions. But Tapales, who has been a super-bantamweight for more than five years, believes he will have a natural size advantage against a man who has had only one fight at 122lbs.

“Every boxer has a power punch if they land clean, so I’m sparring with bigger boxers, 130- to 135-pounders,” he says. “They hit me and I can take it; it feels good, so I’m prepared for him. I am bigger than him – I can absorb his punch, I can overcome his power.”

No doubt Stephen Fulton, who Inoue beat in such impressive fashion in his super-bantamweight debut in July, would have imagined the same, but the reality was very different. Even so, Tapales reckons that was due more to Fulton’s psychological failings.

“He gave Inoue too much respect,” he says. “People say it was Inoue’s best performance, but Fulton was uncomfortable from the start.”

Inoue lands his right hand on Fulton (Naoki Fukuda)

Whatever transpires in Tokyo, one gets the impression that Tapales does – at this point, anyway – believe in himself. It is a confidence borne of previous winning form as an underdog, of having come up the hard way and learning from setbacks, and of rising to world-level success from humble beginnings.

“My childhood was hard,” he says. “Growing up in Kapatagan is a hard life, very agricultural.

“There was no history of boxing in my family. I never thought about boxing until my brother bought me some gloves, just as a gift. I built a little sandbag and hung it in the house and trained myself.

“I had my first fight when I was about eight. I never had a proper amateur fight, but we used to fight by the river, using my brother’s or neighbours’ gloves.”

Despite this lack of formal amateur experience, Tapales turned pro in 2008, aged 16. At the time, he had no expectations, but soon realised he might be on to something.

“I was boxing just for fun, but they give me money [to fight professionally] and I think it’s a big deal,” he says. “1,800 pesos [about £35] – at the time, for me, it’s big money.”

His winning debut lasted 54 seconds, and Tapales continued to make a fast start to his career. He scored an upset over then-prospect Ryan Tampus in his sixth bout, prompting Tampus’ manager to offer him a contract.

“I dropped out of school to go to the big city,” he says. “I moved to Cebu to train at a professional gym. My trainer there told me I have a talent for boxing, so I started to focus.”

Tapales on the pads

Tapales on the pads (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

An unsuccessful bid for a Philippines championship within his first year was followed by a successful one 10 months after that, and by his early 20s Tapales was well into his stride, an attraction at home and a winner in fights in the United States and Japan.

This led to his first ‘world’ title, via a thrilling 11th-round knockout of WBO bantamweight belt-holder Pungluang Sor Singyu in July 2016. It was a four-knockdown fight to the finish, with Tapales dropped twice in the fifth but outlasting the local as the unforgiving afternoon sun beat down on an outdoor arena in Thailand.

“My corner wanted me to run out the fight, to survive, but I refuse to run,” he says. “I felt I might be behind, because it’s Thailand and you know the judges there. I needed to knock him out.”

Which is exactly what he did, but if this man from the southern Philippines was unfazed by Thailand’s tropical climate, he found a frosty spring in Japan posed a different problem. Tapales was due to make his first defence, against Shohei Omori, but relinquished the belt on the scales, as he was unable to get below 119 3/4lbs despite two attempts.

“I was very sad for that,” he says. “We went to Japan for five or six days [before the fight] and I struggled to cut weight because it was cold. It made me weak.”

Tapales ground out another 11th-round finish, but his bantamweight days were numbered. He has won seven of eight fights since at the higher poundage, with only Akhmadaliev going the distance. But if this hard-hitting form offers reason for optimism against Inoue, it is tempered by the sole defeat – a comprehensive one – at 122lbs, against Ryosuke Iwasa. Tapales, though, explains: “My coach [at the time, Rodel Mayol] agreed the fight without telling me. I didn’t have enough time, not enough training; about four weeks, very short for me. Also, I was struggling with my team, and Iwasa is a very good boxer; he’s got skill, he’s got power.”

If anyone has skill and power, it’s Inoue, but Tapales warns against using the Iwasa result as a gauge of his chances here.

“It was the last time I lost [against Iwasa, in December 2019],” he says. “I improved a lot. I have my new coach [Fontanilla]; he trains me very well, he’s improved my style and technique and also my stamina.”

Can that possibly be enough to score what would be the upset of the year? Tapales, understandably, believes it is, but if we, equally understandably, cannot share that belief, he seeks to convince us by changing his language. It’s still English, but it’s a version Boxing News would prefer wasn’t spoken, even if it is one all fighters understand: the language of belts.

Tapales may say that the prospect of beating Inoue is more important than the belts – and that is undeniably true – but cites the belts as a symbol of hope.

“Always, when I fight for the ‘world’ championship, I am called the underdog,” he says. “But always, I prove the people wrong.”