FOR those who consider outward displays of toughness to be a weakness or sign of insecurity, it is easy to make the argument that Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire, nice guys whose geniality belies their viciousness, are the two toughest fighters in boxing right now.

Refreshingly mild-mannered and lowkey, you have more chance of finding characters like Inoue and Donaire sharing a table in the cafeteria of some tech company than in a boxing ring, yet it’s there, in a boxing ring, where they reunite on Tuesday (June 7) in Saitama, Japan. With Inoue number one at bantamweight and Donaire right behind him at number two, a true world champion will be crowned.

The last time they met there, at the Super Arena, the year was 2019 and Inoue walked away that November night with both a unanimous decision and a headache. He had, to the surprise of almost everyone, been forced to not only go the distance for the third time as a pro but had also been tested by Donaire enough for the fight to one day warrant a rematch.

Rather than this happen immediately, though, Inoue and Donaire decided to instead take other fights against other opponents, not one of whom inspired either of them to reach the levels they showed in Saitama in 2019. Since that night, Inoue has gone back to ripping through the also-rans, stopping the likes of Jason Maloney, Michael Dasmarinas and Aran Dipaen within the distance, while Donaire has been just as successful against Nordine Oubaali and Reymart Gaballo, two fighters undefeated before being stopped by Donaire in four rounds.

Now, having spent two-and-a-half years flirting with others, Inoue and Donaire are returning to the arms of each other and the scene of one of the best fights in recent memory. They have, by avoiding the immediate rematch, used the time away from each other to gather momentum.

They have, in addition to this, taken the opportunity to sit back and analyse their first encounter, then tried to figure out how things could be made a little easier next time around.

Because, make no mistake, the first fight was punishing, one painful just to watch. Thirty-six minutes of mayhem, it was a fight in which two men landed and received huge, potentially fight-ending punches to the head and body and a fight in which both, at different points, believed they had gained control.

Early on, Inoue, a man so accustomed to finishing fights shortly after landing his best shot, tried to find his rhythm and make a dent in Donaire, yet Donaire, built differently than prior Inoue opponents, merely used Inoue’s aggression against him. Matching him punch for punch, the great Filipino would not back down despite Inoue’s reputation for demolishing all he touched and it was this attitude, combined with Inoue’s reaction to it, that made the fight nothing short of chaos.

For 12 rounds what you had that night in Saitama was the conviction of Inoue – almost an entitlement, based on his previous stoppages – colliding with the sheer stubbornness and pride of Donaire, someone unwilling to fold. It was, in the end, a fight so good the winner was immaterial, at least in the minds of everyone not directly involved. For whatever the final result both men were sure to exit the ring with their reputations enhanced. Donaire’s would be enhanced by virtue of the fact he had not just taken Inoue the distance but had pushed him harder than anyone thought possible, whereas Inoue, even though he had expected to win the fight inside schedule, had shown additional layers to his game in going 12 rounds for only the second time. He was allowed to show, thanks to Donaire, that he is more than just a power puncher and that even if he doesn’t leave an opponent flat on his back he has alternative ways of getting the job done.

Second time around things will be different, of course. There will, for starters, no longer be the surprise element on June 7, for we know now that both men have it in them to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out. If before there was concern for Donaire in the eye of the storm, this time we know he can survive and, better yet, thrive there. Equally, whereas before there may have been question marks surrounding Inoue and his ability to function late in fights, this time we know for certain that he is still as capable in the championship rounds as he is in the early rounds, when so much of his damage is done.

Nonito Donaire
Esther Lin/Showtime

In fact, if it’s a surprise you’re after, the real surprise remains this: Nonito Donaire, at 39, is still an elite-level fighter with a WBC title to his name. How this has happened is anyone’s guess but it has happened and Donaire, six months from entering his forties, now represents the leading example of a fighter who has taken care of their body and used setbacks as merely lessons from which to learn.

Whichever way you cut it, or present it, Donaire being active and achieving in 2022 is an incredible feat. A pro since February 2001, he has in the last 21 years boxed at flyweight, super-flyweight, bantamweight, super-bantamweight, and featherweight, winning a host of belts in each weight class, and is currently excelling at bantamweight, the division in which 11 years ago he famously knocked out Fernando Montiel.

Back then, when squashing Montiel in two rounds, Donaire was a seemingly invincible destroyer (beaten only once in his second pro fight) who appeared to vaporise everything he so much as brushed – not unlike Inoue in recent years. He was free-swinging and free-wheeling and against Montiel that night in 2011 he treated a gifted, well-schooled boxer with as close as Donaire would ever come to disrespect, walking down the Mexican and then walking through him before concluding the fight with one of the most chilling knockouts of that year.

After that, more big wins followed for Donaire, both at bantamweight and at other weights. He beat the undefeated Omar Andres Narváez in his next fight, outpointing him over 12 rounds, and in 2012 he scored stoppage wins against both Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce.

It was then in 2013, however, Donaire finally met his match in the form of Cuba’s dazzling but often infuriating Guillermo Rigondeaux. That night in New York, Donaire, for all his punch power and variety, could get nowhere near his elusive, trap-setting opponent and, despite his best efforts, had to settle for being on the receiving end of a boxing lesson and a unanimous decision.

It was not so much punishing as humbling, that defeat. It put Donaire in his place and showed him there was an antidote to his style. It would have knocked the confidence of lesser men, if not had them rethinking their style entirely, yet Donaire, to his credit, kept going, knocking out Vic Darchinyan for a second time later that year and then, the following year, beating Simpiwe Vetyeka (TD 5) to take a featherweight strap.

Naoya Inoue
Mikey Williams/Top Rank

That was a belt Donaire lost in his first defence, when up against Nicholas Walters of Jamaica, who managed to beat Donaire in a way different – and considerably more alarming – than Rigondeaux. Walters, rather than outsmart and outbox Donaire, simply overpowered him, knocking him down twice before stopping him in the sixth round. It was, unlike the loss to Rigondeaux, a loss indicative of a fighter perhaps on the slide, with punch resistance on the wane. It had most believing Donaire’s best days were behind him. It had some concerned for his future.
Donaire, though, kept the faith. He outscored Cesar Juarez to win a super-bantamweight title in 2015, which he would lose the following year against Jessie Magdaleno, and he also emerged at featherweight in 2018, battling brilliantly, if unsuccessfully, against Ireland’s Carl Frampton for 12 rounds.

That was arguably the perfect note on which to end his career, yet Donaire being Donaire had other ideas. Later in the year, in fact, he found himself sharing a ring with another Irishman, Ryan Burnett, and taking advantage of Burnett’s misfortune (Burnett retired after four rounds due to a back injury) to once again lift a sanctioning body belt.

Though, at the time, this seemed little more than a fluke, beating Burnett at bantamweight was the start of something special for Donaire, 42-6 (28). It was the first mild day of his Indian Summer, or the last of his nine lives, and since winning in Glasgow only Inoue has managed to compete with him, never mind beat him.

At this point, it probably takes a fighter as good as Inoue to test Donaire, even at the ripe old age of 39. Inoue, after all, is a generational talent, someone whose goal is to top the pound-for-pound list as opposed to merely topping weight classes. To date, since turning pro 10 years ago, the Japanese star known as “Monster” has won 22 fights, with 19 ending inside the distance (with no defeats). He carries in both hands the kind of power difficult to explain or account for and it is complemented, this power, by a poise and composure developed entirely, it appears, as a professional.

So far, he has won belts at light-flyweight, super-flyweight, and bantamweight where he scored a scarily simple first-round knockout of Jamie McDonnell in 2018. Just as simple, and just as impressive, was Inoue’s two-round dismissal of skilful Puerto Rican Emmanuel Rodríguez the following year.

That, on paper, was supposed to be the fight to test Inoue; skills vs power; his, albeit to a lesser extent, Rigondeaux moment. However, Inoue, not having any of it, simply marched Rodríguez down, dropped him three times, and blasted him out of there. It was no shock, then, when Inoue later opened as a heavy favourite to beat – and stop – Donaire in his very next fight.

That this didn’t happen owed as much to Donaire’s resilience than any failing on the part of Inoue and this will likely be the case on June 7, too, when they meet for a second time, now armed with knowledge they both lacked back in 2019. Braced for a hard fight, and expecting plenty of resistance, Inoue might not be as gung-ho as he was three years ago, nor, for that matter, will he be anticipating a brief encounter.

Furthermore, Donaire might be unshackled this time, buoyed by the fact he has already shown a capacity to take whatever Inoue can throw at him for 12 rounds.

Such insight could be enough to alter the course and result of the rematch. (Donaire clearly believes so.) Yet Inoue, though tested and at times bothered by Donaire in 2019, will, having survived that experience, be confident now in his ability to beat Donaire in more than just one way. It’s this confidence, coupled with the lessons Donaire taught him previously, which should see Inoue, the younger man by 10 years, to win fight two by decision, or maybe late stoppage.

Taking place on the Saitama Super Arena undercard are a couple of Japanese title fights, the first of which sees Takuma Inoue, Naoya’s younger brother, box Gakuya Furuhashi at super-bantamweight. Inoue, 15-1 (3), came up short against France’s Nordine Oubaali in a WBC title fight in 2019, but should get past Furuhashi, 28-8-2 (16), with little difficulty.

At super-lightweight, meanwhile, the unbeaten Andy Hiraoka, 19-0 (14), defends his Japanese title against Shun Akaiwa, 7-3-1 (5). bn

The Verdict Though Donaire continues to surprise us, he surely can’t be better now than in 2019.