LAS VEGAS — It’s easy to forget now how little attention American boxing fans and media paid to Manny Pacquiao when he fought for the first time in the U.S. on June 23, 2001, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Going into that fight for the IBF super bantamweight title with Lehlo Ledwaba, Pacquiao had held the WBC flyweight championship previously and was 32-2 entering the fight. But he was virtually unknown in the U.S. at that point and if it weren’t for his trainer, Freddie Roach, raving about him to anyone who would listen, he might have come and gone and never been heard from again.
Pacquiao, though, went on to become one of the greatest attractions in boxing history and a certain Hall of Famer. He is proof that, however difficult, smaller fighters can make it big in the U.S.
Ricardo Lopez didn’t, even though he was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. But he was buried on Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez undercards and despite going 51-0-1 with 38 knockouts, never really made a mark in the U.S.
The same is true of current super flyweight champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, who is 50-2 with 41 KOs. Hardcore boxing fans adore him; the rest have no idea who he is, or what they’re missing.
And so that brings us to Naoya Inoue, the Japanese sensation who on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at the MGM Grand Conference Center will fight Jason Moloney for the WBA and IBF bantamweight titles.
Inoue is known as “The Monster,” and Top Rank president Todd duBoef hopes that he will eventually deliver monster numbers in his ESPN fights. Top Rank signed him to a co-promotional deal in November after his stirring win over Nonito Donaire in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series’ bantamweight tournament with the intention of building him into a star.
“I think he has that swagger even though there is a language difference that you can feel,” duBoef said. “He has that swagger and a presence about him that is very unique. When you couple that with the power he has and being such a devastating puncher, he is a perfect telegenic fighter.
“The commonality between Manny and him is the power. Ricardo Lopez was probably the most beautiful boxer you’d ever want to watch, but this kid has that devastating kind of power like Manny did.”
Inoue made the move to the U.S. because he wants to chase greatness and wants to be a worldwide figure, not just an icon in Japan. He’s been a sensation as a pro, winning all 19 of his fights, 16 by knockouts.
He doesn’t just finish opponents, he pulverizes them and in many cases, knocks them senseless. He’s got the same kind of power in his fists pound-for-pound that Mike Tyson had as a heavyweight.
He signed with Top Rank and came to Las Vegas because, as much as it is possible, he wanted to do what Pacquiao had done.
“For me to fight in Las Vegas, that will bring me closer to that superstar status,” Inoue told Yahoo Sports via an interpreter. “That’s why I am here.”
He was supposed to fight John Riel Casimero in April in a unification fight that was postponed because of the coronavirus. That would have been a sensational match because Casimero is a thunderous puncher as well.
But when Casimero opted to fight a different opponent after waiting months for Inoue, Moloney quickly volunteered. He has the same dream as Inoue, but knows he’s facing a huge challenge.
“Every fighter should want to fight the best,” said Moloney, who is 21-1 with 18 KOs. “That’s why we’re in the sport. My dream and my goal is to be the best bantamweight in the world, and the only way to make that happen is to beat Inoue. I’ve been working toward this opportunity for a long time. I’m completely confident and I know I’ve got what it takes to beat him.”
That’s the attitude one wants to see in a challenger, particularly one who is being given very little chance. Inoue is a -1100 favorite the MGM Grand Sports Book, while Moloney is +650.
Inoue’s greatness was shown in his last fight, when he not only beat Donaire in a sensational fight, but did so with a broken orbital bone that he suffered in the second round.
He fought the final 10 rounds, and was punched in the face, with an injury that could easily have caused him to quit and no one would have blamed him.
He fought through and won a clear decision in a spectacular bout. Still, though, he was apologetic for not blowing Donaire out.
“I might have disappointed some of my fans who were expecting me to walk through Nonito,” Inoue said. “But in the second round, I got caught and broke my orbital bone and with that injury, I had to fight through. That was the best I could do with that particular injury. That wouldn’t be considered my peak-level performance.”
That’s what makes him so exciting, and why he could break through in a difficult market and become one of the faces of the sport. There is only one Manny Pacquiao.
Judging on what we’ve seen, though, being Naoya Inoue should be plenty good enough to become one of the biggest names in this sport.
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