Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
“The US fans will take him in, similar to how they did with Pacquiao, because of his style and ability”
Last Updated: 27/08/20 5:34pm
Personality is what everybody tells you was special about Manny Pacquiao, the first great Asian sportsperson to crack the American market. Forget the knockouts and the championships, it was his personality that people gravitated towards.
In many ways Pacquiao remains a one-off superstar, a lightning rod for attention with a thunderous left hand but also a million dollar smile so innocent that it charmed the United States.
But in Naoya Inoue, the tiny but terrifying champ who possesses boxing’s most powerful punch, maybe the next Pacquiao may exist after all. Promoter Bob Arum steered Pacquiao from obscurity to celebrity and sees the same potential in Inoue. But what about the personality?
The magical glint in the eye that so few great people possess is just the cherry on top, it is explained to Sky Sports by Arum’s promotional outfit Top Rank. Before that becomes a factor, results and performance are all that matters.
Pacquiao, obviously, had that in spades.
The little Filipino who Arum was initially reluctant to back had his first major breakthrough 12 years ago by battering Oscar De La Hoya, who was until then the darling of US boxing.
He knocked out Ricky Hatton next and, by the time he fought Joshua Clottey in 2010, was popular enough to attract 50,000 spectators to the home of the Dallas Cowboys. This was virtually unheard of for a non-American.
Pacquiao lost to Floyd Mayweather in the richest fight of all time and, by this point, was a politician in his home country and one of the most recognisable sportspeople in the world.
“Portraying Manny as he is, as not how you want him to be, is what endeared him to the public,” Arum told The National in 2016. The personality had completed a jigsaw for a generational talent to become a mainstream star.
“He’s resonated with the American public and the American media.”
No praise was too high for Arum to dish out: “So impactfully, next to Muhammad Ali, I would put Manny Pacquiao as a man who has tremendous influence because of his career, because of his exploits in boxing and because of who he is on the dialogue around the world. Like Ali, Manny is greatly admired around the world.”
The results are what gives Inoue a fighting chance of becoming another Asian representative to crack the US boxing market.
Already one of the pound-for-pound top fighters in the world, he is a three-weight world champion currently holding the IBF and WBA bantamweight titles and is unbeaten in 19, the most recent of which was a stunning battle with Nonito Donaire, his toughest assignment to date which he passed with flying colours.
But most of all, it is that punch.
Inoue, the man they call ‘Monster’, produces a reaction from opponents that he hits like nobody else in the smaller divisions since, well, maybe Pacquiao.
“I’ll say now that his power is as real as it gets,” said Jamie McDonnell who went to Japan as the WBA champion but didn’t last a round with Inoue.
“It was [my brother] our Gavin that told me how good he was. I told him about the fight and he gave me a look that told me it was going to be a hard night. I think he said something along the lines of ‘he’s good him, mate’, with this look on his face.
“After that I had a look at him and you couldn’t deny that he had power, but I preferred to focus on my strength because he was coming up in weight and I believe that my engine, size, and experience could take him into the later rounds and slow him down. I knew it’d be a hard night, but I was confident I could take his power.
“The first shot he hit me with shook me and when you’re in a fight feeling as empty as what I did then Inoue is not the ideal opponent.
“It’s like a big thud and it didn’t even look like he was loading up when he caught me. He’s a special fighter.”
Inoue knocked out three former world champions consecutively in a total of less than four rounds.
Lee McGregor won the Commonwealth title on Inoue’s undercard in Glasgow and said: “It was good to see him up close, he is a special, special talent and it was a privilege to be at ringside watching him.
“It was over really quickly, he’s a ferocious puncher.
“That whets your appetite, Inoue is a different bracket from everyone else, he is a special fighter and one-off.
“It was good to see, it’s a bonus that he’s my weight. I want to get to world level but I believe Inoue is above that world level as well.”
Top Rank signed Inoue last November and plan to provide him with just his third fight outside of homeland Japan.
But there is a reason why he hasn’t travelled much so far – his popularity back home may, however, translate to stateside (apart from Hawaii the biggest Japanese population in the US is in California).
“Inoue is already very famous,” the Japan Times told Sky Sports. “He is as famous as a Japanese boxer could possibly become so far.
“That’s especially the case since he captured the World Boxing Super Series title last year. As you know, Inoue has been dominant in the ring, which people want to see from the sport at the end of the day.
“Like Ryota Murata, he has been in many TV programmes and in other media outlets.”
This popularity in his home country was attractive to Top Rank, whose executive Brad Jacobs told Sky Sports: “Yes certainly. He comes with a terrific record too. We are in close contact with his promoters from Japan.
“Everything is in place for him to become a huge star in the US but, of course, he needs to deliver inside the ring.
“I predict huge things for Inoue.”
Top Rank president Todd DuBoef told Sky Sports: “He has this telegenic style. Boxing enthusiasts have a great appreciation for Inoue so we wanted to bring him to America to get him more exposure.
“In essence, he is like Manny Pacquiao, a kid from Asia with dynamite in both hands. The project would be similar. His opponents have a Hispanic base, like Pacquiao’s.
“Inoue is a real push of positive energy.”
He doesn’t yet speak English, as Pacquiao didn’t.
“It is a level of challenge that you don’t have otherwise but it’s nothing new to Top Rank,” said Jacobs.
“We have had many fighters whose native language isn’t English but we overcome it with time. Fighters have learned the language well enough to communicate with media and fans.
“Now the advent of social media means it is a lot easier for these guys to communicate. It is a challenge but nothing we can’t overcome.”
Inoue’s Las Vegas debut in a title unification match against John Riel Casimero was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Inoue needs to break out onto the US stage which he is about to do,” Jacobs said.
“Inoue has a long way to go to emulate Pacquiao but he is still young. They are both sensational fighters.
“The US fans will take him in, similar to how they did with Pacquiao, because of his style and ability.”
Ultimately, it comes down to that same thing again: “You need personality – Pacquiao had tremendous personality to go with his ability. We will see how Inoue’s translates in the US.”
What we know of Inoue’s personality so far is that it appears humble. He told Scotland’s Daily Record when he fought in Glasgow: “I don’t see myself leading the way in terms of boxing in Japan or Asia.”
Inoue was in attendance when Pacquiao visited Japan in 2016. He was already a world super-flyweight champion but his stature was far less than it is now and Pacquiao is unlikely to have noticed the potential greatness that was nearby when he delivered the following words.
“It’s not that difficult to produce a Japanese version of Manny Pacquiao.
“Who knows? The next Manny Pacquiao could be from Japan.”