By Jake Donovan
Naoya Inoue’s 2018 ring campaign was the model of efficiency. In two fights, the unbeaten 25-year old from Japan needed just three total minutes of ring time and barely two dozen landed punches to stake his claim as arguably the best bantamweight in the world.
Two of those punches helped create the 2018 Knockout of the Year.
The boxing world was thrilled to learn of “The Monster” offering his services in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight bracket. His entry was contingent upon his getting past 118-pound secondary titlist Jamie McDonnell, needing less than two minutes to accomplish the feat and claiming a title in his third weight class in the process.
Inoue’s inclusion in season two of the WBSS meant a jam-packed bantamweight bracket loaded with competitive matchups as opposed to most of the first-round serving as a foregone conclusion—at least on paper.
Juan Carlos Payano was three fights removed from his title-losing rematch to Rau’Shee Warren by the time he rolled up for his WBSS quarterfinals match versus Inoue on October 7. The two-time Olympian for his native Dominican Republic and former bantamweight titlist believed he faced enough world class competition in his boxing life to where he knew what he was getting himself into in drawing the first-round assignment versus Inoue.
He even considered it a blessing that he and his team arrives safely from his adopted hometown of Miami into Tokyo, despite the presence of Typhoon Trami which wreaked havoc in Japan, causing nearly $100 million in damage.
As it turned out, Payano wasn’t at all prepared for the level of damage that Inoue would inflict on that Sunday afternoon in Japan.
Only because he normally takes the first 0:30 or so of every bout to feel out his opponent did either of Inoue’s two bantamweight bouts last as long as they did. Payano pawed at Inoue’s parrying tactics before attempting to fire off jabs and looping left hands to the body.
Inoue never took the bait, nor did he bother to change his strategy. Circling his left hand around Payano’s extended right hand, the prodigious pound-for-pound entrant found just enough of a leak in his opponent’s defense to connect on a one-two.
The “two” was a thing of beauty.
A quick jab from Inoue caught Payano on the chin, freezing him just long enough follow up with a straight right hand. It was a shot that the Dominican southpaw never saw coming, pitching at the waist upon impact before falling back and crashing to the canvas.
Inoue strolled to a neutral corner before turning around to see that the fight was already done for the night. Payano’s legs quivered upon impact, before somehow peeling his upper body off the canvas as if he were prepared to continue. The effort was in vain, as the lack of feeling in his lower body disallowed him to do more than roll over, requiring assistance from the referee and ringside physician in being seated on a ring stool.
Not since a stoppage loss to Rey Vargas in the 2009 Pan Am semifinals had Payano even failed to hear the final bell in a given fight. He entered the pro ranks as one of the most decorated amateur boxers to ever come out of Dominican Republic, claiming two Olympic tours and more than 420 wins. Even in his rematch loss to Warren—a three-time Olympian for the United States—the margin of defeat was a single round.
Inoue needed just a single right hand to stake his claim as the man to beat in the WBSS bantamweight bracket—and to earn the BoxingInsider.com 2018 Knockout of the Year.
By: Jake Donovan
From early in his career, Japan’s Kosei Tanaka was mentioned in the same breath as countrymen Kazuto Ioka and Naoya Inoue as the type of prodigious talent who warrants your undivided attention whenever he steps into the ring.
A mere 12 fights and three division titles into his career, the 23-year old from Nagoya has not only lived up to the billing but doing so while twice entering the record books. The latter entry—a 12-round majority decision victory over Sho Kimura to win the flyweight title last September—gets to make the rounds as the BoxingInsider.com 2018 Fight of the Year.
Tanaka (12-0, 7KOs) knew better than to expect a clear and easy path to his third major title in as many weight classes. A war with then unbeaten 18-0 Ryuji Hara in just his 4th pro fight was designed to brace the Nagoya-bred boxer for a historic run. His very next fight was a 12-round win over Julian Yedras to win the strawweight title in just his 5th pro fight, surpassing Inoue (six fights) and Ioka (seven) as the quickest in Japan’s history.
By the time he was lined up to face Kimura, he’d already claimed titles in two weight classes and survived the scariest moments of his career. Tanaka—just four months removed from turning back the challenge of then-unbeaten Angel Acosta—twice came off the deck to eventually stop Thailand’s Palangpol CP Freshmart in the 9th round of their Sept. ’17 war, vacating his junior flyweight title soon thereafter.
A win over countryman Kimura would give Tanaka yet another record-breaking achievement, joining Vasiliy Lomachenko in becoming the quickest in boxing history to win titles in three weight divisions. Lomachenko’s off-the-canvas stoppage win of Jorge Linares last May put the Ukrainian wunderkind in the annals of boxing history.
On the surface, Tanaka’s task seemed slightly less daunting. In countryman Kimura, he faced a defending flyweight titlist who was knocked out barely a minute into his pro debut before going unbeaten in his next 20 starts.
Among the lot was a rousing 10th round stoppage of Shiming Zou, a three-time Olympic medalist from China who was also fast tracked to the title stage. Kimura’s win at the time was considered a major upset, although his title reign has proven that the feat was no fluke.
Ironically, no greater proof came than in the 12 rounds of war he was willing to storm through versus Tanaka in his damnest effort to retain his title. The bout was Kimura’s third attempted title defense, having scored stoppage wins over former lineal champ Toshiyuki Igarashi and formidable contender Froilan Saludar leading into the September affair.
Tanaka initiated a slugfest from the start, scoring a barrage of body shots and right uppercuts in hopes of wearing down the defending titlist. There would be no such luck, as Kimura came roaring back after the first two rounds to launch a body attack of his own.
The tactic prompted Tanaka to slightly switch gears, doing his best to create some distance between the two whereas Kimura was determined to force an inside brawl. Both would ultimately have their way, with momentum swaying almost as often as punches were flying.
By the time the epic title fight reached the championship rounds, Kimura’s eyes were nearly swollen shut while Tanaka supported a mouse under his right eye. One last blitz from the challenger seemingly put the fight out of reach, but Kimura wasn’t quite ready to concede his crown.
The 12th round was nothing short of breathtaking, a slam dunk choice for Round of the Year up until Tyson Fury’s inexplicable rise from the canvas after what should’ve been a knockout blow delivered by Deontay Wilder in their heavyweight battle last December in Los Angeles.
Equally as stunning was Kimura’s ability to punch non-stop in the final round of his last fight as a defending titlist. Both boxers were dog tired by the time they touched gloves to start the 12th, but it was Kimura who initiated the action throughout the stanza. Tanaka seemed reserve to return fire only when necessary, but was forced to dig deep to find his own second wind when it was clear that the champ wasn’t about to ease off the gas.
Kimura was fighting on pure will, at one point even punching himself into a circle following a wild swing and a miss. Embodying their spirited affair was a sequence where the two simultaneously threw and landed right hand shots on three straight exchanges.
The final bell came with a two-way sigh of relief and a hearty embrace between the two warriors at ring’s center, where nearly all of the action took place with barely a clinch along the way. Judge Don Trella was stumped to declare a winner, his 114-114 card trumped by that of scores of 116-112 and 115-113 in favor of Tanaka.
With the win, Tanaka joined Lomachenko as the quickest in history to become a three-division champion. At 23 years of age, he was the third youngest ever to do so, right behind Tony Canzoneri and Wilfred Benitez.
Lomachenko led arguably the greatest amateur career ever while considered by many as pound-for-pound the best boxer in the world today. Canzoneri and Benitez have long ago gained enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
That’s already some incredible company for Tanaka to serve alongside, in addition to career-long comparisons to countrymen Inoue and Ioka, both of whom became three-division titlists a little bit deeper into their respective careers.
On September 24, he enjoyed some incredible in-ring company with Kimura—a historic night properly recognized by BoxingInsider.com as 2018 Fight of the Year.
By: Eric Lunger
As the final wrapping paper gets cleaned up from under the tree, and as we collectively vow – in varying degrees of enthusiasm and conviction — to get back to sensible eating and exercise, it’s time to take a glance ahead at the upcoming year in boxing, and count down the top five fighters to keep an eye on. This is a pretty eclectic list, and no doubt you have your own picks; I’d love to read which boxers you are watching for 2018 in the comments below.
Photo Credit: WBSS
Joseph Parker (Heavyweight). The Kiwi WBO champion had a great 2017, defending his newly-won belt twice. In May, he took care of business against Razvan Cojanu, a late-minute replacement in a not-so spectacular bout, but in September, Parker traveled to Manchester, UK, to take on the talented contender Hughie Fury. Parker (24-0, 18 KOs) answered a lot of questions that night, and won over some critics. Still, there are some commentators who feel that Parker is the odd man out in the top tier of the division, that he doesn’t really belong in the same rarified air as Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and Tyson Fury. But with his power, his hand speed, and most importantly, his meteoric learning curve each and every outing, Parker can be a real spoiler in the division. Will he get a shot at AJ in 2018? That is tough to envision, given Team Joshua’s current aversion to risk, but as the WBO Champion, unification of the belts has to go through Parker at some point.
Oleksandr Usyk (Cruiserweight). Usyk (13-0, 11 KOs) fought on the same Olympic team as Vasyl Lomachenko, training with Lomachenko’s father, and it shows in Usyk’s footwork and use of angles. Already WBO world champion, the Ukrainian southpaw is in the semi-finals of the World Boxing Super Series Cruiserweight tournament, slated to take on undefeated WBC champion Mairis Breidis in Riga, Latvia, on January 27. Supremely confident, Usyk is one of those few European amateurs who understands that the professional game is about more than just scoring points; a fighter needs to be exciting to watch if he wants to build his fan base. With knockout artist Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos in the other semi-final in February, the WBSS tournament is exciting and dynamic, and Usyk has to be the favorite to unify all the belts and lift the Muhammad Ali Trophy.
Javier Fortuna (Lightweight) A southpaw from the Dominican Republic and former WBA World champion at junior lightweight, Fortuna (33-1-1, 23 KOs) has an important title shot this coming January against undefeated IBF lightweight champion Robert Easter, Jr. Fortuna is an underdog in this fight, to be sure, but the matchup will be competitive and entertaining. The Dominican standout is a risk-taker, and he can get caught. But he is also brilliant to watch, especially when he makes intuitive adjustments in the ring or decides to ramp up the performance aspect of his game. This will be no easy tune-up for Easter, and Fortuna should not be overlooked as a potential upset of the year.
Danny Garcia (Welterweight). Garcia (33-1, 19 KOs) has always been one of my favorite fighters. A guy with deep Philly roots, he’s had tough battles with the likes of Amir Khan, Zab Judah, Lucas Matthysse, Paulie Malignaggi, and Keith Thurman. Danny is an accurate counterpuncher whose risky style is based on one of the most dominant left hooks in the game. The split decision loss to Thurman last March had to be a bitter pill for the proud Garcia to swallow. How does a fighter who has accomplished so much in the sport find the motivation to rebound from a loss like that? We will find out where Garcia is mentally and physically this February 17 as he takes on Brandon Rios (34-3, 25 KOs) in a twelve-round welterweight clash.
Vasyl Lomachenko (Junior Lightweight). Obviously, the slick Ukrainian southpaw is on top of the boxing world right now, and is a factor in everyone’s pound-for-pound discussion, but the real unknown for Lomachenko in 2018 is: whom should he fight next? Who will give him a challenge? Who will draw a big audience? Miguel Berchelt (32-1 28 KOs), who holds the WBC belt, seems like the logical next opponent for “HiTech,” but a case can certainly be made for Francisco Vargas (24-1-2, 17 KOs) or even Gervonta Davis (19-0, 18 KOs). There has also been significant social media chatter about Lomachenko moving up to 135 to fight Mikey Garcia (37-0, 30 KOs), and what a fight that would be. Unfortunately, for now, Garcia has moved to junior welterweight to face Sergey Lipinets (13-0, 10 KOs) for the IBF title. Regardless, Lomachenko remains a fighter to watch in 2018.