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Naoya Inoue is the 2023 TSS Fighter of the Year

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Naoya Inoue is the 2023 TSS Fighter of the Year

Japan might be the Land of the Rising Sun, but it also is notable for its dizzying array of fearsome fictional creatures, the most famous of which, Godzilla, made the first of its 38 movie appearances (33 produced in Japan, five in the United States) in 1954. Originally scaled to be 164 feet tall in relation to film-set replicas of Tokyo skyscrapers, the prehistoric reptilian sea monster could level entire cities with its enormous size and strength as well as a signature weapon, an “atomic heat beam” blasted through the mouth as if from a gigantic flamethrower.

At 5’5½” and a mere 121.8 pounds for his most recent rampage in a boxing ring, Naoya “The Monster” Inoue might not appear to be as physically imposing as Godzilla, but he must seem plenty big enough to the outclassed guys in the other corner who can be excused for feeling as if they were contending with a larger-then-life force of nature with a repertoire of power punches no less destructive than atomic heat beams loaded into each gloved fist.

In almost every reasonably reputable pound-for-pound listing of the planet’s best boxers, the top two spots are reserved for Inoue (26-0, 23 KOs), the now-undisputed super bantamweight champion, and Terence “Bud” Crawford (40-0, 31 KOs), the undisputed welterweight ruler. One boxing writer, placing Crawford first and Inoue second, describes the difference between them as the width of a single strand of horse hair used in the padding of gloves in a bygone era.

For the purpose of not having both of the sport’s premier performers share the honor, TSS has, with more than a bit of trepidation, selected the 30-year-old Inoue as its 2023 Fighter of the Year. But instead of slotting Crawford, 35, at No. 2, let us split the difference and call it, well, a case of the Japanese miniature monster coming in at No. 1 to Crawford’s 1A. But 2024 is another year, and it will be fascinating to see which of the two unbeaten (and, for now, seemingly unbeatable) superstars, if not some other elite practitioner of the pugilistic arts, crosses that future finish line a nose ahead.

Was there a criterion employed by TSS to marginally separate the obvious and indisputable greatness of Inoue and Crawford? Well, yes. The economics of boxing at the elite level are such that the biggest of big fights virtually guarantee eight-figure bonanzas for blue-chip main-eventers, which have led to some punching for pay a single time in a given year. Hey, no future Hall of Famer is going to log an insane 43 bouts in a six-year period, as the late, great Archie Moore did after wresting the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim on Jan. 27, 1954, but Omaha, Neb., native Crawford fought just once in 2023, and even if it was a career-best, Hall of Fame-level ninth-round stoppage of fellow unbeaten unified titlist Errol Spence Jr. on July 29, a victory which reportedly earned him a $25 million payday, it still comes down to a one-and-done. Now the holder of all four major alphabet belts (WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO) at 147 pounds as he was at 140, Bud could afford to take the rest of the year off if he so desired, and he did.

Inoue wasn’t crazy-busy in the year about to pass into history, but he moved up from bantamweight to super bantamweight with almost ridiculous ease, and against a pair of opponents who should have been tough nuts to crack, but weren’t. Then again, asserting his dominance against high-quality rivals has become an Inoue trademark; nine of his last 11 victims were either reigning, former or future world champions. He debuted at 122 pounds by scoring an eighth-round TKO of highly regarded WBC and WBO titlist Stephen Fulton of Philadelphia on July 25, and followed that up on Dec. 26 with a 10th-round knockout of Marlon “The Nightmare” Tapales, a rugged, 31-year-old southpaw from the Philippines who came in with possession of the IBF and WBA belts, a 37-3 record and more faith in himself than logic dictated.

“I will be the Japanese Monster’s biggest nightmare,” Tapales predicted. “I’m 2,000 percent confident.”

It didn’t take all that long for Inoue to strip Tapales of about 1,900 percent of that confidence, flooring him with a left hook in the fourth round and proceeding from there to move closer to the almost-inevitable conclusion, which came after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 2 seconds into round 10.

“I couldn’t keep up with Inoue. His speed surprised me,” Tapales said after referee Celestino Ruiz counted him out.

Tapales shouldn’t have been very surprised by anything Inoue pulled out of his well-stuffed trick bag. Boxing writer Cliff Rold, in the lead-up to the bout, described him as “one of the game’s most complete combinations of power, speed and skill since Roy Jones Jr.,” and commentators Joe Tessitore and Mark Kriegel, in Tokyo for the ESPN+ telecast from the Ariake Arena, were similarly gushing in their praise, with Tessitore saying Inoue is “the one fighter you must watch” and Kriegel that “he’s a fighter that all fighters should aspire to be.”

The International Boxing Hall of Fame would seem to be a reserved destination for “The Monster” at some point, and it might be argued that he already has matched or possibly surpassed the career accomplishments of Japan’s most revered boxer, Masahiyo “Fighting” Harada, a former flyweight and bantamweight world champion who compiled a 55-7 record with 22 KOs from 1960 to 1970, including victories over such fellow legends as Thailand’s Pone Kingpetch and Brazil’s Eder Jofre.

“I think super bantamweight is my division now, so in 2024 I will look to show even greater form,” Inoue said after he’d taken care of Tapales. If so, like the announcement of a new Godzilla movie coming out, that is some prediction of future attractions.

Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. “Championship Rounds, Round 4,” the fourth installment of Fernandez’s four-volume anthology, is now out and available via Amazon and other book-selling outlets.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, a so-called influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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