“Fighting Words” — For Canelo and Inoue, Undisputed Doesn’t Mean Their Work is Done

Boxing Scene

Let’s start off with these brief and indisputable statements: 

Canelo Alvarez and Naoya Inoue are the kings of their weight classes. Canelo is the undisputed super middleweight champion, the owner of all four major world titles. The same can be said of Inoue in the junior featherweight division. They are two of the best fighters of today. They are two of the best fighters of this generation. They will both be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Here are two more that must be said: All of that is great. And none of that means their work is done.

The late, great comedian George Carlin liked to riff on language, including everyday expressions that don’t make sense. “Undisputed heavyweight champion,” he once said. “Well, if it’s undisputed — what’s all the fighting about?”

The fighting is about remaining the champion. No, there aren’t any other titleholders. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any contenders left.

Canelo and Inoue will each take on viable challengers in the coming days. Canelo will face Jaime Munguia in the main event of the pay-per-view this Saturday, May 4 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Inoue will headline less than 36 hours later, taking on Luis Nery at the Tokyo Dome on Monday, May 6.

(Canelo vs. Munguia is streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video, DAZN, and PPV.com, and is also available for purchase via traditional cable and satellite outlets. Inoue vs. Nery will stream on ESPN+.)

Canelo has won world titles in four weight classes. He was a titleholder at junior middleweight. He became the lineal middleweight champ — the man who beat the man who beat the man, and so on. He briefly captured and then vacated a title belt at light heavyweight. And then, in the span of 323 days, Canelo picked up the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO titles by picking off Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant.

That impressive run took place from December 2020 through November 2021. For the past two-and-a-half years, fans and observers have called on Canelo to face the top remaining challenger, David Benavidez.

There are times that a new king, be it a new undisputed champion or even a new lineal champion, is ruling over a wasteland. He and the people he defeated along the way have beaten everyone else. They have run through — and run out of — all or nearly all worthy opponents. At least until the division restocks itself, until more prospects develop into contenders, and until those contenders are ready to step up. Sometimes there are greener pastures for that champion if he abdicates his throne, moving along rather than waiting around. 

Let’s take a relatively quick aside to look at a recent example:

When Terence Crawford beat Julius Indongo in 2017 to become the undisputed champion at 140 pounds, it made sense for him to move to 147. Barring a fight with Mikey Garcia — unlikely because of their respective business affiliations — Crawford’s other options at junior welterweight had either already been chewed up and spat out, or they had not yet tested themselves against the upper echelons. 

In fact, Crawford’s departure served as the catalyst for those other 140-pounders to do so. Two of his vacant world titles were up for grabs in the World Boxing Super Series tournament, which culminated in Josh Taylor topping Regis Prograis. The other two would be picked up outside of the tournament by Jose Ramirez. In 2021, Taylor edged Ramirez to become the new undisputed champion.

That’s not what the case was at super middleweight.

Benavidez was and still is a clear top contender, a deserving challenger. Canelo’s first fight after Plant didn’t come against Benavidez, though. Instead, he returned to light heavyweight, where he unsuccessfully challenged titleholder Dmitry Bivol in May 2022. 

It was an acceptable move. 

While pound-for-pound fighters should not be required to jump from division to division, it is something that is both intriguing and impressive. It is a video gamer playing on hard mode, a figure skater incorporating a difficult jump, a gymnast attempting a difficult routine, a high diver throwing in an extra twist. 

Some predicted Canelo would defeat Bivol. Some derided this as a case of Canelo picking the easier of the titleholders at 175, rather than taking on Artur Beterbiev. Those were incorrect takes, persuaded by Canelo’s celebrity and flashy triumphs rather than Bivol’s solid skills and more workmanlike victories.

What was less palatable, then, were Canelo’s choices for the remainder of 2022 and the entirety of 2023. 

A third fight with Gennadiy Golovkin didn’t produce the fireworks of their first two matches, when “GGG” was closer to his prime. 

Canelo took on John Ryder, a solid contender but far from the first name, or even the second or third, that would’ve come to mind. 

And when a planned fight with middleweight titleholder Jermall Charlo failed to come to fruition, Jermall’s twin — then-undisputed junior middleweight champ Jermell — jumped up two weight classes. Jermell seemed to recognize early on that he couldn’t win. Canelo took a wide victory, and many fans were left feeling even more emphatically that he should face a true challenger in 2024.

It’s not a matter of legacy. It’s a matter of responsibility.

If Canelo, 60-2-2 (39 KOs), is going to be the king, then he needs to rule his land. If he’s going to hold onto the title belts, that can hold the division hostage. The other contenders are either waiting for opportunities to come to them or are fighting to earn those opportunities. But the onus is still on Canelo to provide them the fight they want.

This will be Canelo’s fourth defense of his undisputed championship, his seventh super middleweight title defense altogether. Benavidez and his team again angled for the match. Once again, Canelo went in a different direction.

As disappointing as that is, Munguia is an acceptable alternative for this fight, even if he’s less qualified than Benavidez. Munguia is ranked in the top five or higher by ESPN.com, the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board (TBRB), and The Ring magazine.

The only other names above him on all three lists are Canelo, Benavidez and unbeaten contender David Morrell. Unbeaten prospect Christian Mbilli is ranked above Munguia by TBRB and The Ring. Former titleholder Plant is above him on The Ring’s list.

Munguia, a 27-year-old, is 43-0 (34 KOs). He truly graduated from prospect to contender in his past two fights, when he edged Sergiy Derevyanchenko in what many considered the 2023 Fight of the Year and then stopped Ryder this January.

If Canelo beats Munguia, it would be disappointing if he faces anyone at super middleweight next other than Benavidez or Morrell. They are the clear top contenders, Benavidez in particular. Both will instead move up to light heavyweight for their next outings. Benavidez will meet former 175-pound champ Oleksandr Gvozdyk in June; Gvozdyk came back last year more than three years after losing his crown to Beterbiev. Morrell will face another past Beterbiev victim, Radivoje Kalajdzic, in August.

It will be a shame if Canelo ends up having played the waiting game and winds up instead against someone like Edgar Berlanga, who is unbeaten but appears to be limited, or Jermall Charlo, who returned last November after a lengthy layoff and mental health struggles and looked rusty in victory.

As for Inoue…

Inoue was already a hardcore favorite when he won a world title very early in his career against one of the top 108-pounders, then jumped directly to 115 to make short work of longtime titleholder Omar Narvaez. Inoue remained at junior bantamweight for another three years, from the end of 2014 through the end of 2017. He made seven successful defenses, though his path never crossed with any of the other big names in that weight class. 

Roman Gonzalez came to the division in 2016 and beat Carlos Cuadras but lost twice (once controversially, once brutally) to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017. Sor Rungvisai’s arrival occurred just as Inoue was departing. Estrada joined the junior bantamweights in 2017. Kazuto Ioka did the same in 2018. And unification fights with the rotating cast of other titleholders never took place.

Where Inoue truly shined was when he moved up to bantamweight in 2018.

He knocked out two solid contenders, Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payano, in a combined three minutes. He took the IBF belt from Emmanuel Rodriguez in less than two rounds. He won the Fight of the Year for 2019 against Nonito Donaire, adding the WBA title in the process. 

After a few more title defenses, Inoue and Donaire fought again. This time Donaire brought the WBC’s belt with him. And this time, Inoue made it look easy, dispatching Donaire in the second round. Winning the fourth and final title, and recognition as the undisputed champ, seemed a given. It essentially was. Inoue knocked out Paul Butler in 11 rounds at the end of 2022.

There wasn’t anyone notable left for Inoue at bantamweight. So he moved up to junior featherweight and jumped immediately into a tough challenge.

Or so we thought. 

Last July, Inoue took on Stephen Fulton, the consensus top guy at 122, and stopped him in eight rounds, winning the WBC and WBO world titles in the process. Five months later, Inoue knocked Marlon Tapales out in 10 to capture the IBF and WBA belts as well. He had now won undisputed championships in two weight classes.

The best news is that Inoue, 26-0 (23 KOs), is sticking around for a bit. Sometimes it’s not just that you became king, but how you reigned, and how long.

“I still have more I want to accomplish at super bantamweight after this,” Inoue told boxing writer Jake Donovan before the win over Tapales. “My time here doesn’t end with the undisputed fight. I am focused on [Tapales] but there are still more challenges here I want to take on before I think about fighting at featherweight.”

Fulton and Tapales were the best two junior featherweights before Inoue’s arrival. That doesn’t mean no one else deserves a shot.

In particular, two guys who had been at 118 for part of Inoue’s run moved up to 122 before him: Luis Nery and John Riel Casimero.

Nery, 35-1 (27 KOs), suffered that lone loss in 2021, knocked out in seven rounds in a unification fight with Brandon Figueroa. Granted, we could use our previous logic to say that Inoue need not face Nery — Inoue beat Fulton, who beat Figueroa, who beat Nery. But then there are a couple of counterarguments. For one, there’s boxing’s triangle theory: Recall, for example, how Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman, George Foreman demolished Joe Frazier, but Frazier gave Ali hell. We want to see what Nery can do against Inoue, and vice versa.

There’s also the fact that Nery was competitive with Figueroa before getting stopped on a body shot. Plus Nery has won four straight since and earned this fight. And then there are the additional storylines, including how Nery had been banned for years from competing in Japan after a positive drug test from his first fight with Shinsuke Yamanaka and coming in massively overweight for their rematch.

Inoue is a massive star in Japan. This bout with Nery is only the third pro boxing match ever to be held at the Tokyo Dome — and the first since 1990. The only other superstar to headline there was Mike Tyson, first against Tony Tubbs in 1988 and then more infamously against Buster Douglas two years later.

Inoue could coast on his stardom. Instead, he’s still taking on tough challenges — and the money he brings in helps draw those opponents overseas.

If he gets by Nery on Monday, the top remaining junior featherweights would include Casimero and Murodjon Akhmadaliev, a former unified titleholder who lost his belts to Tapales via split decision and shouldn’t be written off yet. There are other names in the division who haven’t fought at the top levels of the weight class but may be closer to being ready before the year is out. And then there’s Junto Nakatani, another Japanese sensation who recently arrived at 118 but perhaps could be tempted to jump up to face Inoue before he departs for featherweight.

“I’m planning on fighting three times this year. I’m sure these three fights will take place at [122 pounds],” Inoue told Daisuke Sugiura of The Ring in a February interview. “My move up to featherweight will depend on how I feel and how my body feels next year.”

That decision, Inoue said, will be based on how well he continues to make 122 and also on how well he feels he could perform at 126.

“I wouldn’t decide to start fighting at featherweight or super featherweight just because the money is good,” Inoue said. “I don’t think that’s what I want. There are many fighters who have chased the money but ended up not being able to perform well and quit. The reason I box is not for the money; I do this to show my best self. It’s also true that I’m motivated by fighting strong opponents, but there are weight divisions in boxing for a reason. […] I don’t need to build my body up to move up to featherweight. I’ll move up once my body naturally grows into the heavier weight class. This has been the case throughout my professional career.”

Neither Inoue nor Canelo has to perform in perpetuity. Their legacies are secure. Every additional victory is another historical entry.

Yet we need to end with these brief and indisputable statements: 

They are champions because of their titles, but they also shouldn’t be champions in title only. “Champion” is also a job description. And they still have work left to do.

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Jubilant Cacace’s Wait Is Over After Stunning Cordina Victory
Don’t Be fooled – Oleksandr Usyk Will have his hands full In A tyson fury Rematch
Settling the Score: How Usyk beat Fury
‘He stole the 9th round knockout’: Krassyuk says referee saved Fury from KO loss to Usyk
Garcia’s B-sample positive for banned substance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *