This weekend it was announced that Naoya Inoue will make his long rumored American debut on September 9th in Los Angeles, as a part of a stacked super flyweight card that includes boxing star Roman Gonzalez in the main event. The card is already being lauded as the best of the year as it includes some of boxing’s most exciting pugilists. Inoue brings a certain mystique to the show as his reputation precedes him having already had 5 successful super flyweight title defenses in such a young career. He’ll defend this time against Puerto Rican-American, Antonio Nieves (17-1-2, 9 KOs). The show will be broadcast on HBO’s Boxing After Dark series.
As I’ve seen firsthand at his fights in Tokyo and in his gym in Yokohama, Inoue possesses an efficacious power within his super flyweight frame that has only grown more compelling with recent lower bodywork — added leg muscle has accelerated his arm movements and allowed for even more power to be generated in his punches. With a refined regiment stemming from his added strength, Inoue actually broke his father’s wrist during his previous training camp this last Spring while hitting the mitts. Younger brother and budding prodigy, Takuma, has taken over the mitt work for now. The upgraded repertoire goes along with his undefeated 13 contests in which only 2 lasted until the final bell. His resume, though short, is impressive as Inoue won the WBC light flyweight title in only his 6th outing and is now a 2 division champion at the age of 24. For such accomplishments his humility is on full display with his boyish, slightly shy smile outside the ring, while inside the ring his focus is highlighted by his immaculate footwork, as he maneuvers to and fro with his father and trainer Shingo.
Hideyuki Ohashi began boxing professionally in Japan out of Korakuen Hall, located in Tokyo, in 1985, at the strawweight limit of 105lbs. He rattled off four victories in his first year and would earn a shot at the WBC light flyweight title a year later against Jung-Koo Chang. Ohashi was TKO’d by the impressive Chang whose 16 consecutive successful title defenses, including a rematch two years later with Ohashi, got Chang inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.
By this time Japanese boxers were in a rut.
They had collectively accumulated a streak of consecutive world title fight losses that began when Hiroki Ioka lost his title in 1988. The deficit grew when Ohashi lost to Chang for the second time though he would get his moment of saving grace. He ended the now infamous streak of Japanese world title fight losses that spanned 2 years and 21 bouts when he KO’d Jum-Hwan Choi to win the WBC straweight title. For an encore, Ohashi defeated Thai boxer Napa Kiawanchai, who had started the streak by defeating Ioka. Ohashi received his due praise and was called the best boxer (or better by some) since Japanese boxing legend Yoko Gushiken, who still holds the Japanese record for most consecutive title defenses at 14. A loose translation said Gushiken was a boxing genius that comes around once every 100 years while Ohashi was a called a once in a 150 year boxing genius.
The genius in the skill combined with tenacity didn’t get to be showcased too long as Ohashi ran into the legend Ricardo Lopez for his second defense. Lopez made short work of Ohashi and closed the door in the 5th round with a TKO victory. Ohashi remembers the fight vividly, showing me clips and reminiscing as I stood by him at his gym. Though he held his own, the title reign(s) could’ve been longer or started sooner, but Ohashi was fighting in a division at a time that was absolutely ripe with generational talent.
Naoya made a choice early in life that he wanted to box. It wasn’t divine intervention or even coercion that made up young Naoya’s mind, it was watching his father Shingo train in the gym that motivated him to be like his dad. When Shingo was 20 he started his own business as a commercial painter. He’d paint houses, buildings, or anything that needed to be spruced up around Zama, Kanagawa, a smallish town about 30 minutes south of Yokohama by train. 2 years later his wife gave birth to Naoya.
Shingo was convinced by his friend to take up boxing as a new hobby. Spending a large part of his adolescence training in martial arts, it was all too natural for the young father to be back in the gym. The new challenge of boxing bridged a balance between his responsibilities at home and at work. Shingo found himself taking up fights in the amateurs and succeeding with a couple of wins. It was then when a first grader Naoya told his father he too wanted to box. Shingo quickly surveyed his son for talent through some exercises and spotted something special. Not long after, Shingo opened up a gym of his own and began training both of his sons, including Naoya’s younger sibling Takuma.
Hideyuki Ohashi’s talent was obvious, but any boxer will tell you that the psyche is affected after being beaten into a TKO. In hindsight, it’s easy to forgive the loss to Lopez—an undefeated Mexican who would turn out to be one of the greatest boxers in history– but Lopez was at that time still at the beginning of what would be a storied career, so Ohashi, now the face of boxing in Japan, could not be consoled with the knowledge that he had lost to a legendary fighter. It would take the fighter 6 months before he got back in the ring for a soft-touch opponent to regain his confidence. He’d follow up his easy KO victory with another against a Filipino journeyman before a third victory to close out the year. Two fights later, Ohashi got another crack at a world title, and he’d make the most of his opportunity. He convincingly defeated Hi-Yong Choi with a unanimous decision and lifted his WBA strawweight title, becoming a two-time champion in the process.
Difficulties making weight depleted Ohashi, and he lost by majority decision while making his first defense attempt with his new title. Boxing folklore still floats around Japanese gyms of how Ohashi had to tie his hand to his bed at night in order to prevent himself from sleepwalking to the toilet where he’d drink the water to rehydrate. Ohashi called it quits from professional boxing after his loss and opened up a gym in Yokohama. Part of his gym slogan is “bullied kids come here!” – which was made in part to attract kids who were bullied but also was used as an overture to citizens who were fired from their jobs or as the slogan continues, were seemingly “given a ten count” by society. These demographics had seen suicide rates inside the country soar and Ohashi wanted to show them an alternate path. With his gym in place, Ohashi ascended to the position of president in the Japan Pro Boxing Association and as chairman of its subsidiary body, the East Japan Boxing Association. His gym attracted a plethora of talent and it turned out its first champion, Katsushige Kawashima, in 2004. Later, Akira Yaegashi would join the gym and become a 3 division champion.
Naoya Inoue hit the ground running in boxing under the tutelage of his father. His first fight was in the 6th grade. By the time he was in junior high, Inoue was named the best boxer in Japan under the age of 15. A year later, in high school, Inoue won three national boxing championships: the Inter High School Championships; National Sports Festival of Japan; and the National High School Competition.
The wins qualified Inoue for the 2012 AIBA Asian Olympic Qualifying Event in Astana, Kazakhstan. With only one Olympic spot open for the light flyweight division, Inoue made it to the finals, but came up short. He lost to a Kazakh boxer 9 years his senior, named Birzhan Zhakypov, who at the time was a former bronze medalist from the 2005 World Championships and a silver medalist from the 2010 Asian Games. The longer and taller boxer with more experience swarmed Inoue from the outset and caused him problems with ranging hooks. Inoue made a dramatic rally, never backing down in rounds two and three, but the lead from the first round was too great to overcome. The British announcers were stunned at the 18 year old’s recovery and offensive rebound. Their surprised approval convinced them they’d see Inoue at the 2016 games in Rio.
With a record of 75-6 in the amateurs, and now a seven-time Japanese amateur national champion, the now 19 year old Naoya Inoue officially turned pro six months after returning home and signed a contract with the Ohashi Gym and Mr. Ohashi. A stipulation in the contract by Inoue was that he never wanted to take easy fights if they could be avoided. Mr. Ohashi’s history as a former champion, and now a successful promoter of multiple Japanese champions, was a huge deciding factor for the Inoue family to joining the gym. The fact it was also nearby in Yokohama, a much closer trip than Tokyo where other prominent boxing gyms are located, also played a part. Mr. Ohashi wasted no time with his young talent and knew from experience just how to direct him into the professional ranks.
In only his 6th professional fight, Inoue won the WBC light flyweight title and followed that TKO performance with a dramatic 11th round TKO defense three months later. He then jumped up two divisions to easily KO the number-one ranked super-flyweight in the world and WBO champion, Omar Narvaez. With his accession so quick, and seemingly so easy, Inoue has made the job of Mr. Ohashi very difficult in trying to secure credible opponents, much less other champions. Their goals as a team has been to fight the best competition, especialy if that means unifying the titles, while also earning a spot with the American audience on HBO. Luckily for them their second goal was made easier with HBO executive Peter Nelson being a fan of the super flyweight division.
As Inoue shadow boxes alongside his brother, you won’t find a more proud promoter in Mr. Ohashi as he circles the outside of the ring with a smile on his face snapping photos for his Instagram. Ohashi could be mistaken for an uncle if you ran into him and Naoya that day at Universal Studios in Hollywood or on one of the many routine occasions he and the Inoue family are having dinner or celebrating a birthday together. For the Ohashi – Inoue clan it’s personal. Not only did they collectively want Inoue to match Ohashi’s accomplishments by defeating multiple champions, which he’s already done, and surpass him in terms of the international exposure he’ll receive come September, they also wanted Inoue to truly be great. Doing so means succeeding where Ohashi failed in defeating legendary opposition. While Inoue hasn’t yet fought the caliber of competition Ohashi was faced with during his prime, he’s lucky enough to have a similar, rare breed of fighters available to him should the opportunity(s) arise.
For now, Inoue continues to be avoided and he’ll settle for a gritty 30 year old bantamweight who’ll be dropping a few pounds, when they fight in front of what should be a nice sized Los Angeles crowd. The recognition earned from another “Monster” KO, as they’ve become to be known as, will raise his stock to the point it’ll actually be worth the risk for credible opponents to fight him. With that, a “big name” challenger has been promised for late December close to New Year’s Eve, which in Tokyo is the most popular week for fighting. That experience, which I’ve witnessed first hand, compares to our Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independece Day weekend traditions here at home but its championship fights are spread out over the entirety of the week, not just on Saturday’s like we’re used to.
Promises like this have been made before to the Ohashi-Inoue camp so don’t think for a second they’ll lose focus on the big picture. At 24 years old and time on his side, Inoue and his pack will continue patiently encroaching on boxing’s best. Working together, carrying out their specific roles, they’ll pick off easy, opportunistic targets like Nieves in September, until their hunt yields bigger game. The strategy for when that day comes began being formed some time after Ohashi lost to Ricardo Lopez but before Inoue’s first fight in the 6th grade. Shingo, the father, must’ve thought all those years ago when he opened a gym for his son, not yet 10 years old but resolute on his future ambitions, that “he could be a once in a 200 years boxing genius.”