By: Nick Skok

It’s hard to fathom a healthy, top-3 pound-for-pound unified champion falling so far off the radar in the sport, or the failure of his still relatively newly enlisted promoter Top Rank from letting that happen. Yet here we are five months after his relatively easy 7th round finish of Jason Maloney, a downgraded opponent from the originally scheduled matchup with WBO champion Jon Riel Casimero, with whom a final deal could neither be reached prior to Inoue’s Halloween performance nor afterwards. Word has circulated that Inoue could find himself facing off against a Casimero stablemate, and a downgrade from that of Maloney, Michael Dasmarinas (30-2-1, 20 knockouts).

Dasmarinas is the IBF mandatory, though his promoter of Manny Pacquiao Promotions, Sean Gibbons, who also represents Casimero, had made a unification possible before any mandatory was needed. The fight was canceled due to COVID restrictions and then further blamed on a multitude of reasons for failing to materialize in the future, such as a money short-fall. With recent savings, and in fact positive revenue from the recent fallout of the Teofimo Lopez purse bid, the money shouldn’t be an issue.

Inoue first made his American debut on the Super Fly card in Carson, California against Antonio Nieves on HBO. This writer remembers being there in person and watching as Inoue literally ran across the ring to engage an always backpedaling Nieves who would later retire on his stool after the sixth round. A far cry from the highlight reel knockouts that had gotten Inoue in a position to fight on HBO in the first place. Actually, Peter Nelson and Tom Loeffler, the architects of “Super Fly” had wanted to pair Inoue, a top ten pound-for-pound member even in 2017, against the reigning king of that list, Roman Gonzalez. Not having had luck in making the fight in Japan, Inoue opted to let Loeffler and Nelson get him that fight and the others that had eluded him. After a more than questionable decision going against Gonzalez scuttled hopes of a pound-for-pound unification, the most HBO could offer Inoue was Nieves, and then Viloria (a comparable top-ten rated opponent at junior bantam like Maloney is for the bantam division) for a Super Fly 2 appearance. Inoue opted to fight in Japan for the New Year’s Eve holiday instead and then proceeded to move up to bantamweight with no other top tier fighters willing or available to face him at 115, while also taking into account his growing frame.

Now an all too familiar pattern is besieging Inoue with Top Rank. When Todd duBoef spoke to me and others in Yokohama following Inoue’s win against Donaire to capture the WBSS tournament championship and become a unified champion at bantamweight, he told us that they would make the big fights for Inoue because that’s what Inoue wanted – and has wanted. The big fights. That very night Inoue would be quoted as saying he wanted revenge for his younger brother who had lost on the undercard against the WBC champion Nordine Oubaali – a tantalizing matchup indeed. Oubaali himself told me that night in his dressing room that he was more than willing to return to Japan for such a fight. With Sean Gibbons in the building and holding the rights to the IBF mandatory in Dasmarinas, as well as the option for Casimero, the Oubaali fight was shelved.

A year and a half later, money in the bank for Top Rank, there’s been no traction on a unification against Oubaali, or Casimero who’s happily tendering offers from PBC. The question now is, what is Top Rank’s plan for Naoya Inoue? They’ve talked about visa issues, and lack of crowds hurting their bottom line, while they negotiate on behalf of Tyson Fury for his mega-fight against Anthony Joshua, all while Inoue quietly trains in the shadow of Yokohama waiting for his phone to ring. His Japanese promoter Hideyuki Ohashi could handle making deals with mandatories, and top-ten contenders, similar to Jason Maloney. He even secured several title shots that resulted in impressive wins for his fighter. Top Rank was brought on to do what Ohashi couldn’t, much like with the HBO fight four years ago.

With other top tier fighter’s near Inoue’s weight class now past their prime at the ages of 33 and 30 for Roman Gonzalez and Juan Estrada, respectively, the window is closing for the 27 year old Naoya Inoue, who remains fresh and willing to fight the best available. Not being able to, Top Rank has so far failed him as they crawl towards the halfway point of their contract with the knockout artist. The question is asked again, what is the roadmap for Inoue? We saw it with Lomachenko, whose fights were all lined up to coincide with his goals of unifying the division, and we’re continuing to see it done with Fury’s ambitions. Unfortunately, Inoue, even as a Top 2 or 3 pound-for-pound fighter, is getting the short end of the stick. In hindsight, if his goals were to truly be in the biggest fights possible, then Top Rank was probably the wrong choice for the kid from Zama.