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August 28, 2020

2019 Fight of the Year

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was originally published on on January 7th, 2020:

Well before the final bell had sounded, it was clear the bantamweight World Boxing Super Series finale would be one to add to the “Classic Fights” collection. It had all the right ingredients: a timeless “old legend vs. young Monster” storyline, two endearing characters, twists and turns in the plot, elite skills, and true grit – all fired up in a 12-round pressure cooker to produce 2019’s Fight of the Year.

Donaire, the WBA champion fighting on away soil at nearly 37 years of age, wasn’t expected to upset Japan’s boxing sensation, Naoya Inoue. The four-division champ was boiling himself down to a weight he’d competed at only twice in the preceding eight years, but he came in full of confidence that his vaunted power could seal one last great win in a career already bound for the Hall of Fame. And he was very nearly proven right.

After 12 gripping rounds of action, the heavily favoured, undefeated Japanese star prevailed as expected, but only after grinding out a unanimous, hard-won victory. For the first time, he was forced to show true fighting mettle and a solid chin to go along with his already abundant talent and formidable power. In the end, Inoue came out with the Muhammad Ali Trophy, but both men left the ring with their reputations enhanced.

Inoue, the IBF and Ring champion, began positively, pumping out stiff jabs and dictating the action with his usual variety of snappy shots. In the second round though, Donaire landed the first of his big left hooks and opened a serious cut above the younger man’s right eye.

An absorbing tactical battle peppered with heavy exchanges ensued, with Donaire stalking and Inoue looking for crisp counters. A massive right hand at the end of the fifth momentarily buckled Donaire’s legs, and a fierce follow-up assault had the veteran champ in serious trouble, as the Monster took control of the contest in the middle rounds.

In the eighth, the momentum shifted the other way and suddenly it seemed Donaire couldn’t miss with his right hand, landing several in a row and sending the favourite back to his corner nursing a bloody nose as well as the cut above his eye. The rejuvenated Filipino surged again in the ninth, smashing home a huge right that wobbled Inoue to the soles of his boots. To his great credit, the young champion gritted his teeth and fought back through adversity to re-group and ride out the biggest crisis of his career.

The action continued to ebb and flow as Inoue re-asserted himself in the championship rounds, letting rip with his full repertoire of punches to head and body. A minute into the eleventh, a crippling left hook found the sweet spot on Donaire’s ribs; he tried desperately to resist the pain but was forced to take a knee, grimacing in agony. Somehow, he beat the count, then fired back defiantly to survive the onslaught that followed. Battered and bruised, both men fought doggedly through the last three minutes, embracing warmly as the final bell sounded to signal the end of a brilliant contest.

In a touching post-fight storyline, the proud, beaten former champ – having promised his sons he would take the Muhammad Ali Trophy home to them – went to Inoue’s dressing room, and, “with tears in [his] eyes… humbly asked Inoue to borrow it for a night.” Graciously, the champion obliged.

It was a fitting epilogue to a memorable fight. Both men conducted themselves as gentlemen outside of the ring and warriors inside of it; both were a credit to the sport.

Simply put, fights and nights like this are what make boxing great.

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