Naoya Inoue won the 2023 Fighter of the Year award by beating Stephen Fulton and Marlon Tapales. He’s wants a big 2024 with Luis Nery and Murodjon Akhmadaliev in his sights. Photo by Naoki Fukuda
Noted sports journalist Daisuke Sugiura, a RingTV.com contributor and a member of the Ring Ratings Panel, recently sat down with Naoya Inoue at the Japanese superstar’s home gym in Yokohama to discuss being named 2023 Fighter of the Year, his place in the pound-for-pound rankings, his breakdowns of the Stephen Fulton and Marlon Tapales fights, and his plans for 2024 beginning with his May 6 undisputed 122-pound championship defense against Mexican veteran Luis Nery.
You just won both the Ring Magazine and Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) 2023 Fighter of the Year awards. What do you think of these honors?
It may sound cliché, but I am truly honored. That’s really how I feel. Although I’m not aiming for any kind of award, I’m really happy that my achievements last year were recognized.
You’ve already accomplished a lot, but has receiving these top honors changed anything?
Compared to a few years ago, I feel the importance of each fight even more. Terence Crawford is No. 1 in the pound-for-pound rankings, and I’ve reached a position where I’m compared to fighters like him every time I fight, so I feel the weight and importance of each fight as I go through them.
Will that also be a lot of pressure?
It’s more like pressure in a good way. I guess it’s motivation if anything.
What is the difference between how you felt when you became the pound-for-pound No.1 fighter (for a brief period in 2022) and when you received these awards?
I wonder why I won the 2023 Fighter of the Year award, the best fighter as voted for by reporters across the United States, but I’m not No. 1 pound-for-pound (laughs). I’m just wondering (laughs). I guess there are various criteria for the award, such as the fact that I had two fights last year, but anyway I honestly think that the No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking is probably even more important to my boxing career. But, again, these awards are huge honor for sure.
How did you find out that you won The Ring’s Fighter of the Year award?
I heard it from [my promoter] Mr. [Hideyuki] Ohashi via text message. I was like, “Really? Thank you very much!”
Also, you received a phone call from BWAA president Joseph Santoliquito informing you of winning their award, correct?
That’s correct. I got a call at Ohashi Gym. I was informed in advance that the call was coming. It was only about a 10-minute conversation, so we didn’t really talk that much. It was about winning the award and about the plaque, something like that.
Douglass Fisher, the Editor-In-Chief of The Ring magazine, and Santoliquito are looking forward to seeing you at the award ceremony in New York City. Will you attend the event?
It’s in June, right? It will be about a month after my next fight, so I think early June is a good time for me, so I’m thinking positively. However, I will have to give a speech (laughs). If it’s an award ceremony, I think the winners will have to give a speech in English, so that’s what I’m most concerned about (laughs).
Let’s take a look back at the two fights in 2023 that were the reason for your winning Fighter of the Year. I think the fight against Marlon Tapales in December was a high-level technical fight, but how satisfied were you after the victory?
As for satisfaction, I don’t know, but there were more unknowns in my first fight of 2023 against Stephen Fulton because I was moving up to super bantamweight from bantamweight. So, I felt like I accomplished more when I defeated Fulton. For the Tapales fight I went into it with some understanding of how to build a 122-pound body. Ever since I moved up from light flyweight (the 108-pound division), every time I moved up, I fought the first one with some anxiety. I think I felt more satisfied when I defeated Fulton in my first fight in the super bantamweight division.
In an interview in an NHK (Japanese TV) documentary, you said, “The pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit together in the Tapales fight.”
If you ask me if I was at my best, I would say that I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the way I defeated him, so that’s why I chose to express it that way.
How good was Tapales?
He is a good fighter. He didn’t surprise me or anything, but he was good.
You told me that in the first round against Emmanuel Rodriguez in Glasgow, you were a little surprised, like, “Wow (this guy is good)”. Tapales probably didn’t surprise you as much, but you still felt that he was a capable fighter.
Indeed. No surprises, but I do think he is a good fighter.
If you knock down a unified champion twice and win by KO, it should be considered a dominant victory, but some people still called it “a hard fight.” Does that frustrate you? Or do you feel like the bar being set so high is an indication of your highly valued worth?
I feel that expectations are very high, and that’s why I feel like I should do more. I guess that’s a new source of motivation.
On the other hand, the Fulton fight was praised in the United States as a “perfect fight.” Do you feel the same way?
I think it was perfect, too, from start to the finish. Is it close to a perfect score of 100? Yes, I think so.
Was it your best win so far in your professional career?
It’s hard to decide the best fight, but I think the Fulton fight is up there. It’s difficult to pick one, because circumstances and my enthusiasm for each fight are different. But I think the best of all was probably the Juan Carlos Payano fight, which I won by KO in the first round. Payano was a good opponent too.
Much was made (in the U.S.) about your facing an African-American boxer for the first time before your challenge to Fulton. What did you feel when you shared the ring with him?
I don’t know if it was because Fulton was Black, but, somehow, I felt different. His boxing style was different, but the mental aspect was more important to the fight. I think Fulton’s body language was pretty obvious during the fight. I didn’t have a hard time reading him. I really don’t think that’s a racial trait, because I had only one fight against a Black fighter but that’s what I felt.
Did his facial expressions or body language show what he was thinking?
I could pretty much sense [what he wanted to do]. I try to get a sense of how my opponent feels and what he thinks about my boxing ability in the first round. I thought Fulton’s facial expressions showed it clearly. I could easily see what he was thinking. I don’t know if it’s because he’s American, but he doesn’t like getting punched in the face. Their boxing style is different from Japanese fighters who fight with Yamato Damashii (Japanese spirit). Well, I think there are some fighters in the U.S. who fight like that, but probably not many.
Frankly, did you feel Fulton was intimidated in the first round?
I wouldn’t say intimidated, but I felt like he became cautious. I think he was surprised that I didn’t lose the exchange of jabs in the first round. I think my jab was as good as his, if not better. I was able to see the surprise and caution in him [during those exchanges].
A lot of readers would like to know the details of your 2024 campaign, starting with the Luis Nery fight planned for May. What’s your impression of Nery?
My impression is that Nery is a fighter who likes to mix it up. He is resilient and has a strong will to fight.
He is strong, especially in the early stages of the fight. Is that when you will be a little more careful?
Indeed, but I have confidence in myself to be able to be better than him even in the early rounds. If there is something I need to be careful about, it’s that he is good at throwing combinations from middle range, and it’s like he throws punches while moving. I’ll need to pay attention to his sense of distance [and take control the distance].
Is his fighting style unique even on a world level?
Yes, it’s a unique style, I think so.
So, how will you prepare for this Mexican veteran? And what do you think of the “Nery’s weakness is his body” narrative?
It’s difficult to find a sparring partner like that, so image training and repeated practice will be important. And I will react and adjust in the ring during the fight. As for his body [and his ability to take a good body shot], if a punch lands at the right time, anyone can go down, it can become a weakness for anyone, not just Nery.
Is there an added intensity to this fight given Nery’s ugly history with Shinsuke Yamanaka and the Japan Boxing Commission?
I don’t really think about that. This is a fight between me and Nery. What took place in the past has no bearing on the fight in May. But, well, whenever I look at Nery on ‘X’ or read his interviews, I find that he keeps talking about the Yamanaka fights. If Nery’s camp digs up stories from the past, I will take that sentiment into account. If he continues to make such radical provocations, I will carry the feelings along with him too.
If you watched Nery’s battle with Azat Hovhannisyan, The Ring’s 2023 Fight of the Year, give us your thoughts on that bout.
I haven’t watched the full fight but watched some highlights. I did some sparring with Hovhannisyan [during a visit to California in 2022], but my hunch is that he has trouble with southpaws. That’s why I think Hovhannisyan couldn’t show his true potential against Nery.
I heard that you would like to fight in the 122-pound division for a while. Besides Nery, there is a formidable former champion named Murodjon Akhmadaliev, The Ring’s No. 3-rated junior featherweight. There’s also a young contender named Sam Goodman and the veteran John Riel Casimero who could be possible future opponents.
Akhmadaliev was the champion when I decided to move up to super bantamweight, so I’ve already checked him out. His skill and power, backed by his experience as an amateur, are noteworthy. I haven’t watched Goodman fight yet. I don’t know any details, like his record, height, age, etc. I’ve only heard his name, but I’ll fight Nery first, and even if I do face Goodman, it’ll probably be two fights later, so it’s still a little too early to think about him realistically.
In part 2 of this exclusive interview, Inoue shares his thoughts on an eventual move to featherweight, his ceiling in terms of weight climbing, his interest in boxing beyond his own career, and his desire to “crossover” with the American boxing public, among other subjects.
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