No stranger to making boxing history, unified bantamweight king Naoya Inoue, who is rated by many as the pound-for-pound best in the game, will look to add the undisputed title to his resume when he attempts to become the first four-belt champion in 118-pound history.
Inoue (23-0, 20 KOs), who has been listed as high as a 100-1 betting favorite, will return to his native Japan on Tuesday morning (ESPN+, 2:30 am ET start, main event estimated for 6 a.m. ET) to defend his IBF, WBA and WBC titles inside Ariake Arena in Tokyo against WBO titleholder Paul Butler (34-2, 15 KOs).
The bantamweight division hasn’t seen an undisputed champion since 1973 when Enrique Pinder held the WBA and WBC. But in today’s four-belt era, the 29-year-old Inoue looks to become just the ninth male overall to achieve the feat, joining current undisputed champions Canelo Alvarez, Oleksandr Usyk, Jermall Charlo and Devin Haney.
The accomplishment would be just another in the growing legacy of “The Monster,” after Inoue won his first world title in just his sixth pro bout at 108 pounds in 2014 before winning a title at 118 pounds two fights later. Inoue went on to become a three-division champion in 2018 when he claimed his first of three bantamweight titles.
The only hiccup in Inoue’s current reign at 118 pounds came when he broke his face against Nonito Donaire in their first fight in 2019, which he hung on to win by decision in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series tournament. The 12-round war earned widespread accolades as fight of the year and after taking nearly one year off to heal, Inoue returned with vengeance and went on to finish Donaire in their June rematch to once more unify titles.
Despite the massive odds against him, the 34-year-old Butler went out of his way to make the undisputed fight happen and was willing to travel to enemy soil to do so. A native of England, “The Baby Faced Assassin” captured the WBO interim title in April by decisioning Jonas Sultan before he was upgraded to full titleholder.
“He’s a man with two arms and two legs,” Butler said about Inoue. “It’s not easy preparing for someone like him but we’ve prepared the best we can. There are moments in the first Donaire fight where he does get caught, he is human. He is not a robot.
“I know he calls himself ‘The Monster,’ but he’s not a monster, this big beast. He showed vulnerabilities against Donaire in the first fight and I have to go out and find them and exploit them.”
The biggest problem for Butler is that the first Donaire fight might be the lone time Inoue has looked human — and yet he still won the fight and is 4-0 with four devastating knockouts since, including a dismantling of Donaire in the rematch.
Inoue has few peers, regardless of weight, as one of the most dangerous and skillful fighters of this era. He can box and control distance with ease and is a finisher with both hands who has carried his power up with him each time he has risen in weight.
“I have lots of different strategies and I’ll get into the ring and then I’ll decide how to play it on instinct,” Inoue said. “Butler’s tactics are, by and large, quite fixed but nothing is pre-decided with my boxing. I’ll decide how to attack after I face up to him.”
Both of Butler’s defeats have come on the world title level, including an eighth-round TKO loss to Zolani Tete in 2018 for the IBF title at 115 pounds and a wide decision defeat to Emmanuel Rodriguez in 2018 for the IBF bantamweight title, which Inoue now holds after finishing Rodriguez in Round 2 the following year.
Butler is 8-0 since the Rodriguez loss but has never before fought outside of his native England.
“I’m looking for a good fight and this should be a top fight with all four belts between the two top bantamweights in the division,” Butler said. “This is the first time it has been done so hopefully I can take four belts with me back to England.”
With just 15 KOs in 34 pro wins, it’s hard to even give Butler a puncher’s chance in what appears to be the most mismatched undisputed title fight on paper since Terence Crawford knocked out Julius Indongo in 2017 to claim all four titles at 140 pounds.
Anything Butler does well, Inoue does startlingly better. And even though Inoue initially weighed in one-tenth of a pound above the bantamweight limit on Monday, he made weight cleanly on the second try and likely would need to suffer some form of a bad injury mixed with bad luck to author a potential path to victory for Butler.
The fight is expected to be Inoue’s last at 118 pounds before embarking on even more history in a fourth weight division. With respect to Butler for taking the fight, the outcome feels like a foregone conclusion.
Pick: Inoue via KO2