YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — They don’t call Japanese boxer Naoya Inoue “The Monster” for nothing.
The WBA and IBF bantamweight world champion is undefeated, with all but three of his wins by knockout — mostly in the early rounds.
Drawing praise as one of the best “pound for pound” active boxers around, and the best out of Asia since the legendary Manny Pacquiao, Inoue has his eyes on the big time.
Inoue (21-0, 18 KOs) made his Las Vegas debut last year with a knockout victory over Jason Moloney, which followed a fight in California in 2019. Signed with Bob Arum’s boxing promotion company Top Rank, Inoue fought again in Las Vegas this year, knocking out Michael Dasmarinas.
His next fight is in Japan on Dec. 14, widely seen as a tuneup for a title unification bout in America next year.
And so Inoue is setting out to please his Japanese fans, who haven’t seen him in action locally for two years.
When he enters Ryogoku Kokugikan, the Tokyo venue for the traditional sport of sumo wrestling, to take on Thailand's Aran Dipaen (12-2, 11 KOs), Inoue will be decked out in red.
The crowd will be a sea of white, the dress code for the evening, symbolizing the Japanese flag — and symbolizing the enormous hope this nation has riding on Inoue.
“Each and every fan is going to have expectations. And I want to defy and go beyond each and every one of their expectations,” Inoue, 28, told The Associated Press after sparring recently at the Ohashi Boxing Gym in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo.
Inoue said he is looking forward to fighting John Riel Casimero (31-4, 21 KOs), the WBO bantamweight champion. The bout, scheduled for last year, was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Casimero is fighting Paul Butler of Britain on Dec. 11.
Nonito Donaire (41-6, 27 KOs), the WBC bantamweight champion, has a fight the same day against Reymart Gaballo.
Inoue beat Donaire by unanimous decision in 2019, a grueling bout that was voted the best fight of the year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Once his unification mission for the bantamweight belts is complete, the already three-division world champion Inoue plans to move up a weight in 2023.
But the former WBC light flyweight champion and former WBO super flyweight champion shrugged his monster reputation off.
“I am not called a Monster at home," he said, smiling. “They call me Naoya or Nao.”
Inoue loves eating “yakiniku,” or Japanese-style barbecue, especially beef tongue, and he loves watching horror movies. He enjoys karaoke.
For Inoue, who started boxing at 6, it’s always been about family. His younger brother, Takuma, is also a professional boxer
Their father, a former amateur boxer, devised training methods for his sons like having to push a car with the engine off, or climb a rope dangling from the second-floor veranda of their house.
Naoya Inoue recalled he never questioned the techniques.
“You only rebel probably when you don’t agree with what’s being done,” he said.
Having married his high school sweetheart, Inoue is already a father himself. He has a son, 4, and two daughters, 2 and a newborn.
His son Akiha, whom he has held in the boxing ring as a baby, is showing intense interest in daddy’s bouts, but Inoue isn’t sure he wants him to be a boxer.
“I just hope he can find something he truly loves doing,” he said.
The best way to succeed, he added, is not stressing out.
“You can’t keep at this unless you really like it. There may be injuries and a risk to your life. It’s a dangerous sport," Inoue said. “It’s not something you can do without liking it.”
Inoue is part of a legacy in Japan, which has produced some Hall of Famers, including Yoko Gushiken and Masahiko “Fighting” Harada. More recently, the popularity of boxing was apparent in the Japanese women medalists at the Tokyo Olympics.
Boxing gym chairman and former world champion Hideyuki Ohashi came up with the “kaibutsu” or “monster” moniker when Inoue turned pro. He said Inoue is a cut above any of the boxers he has seen — and he's seen quite a few.
“It’s not one thing or the other, but he excels in every aspect. In boxing skills, his speed, the power of his punches, his timing. And most importantly he has mental strength,” Ohashi said. “He is having fun.”
Ohashi said Inoue is the only boxer he knows who has already decided he will retire at 35. After a rest, he'll go on to something else. He declined to say what that might be.
But for now, Inoue is looking at this career path.
“I am still far from the ideal style of boxing I am pursuing. If I get contented now, then I will just hit a wall when I go to super bantamweight," he said. "There’s so much farther to go before I reach my peak, and I still don’t know my true potential.
“I still have seven or eight years as a pro, and so I’m going to keep heading higher.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama