So much of what we think we know about sports legend is bullshit. Babe Ruth’s called shot? Just as likely a mosquito swat. Larry Bird’s predicted 43-point night? John Stockton loves to tell the story, but it changes with every telling. Brett Favre’s unsolicited dick pic text? OK, that probably happened.
But the truth is, the day-to-day in sports is pretty goddamn boring — which is kind of as it should be. Myth isn’t made daily. But to keep ourselves occupied, we spend countless hours conjuring it from thin air, mislabeling the very good as “legendary” and debating fairy-tale lists that are impossible to prove with years of perspective, let alone in real time. And because even the very good in any game, when compared to their peers, generally don’t stand head and shoulders above, all that idle obfuscation and bias and sports-talk stupidity have created a sort of chronic cynicism — or at least fogged the lens through which we see an athlete. Only once every hundred blue moons do you get a Jim Brown or a Wayne Gretzky or a LeBron James. You’d think that’s when you ought to know, with a marrow-deep certainty, that you’re gazing upon greatness and then have the good sense to sit back and watch.
For those who were open to it, that moment came Saturday at the Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, and on ESPN, as Japanese bantamweight vampire Naoya Inoue (21-0, 18 KO) all but liquefied the vital organs of the Philippines’ Michael Dasmarinas (30-3-1, 20 KO), notching a third-round TKO to retain a couple of alphabet belts.
That the moment occurred well after midnight, counter-programmed against another major boxing event, and received a fraction of the hype of, say, the Scripps Spelling Bee or Little League World Series on the same network says far more about the business of boxing than it does about Inoue. The 28-year-old already is a red supergiant of a star, if one evolving in the silent vacuum of space.
Granted, Dasmaranis was a stay-busy opponent — a decent but unthreatening type — serving as an appetizer ahead of Inoue’s anticipated main course: a fight with the winner of the upcoming August 14 matchup between Nonito Donaire and John Riel Casimero. But that’s hardly the point. Ali fought Frazier thrice. He also had a couple of goes at Joe Bugner.
At this stage, Inoue is destination television — a pocket-sized Mike Tyson or a Roy Jones Jr. nesting doll inside a nesting doll. A recent string of spectacular knockouts by “The Monster” was interrupted only by his life-and-death 2019 Fight of the Year against Donaire, in which Inoue overcame a broken orbital bone and nose to win a wide decision over the future Hall of Famer. Inoue hasn’t merely dominated his opponents; he is a 118-pound destroyer of worlds, a soul-snatching anti-hero who takes apart credible contenders brick by brick, then disappears without a word into the night.
Although Dasmarinas, 28, had previously fought no one of note, he came in as a prime southpaw with a size advantage, good mobility and at least a modicum of power. In theory, he could have at least given his opponent rounds. Instead, Inoue needed only seven minutes to make a farce of what the poor man had spent the better part of a lifetime building.
Inoue landed a couple left hooks and right hands in the opening round as a matter of course, but he opened up in round 2 — especially after Dasmarinas made the choice to engage just a bit more often. The Filipino even managed to touch Inoue with a few of his own left hands, but it’s hard to look back now and presume that development was anything other than Inoue setting traps. What followed was all but accompanied by a score of tinkling minor keys and the obligatory realization from Dasmaranis: The phone call … is coming from inside the house!
With a little over a minute left in round 2, an Inoue lead right hand bounced Dasmaranis off the ropes and elicited an almost stunned look. Inoue quickly followed with a jab and uppercut upstairs, then a grazing left hook through the ribs to send Dasmaranis into a shell and, after a beat, a knee. He survived the round — but seemingly only for the purpose of providing Inoue a grander, gorier denouement.
With cruel calculation, Inoue began targeting Dasmaranis’ right side in the third round, pummeling his ribs and liver at every opportunity — all of them, it seemed, of his own devious creation. Inoue would bang his opponent with combinations above the shoulders, then, when Dasmaranis’ guard went up, send a sidewinding hammer hook into his guts.
The second knockdown, inside the final minute of the round, was almost a carbon copy of the first. Now Dasmaranis lacked the time or space even to breathe. That was by design. Inoue — stalking, cutting off the ring, forcing a desperate and wounded Dasmaranis to pick an area to protect — cracked his opponent with another uppercut, then sized up his high guard, slipped for an angle and sunk a left hook into his right side, just below the diaphragm, and folded the Filipino for the last time.
Donaire, who sat ringside watching with the giddiness of another tiny psychopath, called the punch “horrific,” and he admitted with a smile that he should know. Everyone who’s anyone with a pulse and even a passing interest in boxing should be rooting for Donaire against Casimero in August, with a Donaire win setting up a rematch with Inoue. Inoue-Donaire is the only fight this side of Bud Crawford-Errol Spence (which itself is probably pure fantasy) that has the potential to electrify the sport.
To think: an authentically transcendent superfight. Not just a showcase for a star (Canelo Alvarez), a legacy feature (Manny Pacquiao) or a platform for a boozed-up fanbase to indulge its hyperactive nationalist impulses (Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, et al). Inoue and Donaire, who embraced like old friends after Inoue’s win Saturday, actually want it. Neither seems to care much about the money. Both, blessedly, have the combination of supreme skills and screws loose that makes for boxing magic. To see them in the ring together once was savage bliss. If we somehow get it again?
It will be something — almost certainly something truly great — to behold.
(Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank)