If you saw it in a movie you wouldn’t believe it.
A fight with a backstory so romantically improbable that any attempt to regale a non-observer with it would immediately be met with accusations of exaggeration. Hell, I myself can no longer tell where my real memory of this wondrous night in Saitama, Japan ends and where the confabulation begins.
Nayoa Inoue’s unanimous decision victory over Nonitio Donaire on Nov. 7 was flush with the type of rote, saccharine storylines that make boxing movies so unwatchably predictable and, well, so predictably unwatchable.
But it did happen. All of it.
Through a series of fortuitous, karmic intrusions, professional nice person Donaire inexplicably found himself in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series Bantamweight Tournament. With injuries to Ryan Burnett and Zolani Tete as well as the cosmic guidance of the boxing gods – who clearly went out drinking the night before — Donaire found himself in a dream scenario against a nightmare of a fighter in Inoue.
This was to be a career-defining fight for both men, though for the aging Donaire it was almost certain to define his as “over.” Instead, the two men found something in each other that they hadn’t in their combined 62 previous opponents. In Donaire, Inoue found a man with answers to his typically rhetorical questions. In contrast, Inoue helped Donaire find something for which he’d seemingly been searching for years: himself.
When the fight was officially announced, concerns for Donaire’s safety were not unfounded. Aging fighters making one last stand against pound-for-pound standouts are rarely met with happy endings. Donaire’s professional career began when Inoue was a scant eight years old, and though a decade would separate them in actual age on the night of the fight, it might as well have been millennia, such is the precipitousness of the aging curve in boxing.
When the two men finally met in the ring, it was hard not to feel it was the end of the something. Little did we know, it was merely the beginning.
As Donaire survived the 1st round and shockingly opened a cut over Inoue’s eye in the 2nd, the sense that we were witnessing something special started to creep in, albeit slowly.
Inoue would take control of the fight in round 3, as his otherworldly bodywork started to pay dividends. Still, the fact that Donaire chose to keep moving forward, logic be damned, was not going unnoticed, least of all by Inoue himself. Sometimes the easiest way through the labyrinth is to just start knocking down walls.
Inoue would begin to pull away further on the scorecards with his nauseating hand speed and youthful stamina, but Donaire wasn’t here to pile up points or log rounds with the judges. He was here to prove a point. That he still belonged. That time had not yet robbed him of his ability to do what he’d always done: fight.
And so, Donaire would claw his way back into the fight, letter by letter, word by word, until full sentences began to form. And then paragraphs. Before we knew it, an entire story was unfolding right before us, a story that by all conventional logic should’ve ended many rounds ago. It’s in this space, between what is logical and what is possible, that special fighters exist.
As the seconds ticked down in round 9, Donaire would put an exclamation point on his night with a booming right hand to Inoue’s cheek that momentarily turned his entire face to putty. Inoue would survive the round but it was in this moment that anything suddenly seemed possible. The line between what should happen and what could happen was blurred only by the bewildering shock of what would happen.
Within every fight there are two scores being kept: one on the official judges’ cards and another, equally important one, in the consciousness of the viewers. You can win a fight and still lose the night and vice versa just as easy. The official result is what gets recorded in the history books, but the story of the fight, and how people feel when they watch it unfold, is what they’ll truly remember.
When some asshole originally covered this fight he likened it to the first “Rocky” movie wherein the titular dumbshit is declared a hero even as he is being announced the loser via split decision. Nobody remembers the official loss, just the improbable circumstances that led up to it. The lachrymose conclusion to Rocky Balboa’s Homeric journey both highlights and masks the problem with all boxing movies. Simply put, no work of pugilistic fiction could ever compare to the drama of the real thing.
So as Inoue dug his left hand into Donaire’s liver in the early moments of round 11, the sense that our movie was coming to an end was impossible not to notice. Few fighters are capable of coming back from a shot like that, least of all ones with as many miles on their odometer as Donaire. As the aging fighter took a knee and rose at the count of nine, we saw in him — in real time — that thing that we so desperately seek from boxing, and from sports in general. We saw a man exist independent from his physiology, surviving on that nebulous concept of heart alone. To simultaneously obey and deny your programming is a nearly impossible needle to thread, and a sensation that only a prizefighter may truly know.
With over two minutes left on the clock — an absolute eternity inside a boxing ring — Donaire temporarily shut off his pain receptors and jumped back into the fire against one of the most vicious finishers in the sport. Somewhere between death wish and survival lies the true nature of a fighter. Donaire would not only survive the round but he’d have Inoue on his back foot by the final bell. It would be selfish to ask for anything more out of a single round of boxing.
Round 12 remained but it was largely academic as the two men had already shown us everything we could’ve hoped to see. Official scores of 117-107, 106-111 and 114-113 were announced in Inoue’s favor and no one would disagree. By that point, however, the story was all that mattered. The story of the aging champion eschewing all logic and walking directly into the line of fire of the younger, practically supernaturally gifted, pound for pound star and living to tell about it. It still doesn’t feel real.
Donaire will be enshrined in the hall of fame in the not too distant future where Inoue will one day almost certainly join him. Separated by an ocean and a full generation, their names will now be linked for eternity.
Sometimes you have to come to a crossroads before you know what you’ll do when you get there. Both Inoue and Donaire chose the path of most resistance: each other.
For that we had no other choice than to pick them for our 2019 Fight of the Year.
Next: Fighter of the Year
(Photo by Naoki Fukuda)