THERE is no truth to the rumor that WBO bantamweight champion John Riel Casimero has a photo of Godzilla pasted on the punching bag as he trains for his April 25 showdown with WBA-IBF counterpart Naoya ‘Monster’ Inoue.
However, it does not mean that Casimero is hitting the sandbag with less ferocity. As he flails away, you can hear Casimero muttering “I am the real Monster, I am the real Monster!”
Casimero has never sounded, or looked this obsessed, to win. Immediately after knocking out South African Zolani Tete in three rounds for the WBO bantamweight title in November, Casimero called out WBA-IBF counterpart Naoya Inoue of Japan for a unification showdown. Inoue was supposed to make a mandatory defense against Filipino Michael Dasmarinas, but he was granted an exception to take part in a unification bout with Casimero.
Japanese Naoya, 19-0 with 16 knockouts, is considered the most feared fighter in the 118-pound division. The Yokohama native enjoyed a stellar amateur career, winning the gold medal in the President’s Cup in Jakarta and finishing second in the 2012 Asian Boxing Olympic Qualification Tournament. After amassing a record of 75-6 (48 knockouts) as an amateur, Inoue turned pro in October 2012 and has since won world titles in the light flyweight (108 lbs.), junior bantamweight (115 lbs.) and bantamweight (118 lbs.) divisions.
In October 2018, Inoue knocked out Juan Carlos Payano in one round to pocket the WBA ‘regular’ bantamweight crown. Seven months later, in May 2019, Inoue hammered Emmanuel Rodriguez in two rounds to add the IBF version of the crown. In November 2019, Inoue captured the ‘super’ version of the WBA bantam belt by outlasting Filipino Nonito Donaire Jr. in 12 rounds.
Inoue’s victory over Donaire was the clear choice for Fight of the Year in 2019. Though a heavy favorite, Inoue walked the tight rope against Donaire. Both men traded heavy leather and in the ninth round Donaire nearly floored Inoue with an overhand right. To his credit, Inoue bounced back by flooring Donaire with a vicious body shot in the 11th stanza. Inoue won by unanimous decision, but he returned home with a fractured orbital bone, a broken nose and a cut above the right eye that required five stiches to close.
Inoue claims he did not undergo surgery and has completely recovered from the Donaire fight. Just the same, not a few believe that the Donaire fight exposed flaws in Inoue’s armor that Casimero can exploit.
Inoue’s primary weakness, as exposed by Donaire, is his leaky defense and vulnerability to counter shots. Inoue has lightning-fast fists and really good head movement, but in the heat of the exchanges he has a habit of not bringing his trail hand back to his chin and is susceptible to counter shots.
Inoue loves to throw body shots in the early rounds, but when he does this, his head is wide open for a hook or an uppercut. The Donaire fight marked the first time in his career that Inoue took so many punches as Donaire exploited holes in his defense with good left hooks and overhand rights.
Not a few believe that a younger Donaire, particularly the one whose dizzying lateral movements and combinations tamed feared slugger Vic Darchinyan in 2007, would have beaten Inoue. The Donaire who fought Inoue was already 36 years old and more flatfooted, but he still gave the Japanese the toughest fight of his career.
Casimero, 29-4, 20 knockouts, has a fighting style that is nowhere close to Donaire’s. Casimero is a slow starter and does not throw that many punches. Casimero’s defense is even unconventional, but it is one that can frustrate a pressure fighter like Inoue.
Tete actually got off to a great start against Casimero, keeping the smaller Filipino at bay with his long jab. Casimero remained patient and did not open up until the third round, when Tete got too close and came within his punching radar. Casimero cashed in with a crackling right to the temple that floored Tete. The lanky South African did not recover from the blow as Casimero floored him again with a barrage of punches. If the referee did not intervene, Tete would have ended up counting stars on the canvas.
Casimero, 30, is easily in the best shape of his career, a far cry from his early years in the sport. Casimero initially won regular titles in the light flyweight (108 lbs.) and flyweight (112 lbs.) divisions, but struggled to stay in the weight classes. In May 2014, he was stripped of his IBF light flyweight crown when he showed up five pounds overweight for his title defense against Mauricio Fuentes.
Casimero moved up in weight and won the IBF flyweight crown in May 2016. In September 2016, he defended the flyweight strap with an impressive 10th-round knockout of the previously unbeaten Charlie Edwards. But hounded by weight issues and managerial/promotional problems, Casimero failed to cash in on the win over Edwards as he decided to ditch the IBF title and campaign in the heavier bantamweight class.
Casimero debuted in the bantamweight class in April 2019 and initially won the interim WBO bantamweight crown. In his first defense of the interim title in August 2019, Casimero again struggled to meet the weight against Mexican Cesar Ramirez. Ramirez put up a serious challenge and even caught Casimero in the sixth stanza with some nasty right hands and uppercuts. Casimero’s body attacks reaped dividends in the 10th round when a weary Ramirez started to backpedal. A left uppercut-right straight combination from Casimero finished off Ramirez.
Casimero has been installed as an underdog for the Inoue fight, but the WBO champion is unperturbed. Not a few believe that Casimero’s patience will be the key as it will serve him well to wait for Inoue to come in.
“Iba ang galaw ni Casimero,” veteran international referee Silvestre Abainza told this writer. “Hindi siya basta pasok ng pasok. Masyadong maingat.”
Of course, Casimero will also have to learn from the strengths Inoue showed in the Donaire fight. Inoue showed that he has what it takes to adjust when the going gets tough in the ring. When Inoue realized that he was getting tagged coming in, he adopted an in-and-out assault to avoid getting trapped on the inside.
When Inoue got hurt in the ninth round, he unabashedly embraced Donaire and refused to let go until the cobwebs cleared. Inoue had been hyped as a no-nonsense slugger going into the fight, but he showed that he is not shy to hold when hurt.
Inoue also exhibited patience in the Donaire fight. When he realized that Donaire was no easy picking, he learned to spread his offense and stamina. There were moments when Inoue coasted after pouring it all in the previous round. Donaire was able to rally, but Inoue ended up having more fuel in his tank in the championship rounds.
Inoue is insisting that he has completely recovered from the Donaire slugfest. Perhaps on a physical level, but it remains to be seen if the grueling fight with Donaire left psychological scars. Before Donaire, Inoue had acquired the habit of pummeling foes into bits. It will be interesting to see if Inoue’s confidence remains the same after the tough fight with Donaire.
Then again, as far as Casimero is concerned, he is ready to beat up even the most fearsome version of the ‘Monster.’