A bloodied Naoya Inoue won a bruising thriller over Nonito Donaire of the Philippines by unanimous decision Thursday to capture the WBA super bantamweight title.
The fight, the bantamweight final of the World Boxing Super Series, earned the 26-year-old Japanese fighter the Muhammad Ali Trophy. Inoue, who entered the fight at Saitama Super Arena as the IBF bantamweight champ, improved to 19-0 in his pro career.
Donaire opened a cut above Inoue's right eye in the second round. That forced the Japanese star, known as "Monster," to protect the eye and fight a cagey tactical battle that kept him ahead on points despite absorbing some punishing blows from his 36-year-old opponent.
"Donaire is so strong," Inoue said. "From the second round until the end of the fight, my vision was fuzzy. This fight was nothing like the passing of the torch to the next generation."
"This fight showed my real strengths and weaknesses. After a year of fights, I'm satisfied to win this championship," he added.
After a couple of even rounds, Inoue, now bleeding from the nose as well, put the pedal to the metal in the final minute of the fifth, backing Donaire to the ropes and raining blows on him until he was saved by the bell.
Donaire battled back, however, now and then rocking the crowd favorite with some ferocious punches. Inoue, who had only needed to go the distance in two of his previous fights, showed he could stay in the ring and look for openings. A brutal Inoue left to the ribs brought Donaire to his knees in the 11th round.
With the fight still too close to call in the 12th, both fighters battered each other in the hopes of sealing victory with a knockout. But neither was ready to go down, and the two embraced at the final bell.
Donaire's record fell to 40-6.
On the undercard, Inoue's younger brother, 23-year-old Takuma, suffered his first pro defeat, losing by unanimous decision to WBC bantamweight champ Nordine Oubaali of France.
Although clearly outmatched for most of the fight, Inoue kept enough in reserve to go in search of a 12th-round knockout blow. But the 33-year-old French champion was able to withstand the late pressure and improve to 16-0.
The younger Inoue's record fell to 13-1 in 14 pro fights.