Multi-million dollar rainmakers are nothing new in boxing.
Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and presently Saul Alvarez have all been held to a different standard than other fighters. Their financial clout creates the perception, and often the reality, that they are in charge of their destiny in a way other fighters are not.
They are thus held responsible by most of the public when any given big fight doesn’t happen. The hottest fight for Alvarez right now is a showdown with David Benavidez. It might happen in 2024. It won’t happen until Alvarez decides it will and everyone knows it…and he will make lots of money if he fights someone else before Benavidez…and there will be howls of injustice drowned out by the cash register.
And Benavidez will wait if he has to, and keep winning if he can, because Alvarez represents the biggest prize he can get in prizefighting.
Multi-million dollar rainmakers are nothing new, but they often come in the form of welterweights and higher. Rainmakers near the featherweight line and below are fewer and farther between. Naseem Hamed was one for a time. Japan’s Naoya Inoue, the unified junior featherweight titlist just weeks away from a showdown with Marlon Tapales for undisputed in that class, has emerged as one today.
Inoue might not ever do the sort of numbers on US pay-per-view that Tank Davis-Ryan Garcia did this year or Alvarez-Benavidez might one day, but it doesn’t have to for Inoue to be an economic “Monster” for his weights. The anticipated showdown with Stephen Fulton this year saw them split a reported total purse of $8 million dollars with three of those going to Fulton.
For comparison's sake, Nonito Donaire-Guillermo Rigondeaux a decade ago was a big fight for the same weight class. They split roughly $2 million. The epic third fight between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez a few years before that saw those two warriors split just over $1 million.
$8 million dollars doesn’t just change the game at junior featherweight.
It forms a line.
If the four-division champion Inoue (25-0, 22 KO) gets by Tapales (37-3, 19 KO), and he is favored to do so, he will hear more of a question already being asked: how high will he go?
One interested party will be in the ring this Saturday (ESPN, 10 PM EST).
Cuba’s two-time Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez (14-1, 8 KO) has rebounded from a startling loss in his professional debut and lately looks like the talent everyone expected. He easily decisioned former junior featherweight titlist Isaac Dogboe two fights ago for a vacant WBO belt at featherweight and will attempt his second defense against Rafael Espinoza.
Ramirez isn’t interested in Inoue-Tapales in any way other than observation, right?
Earlier this week, Ramirez noted to BoxingScene’s Jake Donovan, “I will definitely pay attention to this fight. It’s for all of the titles (at junior featherweight) between two champions. I will be tuned in but as a fan of the sport. I’m not even thinking about how it will impact my career.”
Let’s take Ramirez at his word.
Let’s also guess his promoters at Top Rank might not be looking at it the same way. Ramirez isn’t getting just any date on ESPN this weekend. He’s in the Heisman spot that was so valuable in building Teofimo Lopez in recent years. They’re placing Ramirez where they think he will get more eyeballs and with a rainmaker four pounds below him, the strategy is transparent.
If Inoue beats Tapales, there are certainly some deserving junior featherweights he can defend against first, chiefly Luis Nery and Sam Goodman. But the scale is already weighing heavy. The investment is clear.
Top Rank is clearly positioning themselves to stay near the Inoue business with Ramirez and IBF titlist Luis Alberto Lopez in the fold along with a purse bid win for the vacant WBA featherweight title bout between Otabek Kholmatov and Raymond Ford. The PBC will have their own attractive option at featherweight if and when Brandon Figueroa-Rey Vargas gets done to sort out the WBC title picture but if Inoue chased more unification at featherweight his options for now look more aligned with Top Rank.
That makes Ramirez-Espinoza as much of an audition as it is a title fight. If Inoue keeps winning, and growing, the money will only increase. Fighters may say they want to watch as a fan, but they’ll all be bigger fans of the paydays that come with a chance to face him.
Fighters who audition well can easily change the question from “how high will Inoue go” to a better question: when will Inoue move to featherweight to fight Ramirez…Figueroa…Lopez…etc. The weight will matter less than the wait for a specific fight.
We’ll see this weekend if Ramirez or Espinoza can begin to cement their place in the demand chain.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.