Naoya Inoue rallies past Nonito Donaire to unify bantamweight titles in Fight of the Year contender

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Forced to prove his greatness in the face of a stubborn legend, unbeaten Naoya Inoue co-authored a modern classic in unifying bantamweight titles on Thursday in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series tournament.

Yet it was Nonito Donaire, in defeat, who may have secured immortality. Inoue (19-0, 16 KOs) overcame a bad cut above his right eye to outlast Donaire (40-6, 26 KOs) via unanimous decision in the clubhouse leader for fight of the year following a dramatic slugfest at the Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.

While the judges' scores (116-111, 117-109, 114-113) were indicative of the amount of close rounds that Inoue was able to edge, they did little to tell the story of the fight as Donaire, just one week shy of his 37th birthday, repeatedly rallied to hurt Inoue each time it appeared as if the Japanese "Monster" was on the verge of a stoppage.

Donaire, already a four-division champion, added yet another incredible chapter to his surefire Hall-of-Fame career by improbably rising from a body-shot knockdown in Round 11 before rallying to hurt Inoue in the closing seconds.

"Donaire was very, very stubborn for me," Inoue said. "This is the hardest fight of my career. I had a double vision since the second round but I got victorious. I am so happy and proud of myself and believe I have a bright future."

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Inoue unified the WBA and IBF titles at 118 pounds and hoisted the coveted Muhammad Ali trophy as the winner of the WBSS tournament. It was also announced after the fight that the 26-year-old phenom signed a multi-fight deal with Top Rank that will bring his fights exclusively to ESPN in the United States.

Yet the beauty of Saturday's fight was how much Inoue, who won a world title in his third division in just his 16th pro fight last year, was forced to make adjustments in order to prove that he was everything his reputation had made him out to be.

Ranked among the pound-for-pound best in the world and feared as possibly the sport's most devastating puncher regardless of weight, Inoue was forced to become the boxer for long stretches against a bigger opponent. Donaire, who won titles as high as featherweight, cut Inoue following a patented left hook in Round 2 and courageously proved able to withstand the onslaught coming back at him.

"I think Donaire was a very true champion," Inoue said. "He is very strong and I got victorious but I am the not the greatest of all time yet. I think I have to go over and get stronger. So next year I will keep fighting and get victorious and I want to be the strongest of all time."

Inoue, who also bled from his nose in the second half, relied nicely on his quickness to create distance and pepper Donaire with combinations. By Round 5, Inoue briefly staggered and altered a visibly hurt Donaire with a pair of left hooks, yet it was Donaire's right hand -- a punch he barely used throughout his prime -- that allowed him to work his way back in.

Donaire fought through swelling below his eyes in Round 6 and walked through Inoue's biggest punches. By Round 8, Donaire rallied to hurt Inoue with a trio of right hands that reopened the cut above his eye and left his face a bloody mess at the bell.

The fight began to achieve the status of legend in Round 9 when a looping right hand from Donaire visibly wounded Inoue and bloodied his nose once again. Inoue righted the ship one round later when a series of hard combinations left Donaire in trouble and possibly saved by the bell.

It was Round 11, however, that took the fight to a whole different gear. Donaire ate a left hook to the body and appeared to briefly turn his back as he circled around the ring awkwardly before going down to one knee on a delay.

Referee Ernest Shariff gave Donaire every possible chance to beat the count despite the agony that was visible on his face. Yet in a sequence that brought back memories of Arturo Gatti in the first Micky Ward fight in 2002, Donaire was not only able to barely make it back to his feet, he countered late with an overhand right and rallied back to hurt Inoue in the final 30 seconds.

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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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