Marlon Tapales fights for history in undisputed showdown with Naoya Inoue

Marlon Tapales fights for history in undisputed showdown with Naoya Inoue


Marlon Tapales on the scales in Japan. Photo by Wendell Alinea

Marlon Tapales is in familiar territory in Japan, even if he’s thousands of miles away from home.

Despite having two world title belts of his own, Tapales is a massive underdog heading into his undisputed junior featherweight unification bout with Naoya Inoue on Tuesday morning U.S. time at the Ariake Arena in Koto-Ku, Japan.

Tapales hasn’t just survived in similar situations; that’s been when he’s most dangerous.

“That is nothing new to me. I’ve been the underdog my whole life,” said IBF/WBA 122-pound titleholder Tapales (37-3, 19 knockouts). “I will show on December 26, I will win.”

The fight, which will also be contested for The Ring Magazine’s vacant junior featherweight championship, will air live in the United States on ESPN+, beginning at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, and live on One Sports in the Philippines beginning at 7 p.m. local time.

While the southpaw boxer-puncher is under-appreciated in the boxing world, and even back home in the Philippines, his face has been ubiquitous all over Tokyo this week, with posters, billboards and taxi cabs advertising the big fight.

The fanfare is a big departure from his upbringing in Kapatagan in Lanao del Norte, about 200 miles north of Manny Pacquiao’s hometown General Santos City in the country’s southern Mindanao region.

Tapales was one of eight children growing up on a rice farm, where his father toiled to provide for the family. Faced with the harsh economics of provincial life, Tapales left high school early and became a professional boxer at age 16 without any amateur experience. He had his first bout in 2008 and won eight straight bouts before suffering a stoppage loss in 2009. Afterwards Tapales went on a tear, winning 20 of his next 21 bouts before getting his first world title opportunity in 2016. He traveled to Thailand to face WBO bantamweight titleholder Panya Uthok, showing courage to get up from two body shot knockdowns in round 5 to drop Uthok the following round before stopping him in the eleventh.

Even as champion, Tapales was virtually unknown in his home country. His title winning fight wasn’t shown on domestic television and he sat idle for nine months before losing the belt on the scale prior to his sluggish stoppage win over Shohei Omori.

“He looks like he’s finally made it,” said Sean Gibbons, President of Manny Pacquiao’s MP Promotions, which promotes Tapales. “His first runaround nobody even noticed him in the Philippines, he didn’t get any notoriety or anything and then he lost it because of the weight. I think he’s savoring the moment and he looks and feels like the best fighter coming out of the Philippines.”

Tapales spent years trying to rebuild himself as a contender, but suffered a big setback in 2019, when he was dominated and stopped by Ryosuke Iwasa in eleven rounds for the interim IBF junior featherweight title. Gibbons blames that loss on his camp being a “disaster.” The defeat was a significant factor for why he was a solid underdog heading into his mandatory title opportunity against Murodjon Akhmadaliev this past April.

Tapales started quickly, using his southpaw jab to establish an early lead, which was sizable enough to hold off Akhmadaliev’s late rush to win a split decision and his ticket to the biggest fight there is at 122 pounds.

It isn’t by accident that Inoue (25-0, 22 KOs) is a -1800 betting favorite over the 31-year-old Tapales, a +850 underdog, according to the DraftKings Sportsbook. Inoue, 30, is a four division champion and is looking to replicate his feat of becoming undisputed at bantamweight. Inoue looked devastating in his 122-pound debut this past July, stopping the previously unbeaten Stephen Fulton in eight rounds to win the WBC and WBO belts.

Inoue has scarcely been challenged during his 11-year pro career, and was only in jeopardy once. He was hurt and suffered an orbital fracture in his 2019  unanimous decision win over Nonito Donaire, but settled any doubts with a brutal two-round demolition of Donaire three years later.

Naoya Inoue (L) and Marlon Tapales (R) shake hands at the weigh-in. Photo by Wendell Alinea

There was no hint of intimidation from either fighter at Monday’s weigh-in, where Inoue came in at 121.7 pounds and Tapales was 121.3 pounds. They both faced off with their belts on their shoulders before grinning briefly and shaking hands.

Jim Claude Manangquil, who manages Tapales, concedes that Inoue has lost none of his power and explosiveness in his rise up in weight, but feels that Tapales has a stylistic advantage.

I think Marlon has the perfect style to beat Inoue. I’m very confident on it,” said Manangquil. “Coach Ernel Fontanilla and Marlon have a good game plan.”

[Tapales] is so sharp and crisp. The only way he loses is if he just gets caught with some shot he doesn’t see,” adds Gibbons.

“Inoue’s offense is his defense, he’s very wide open, he’s explosive, has really good power but he’s not hard to hit. The key to this fight is for Marlon to come out and dictate the first four rounds like he did against Akhmedaliev, get behind that jab and just bust him up with some counters like Nonito Donaire did.”

Inoue’s team is already making plans beyond the Tapales fight. Bob Arum, whose company Top Rank co-promotes Inoue, recently told reporter Manouk Akopyan that the plan is for Inoue to face WBC mandatory challenger Luis Nery in May, possibly at the Tokyo Dome. Gibbons warns that looking past Tapales could be dangerous.

“It’s like this fight is already over and they’re planning Inoue’s next fight. They better slow down and worry about what’s in front of them first,” said Gibbons.

Tapales and team gave themselves the best chance to pull off the upset in training camp, beginning with two months of light training at Sanman Gym in General Santos City before relocating to Las Vegas for two more months to get the best sparring possible, followed by a month of high elevation training in the mountains of Baguio City, Philippines.

A win for Tapales would be an upset of historic proportions, not just in Filipino boxing, but for the sport as well. Pacquiao, the country’s greatest fighter ever, was less than a 2-1 underdog when the Philippines’ sports commission and a congressman attempted to prevent him from flying to Las Vegas in 2008 to face Oscar De La Hoya out of fears for his safety. Pacquiao wound up dominating the faded De La Hoya en route to an eighth round stoppage.

There have been no such calls coming out of the Philippines. Just like his promoter Pacquiao did on that night in 2008, Tapales can earn a lifetime worth of respect with an upset win.

This is very important. I want to make history as the first Filipino undisputed world champion,” said Tapales.

“We both want to win but I will win this fight. This is going to be historic for boxing in the Philippines.”

Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].


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