Naoya Inoue shows vulnerability, but he's still unbeatable

Inoue knocked down for first time, comes back to win by KO (1:35)

Naoya Inoue gets knocked down for the first time in his career, but he rallies for a big KO victory over Luis Nery. (1:35)

For a brief moment -- if only a sliver of time -- Naoya Inoue appeared human.

As the Japanese star fired a left hook in the opening round of Monday's undisputed junior featherweight championship fight at the Tokyo Dome, Inoue dropped his right hand. Luis Nery capitalized with a sharp counter left hook that spun "The Monster" around for the knockdown, the first of his 27-fight professional career.

Inoue, 31, a four-division champion, landed on all fours and quickly collected himself, listening to the referee's count from one knee. He appeared astonished, as did the 44,000-plus fans on hand. After all, Inoue has rarely displayed even a modicum of vulnerability during his incredible run.

The last time a boxing event took place at the Tokyo Dome was 34 years ago when perhaps the greatest upset in sports history transpired, James "Buster" Douglas' KO of Mike Tyson for the undisputed heavyweight champion. Tyson was a 42-1 favorite, while Inoue was a 16-1 favorite.

Rated No. 2 pound-for-pound by ESPN, Inoue has barely lost a round in the pros. The last time he truly faced adversity inside the ring was in November 2019, when he battled through a fractured nose and broken orbital against future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire.

Inoue (27-0, 24 KOs) rallied to floor Donaire in Round 11 and the "Filipino Flash" was in serious trouble, but he made it to the final bell. Inoue settled for the decision victory in ESPN's 2019 fight of the year. Four bouts later in June 2022, Inoue made easy work of Donaire with a second-round TKO.

On Monday, Inoue swiftly corrected his mistake once again. After the knockdown, the 31-year-old kept his guard tighter and began to time Nery, punching in between his powerful shots.

In Round 2, Inoue turned the tables with a left hook of his own that dropped Mexico's Nery for the count. Nery, 29, was up before the count of 10 but was floored twice more during the 122-pound title bout.

Inoue returned Nery to the canvas with another blistering left hook in Round 5. The following round, Inoue finished matters with a right hand that blasted Nery (35-2, 27 KOs) through the ropes, his head resting on the bottom rope as the referee waved off the action for the sixth-round KO victory.

"How did you like that big surprise in the first round?" Inoue asked the crowd in Japanese. " ... That happening gave me motivation and I was so focused until the end of the fight."

It showed. Inoue outlanded Nery 107-54 and was barely touched following the first-round knockdown. Despite the rare, momentary lapse in focus, Inoue proved he's still invincible; still one of the two best fighters in the world regardless of weight, and still one of the all-time greats.

This fight meant just a little more to the boxing-crazed nation of Japan. Nery became something of a villain there after a pair of indiscretions surrounding fights with another Japanese star, Shinsuke Yamanaka.

Nery traveled to Japan in August 2017 and dethroned Yamanaka with a fourth-round TKO. Yamanaka had held the WBC bantamweight title since November 2011 and had made 12 successful defenses.

Afterward, Nery was suspended when the performance-enhancing drug zilpaterol was found in his system. Nery scored a second-round stoppage in the rematch in March 2018, but once again, the fight wasn't on even terms. This time, Nery was three pounds overweight at 121 pounds. Yamanaka never competed again.

The violations led to an indefinite suspension from the Japan Boxing Commission, but the ban was lifted earlier this year to allow Nery to proceed with the fight, and Inoue delivered by punishing the title challenger.

"I know there's some difficult feelings among Japanese boxing fans because of his fights in the past but I personally appreciate Nery," Inoue said. "That's why I shook hands with him after the fight."

Inoue then shook hands with another boxer, Australia's Sam Goodman. He could be next for Inoue, if not Uzbekistan's Murodjon Akhmadaliev. There's a rotation system to determine which mandatory challenger is next for his shot at boxing's unified champions.

Goodman is the top-ranked 122-pounder with the WBO and IBF, while Akhmadaliev is the WBA's No. 1 contender.

"I'm looking forward to the negotiation to fight against Sam Goodman in September," Inoue said.

"I've been mandatory for over a year, either give up the belts or fight me," Goodman responded. "Let's get it on."

No matter the order, Goodman (18-0, 8 KOs), ESPN's No. 7 junior featherweight, and Akhmadaliev (12-1, 9 KOs), ESPN's No. 4, appear to have the next cracks at solving the Inoue puzzle.

After that, Inoue will likely move up to 126 pounds, where he'll look to conquer a fifth weight class. Maybe then, Inoue will meet a fighter who can truly test the limits of his greatness. For now, he is peerless. Enjoy him while he's here.