COMBINED, Naoya Inoue and Stephen Fulton weigh just 17 stone (244 pounds). That’s two stone lighter than Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion, a stone lighter than Francis Ngannou, the former UFC heavyweight champion who is scheduled to fight Fury next, and not all that heavier than Oleksandr Usyk, who owns all the other heavyweight belts.
And yet, despite clearly lacking in size, it is they, Inoue and Fulton, who have delivered everything the sport’s heavyweights have failed to deliver this year. How refreshing it is, too, to feel as though a delivery has arrived on time for once. Not a year early, not a year late, and not delayed indefinitely, Fulton and Inoue will instead meet on Tuesday (July 25) in Tokyo, Japan at precisely the right moment; meaning it is a challenge Fulton needs as much as it is one Inoue needs. For the fans as well, full of so much anticipation, there is something undeniably thrilling about the prospect of two boxers colliding at the peak of their powers, with the pair’s recent form indicative of this. In neither man, in fact, will you be able to find any recent signs of regression, or even so much as a flaw that wasn’t noticeable a year or two ago. Rather, what you have here are two boxers who are meeting because their legacies and their reputation and their bank balance can only be improved by fighting one another in 2023. For them, there is no option, or even temptation, to kill time beating inferior opposition for paydays they don’t necessarily deserve. Nor, unlike the aforementioned heavyweights, is there the lure of becoming part-time boxers and making obscene amounts of money in the Middle East fighting either athletes from other disciplines or YouTubers who made their name live-streaming to children.
Fulton and Inoue, in being born so small and so brave, have been afforded no such luxuries. As a result, they must compete the old-fashioned way, and overcome all the risk, anxiety and fear of failure that goes along with it. This they will attempt to do on Tuesday, together but separately, and the fans watching will for once feel as if they are being treated to something truly special in a boxing ring; that is, a treat delivered on time and with no catch, asterisk or disclaimer that will later come back to bite them. In short, this is about as pure as boxing can get in 2023 and it should be embraced for that reason alone. Then add to into the equation, if you want, the fact Inoue is arguably the most destructive puncher in the world, irrespective of weight, and that Fulton is one of the more stylish technicians around, and it is easy to understand why those who know what it is they are looking at, and appreciate what it is they are getting, are so excited about this particular fight between eight-stone men.
Of the two, perhaps it is Fulton who deserves the most credit, for he was the one, as champion, who agreed to defend his WBC and WBO super-bantamweight belts against Inoue in Japan. There are reasons for this, of course, all of which make sense, but it is admirable of Fulton nonetheless to enter the belly of the beast and risk all he has worked so hard to accrue.
That he has chosen to do so speaks to both his own fortitude and also the pulling power of Inoue. Because it is against Inoue in Japan a champion like Fulton finds the kind of limelight and relevance he otherwise lacks when competing, as a belt-holder, back in America. It is against someone like Inoue he can feel for one night like a star and can, should he win, elevate his career to an entirely different level.
That, for a fighter like Fulton, is a hell of a carrot, surely. Up to now, after all, he has been a champion steady rather than spectacular, ending eight of his 21 pro victories inside the distance and making two defences of his WBO belt. At 28, he is still very much on the rise, yet having been schooled in the gyms of Philadelphia possesses a style and composure which belies his relatively short reign as champion.
This style of Fulton’s has really come to the fore in recent years. In 2021, to win his WBO belt, he whitewashed the unbeaten Angelo Leo over 12 rounds in Uncasville before later that same year outpointing another unbeaten fighter, Brandon Figueroa, to add the WBC belt to his collection. Those two wins, arriving as they did back-to-back, truly put Fulton on the map and then last year he built on this momentum with another dominant performance, this time against Daniel Roman, who failed to win one of the 12 rounds they shared in Minneapolis. This, again, was a showcase for Fulton and it offered him the chance to show off his ability to control the pace of a fight and the movements of an opponent. Calm from round one to the final bell, he never once put a foot wrong and looked to be able to buy himself time whenever he felt it was necessary; a habit of all great fighters.
This he may become – great – but he’s not there yet, of course. For now, with 21 pro wins to his name and a couple of belts, Fulton probably requires a scalp like that of Inoue to become something more than just another belt-holder in a sport accommodating too many of them. Upset Inoue, however, and Fulton can expect to return to the United States differently than how he left. He would, at that point, immediately become one of the new American stars of the sport; someone people want to hear from, and someone people want to watch.
His key is Inoue, then; challenger but star attraction. In contrast to Fulton, Inoue has ended a staggering 21 of his 24 pro fights inside the distance, which is quite unusual for a boxer in the lower weight classes, and has also reigned as champion for considerably longer. In fact, since winning a WBC title as a light-flyweight in 2014, Inoue has only ever competed in championship fights, meaning he has been boxing at that level consistently for almost a decade now. That gives an insight into the 30-year-old’s experience at the top of the game and, what’s more, having eventually ended up winning titles at bantamweight, the one scarier thing than his wealth of experience is the reality that Inoue appears to be getting better with both age and the increase in weight. Now, as a super-bantamweight, one can only imagine what sort of “Monster” Fulton will have to try to tame on July 25.
At this stage, all we can do is guess. Indeed, that feeling of not knowing is responsible for a lot of the intrigue surrounding this fight. At 118 pounds, we have a grasp on Inoue and know why so many dread the prospect of fighting him. Yet, at 122 pounds, and in a fight against a man who is established at that weight, we cannot be totally sure how Inoue will either adapt or perform. We do not know, for instance, if the same shots with which he ended the challenges of men like Paul Butler, Nonito Donaire and Jason Moloney will cause similar damage against men slightly bigger and perhaps slightly sturdier. There is every chance, of course, that the damage remains the same and that only the sound of their body hitting the canvas changes; somewhat heavier, more of a thud. Yet there is just as much chance that someone like Fulton, who has never entered a pro fight lighter than 122 pounds, may see in Inoue a former light-flyweight (108 pounds) champion and effectively laugh in his face when the first bell rings.
That remains to be seen. As with most Inoue opponents, it is more than likely Fulton will realise the extent of the danger in front of him the second he tastes the first Inoue jab, or simply feels it on his gloves, or his forearms, or on either of his elbows. For it is usually then, as was evident in Paul Butler’s effort last December, that an Inoue opponent swiftly decides that the best-case scenario in a fight against him has less to do with winning and more to do with merely getting through the rounds and reaching the end.
Butler, alas, failed in his mission that night in Tokyo. He made it to round 11, which is no mean feat, and even had spells where he moved well and landed the odd eye-catching counterpunch. However, for the most part, he was very much in survival mode, Butler, and ultimately cut the figure of someone who was just delighted to return to his stool at the end of each round under his own steam. Frankly, to that night see the Liverpudlian perform in this way was every bit as jarring and unnerving as it must be to face someone like Inoue in the first place. Because Butler, after all, was no novice or journeyman on the way out. He was instead a veteran of 36 pro fights who had previously shared rings with the likes of Zolani Tete and Emmanuel Rodríguez, both of whom carry sizeable reputations of their own. To see him therefore settle for second best so hastily against Inoue in Japan said all that needs to be said about Inoue’s punch power, his suffocating ability to cut off the ring, and the intimidating aura he uses to shrink opponents mentally before a single punch has been thrown.
An aura like that tends to come and go, of course, liable as it is to disappear with just one punch and one loss. Currently, though, Inoue has currently got one and it’s a powerful one and it’s one even Stephen Fulton, a Philly gym rat who will have seen every style there is to see, will have never before encountered. In fact, one suspects the American got an early feel for Inoue’s presence when at the airport following his flight to Japan he was greeted by many Japanese boxing fans excited to see Tuesday’s fight. That will no doubt have been a strange, eye-opening experience for Fulton, particularly in light of the fact he is relatively unknown back home. It will have also provided an indication of how Inoue’s conveyor belt of victims has created in Japan a certain respect for anyone who has the courage to so much as enter their country and try as best they can to slay the “Monster”.
To them, Fulton is just the next victim. Regardless of his unbeaten record, his undoubted quality, and his belts, he is just another opponent Inoue will inevitably hunt and hit and, when good and ready, put out of his misery. It might take a little longer than most of them do, and Fulton might come with ideas and ambitions of his own, but the assumption here is that four pounds in weight will not be enough to break tradition, nor enough to suddenly make one of boxing’s most devastating hitters a man easy to escape.
Though less sure of this than they are, I am inclined to agree. It won’t be for want of trying, but it is hard to envisage Fulton executing a perfect game plan, which it will need to be, and avoiding Inoue’s power and combinations for a full 12 rounds. Moreover, whereas in past matchups between a boxer and a puncher, there has always been a clear distinction between those two styles, I would argue here that Inoue’s boxing ability, which is overshadowed by the sheer damage he does, is more than sufficient to get him into positions from which he can then land the shots that make up highlight reels. It may require some patience on his part, and he may even go 12 rounds for only the third time in his career, but the suspicion in the end is that Inoue triumphs and that Fulton, in coming up short, is left frustrated to have lost rather than, like so many of his predecessors, relieved to have got to the finish line.
In the night’s chief-support bout, brilliant Cuban Robeisy Ramirez, 12-1 (7), defends his WBO featherweight belt against Japan’s heavy-handed but limited Satoshi Shimizu, 11-1 (10). Now 37, Shimizu has boxed exclusively in Japan to date and is unlikely to be any sort of challenge for Ramirez, who, since losing his pro debut back in 2019, has got better and better with every fight.