ONE wonders how soon into tonight’s (July 25) super-bantamweight title fight in Japan the backers of Stephen Fulton, and all who celebrated his fight against Naoya Inoue as a potential classic, started to stumble upon the realisation that their initial forecasts had been wildly off base. Was it, perhaps, around the same time Fulton, a man unbeaten in 21 fights, started to come to a similar kind of realisation himself? Or was it before then, when Inoue, seemingly riled by the things Fulton had said in the build-up to the fight, approached the American at their weigh-in staredown and looked at him through eyes that said, “This fight will be different than all the others, yes, but also, as you will discover, exactly the same.”
It would be different in the respect that many had given Fulton a chance of springing the upset. It would be different, too, in so far as Fulton, in coming into the fight as champion, had spoken like a champion, and walked like a champion, and attempted to put Inoue in his place, verbally at least, the way any self-respecting champion might.
It would ultimately be the same, however, on account of the result and the ease with which Inoue put Fulton to the sword. Everything about it would be the same, in fact. The shock of his punches in the eyes of his opponent. The impact of these punches on their body. The final result. As well as all that, there was the unavoidable sinking feeling, which arrived quickly and which told us all that we had got this wrong; each of us, to a man. It wasn’t to be, as we expected, a fight between near equals in which the winner would be the one who would dig deepest or better implement their game plan and therefore utilise their distinct set of skills. Instead, what we were now witnessing was merely the continuation of a theme; a mismatch this time masquerading as something else.
Unlike the ones before it, Fulton vs. Inoue came with a shift in roles, with Inoue this time the challenger. It also came with a compelling storyline, which gathered pace during fight week and, by fight night, smacked of being exaggerated more in the hope that Fulton was as confident and as good as he sounded rather than something rooted in any great belief or substance.
He is a very capable operator, of that we can be sure. Yet, seeing the manner in which Inoue disrobed Fulton tonight, turning him very quickly from champion to someone with eyes only on getting through it, should act as another reality check for those among us who are unable to see the clear separation between elite-level talents and the ones capable of winning belts in divisions.
In terms of Inoue, of course, there can be no doubt now that he belongs among the sport’s very elite. Not just that, he is starting to widen the chasm between him and the rest of them almost to the point of embarrassment, much in the way someone like Roy Jones Jnr was doing in the 1990s. Suddenly, in his company, and in Japan, we are seeing solid and well-schooled fighters come apart at the very seams when tasting Inoue’s left and right hands. We are seeing, moreover, pre-fight narratives not only shift but having to then be rewritten just seconds into every Inoue fight.
Because in the end, no matter how confident a fighter sounds before facing him, and no matter how skilled they may appear against other men, there is no test quite like Naoya Inoue and there is clearly no preparation for it, either. It’s why on the night you see a performance like the one Stephen Fulton produced in Tokyo and consider it almost disappointing. It’s why the idea of winning rounds against Inoue, which, in truth, is something only Nonito Donaire has done to date, seems a task so difficult. To win a fight, after all, requires a fighter winning rounds and if, at this point, we struggle to even see how a fighter can come to Japan and wrest any momentum from Inoue, how can we ever expect his unbeaten run to end?
It will, of course – most likely. That’s just the way boxing goes. But tonight there was never any suspicion, once the fight started anyway, that Stephen Fulton, now 21-1 (8), would be the man to do it. Indeed, by the time he was finally stopped in round eight, following a beautifully set up jab to the body and right cross upstairs from Inoue, all it merely represented, the stoppage, was confirmation of what, for seven rounds, we had all been expecting. Gone, in an instant, was any thought of Fulton being a live underdog. Gone, certainly, was this idea – a farfetched one, yes – of him being the man to at last tame and expose the “Monster”.
To look back now is to see how wrong we all were; perhaps even to the point of doing Inoue, 25-0 (22), a disservice. At the very worst, we had expected Fulton to give the Japanese star a Donaire sort of test; close but not close enough. Instead of that, though, he went the way of all the others. He fared no better than them and was unable to show anything more than them. Were it not for his belts, in fact, and all the talk beforehand, we could have simply been watching a repeat of any of Inoue’s previous titles defences. The fight, alas, was that one-sided. That straightforward. That predictable.
It’s the sense of inevitably, too, that starts to infect you – and presumably opponents – like any great horror film. Which is to say, you know it’s coming, you have seen it before, yet there is still so very little that can be done to stop it. He is, in many ways, boxing’s great jump scare, Inoue. For in one manufactured moment of silence, with only the sounds of creaking doors and feet on floorboards to be heard, you are forever expecting it to happen and yet when it eventually does, so great is its execution and damage, you are still woefully unprepared for the scare itself.
Only the Japanese fans, in fact, those who turn out for Inoue time and time again, seem to be utterly at ease in the Monster’s presence. Sitting politely to watch him dine, they then all came together tonight to produce a most unnerving scene at the fight’s conclusion, right around the time Fulton, soundly beaten but unable to work out how, left the ring to a standing ovation and a generous round of applause. It was appreciation, clearly, though the sort of appreciation perhaps given to a man on death row who has just consumed his last meal and is now making his last walk. Or, if not that, it was the appreciation a group of school mums might give the fat kid who stumbles across the finish line minutes after everyone else on sports day. Or, if not that, maybe what the Japanese fans were saying to Stephen Fulton by wishing him adieu in this way was simply this: “Thank you for coming, Stephen. Thank you for trying. Now go home like the rest.”