NAOYA INOUE proved himself as probably the planet’s finest fighter by scything through the previously undefeated Stephen Fulton inside eight brutal rounds.
In his first fight up at super-bantamweight, the Monster made a mockery of suggestions that his excellence across the lighter divisions could not continue four weight classes higher than where he started.
He dominated nearly every second of the first seven rounds and then closed the show with the 22nd stoppage of his career out of 25 victories, which came when referee Hector Afu jumped in after 1:14 of the eighth.
This was the performance of a truly elite fighter at the very top of his game and the sort of punch-perfect display, in the biggest fight of his life to date, which should firmly establish him as the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter in the eye’s of the boxing world.
These two were supposed to tangle on May 7 but a training injury sustained by Inoue postponed the clash nearly 12 weeks. What it meant is that it landed just four days before the long-awaited Las Vegas clash between Errol Spence and Terence Crawford. Given a number of PED issues across boxing, the ongoing nonsense at heavyweight and the remarkable rise of unlicensed novelty fighting, this might just be the week that saves our sport.
But this one had almost looked as though it might fall through again during fight week as Fulton’s coach Wahid Rahim questioned Inoue’s usual method of wrapping his hands, a ‘stacking’ method, which would be deemed illegal in other jurisdictions. Then, when they were selecting their fight gloves, it was suggested that some of the gloves were not sealed as they should be.
As ever, all of those pre-fight grumbles faded away allowing the pair to finally collide in one of the best available match-ups in the entire sport. Rahim, however, observed the hand-wrapping process closely and even filmed it on his phone. There was no stacking to speak of and a few hours later, at around 9pm local time at the jam-packed, £250m Ariake Arena in Tokyo’s bay area, the pair finally emerged. Not often does the best in the division agree to travel to a different continent to take on a newcomer at the weight. It goes to show the draw of Inoue in Japan.
The main question was how Inoue would cope up at 122lbs, four weight classes above the light-flyweight limit at which he won his first world title as a 20-year-old back in 2014 in just his sixth fight. Fulton, meanwhile, is a career super-bantam and has risen to No.1 in the world at the weight.
But, given his wide stance, Fulton’s height advantage was not really evident during a first round that Inoue dominated via hard jabs to the body and the occasional right hand. And Inoue was all over him from the start of the second too, with Fulton attempting to keep on the move and score where possible. But he was not spotting anything that was coming from his opponent, who seemed to land with just about everything he threw.
In the third, Fulton began to lead off a little more often but it just meant he was open to the counters. Then, when he did wait a split-second too long, Inoue broke up the rhythm with scoring jabs to the body.
By the fourth, Fulton was bleeding from the nose, 3-0 down and in desperate need of a change of plan. Inoue, meanwhile, had found his groove and was happy to hold his feet and fire off damaging two and three-punch combinations. Fulton’s corner were imploring him to ‘bring that dog out’ but by this point he could have done with a lion.
He landed probably his best shot of the fight in the fifth when a long right hand snapped Inoue’s head back. His problem, however, was that it came in the middle of more sustained pressure from the Japanese. But still Fulton refused to go into survival mode and was adamant to hold centre ring. It looked painful at times and by the halfway point he was 6-0 down and totally out of ideas.
Inoue was in full control but he did ship a couple of big right hands in the seventh, although it did little to slow him down as he started to let off as many as four or five in a row. And it was a sign of things to come as Inoue found the brutal finish midway through the eighth.
It was that same jab to the body which was the beginning of the end for Fulton, who did not spot the right hand over the top which came crashing in behind it. Fulton staggered back and actually touched down with his gloves before Inoue’s left hook sent him down.
Credit to Fulton, who displayed a good chin throughout, who managed to beat the count but the writing was all over the wall by that point. He went straight back to work, forcing Fulton into a corner before unleashing more Hell upon the west Philadelphian. Afu’s decision to step in came not a moment too soon.
There was a similarly devastating finish in the chief support, Robeisy Ramirez continued his march towards the world featherweight top five by seeing off Yokohama’s Satoshi Shimizu inside five rounds.
Ramirez, who has not lost since his professional debut in August 2019, broke Shimizu up with a series of uppercuts which forced the 37-year-old to take a knee. And, although he rose to his feet in time to beat the count, Ramirez was straight back onto him and referee Ramon Pena only allowed a few more to crash through before he jumped in at the official time of 1:08.