Stephen Fulton is one of the world’s elite boxers, one of the sport’s nine unified champions. As good as he is, however, he fights in a weight class that makes him virtually anonymous in the United States.
Boxing fans in the United States gravitate toward the bigger fighters, and 122-pound super bantamweights such as IBF-WBC champion Fulton are often overlooked despite their prodigious talent.
They aren’t discounting super bantamweight in Japan, however, especially when said fighter is in the biggest fight of the year in that country and one of the biggest of the year in the world. On Tuesday (4:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+) in Tokyo in front of a crowd of more than 60,000, Fulton will defend his title against local hero and former undisputed bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue.
The fight is getting little attention in the United States compared to Saturday’s welterweight showdown for the undisputed title between Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford in Las Vegas. And Fulton knew it the moment he got off the plane in Tokyo two weeks ago.
It was swarmed with media, photographers and fans, all of whom wanted a word, a photo or a pat on the back. The scene was as if the American fans spotted Patrick Mahomes at an airport.
“It was a good feeling,” Fulton told Yahoo Sports of the reception. “It was good. It was like a relaxing feeling for me. It was like, ‘This is what I’ve needed all my life.'”
Fulton is 21-0 with seven knockouts – more on that later – but Inoue knows the challenge he will face. Inoue has won championships at light flyweight (108 pounds), super flyweight (115 pounds), and bantamweight (118 pounds). He also fought at flyweight, although he never won a title there and never seriously campaigned at 112 pounds.
He is known as “The Monster” and is one of the best punchers in the sport. His body attacks are particularly brutal and he has scored 21 knockouts while racking up a 24-0 record. Fulton, however, is a completely different animal, as Inoue admits.
“From there it will be a real challenge,” Inoue said. “It’s my fifth weight class, so I’m pushing the limits of my build, my limits. Even me, I don’t know how it’s going to be. I don’t underestimate him. But I want to live up to people’s expectations. I pay attention, and that’s what I’m up against.”
Inoue is incomprehensibly better than a 3-1 favorite to beat Fulton. At BetMGM, it is -350 while the champion is at +275. Inoue even has money to win by knockout, which is a challenge for him considering he is competing 14 pounds heavier than when he started his career in November 2012.
There are stylistic similarities between the 2015 superfight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao and Tuesday’s fight between Fulton and Inoue. Fulton has the boxing ability and sharp punches that Mayweather possessed, while Inoue is the smaller guy who rises and shows incredible one-punch power with every save.
Inoue said he expected Fulton to use the ring and the box, and called his style “that American elasticity”. Fulton liked the Mayweather-Pacquiao comparisons.
“I would never compare myself to Floyd Mayweather or anything like that,” a beaming Fulton said when asked if he’d seen any comparisons of his fight with Inoue at Mayweather-Pacquiao. “I’m my own guy, my own fighter and I have my own style. I’m smiling because a few people have said that to me since I’ve been here, and I’ve had a few calls from the person saying I remind them of Floyd. … One of my previous opponents, Danny Romano, said the same thing when he was analyzing this fight.
“But yeah, I see myself as a great defensive fighter when I want to be, and I said that because I can really do anything I want to do in the ring. I can do any style. It goes back to how I feel when I wake up this morning [how I’ll fight].”
His defense will need to be on point, especially if Inoue is able to carry his much-vaunted power into another weight class. Inoue is extraordinarily fast and has the kind of footwork that gets him in easily, where he attacks the body hard. Even if he doesn’t drop an opponent early, there are few who can endure this kind of deadly body attack for long.
He’s going to force Fulton to defend because he’s clearly an attacking fighter. Inoue believes in his power, even starting the journey in his fifth weight class. He just wants to be careful because Fulton is the biggest opponent he has faced.
“If he lands, I think he will fall,” Inoue said. “If he lands and the time is right, he will fall. It also depends on how the fight goes, and my strategy will probably change as well.
“Also, look at the super bantamweight fighters: [Luis] Nery, [John] Casiméro, [Marlon] Tapales. Looking at the top fighters, they come from lower weight classes. Their frameworks are not so different. I don’t think I miss fighting them with power or speed. For Fulton, he’s a super bantamweight, even on the featherweight side, and that’s going to be the part I’ll be taking precautions and strategizing about.