Stephen Fulton is one of the world’s elite boxers, one of nine unified champions in the sport. As good as he is, though, he fights in a weight class that makes him virtually anonymous in the United States.
Boxing fans in the United States gravitate towards the bigger fighters and 122-pound super bantamweights like Fulton, the IBF-WBC champion, are often overlooked despite often possessing prodigious talent.
They don’t overlook super bantamweight in Japan, particularly when said fighter is competing in the biggest fight of the year in that country and one of the biggest fights of the year anywhere. On Tuesday (4:30am ET, ESPN+) in Tokyo in front of a crowd of over 60,000, Fulton will defend his title against hometown hero and former undisputed bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue.
The fight is getting little attention in the US compared to Saturday’s undisputed title clash between Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford in Las Vegas. And Fulton knew it the moment he stepped off the plane in Tokyo two weeks ago.
He was besieged by media, photographers and fans, who wanted a word, a photo or a pat on the back. The scene was what it would look like if American fans caught a glimpse of Patrick Mahomes in an airport.
“It was a good feeling,” Fulton told Yahoo Sports of the reception. “It was good. It was a relaxing feeling for me. It was like, ‘This is what I’ve needed my whole life.’
Fulton is 21-0 with seven knockouts – more on that later – but Inoue knows the challenge he faces. Inoue 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 had a serious campaign 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 scored 21 knockouts while amassing a 24-0 record. Fulton, though, is a completely different animal, as Inoue admits.
“From here it will be a real challenge,” said Inoue. “This is my fifth weight class so I’m pushing the limits of my build, my limits. Even I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’m not underestimating. But I want to live up to people’s expectations. I’m being careful and that’s what I’m facing.”
Inoue is incomprehensibly better than a 3-1 favorite to defeat Fulton. At BetMGM he is at -350 while the champion is at +275. Inoue still has the money to win by knockout, which seems like a challenge for him as he’s competing 14 pounds more 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 skill and sharp punching that Mayweather possessed, while Inoue is the smaller guy moving up and showing incredible one-punch power at every stop.
Inoue said he expected Fulton to use the ring and case and referred to his style as “that American stretch”. Fulton enjoyed the Mayweather-Pacquiao comparisons.
“I would never compare myself to Floyd Mayweather or anything like that,” Fulton said, beaming when asked if he’s seen comparisons of his fight with Inoue to Mayweather-Pacquiao. “I’m my own guy, my own fighter and I have my own style. I’m smiling because a few people have told me that since I’ve been here, and I’ve had a couple of calls with the person saying I remind them of Floyd. … One of my previous opponents, Danny Romano, said the same thing when he was reviewing this fight.
“But yeah, I see myself as a great defensive fighter when I want to be, and I said that because I really can do anything I want in the ring. I can do any style. It all comes down to how I feel when I wake up that morning. [how I’ll fight].”
His defense will have to be on point, especially if Inoue is able to carry his power into another weight class. Inoue is extraordinarily fast and has the kind of footwork that takes him inside with ease, where he lashes out viciously to the body. Even if he doesn’t take down an opponent early, few are able to sustain this type of withering body attack for very long.
He’s going to force Fulton to defend because he’s clearly an offensive fighter. Inoue believes in his power, even starting the journey in his fifth weight division. He just wants to be cautious because Fulton is the biggest opponent he’s ever known.
“If it falls, I think it will fall,” Inoue said. “If it falls and is timed correctly, it will fall. It also depends on the flow of the fight, and my strategy will likely change as well.
“Also, look at the super bantamweight fighters: [Luis] Nery, [John] Casimir, [Marlon] Tapales. Looking at the top fighters, they came from lower weight classes. Their paintings are not so different. I don’t think I’m losing to fight them with strength or speed. For Fulton, he is the complete super bantamweight, even on the featherweight side, and that will be the part where I take precautions and strategize.”