When assessing Stephen Fulton versus Naoya Inoue, think back to 1981. Wilfredo Gomez was arguably the most destructive force in boxing. He was 32-0-1 with 32 knockouts and wreaked havoc on the junior featherweight division. Bodies were left in “Bazooka’s” wake as he dispatched the opposition with startling punching power.
The Puerto Rican assassin was the consensus best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing. Some thought he was unbeatable. And so he jumped up four pounds to the featherweight division of 126, where his power would almost certainly transfer over.
But when he hit featherweight king Salvador Sanchez with the right hands and left hooks that flattened junior featherweights, nothing happened.
Sanchez, unlike the previous 32 knockout victims, seemed unconcerned with Bazooka’s punch. Meanwhile, Sal’s punches had a profound effect on Gomez, as the great Mexican stylist dropped him in the first round, rocked him repeatedly and made his face swell to grotesque proportions. Sanchez finally finished Gomez in eight.
The moral of the story here is simple: weight divisions matter.
Whether it’s Sanchez-Gomez, Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello or Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad, there are countless examples of powerful, supposedly stronger lighter weight fighters moving up one weight class too many – 13, seven and as little as four pounds – and finding out the hard way that they should’ve stuck to their more natural weight class.
Three-division world champion Naoya Inoue will find that out Tuesday when he takes on WBC/WBO junior featherweight titlist Stephen Fulton in Tokyo.
The great Japanese puncher, arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing at 24-0 (21 knockouts), is, like Gomez, an incredible force of nature.
Inoue has terrorized three divisions over a brilliant 11-year career, establishing himself as one of the greatest punchers in boxing history.
His shots are delivered with precision, as though he personally drew them up in the manual. Straight as a No. 2 pencil and delivered with perfect leverage and balance, Inoue produces the most aesthetically pleasing punches in the sport. They don’t just have power. They have technique, whether it’s a right hand to the jaw or a left hook to the liver. His mechanics are elite.
He has lived up to his nickname: “The Monster.”
However, Inoue is a natural light flyweight.
With each jump up in weight – from 108 to 115 to 118 – he is making himself more vulnerable to his opponent’s natural advantage of size, whether it be height, weight, frame or strength. Or all the above.
Stephen Fulton Knows Size Matters, Not Always, But Often
The tale of the tape may say that two fighters are the same dimensions. In this case, Stephen Fulton has just a one-inch edge in height at 5-foot-6 and a three-inch advantage in reach at 70 inches. But, in boxing, that is misleading. Make no mistake, Inoue is at a distinct size disadvantage against Fulton, who has been a full-fledged 122 pounds since turning pro in 2014.
That size disadvantage isn’t just relegated to whether Inoue’s punch will have an effect on Stephen Fulton. As Gomez found out in 1981, it’s also the price of admission to find out how Fulton’s punch will affect Inoue.
Fulton isn’t known as a big puncher – he’s 21-0 with eight knockouts – but he swats hard enough to get a guy’s attention. See his one-punch, body shot knockout of Isaac Avelar in 2019 as an example.
But what will win “Cool Boy Steph” this fight isn’t power or durability. It’s boxing skill.
While Inoue has a technically perfect style, in boxing, every style has its kryptonite. Fulton is a tremendous boxer, with a jab that can keep the smaller man at a distance, and faster hands that can keep him guessing. The way to beat straight-ahead power punchers is to show angles, and beat your guy to the punch, much like Pryor did against Arguello in their first fight in 1982. Fulton can do that.
Mostly, though, Stephen Fulton has lateral movement that can keep a puncher like Inoue from getting set. He’s versatile enough to go right or left as Inoue moves forward, showing the Monster angles like Nemo slipping past Godzilla.
And when Inoue does unleash his fury, Stephen Fulton is smart enough to tie him up, savvy enough to frustrate him and rugged enough to survive the rough spots.
It’ll be close, but the decision will be obvious when the bigger man establishes firm control over the smaller man in the championship rounds.
Fulton by split decision.
Matthew Aguilar may be reached at [email protected]