Thursday, September 21, 2023  |


Daring to be great: an analysis and prediction on the Stephen Fulton-Naoya Inoue clash

Fulton-Inoue pits The Ring's No. 1-rated junior featherweight vs. No. 2 in the pound-for-pound rankings.
Fighters Network

One of 2023’s most intriguing fights takes place on July 25 at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan between unified junior featherweight titlist Stephen Fulton (21-0, 8 KOs) and the former undisputed bantamweight and three-weight world champion Naoya Inoue (24-0, 21 KOs). For this matchup, Inoue will be moving up in weight to fight for Fulton’s 122-pound titles. Fulton, from Philadelphia, is used to being on the road. He hasn’t had a true hometown fight since 2015. However, this fight will mark his first appearance outside the U.S. 

One of the commendable aspects of this fight is that it wasn’t ordered by the sanctioning bodies; this is a matchup of two great fighters who wanted to prove their mettle against the other. In an era where numerous fighters have taken the path of least resistance in establishing their careers and maintaining their prominence in the sport, these two sought out danger and weren’t worried about the sanctity of an unblemished record. 

Below will be the keys to the fight and I’ll have a prediction at the end of the article. 

  1. In what style will Fulton fight?

Fulton has demonstrated an ability to win fights in the trenches and on the outside. Against Angelo Leo and Brandon Figueroa, Fulton beat those opponents at their own game, matching and even surpassing them on the inside and displaying the cleaner work. He took bold risks in those fights, and in the Figueroa bout he probably got hit with more shots than he needed to. However, he was determined to out-tough the tough man. 

In Fulton’s last fight against Danny Roman, he was masterful at dominating from the outside. Using his length, reach and movement, he neutralized Roman’s aggression and never allowed him to develop a consistent offensive rhythm. And in the final third of the fight, he flipped on the jets and took the fight right to Roman. Fulton’s freshness and accuracy were too much for Roman to handle.  

Stephen Fulton (left) pitched a near-shutout in his decision win over Daniel Roman in June 2022. (Photo by Ryan Hafey/ PBC)

Against Inoue, Fulton will have a deliberate choice to make in how he envisions winning the fight. Will he try to impose his size on Inoue, which will provide his opponent with more chances, or will he force Inoue to come find him as he patrols the outside of the ring? Of course, backfoot boxing has its own challenges in that certain judges will reflexively reward the fighter who comes forward, irrespective of effectiveness. Nevertheless, there will be moments in the fight where Fulton will need to trade and exchange with Inoue. The question is will he welcome those exchanges or will he try to limit them? This answer will have a huge bearing on how the fight plays out. 

  1. How will Inoue’s power play at 122 and can Fulton take Inoue’s best punch? 

Inoue started his career at 108 pounds and this will be his fourth weight class in which he’s competed. At bantamweight (118 pounds) Inoue scored knockouts in eight of his nine fights and in the one fight he didn’t get a KO, he was still able to knock down Nonito Donaire, who he stopped in their rematch. I’m sure that Inoue will still pack a punch at 122, but it’s an open question as to whether his power will still be as devastating. 

Inoue drops Donaire during their rematch. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

A corollary to this is how well can Fulton take Inoue’s power. Fulton has been in the ring with several solid punchers, including Figueroa, Arnold Khegai and Isaac Avelar, but none of those fighters were close to the one-shot KO artist that Inoue is. Fulton’s chin has been an asset throughout this point in his career, but it will be tested in this fight in a way that it hasn’t before. If Fulton’s chin holds up to “The Monster” Inoue’s best shots, then this fight could have a much different trajectory. 

  1. Fulton’s physical advantages

Fulton will have a three-inch reach advantage in the fight, which could prove to be significant should Fulton rely on his outside fighting skills. But the three inches is more than a number for Fulton; his whole set-up when fighting on the outside is predicated on neutralizing an opponent. Yes, he will use his jab and land it from the outside, but defensively, he’s fantastic at using his shoulder to block punches and keep opponents from rushing in on him. Although Fulton’s not a knockout puncher, don’t let his lack of stoppages cloud the fact that he can be a very physical fighter. He expertly uses his body to find an advantage and limit the access for opponents to land scoring blows. He remained right in front of Leo and Figueroa and yet it was Fulton who was able to find the punching angles on a more consistent basis. 

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 27: WBO champion Stephen Fulton Jr. (R) punches WBC champion Brandon Figueroa during a super bantamweight title unification fight at the Dolby Live at Park MGM theater on November 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Fulton Jr. won the WBC title from Figueroa by majority decision. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

Fulton Jr. (R) nails Brandon Figueroa during a junior featherweight title unification fight. Photo by Steve Marcus/ Getty Images

Fulton will also have a foot speed advantage over Inoue. I wouldn’t characterize Inoue as slow. He expertly uses angles and positioning to get into range, but in terms of pure athletic ability, Fulton moves better and he has demonstrated that he can move for 12 rounds. With Fulton’s speed and size advantages, Inoue will have to find a way in without reaching or lunging. Or, Inoue will have to be able to take a few shots in order to land one of his, and perhaps that is a bargain that he will be willing to make. 

  1. Inoue is far more than power; his precision is a separator. 

When watching Inoue fight, one of the beautiful aspects of his approach is how there is no wasted effort. Everything seems to flow naturally. Despite numerous highlight-reel knockouts, he never seems to force action or load up on shots. He gets his stoppages by exploiting weaknesses in his opponents, by being able to land multi-punch combinations, by having numerous offensive weapons and by being adaptable. 

The secret to Inoue is his flawless feet. His movement is always purposeful. He can cut off the ring without telegraphing his movement. His balance is impeccable. He’s rarely out of position. And he’s always ready to throw, whether it’s one punch or four. 

Inoue eventually cut the ring off on the elusive Paul Butler. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

The way he sets up shots is worthy of study. He does a tremendous job of changing the speed and power of his punches so that an opponent isn’t exactly ready for what’s coming. During combinations, he frequently will take some power off the first one or two punches so he can connect with a crushing third shot. He will also mix to the head and body in unpredictable sequences. Yes, Inoue has tremendous power, but it’s far more complex than just throwing a single shot repeatedly and hoping to land it. He’s a chess player in the ring and he’s often multiple moves ahead of his opponents. 

  1. Body punching

Inoue lands his fair share of body punches and his left hook to the body can be a sickening shot. He can lead with that punch or end a combination with it. But I think Fulton’s body punching is underrated. Going downstairs with straight right hands, jabs, or hooks to either flank, Fulton can deplete opponents with his own brand of precision. Fulton will also use his forearm in the trenches to create the appropriate distance to land body shots. He possesses a lot of craft when going to the body and it wouldn’t surprise me if jabs and straight rights to the body from a distance are an important part of his game plan in the early rounds. 

Inoue’s left to the body is as devastating as any of his power punches to the head. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

I think that both fighters will commit to going to the body in the fight. Yes, landing flush head shots always gets the judges’ attention, but this could be a 12-round marathon, and a weakened opponent is one who can be beaten more easily. And although Inoue is the bigger knockout guy, don’t discount Fulton’s abilities with body punching. It’s an underrated part of his game. 


As strange as this sounds, considering he’s the betting underdog, I think this fight will in large part play out according to how Fulton decides to engage Inoue. Does he want to send a message to Inoue early, that this is a bigger weight class and that he won’t be intimidated by Inoue’s power, or will he be cagier in the opening rounds, forcing Inoue to find him? This matters because depending on how Fulton decides to fight will determine whether we will see a firefight or something more cerebral. 

Based on his performance against Danny Roman, I think that Fulton possesses the style to defeat Inoue. I firmly believe that Fulton has the ability and physical tools to beat Inoue on the outside and neutralize Inoue’s offensive threat. 

However, I am concerned about Fulton’s decision making in the ring. I believe that he made the Figueroa fight harder than it needed to be to prove a point – that he could win a battle of machismo. I don’t always think that Fulton is concerned with winning first. He believes in style points. And this would be an ill-advised approach to take with Inoue. 

The gameplan Fulton used against former unified beltholder Danny Roman would work well vs. The Monster. Photo by Esther Lin / SHOWTIME

Ultimately, I’m going to split the difference, I think that Fulton will pull out to an early lead, but he will periodically stop moving to engage with Inoue. And I believe that he will get caught a couple of times with his hands inside the cookie jar. I expect Inoue to get through with some explosive power shots as the fight progresses. Some of Inoue’s success will be attributed to his own doggedness and his ability to create openings, but I also believe that Fulton will get a little slack at points, a little too casual, which will backfire at points during the fight. 

I see Fulton squeaking out a decision where he has to get off the canvas and use his bike to outbox Inoue in the championship rounds. Let’s call it a 114-113 win for Fulton where he survives with his undefeated record intact, but questions will be asked regarding the consistency of his performance. Could an Inoue knockout happen? Absolutely. But I think that Fulton will do just enough to weather the storm. His solid fundamentals will help him in the beginning and his athleticism will clinch the victory down the stretch. But he’s going to need to withstand some ferocious offensive assaults and it will take all his guts and guile to pull out the victory. I think he does, but Inoue may have the more memorable moments of the fight: Such is boxing. 


The Canelo-Charlo clash is the cover story to the September 2023 issue of The Ring. Art by Richard T. Slone